Edwards described the Christian pilgrimage as one of practical outworking, in practice, of the life that has been given to us by God. In other words, if God resides in the heart and is vitally united to it, “he will show that he is a God, by the efficacy of his operation. For in the heart where Christ savingly is, there he lives, and exerts himself after the power of that endless life that he received at his resurrection.”
On a spring day in 1747, twenty-nine-year-old David Brainerd rode horseback into the yard of a Northampton parsonage. It was the home of eminent New England pastor and theologian, Jonathan Edwards and his wife Sarah. Edwards and Brainerd, prior to this day, were relative strangers to one another, having only met once before at the Yale Commencement of 1743.1 The summer of 1747 would prove to nurture a growing friendship between the two men. The culmination of this friendship would produce one of the greatest missionary biographies in the history of American evangelicalism.
While staying in the Northampton parsonage, Brainerd shared his journals and diary with Edwards. Finding rich, spiritual material in them, Edwards concluded that they needed to be shared with a wider audience. Reluctantly, Brainerd set out to organize his writings for publication. However, in 1747, the young missionary died from tuberculosis, a disease from which he had suffered for many years. The task of publishing the Brainerd diary then fell to Edwards. In 1749, he had An Account of the Life of the Late Reverend Mr. David Brainerd2 published. Little did he know at that time that this work was destined to become an evangelical classic. The Life, became widely popular, eventually even surpassing all his other polemical and theological works.
The Piety of David Brainerd
Edwards began the “Author’s Preface” to The Life, in the following way: “There are two ways of representing and recommending true religion and virtue to the world, which God hath made use of: the one is by doctrine and precept; the other is by instance and example.”3 It was the example of the life of his friend that Edwards employed in his biographical account of David Brainerd, as he traced Brainerd’s Christian piety along the following lines of thought: (1) Evangelical humiliation; (2) A change of nature; (3) Sensitivity toward sin; and finally, (4) Holiness of life. Along these four lines of thought, Edwards seeks to demonstrate, as he puts it, “Mr. Brainerd’s religious impressions, views and affections in their nature were vastly different from enthusiasm.”4 Edwards desired to set Brainerd’s life and piety in juxtaposition to the fanaticism that had so quickly categorized the Great Awakening.
Brainerd had viewed true evangelical humility as the supreme path upon which a true Christian could obtain the knowledge of the glory and excellency of God. On May 9, 1746, he reflected upon the testimony of a man he had recently baptized. He labeled this individual as a “conjurer and murderer.”5 He said this man seemed desirous to hear the preaching and teaching of Scripture and being in a state where he had resigned to wait upon God “his own way.” Brainerd wrote, “After he had continued in this frame of mind more than a week, while I was discoursing publicly he seemed to have a lively, soul-refreshing view of the excellency of God, and the way of salvation by him, which melted him into tears.”6 It was this superior view of Christ in juxtaposition to man’s wickedness that brings about true holy affections to the soul and causes one to see the smallest degree of sin as truly abhorrent to the divine excellency of the infinite.
- Iain Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2008), 300.
- The full title is An Account of the Life of the Late Reverend Mr. David Brainerd, Minister of the Gospel, Missionary to the Indians, from the honourable Society in Scotland, for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge, and Pastor of a Church of Christian Indians in New Jersey, Who died at Northampton in New England, Octob. 9th 1747 in the 30th Year of his Age: Chiefly taken from his own Diary, and other private Writings, written for his own Use; and now published, by Jonathan Edwards, A.M. Minister of the Gospel at Northampton (Boston, 1749). In this paper, I shall refer to it as the Life of Brainerd or simply The Life.
- Jonathan Edwards, The Life of David Brainerd, ed. Norman Pettit (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 7:89.
- Edwards, Life of David Brainerd, 7:93.
- Ibid., 7:391.
- Ibid., 7:391.