Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
In February 2008, I read a biography by John Piper which focused on the lives of three saints whose affliction bore fruit for the Lord. Having known affliction in my family life—my wife had two rounds of breast cancer, my son is a kidney transplant, and so on—this book sparked my interest. Of particular interest was the story of David Brainerd, who suffered greatly in life—losing both parents at a young age, chronically despondent, and infected with tuberculosis most of his adult life—yet persisted in ministering to the Indians of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware until his untimely death at the age of 29.
Writing about Brainerd’s diary, Piper (2001, 131-132) writes:
“why has this book never been out of print [since 1749]? Why did John Wesley say, ‘Let every preacher read carefully over the Life of David Brainerd’? Why was it written of Henry Martyn (missionary to India and Persia) that ‘perusing the life of David Brainerd, his soul was filled with a holy emulation of that extraordinary man; and after deep consideration and fervent prayer, he was at length fixed in a resolution to imitate his example? Why did William Carey regard Edward’s Life of Brainerd as precious and holy? Why did Robert Morrison and Robert McCheyne of Scotland and John Mills of American and Fredrick Schwartz of Germany and David Livingstone of England and Andrew Murray of South Africa and Jim Elliot of twentieth-century America look upon Brainerd with a kind of awe and draw power from him as countless others?”
This biography proved irresistible to me and I ordered a copy of Edward’s The Life and Diary of David Brainerd, which became the core of my personal devotions as I entered seminary in August 2008.
It is easy to get caught up in Brainerd’s life story. As a third-year ministry student at Yale, Brainerd made an uncomplimentary statement about one of his tutors, a Mr. Whittelsey, saying: “He has no more grace than this chair” (28) in a private conversation, which was overheard and reported to the faculty. The faculty expelled him; the presbytery appealed his expulsion, but Yale did not back down. Concern about Brainerd’s case led the presbytery to establish a new school, which became Princeton University which later spun off Princeton Theological Seminary in 1812.
But Brainerd’s influence did not depend on Princeton, which was founded after his death. Because of his expulsion from Yale University, Brainerd could not be ordained as a pastor and he was commissioned as a missionary to the Indians, in spite of suffering from tuberculosis. His illness left him chronically weak, depressed, and frequently spitting up blood. Yet, he ministered from horseback preaching multiple times a day and even lived among the Indians enjoying a fruitful ministry to within months of his death.
What is most striking about his diary is the depth of his personal piety—he constantly praises God, contemplates scripture, fasts, and prays. For example, on Saturday February 19, 1743, he writes:
“Was exceeding infirm today, greatly troubled with pain in my head and dizziness, scarce able to sit up. However, enjoyed something of God in prayer, and performed some necessary studies. I exceedingly long to die; and yet, through divine goodness, have felt very willing to live, for two or three days past.” (72)
Brainerd actually lived another four years (1718-1747).
Brainerd’s work among the Indians did not go unnoticed by local businessmen. On Monday, February 3, 1746, he writes about being accused of a “popish plot” for:
“[vindicating] the rights of the Indians, and complaining of the horrid practice of making the Indians drunk, and then cheating them out of their lands and other properties” (184)
He personally raised funds to hire a teacher to help the Indians learn English, which would allow them also to read the Bible for themselves. Absent this skill, they could be cheated by local businessmen and depended wholly on preaching and the teaching of catechisms (328) to learn about the Gospel.
Another technique for teaching, which is mentioned mostly in passing, is the use of what Brainerd refers to as “ejaculatory prayer” (74), which is a short prayer, like the Jesus Prayer, designed to be repeated as a form of meditation. He later cites a prayer of one of his Indian converts:
“I hearkened to know what she [an Indian woman] said, and perceived the burden of her prayer to be, Guttummaukalummeh wechaumeh kmeleh Ndah, i.e. ‘Have mercy on me, and help me to give you my heart.’” (284)
In my own ministry, I was introduced to ejaculatory prayer by a Roman Catholic Sister who encouraged psychiatric patients engaging in negative self-talk to substitute the Jesus prayer to break the despondency created by their own rumination. In Brainerd’s ministry, he used such prayers to focus his converts on Christ and to bring them to faith in spite not having access to scripture in their own language.
One of the more fascinating stories that Brainerd recounts is his visit with a local shaman among the Indians. Brainerd describes him as a devout and zealous reformer who tried to help his community resist the temptation of alcohol through a frightful costume and prodigious dancing (300-301).
Jonathan Edwards edited David Brainerd’s diary and published it two years after Brainerd died under the care of Edwards’ daughter, who later also died of tuberculosis. The diary was Edwards’ most popular publication, which seems odd because Edwards is often described as America’s most influential theologian and was better known himself for his role in the Great Awakening.
If you liked this review, you will love the diary of David Brainerd.
Piper, John. 2001. The Hidden Smile of God: The Fruit of Affliction in the Lives of John Bunyan, William Cowper, and David Brainerd. Wheaton: Crossway Books.
 “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus_Prayer).
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