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.
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
Pastor at University Baptist Church, San Antonio.
Professor. PhD in Theology.
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