Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards wrote, “There are two ways of representing and recommending true religion and virtue to the world; the one, by doctrine and precept; the other, by instance and example.” He went on to state that God, “...Has also raised up some eminent persons who have set bright examples of that religion which is taught and prescribed in the word of God; whose examples have, in the course of divine providence, been set forth to public view.” Who are these people Edwards thought were bright examples who we should all get to know? There is one whose life was so influential; some say he indirectly inspired the founding of Princeton College and Dartmouth College. His name was David Brainerd.
David Brainerd (1718-1747) came to know the Lord during the Great Awakening and was a missionary to the Native Americans for three years in the 1740s. He labored among the Kaunaumeek Indians, the Delaware Indians, and eventually the Indians at Crossweeksung in New Jersey. After a very slow start, at one point only able to communicate through a drunk interpreter, he eventually was used powerfully to bring the gospel to many Native Americans. He died of tuberculosis at the young age of 29 on October 9, 1747, in the house of his friend, Jonathan Edwards. After his death, Edwards helped to publish his diary because, as he states in the preface to the diary, he thought it was a great example of a believer’s devotional life that was “worthy of imitation.” Although admitting that Brainerd was a workaholic, prone to discouragement, Edwards still thought that his life “shows the right way to success in the work of the ministry.” His greatest strength was that he was not only able to discern the spiritual condition of others, but especially of himself. He understood his own feebleness and knew his own heart.
His diary, The Life of David Brainerd, has influenced countless believers over the past 250 years. It has been used to encourage and train many missionaries, like William Carey and Jim Eliot. Recently my wife and I were moved by the grace God gave Brainerd for life as we listened to the audiobook.
Below are seven notable characteristics with supporting quotes from Brainerd's diary that we can all hope to emulate:
1. He desperately wanted to be used for God.
“O God, let me make a difference for You that is utterly disproportionate to who I am…I have received my all from God. Oh, that I could return my all to God.”
2. He found real joy in God and in His service.
"If you hope for happiness in the world, hope for it from God, and not from the world…It is impossible for any rational creature to be happy without acting all for God. God Himself could not make him happy any other way... There is nothing in the world worth living for but doing good and finishing God's work, doing the work that Christ did. I see nothing else in the world that can yield any satisfaction besides living to God, pleasing Him, and doing his whole will.”
3. He acknowledged God’s grace empowered him.
“I retired early this morning into the woods for prayer; had the assistance of God's Spirit, and faith in exercise; and was enabled to plead with fervency for the world, and to intercede for dear, absent friends. At noon God enabled me to wrestle with Him, and to feel, as I trust, the power of divine love, in prayer.”
4. He served God despite sickness and discouragement.
“I was in such an agony, from sun half an hour high, till near dark, that I was all over wet with sweat; but yet it seemed to me that I had wasted away the day, and had done nothing. Oh, my dear Jesus did sweat blood for poor souls! I longed for more compassion towards them…Spent the day in a very weak state; coughing and spitting blood, and having little appetite to any food I had with me: was able to do very little, except discourse a while of divine things to my own people, and to some few I met with…Scarce ever felt myself so unfit to exist, as now: I saw I was not worthy of a place among the Indians, where I am going..."
5. He truly loved the people he served.
“I care not where I go, or how I live, or what I endure so that I may save souls. When I sleep I dream of them; when I awake they are first in my thoughts…Oh it is an emblem of heaven itself, to love all the world with a love of kindness, forgiveness, and benevolence; to feel our souls sedate, mild and meek; to be void of all evil surmising and suspicions, and scarce able to think evil of any man upon any occasion; to find our hearts simple, open, and free, to those that look upon us with a different eye!"
6. He was a man who knew his own heart.
“Road 16 miles to Montauk, and had some inward sweetness on the road, but something of flatness and deadness after I came there and had seen the Indians: I withdrew and endeavored to pray, but found myself awfully deserted and left, and had an afflicting sense of my vileness and meanness.”
7. He looked for fruit before being confident of conversion.
“There were many tears in the assembly; and I doubt not but that the Spirit of God was there, convincing poor sinners of their need of Christ…I was enabled to speak with some freedom and concern to the Indians, at two of their settlements; and I think there was some appearance of the presence of God with us, some seriousness, and seeming concern among the Indians, at least a few of them…There was one, in particular, who had fallen into the sin of drunkenness some time before, now deeply convinced of his sin, and the great dishonor done to religion by his misconduct, and he discovered a great degree of grief and concern on that account. My soul was refreshed to see this.”
If you have trouble finding time to read, then I recommend John Piper’s free ebook, David Brainerd, May I Never Loiter On My Heavenly Journey! It’s only 34 pages and will give you a great picture of Brainerd's life and influence. John Piper writes, “For me... Brainerd's life is a vivid, powerful testimony to the truth that God can and does use weak, sick, discouraged, beat-down, lonely, struggling saints, who cry to him day and night, to accomplish amazing things for his glory.” Though it may take you a little longer to read, The Life and Diary of David Brainerd with Notes and Reflections is also available for free. Audio, ebook and paperback versions can be found on most book websites and are worth the cost.
More than just impressed, Jonathan Edwards was blessed.
Jonathan Edwards closed his editorial remarks in The Life and Diary of David Brainerd by saying, “I would conclude my observations on the merciful circumstances of Mr. Brainerd’s death without acknowledging with thankfulness the gracious dispensation of Providence to me and my family in so ordering that he... should be cast hither to my house, in his last sickness, and should die here: So that we had opportunity for much acquaintance and conversation with him, and to show him kindness in such circumstances, and to see his dying behavior, to hear his dying speeches, to receive his dying counsels, and to have the benefit of his dying prayers.”
As we seek to follow Christ, we too can become "bright examples" for other believers.