The Life of David Brainerd: Chiefly Extracted from His Diary   

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Leader’s Edge: Missionary Biographies

The Life of David Brainerd: Chiefly Extracted from His Diary*

Ed. By: Jonathan Edwards

Baker Book House, 1978

360 Pages 

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Who is this person?

David Brainerd, the third son in a family of nine, lost both parents by the time he was fourteen. His godly uncle and aunt took him in for the next four years. While raised in the Congregational church, he only became truly converted in 1739 at age twenty-one, after a months-long spiritual struggle. Sensing a call to Christian ministry, he began studying at Yale College but was expelled in 1742 for disrespecting a faculty member and never graduated. Despite the setback, he became an itinerant preacher in New England and New York. Consequently, the following year, he received an invitation to become a missionary to the “American Indians” with THE SOCIETY IN SCOTLAND FOR PROPAGATING CHRISTIAN KNOWLEDGE. Ordained as a Presbyterian pastor in June 1744, he began working among native-Americans of the Delaware tribes, the “Six Nations”, Senecas and Tutelas in Western Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. In less than five years, he died at age twenty-nine in 1747 of “consumption” (tuberculosis).

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What stood out to you about this person’s story?

The Life of David Brainerd is not for the faint-hearted. Written in rather difficult 18th-century English and extracted verbatim from Brainerd’s “Public Journals” by the famous New England preacher, Jonathan Edwards, this “tell-it-like-it-is” account of his life reveals the emotional/spiritual highs and lows of Brainerd’s personal faith journey, his painfully-transparent record of many failures and failings, and his amazing success among a tribe in New Jersey, in what would be called today a “people movement,” which resulted in a strong indigenous church being planted. That so much took place in such a short lifetime is remarkable.

What was this person’s significant contributions?

While having to preach and teach through a native-American translator, Brainerd lived as close to the tribesmen as possible and sought to Identify with them, attempting to learn their language and stories, sharing meals around campfires, and visiting their tents and huts regularly to share the gospel or catechize new believers.  He developed missionary principles perfected over time as he observed the responses to his teaching and preaching. Through close observation of reactions to his Bible-centric messages, he developed an apologetic to refute the objections of tribal chiefs and shaman. Through personal experience, he learned and employed principles of “spiritual warfare” not taught at Yale. He learned as he lived with “his people,” and developed a deep love for those he affectionately called “my heathen.”

What does this person’s life teach us?

Considered a seminally significant biography that influenced the lives of future missionaries such as William Carey, Henry Martyn, Adoniram Judson and Jim Elliot, the book reveals a man considered a saint by his contemporaries, while he saw himself as less than nothing, but totally given over to be used by Christ. The lessons he lived and learned in radical humility, total dependency on Christ’s enabling in ministry, and God’s sustaining grace in unspeakably difficult circumstances are the same tried and tested truths that today’s cross-cultural workers will need as they seek the last, least-reached peoples of this earth.


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