David Brainerd (1718-1747) was a missionary to the American Indians in New York, New Jersey, and eastern Pennsylvania. Born in Connecticut in 1718, he died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-nine. During his short life he was beset by many difficulties. As a result, his biography has become a source of inspiration and encouragement to many Christians, including missionaries such as William Carey and Jim Elliot, and Brainerd’s cousin, evangelist James Brainerd Taylor (1801–1829).
He enrolled at Yale. In his second year at Yale, he was sent home because he was suffering from a serious illness that caused him to spit blood. It is now believed that he was suffering from tuberculosis, the disease which would lead to his death seven years later. Brainerd began working as a missionary to Native Americans, which he would continue until late 1746 when worsening illness prevented him from working. This illness, generally considered to be tuberculosis, had begun to affect him at Yale, but worsened when he entered the mission field. In his final years, he also suffered from a form of depression that was sometimes immobilising and which, on at least twenty-two occasions, led him to wish for death. He was also affected by difficulties faced by other missionaries of the period, such as loneliness and lack of food. Here are few words of wisdom from David Brainerd while in the mission field:
“Oh, that I could dedicate my all to God. This is all the return I can make Him.”
“It is impossible for any rational creature to be happy without acting all for God. God Himself could not make him happy any other way… There is nothing in the world worth living for but doing good and finishing God’s work, doing the work that Christ did. I see nothing else in the world that can yield any satisfaction besides living to God, pleasing Him, and doing his whole will.”
“Here am I, send me; send me to the ends of the earth; send me to the rough, the savage pagans of the wilderness; send me from all that is called comfort on earth; send me even to death itself, if it be but in Thy service, and to promote Thy kingdom.”
“My desires seem especially to be after weanedness from the world, perfect deadness to it, and that I may be crucified to all its allurements. My soul desires to feel itself more of a pilgrim and a stranger here below, that nothing may divert me from pressing through the lonely desert, till I arrive at my Father’s house.”
“Oh, that I could spend every moment of my life to God’s glory!”
“I have received my all from God. Oh, that I could return my all to God.”
“It is sweet to be nothing and less than nothing that Christ may be all in all.”
“All my desire was the conversion of the heathen… I declare, now I am dying, I would not have spent my life otherwise for the whole world.”
“This morning about nine I withdrew to the woods for prayer. I was in such anguish that when I arose from my knees I felt extremely weak and overcome. …I cared not how or where I lived, or what hardships I went through, so that I could but gain souls for Christ.”
Excerpt from Missionary Quotes [HT Stephen Ross]
By May 1747, as he neared his final months, he suffered greatly. In his diary entry for 24 September, Brainerd wrote: ‘In the greatest distress that ever I endured having an uncommon kind of hiccough; which either strangled me or threw me into a straining to vomit’. During this time, he was nursed by Jerusha Edwards, Jonathan Edwards’ seventeen-year-old daughter.
David Brainerd made a handful of converts, but became widely known in the 1800s due to books about him. Much of Brainerd’s influence on future generations can be attributed to the biography, An Account of the Life of the Late Reverend Mr. David Brainerd, later compiled by Jonathan Edwards and first published in 1749. Edwards believed that a biography about Brainerd would have great value. It gained immediate recognition, with eighteenth-century theologian John Wesley urging: ‘Let every preacher read carefully over the Life of David Brainerd’. The most reprinted of Edwards’s books, it has never been out of print and has thus influenced subsequent generations, mainly because of Brainerd’s single-minded perseverance in his work in the face of significant suffering.