David Brainerd

God's Missionary to the Native American Indians.

By Frank and Debi DeFreitas for Wonders of the Bible
PUBLISHED: October 16, 2022 | UPDATED: October 16, 2022

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Written by Debi DeFreitas. Spoken by Frank DeFreitas.

 David Brainerd, whose life was brief and whose ministry was for but three years, lit the torch that would be passed on to and carried by some of the world’s great missionaries, such as William Carey, Henry Martyn and Jim Eliot.

Cranbury New Jersey Parsonage of David Brainerd.
Cranbury New Jersey Parsonage of David Brainerd. Occupying the grounds where he preached to the native American Indians in 1746.

He was born in Haddam, CT on April 20, 1718 into a Christian family. His father died when he was nine years old, and he became orphaned at the age of thirteen when his mother died. He lived with his older sister, and then with a pastor. Although surrounded by Christianity while growing up, he remained unconverted. By the age of nineteen, he was very concerned for his soul, realizing that he was depending on his works for his salvation. He felt convicted of sin and through the Word, he felt that he was being called to a saving relationship, but knew not how to commit his life to Christ. A book titled “A Guide to Christ”, written by Solomon Stoddard, who was the maternal grandfather of Jonathan Edwards, revealed to Brainerd how to take that step of faith, and at the age of twenty one, he was saved. He realized he had been trying so hard to come into the Kingdom by his own power that he had lost sight of God, of Christ. But once God brought him to the place where he could see the glory of God, taking the focus off of himself, he felt as if he was in a new world, according to an entry recorded in his diary dated 7/17/1739. David Brainerd was saved and within two months enrolled in Yale University to train for the ministry.

As a sidebar, this was during the second wave of the Great Awakening lead by Whitfield. At that time, conversions were started with the youth, teens to early twenties, who were set on fire. This caused much tension between the students and the board of Yale, who felt that this movement was not of God.

Although Brainerd was top of his class, he was expelled in 1742 for commenting that a certain tutor had no more grace than a chair. Being denied forgiveness, he was forced into a new direction for his life.

David Brainerd and his interpreter on the way to Philadelphia.
Book illustration showing David Brainerd and his interpreter on the way to Philadelphia.

He then studied with Pastor Jedediah Mills and was licensed to preach. While several churches of New England sought after him, Brainerd’s passion was to evangelize the heathen.

After being ordained as a missionary of the Scottish Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge, he spent a year with the Mohican Indians at Kaunameek, a village between Stockbridge, Massachusetts and Albany, New York with little success spreading the Gospel. His lack of success, poor health and self doubt, while causing discouragement, also, and more so, fanned the fire of his missionary passion. An entry in his journal records the following: “I never, since I began to preach, could feel any freedom to enter into another man’s labor. I must settle down in the ministry where the Gospel has never been preached before. There appeared to be nothing of any considerable importance to me but holiness of heart, and the conversion of the heathen to God.” Knowing he was in the will of God served to drive him forward.

Brainerd Mission was a multi-acre mission school situated on Chickamauga Creek near present-day Chattanooga.
Named after David Brainerd, and listed on the USA National Register of Historic Places, Brainerd Mission was a multi-acre mission school situated on Chickamauga Creek (1817-1838), near present-day Chattanooga.

Next he headed to the forks of the Delaware in Pennsylvania in an attempt to evangelize the Delaware Indians, again with little success. Met with much resistance, Brainerd realized he could not reach the unsaved unless God went before him, preparing their hearts to receive the message. His conviction deepened and his dependence upon God grew, as evidenced in another entry from his journal. “Monday, August 30, 1744. Oh, I saw what I owed to God in such a manner as I scarce ever did. I knew I had never lived a moment to Him as I should. Indeed, it appeared to me I had never done anything in Christianity. My soul longed with a vehement desire to live to God. In the evening I sang and prayed with a number of Christians and felt the powers of the world to come in my soul and in prayer.”

Later that year, he traveled further yet into Pennsylvania. This time he had with him an interpreter named Tashawaylennahan (or Moses Tunda Tatamy) of the Lenape tribe, who also happened to be the first Native American to be baptized by Brainerd. Once again he was met with hostility but he persevered, using a straight forward approach, as written in his journal: “We arrived at the Susquehanna river and found twelve Indian houses. After I saluted the king in a friendly manner, I told him my business and that my desire was to teach them Christianity.” This time Brainerd was well received and the Gospel was preached.

In June of 1745 he traveled to Crossweeksung, NJ where he found the Indians to be accepting of the Gospel after having been influenced by the Great Awakening that had been sweeping through the colonies.

A page from the 1765 edition of the Life of David Brainerd, compiled from his journal by Jonathan Edwards.
A page from the 1765 edition of the Life of David Brainerd, compiled from his journal by Jonathan Edwards. CLICK ON THE IMAGE to download a Hi-Res copy that you may keep and print out, courtesy of Frank and Debi DeFreitas and Wonders of the Bible.

All throughout his ministry, David Brainerd faced many hardships, whether lack of success, illness or harsh conditions. He struggled with depression throughout his life and often appeared melancholy, as evidenced by the page of his journal in our Wonders of the Bible collection. However, regardless of the obstacle, his determination was never dampened, and he never lost sight of his goal… to reach the lost for Jesus Christ.

In the fall of 1746, as he neared the end of his earthly life, he ultimately found himself at the home of Jonathan Edwards, the same whose grandfather wrote the book that led Brainerd to salvation. Edwards’ daughter, Jerusha, nursed him and a deep love developed. They were engaged, but on October 9, 1747, Brainerd succumbed to tuberculosis and died. Jerusha died a few months later, also of tuberculosis, and is buried alongside him.

Brainerd had no fear of death, and as the time grew closer, he longed to go to God, and referred to his death as “that glorious day”.

The last recorded entry in his diary was dated one week prior to his death and reads as follows: October 2, 1747 “My soul was this day, at turns, sweetly set on God: I longed to be with him, that I might behold his glory. I felt sweetly disposed to commit all to him, even my dearest friends, my dearest flock, my absent brother, and all my concerns for time and eternity. O that his kingdom might come in the world; that they might all love and glorify him, for what he is in himself; and that that blessed Redeemer might see of the travail of his soul, and be satisfied! Oh, come, Lord Jesus, come quickly! Amen.”

As he approached death, he relinquished his diary to Edwards, who went on to edit and publish it, and it was that publication that influenced many of the great missionaries throughout history.

Studying the life of David Brainerd, it is quite evident that the hand of God was at work. Divine Providence led him to be used mightily by God, even after he was called home to be with the Lord.

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