Heroes of the Faith: David Brainerd (1718-1747)
“I love to live on the brink of eternity”
Track athletes recognize the world of difference between the sprinter and the marathoner. Two divergent types of runners who train and compete dissimilarly. And yet, the prizes at their respective finish lines are quite the same. The trail to the trophy is worth the toil. In the Christian life, the treasured target is eternal life. Paul exhorted his Philippian brethren, “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3.14). One young man--David Brainerd--was a hero of the faith whose race was remarkably and relatively shortened, but it did not compromise his competitive and compassionate spirit.
History--David Brainerd’s “Everyday” Life
The sixth child and third son of Hezekiah, a Connecticut municipal magistrate, and Dorothy, David grew up in the familial midst of morbid malady and melancholy. Sadly, he was orphaned by age 14. He recorded in his diary, “I was, I think, from my youth something sober and inclined rather to melancholy than the other extreme” (p. 101). The tragic loss of family forced a young David to scratch and claw for scholastic purpose and resolve in his life, although he admitted to a religion which was vigilant and vital, yet lacking grace. It seemed his life was going nowhere.
Heritage--David Brainerd’s Earthly Labors
At age 21, David came to transformational faith in Christ, and matriculated at Yale to prepare for the ministry. Visits by George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards enlightened students, but stultified instructors, many of whom were considered unconverted. In his junior year, Brainerd was dismissed for remarking that a professor “had no more grace than a chair.” The expulsion brought an end to his pastoral aspirations; but it also resulted in a sea change for the history of missions. David exchanged the pulpit for the back country among the native Indians. A career as a missionary was intended to be lengthy. Yet, a six-year battle with tuberculosis cut short his life at the budding age of 29. Some might think, “How sad! A life taken!”
Horizons--David Brainerd’s Enduring Legacy
Truth be told, David Brainerd’s seemingly premature promotion to eternity was in reality, “A life given.” He evangelized the Stockbridge, Delaware, and Susquehanna Indian tribes the last four years of his life, transforming the native American landscape with the Gospel. He amassed an estimated 15,000 miles on horseback. He grew close to Jonathan Edwards, and was engaged to the great revivalist’s daughter, Jerusha. His diary of missionary endeavors was posthumously published by Edwards. Even while racked with tubercular symptoms, he left his imprint for such a time as this. One historian wrote, “The amazing thing may not be that [Brainerd] died so early and accomplished so little, but that, being as sick as he was, he lived as long as he did and accomplished so much.” And John Wesley once remarked, “Let every preacher read carefully over the life of David Brainerd.”
Can we demonstrate in conduct and conversation, in a hedonistic and narcissistic society, that we long to live on the brink of eternity? Can we make a difference, even if the days may seem short?
Recommended Reading For Further Focus:
Christie, Vance. David Brainerd: A Flame for God. Christian Focus, 2009.
Edwards, Jonathan. The Life and Diary of David Brainerd: With Notes and Reflections. ReadaClassic.com, 2010.