Living on the Brink of Eternity: The Life of David Brainerd

God used David Brainerd’s diary to fan the flames of what we know today as the Modern Missions Movement.

Jonathan Edwards was impacted by the life and ministry of this young man who had only been a believer for eight years prior to his death. He took Brainerd’s diary and other personal writings and added his own commentary that he gleaned from his friendship with Brainerd. An Account of the life of the late Reverend Mr. David Brainerd was published in 1749. According to Vance Christie, this is the first full-length missionary biography ever written, and it became the most popular of the works of Jonathan Edwards.

 

In his account of his dear friend, Jonathan Edwards introduces David Brainerd’s life in this way, “There are two ways of representing and recommending true religion and virtue to the world. The one is by doctrine and precept, the other is by instance and example. Such an instance we have in the excellent person whose life is published in the following pages.”

We are called to imitate the example of the lives of faithful saints who have gone before us. David Brainerd is a man who ministered in unimaginably difficult circumstances, who exhibited extraordinary humility and self-denial, and whose great love for the glory of God and the souls of sinners is nothing less than admirable.

He so spent himself toward those ends that by the age of 29, he died an early death, having lived only eight years as a believer. Some have considered David Brainerd to be a youthful, radical zealot, and critics have judged Brainerd for the recklessness with which he treated his own body. Certainly, there is some element of truth in these claims. Although he died having lived only a third of the years that many do, he accomplished far more.

We know David Brainerd today, primarily because he kept a diary. As was the case with many of the Puritans, the diary served as a thermometer for his soul. It was a way of keeping a watchful eye on the trajectory of his life for the sake of self-examination.

At the end of his life, he insisted that his diary and personal writings be destroyed. Thankfully, his friends prevailed upon him to preserve these writings and allow others to benefit from them. In due course, God used David Brainerd’s diary to fan the flames of what we know today as the Modern Missions Movement. It has been influential for so many over the years, including John Wesley, John Newton, William Carey, and Jim Elliot.

Overwhelmed by the surpassing majesty of Jesus.

David Brainerd was born over 300 years ago on April the 20th, 1718 in Haddam, Connecticut. He grew up relatively unconcerned about his spiritual state. At the age of 20, still not saved, but certainly within the strict puritan tradition of his time, he decided to follow the example of his older brother and enter the ministry. It was on the basis of his own efforts, his love for study, and his affection for reading, that Brainerd began to devote himself to religious disciplines. Later, he would say of this time of his life that he was a very good Pharisee.

But in July of 1739, when Brainerd was 21 years old, he began to experience overwhelming conviction and emptiness. He saw the insufficiencies of this world to bring satisfaction and the inability of his efforts to produce anything that was truly good. He was completely overwhelmed by the surpassing majesty of Jesus Christ.

Serving alongside an experienced missionary.

Now a believer, Brainerd continued in his pursuit of ministry. In November of 1742, a mission society in Scotland, the Society in Scotland for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge, learned about David Brainerd and proposed to him that he should serve among the American Indians.

They advised that he serve alongside an experienced missionary before traveling to more remote and dangerous regions of the frontier. Brainerd agreed and arrived in Stockbridge, Massachusetts early in the spring of 1743. Under the oversight of John Sargent, Brainerd could study the Algonquin language, minister, and learn.

His living conditions were trying, and he often struggled with feelings of doubt and inadequacy. But in his journal, there are repeated references to the fact that he felt unworthy even of these difficult circumstances. Moreover, as he reflected upon his hardships, his journal filled with repeated expressions of gratitude to the Lord. He saw that these experiences helped wean him from this world and cultivate a longing for heaven.

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