The Bewildering Mr. Brainerd

A man of clay feet.

No doubt, it was Brainerd’s desire for holiness, zeal for the conversion of the lost, earnestness in prayer and perseverance in the midst of unparalleled affliction that set him apart as one of the most important figures in church history. When we read his Diary we are faced with our own lack in comparison with what we read of his heart. That being said, there are several things that we must be willing to criticize about Brainerd if we are to do justice to the task of theological historiography. 


I have, for the first time, finally read through David Brainerd’s Diary. I’m not sure why it took me this long to get around to it. I now understand why this man, who lived such a short life, has had such an enormous impact on the church and the world of missions. Consider a few of the statements made about Brainerd and his Diary by some of the leading pastors, theologians and missionaries of the past three centuries:

In the Serampore Agreement, William Carey wrote, “Let us often look at Brainerd in the woods of America, pouring out, his very soul before God for the perishing heathen, without whose salvation nothing could make him happy.”

Robert Murray McCheyne (the great Scottish pastor and theologian of the 19th Century) noted that it only took him 5 days after purchasing Edwards’ Works on June 22. 1832 to dive headlong into Edwards’ publication of The Life and Diary of David Brainerd. Here is his conclusion about the life and labors of this young missionary:

“June 27.—Life of David Brainerd. Most wonderful man | What conflicts, what depressions, desertions, strength, advancement, victories, within thy torn bosom | I cannot express what I think when I think of thee. To-night, more set upon missionary enterprise than ever.”

“June 28.—Oh for Brainerd’s humility and sin-loathing dispositions !”

In a letter to W.C. Burns in September of 1840, M’Cheyne wrote, “Oh for Brainerd’s heart for perfect holiness–to be holy as God is holy–pure as Christ is pure–perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect.”

In his Biographical Sketch of the Log College (which, in turn, became New Jersey College and then Princeton University and Princeton Seminary), Archibald Alexander—the first professor of theology at Princeton—explained that Princeton never would have been formed if it were not for Brainerd’s expulsion from Yale. Aaron Burr, Sr.–one of the founders of the College–said, “If it had not been for the treatment received by Mr. Brainerd at Yale, New Jersey College would never have been erected.”

In a letter to a fellow pastor in 1708, John Newton–the renown pastor, theologian and hymn-writer–wrote:

“Next to the Word of God, I like those books best which give an account of the lives and experiences of his people…no book of this kind has been more welcome to me than the Life of Mr. Brainerd, of New England, re-published a few years since at Edinburgh, and I believe sold by Dilly, in London. If you have not seen it, I will venture to recommend it, (though I am not fond of recommending books,) I think it will please you.”

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