A book report submitted March 22, 2022, to Dr. Paris A. Floyd (MS6370) as a requirement for my MDiv at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary
Few men have inspired worldwide missions work as much as David Brainerd. David Brainerd was a missionary to the Indians of the New World between the years of 1742-1747. Brainerd’s flame burned brightly among those native souls for five years and then was quickly snuffed out at the young age of twenty-nine. Mirroring his short life is the ministry of Jim Elliot, who died a martyr at twenty-eight and drew inspiration from Brainerd’s sacrificial life.
One of the reasons for Brainerd’s lasting and considerable impact is the publishing of his diary by Jonathan Edwards. Brainerd was engaged to be married to Edward’s daughter, Jerusha, at his death. Edwards edited Brainerd’s diary of any nonrelevant information and added his own notes separately from Brainerd’s entries among the diary, resulting in the story of a man’s life that has impacted countless missions’ endeavors for many years to follow.
The edition used in this review was published by Moody Press in 1949 and includes a helpful sketch of Jonathan Edwards’ life that gives perspective to Brainerd’s ministry. This specific edition was very satisfying to read from, with its vintage build and thick creamy pages.
Brainerd often expresses his passion for evangelizing the lost Indians and expanding God’s Kingdom throughout the book, but surprisingly, it is not his primary focus. The primary theme of David Brainerd’s life was his devotion to God.
David Brainerd was obsessed with his own spiritual need and longing for God. His evangelistic zeal was a result of his nearness to his Savior. He was keenly aware of his weaknesses and sin, “No poor creature stands in need of divine grace more than I, and none abuse it more than I have done, and still do.”
To Brainerd, everything in his life pointed to the divine grace of God. Even his suffering was a signpost to God’s grace. Frequently ill because of a pandemic in his younger years, Brainerd was often in severe pain, yet he beautifully writes, “It is good for me to be afflicted that I may die wholly to this world and all that is in it.”
Soon after being licensed to preach and two years before his ordination, David Brainerd received his first missionary assignment to the Indians on December 15, 1742. He would travel to those living near the forks of the Delaware River in Pennsylvania, where he would struggle for two and a half years without any fruit to show for his labor.
This period of Brainerd’s life was filled with discouragement, doubt, sadness, and frustration. Yet, through the strength of God, Brainerd persevered in the ministry given him to steward. And at the moment of His most significant doubt, when he almost resigned to quit, God powerfully awakened the Indians of Crossweeksung.
For those two discouraging years, while Brainerd studied the Indian languages, he had used an interpreter, an Indian by the name of Moses Tinda Tautamy. While Brainerd suffered doubts and fears, God was convicting Moses of his lost state through Brainerd’s preaching.
Moses, his wife, and his children became aware of their need for salvation and accepted Christ’s gift. Their baptisms proved to be a hammer that shattered the stony hearts of the Crossweeksung Indians. The other influence towards their conversion was David Brainerd’s preaching focus on grace rather than judgment, “But still, this great awakening, this surpassing concern, was never excited by any harangues of terror, but always appeared most remarkable when I insisted upon the compassions of a dying Saviour, the plentiful provisions of the gospel, and the free offers of divine grace to needy distressed sinners.”
Missionaries can learn many practices and attitudes from David Brainerd’s ministry, both positive and negative. Positive methods of Brainerd’s ministry missionaries might find helpful to implement include:
- David Brainerd was intensely conscious of his relationship with God. He realized his weaknesses and sought God’s power in all his ministry. He was daily aware of his need for God and would often spend whole days praying and fasting. Daily devotion fueled his everyday evangelism.
- Though he used an interpreter for much of his ministry, he fervently studied to learn the Indian languages. Towards the end of his ministry, he connected with his Indians using their language, which impacted his ministry greatly. He was even able to translate many prayers into the Crossweeksung language.
- All people long for experiential meaning, perhaps the Indians more so with their idolatrous feasts and dances. David Brainerd found that the Sacraments had an evangelistic pull on the Indians. As Brainerd practiced Baptism and the Lord’s Supper more frequently, it seemed more Indians were convicted of their sin and began to trust in Christ’s gift of salvation.
- David Brainerd did not leave new believers undiscipled. He began to catechize them immediately. A system of discipleship based on theology was a must, and the catechistical system seemed to work wonderfully.
- The Crossweeksung Indians had accepted the Gospel. The Fords of Delaware Indians had not in times past. David Brainerd solicited the aid of the discipled Crossweeksung Indians to spread the Gospel to the Fords of Delaware. The preaching was now listened to with much gravity, and the Crossweeksung Indians conversed about Christ and evangelized other Indians. He also employs this practice later among the Susquehannah Indians.
Harmful methods of Brainerd’s ministry missionaries might find helpful to avoid include:
- One of David Brainerd’s greatest strengths was his perseverance. Perhaps his perseverance also became one of his most significant weaknesses. He often worked long weeks without much rest or care for his body. One wonders how much longer his life could have impacted the ministry to the Indians had he taken more care of himself.
- In conjunction with the previous point, David Brainerd went alone. He realized later in ministry that he should have gone with a companion, but by that point, he was too deep in ministry to make an intense search for one. Going two by two would have helped Brainerd bear the ministry load and provided the Crossweeksung Indians continued discipleship had his life still been so short.
- Brainerd longed for the Indians to become Christians, but he also desired that they be civilized in the European sense. There is often a redeeming factor in a people group widely grasping salvation that lifts the society towards general success, but this is not to say that such corporate redemption is from one humanistic culture converting to another humanistic culture. Missionaries should be careful to focus on Gospel change within a culture, not cultural change for personal preference’s sake.
David Brainerd’s life is inspirational. His death is perhaps even more so. Jonathan Edwards noted that Brainerd would often pray that “we might not outlive our usefulness.” His life was a life of ultimate surrender to the God he loved more deeply than anyone else. He “longed to spend and be spent for God.” In the end, God gave him his request, and now Brainerd worships at the feet of his loving Savior, praising Him Whom he sought for with all his life and strength.
All Christians can learn from David Brainerd’s devotion. Any aspiring or experienced missionary should especially make such books frequent reads. Theology is not merely systematic, and such biographical theology can enlighten and break stony hearts as cold systems could never do. Like the Indians who grasped the truths of the Gospel through the portrait of Christ found in the sacraments, may the hearts of Christians burn from the stories of faithful men and women who express the Gospel through their devoted lives.