What made David Brainerd stand out?

Introduction to his Life

In the late Spring of 1747, Jonathan Edwards welcomed a terribly sick young missionary by the name of David Brainerd into his home. The young man was dying of tuberculosis—a disease that plagued Brainerd’s life and ministry for seven years until finally taking it on 9 October 1747. Edwards recalled that he found Brainerd to be, “remarkably sociable, pleasant, and entertaining in his conversation; yet solid, savory, spiritual, and very profitable.”

Years earlier, a controversy had been brewing in New England as the result of the Great Awakening. Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches had experienced significant differences of opinion concerning revivalistic preachers such as George Whitefield and the new converts resulting from their ministry. Those clinging to a more traditional faith looked with contempt upon those who were emphasizing excitement and emotional responses to the revivals taking place. In 1741, Edwards was invited to give the commencement address at Yale College in the hopes that he would chide the excitable student body and support the more conservative faculty. Instead, Edwards’s sermon, “The Distinguishing Marks of a Word of a Spirit of God,” defended the legitimacy of the Great Awakening and produced greater fervor and excitement among the student population.

Young David Brainerd was in the crowd as Edwards spoke and, though he ranked at the top of his class, he was expelled shortly thereafter for making a disparaging remark regarding one of the tutors. This expulsion radically altered the trajectory of Brainerd’s life, since in that day no one could be installed as a pastor in Connecticut unless they had graduated from Harvard, Yale, or a European University.

Brainerd was a devout, pietistic young man who, due to his expulsion from Yale, was no longer able to achieve the end to which he believed God had called him—to faithfully serve as a pastor. The faculty at Yale were unwilling to reinstate him, but he was charged by the Society in Scotland for Propogating Christian Knowledge to become a missionary to the American Indians in New England.

He served for a total of four years in three different places, experiencing the full spectrum of emotions as he saw seasons of openness and resistance to the gospel. And after the most fruitful season of his ministry, he began to succumb to the tuberculosis that had plagued his life; so he traveled to New England where he hoped to recover his health in order to return to those he affectionately deemed to be “his” Indians. Rather than recover, Brainerd was diagnosed as terminal and was nursed by Edwards’s daughter, Jerusha, until he passed into his eternal inheritance.

Though Brainerd only lived to see his twenty-ninth birthday, Edwards saw fit to edit and publish his diary and journal to the public. In doing so, an obscure missionary that few would have ever been aware of has become a pivotal example in piety, devotion, self-sacrifice, and perseverance to generations.

But what made Brainerd stand out for Edwards? What makes his ministry stand out today?

An Honest View of Self

Beneath Brainerd’s missionary efforts lay a gut-wrenching, honest appraisal of his own relationship with God. Upon reading his diary and journal, one may be struck by Brainerd’s lack of missionary zeal early in his ministry. He seems much more content to study, pray, and repent than to actually share the gospel with the indians in his care. One reason for this appearance is that Brainerd wrote his journal for public consumption (to be published by the Society in Scotland for Propogating Christian Knowledge), while his diary was written for the sake of his personal self-examination and to measure his spiritual growth. So, while his journal contains stories of preaching and conversions, his diary is full of self-introspection. This ongoing self-appraisal, and constant reminder of his own need for God’s sovereign goodness, provided the ballast he needed in order to effectively minister to others.

A High View of Preaching

One must not read Brainerd’s Life and Diary and not take note of the means by which he shared the gospel with the American Indians. He preached whenever he could find a hearer, but was convinced that, “only [God] can open the ear, engage the attention, and incline the heart of poor benighted, prejudiced pagans to receive instruction.” Brainerd understood that the Sovereign God works through the human preacher—leading Brainerd to herald the message of the gospel of Christ through an interpreter (who became the first to be baptized during Brainerd’s missionary endeavors).

A High View of Baptism

It is also noteworthy that Brainerd did not baptize new believers upon conversion, but instead, “deferred their baptism for many weeks after they had given evidences of having passed a great change.” Brainerd was not too quick to encourage new believers to enter into the baptismal waters, but first insisted upon observing the change in their lives as a result of the gospel. In doing so, he emphasized the weighty-witness that baptism is to believers and non-believers alike.

Conclusion

Brainerd’s ministry to the American Indians pales in comparison to the impact his life and sacrifice have made upon generations since his death. Yet, as one notes his intense self-introspection, the emphasis he placed upon gospel proclamation, and the weight he ascribed to the ordinance of baptism, one cannot help but turn the question toward our own efforts today.

Do we regularly seek examine our own walk with Christ? Do we value and lift high the proclamation of the gospel? Do we believe that the ordinances of the church really mean something?


Jonathan Edwards, The Life and Diary of David Brainerd

Adjunct Professor.
PhD in Theology.
Head Barista at Caffeinated Theology.
Just give me Jesus . . . and coffee.

Toleration? Or Free Exercise? George Mason Redivivus

American history buffs are already aware that Thomas Jefferson, when writing the Declaration of Independence, was influenced heavily and a drew from the pre-existing Virginia Declaration of Rights, drafted by George Mason and approved by the Virginia Convention of Delegates in June 1776. Interestingly, it was also a source document and inspiration for James Madison’s Bill of Rights and Lafayette’s French Declaration of the Rights of Man.

In the 16th article, Mason wrote initially, “that all men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion.” This, Madison could not, for lack of a better word, tolerate. He led the charge in altering the document to read, “all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion according to the dictates of conscience.”

Which raises the obvious questions. Does it matter? If so, what difference does it make?

For Madison, the edit made every difference. The very idea of toleration belonged to a system of government that had embraced a state church—liberty of conscience was a thing granted; it was allowed. But it could just as easily be disallowed. The notion of toleration is predicated upon a governing standard of religion that granted permission to dissidents.

Ensuring the free exercise of religion, then, meant that liberty of conscience was not a thing granted, but rather a thing recognized; it was a right that must not be infringed.

Students of Baptist history may recognize Madison’s concern. His friend and Baptist minister, John Leland, shared this point of emphasis and seems to have influenced Madison’s thinking on the subject.

Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for, is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration, is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest, to grant indulgence; whereas, all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.

Our current society really doesn’t know what to do with freedom of conscience. We’ve had previous administrations and present judiciaries trample all over it, emphasizing their defense of freedom of worship. That is to say, they were prepared to defend the right of the people to worship in their churches and houses of worship in whatever manner they saw fit. But those who dare to take those same convictions into the public sphere—cake bakeries, for instance—have stepped over the line from the realm of the defensible to that worthy of prosecution.

And why?

Because we, as a nation, have traded free exercise for toleration.

The spirit of George Mason has returned and we have reversed Madison’s edit without even the intellectual integrity to strike out the words on the document.

And the rights of all people—Christians and Jews, Muslims and Mormons, pantheists and atheists—suffer as the result. The state has determined that our liberty of conscience is no longer a right to be protected. Instead, it is a grace that has been extended to us. And they get to tell us just how far it extends.

Perhaps the time has come for another Leland or another Madison to step forward.

Source: John Leland, “The Excess of Civil Power Exploded,” in The Writings of the Late Elder John Leland, Including Some Events in his Life, Written by Himself, with Additional Sketches, &c. by Miss L. F. Greene, Lanesboro, Mass. (n.p., New York, 1845), 118.

Adjunct Professor.
PhD in Theology.
Head Barista at Caffeinated Theology.
Just give me Jesus . . . and coffee.