7 Broken Men: David Brainerd

In this series of posts we’ve been looking at “broken men” – fragile souls, charlatans, jerks and screw-ups who were used by God nonetheless to bring great hope and healing to the world.

So far we’ve looked at men who were affected by overbearing fathers, childhood sexual assault, alcohol abuse, gambling addictions, drug use, and possible mental illness. And yet all of them were used by God to launch remarkable movements for his glory.

In this entry we will look at the sweetest soul in our series, the frail and ardent young diarist, David Brainerd.

There’s not much to Brainerd’s life. He died from tuberculosis on 9 October 1747, at the age of 29, having suffered from symptoms of the disease for close to a decade. The effects of the illness, coupled with an intensely introspective personality, as well as periods of great loneliness, resulted in sometimes immobilizing bouts of depression. There were dozens of occasions when he longed to die and be free of his suffering.

Brainerd is most famous for his journal, a painfully honest and heartfelt account of his travails and his overwhelming desire to serve God and preach the gospel. And it’s this, the inner life of the earnest young man that would change history.

In it he describes his brief tenure as a pastor to a church on Long Island, and his grueling missionary travels among Native Americans in New York and New Jersey, all the while battling crippling depression and illness.

But mostly he bares his soul.

His stirring passion for the conversion of the Housatonic and Delaware Indians, and his devout love of God leach from every page:

“All my desire was the conversion of the heathen, and all my hope was in God.”

But it’s his brutal honesty that is so affecting.

“The whole world appears to me like a huge vacuum, a vast empty space, whence nothing desirable, or at least satisfactory, can possibly be derived; and I long daily to die more and more to it; even though I obtain not that comfort from spiritual things which I earnestly desire.”

 

The kid was intense.

It’s hard to know how many people would have been interested in the journal of an ailing young missionary preacher in the mid 18th Century. The Great Awakening was in full swing and Americans were embracing a new-found muscular form of Christian enthusiasm, as preached by the British evangelist George Whitfield on his triumphant campaigns up and down the east coast.

Maybe people needed a hero, a mascot for the kind of deeply held, heartfelt faith that led someone to cower before an angry God, and be willing to suffer anything for that God’s glory.

The Calvinist preacher, Jonathan Edwards seemed to think so. Edwards had taken the dying Brainerd into his home to be cared for by his 17-year-old daughter, Jerusha, and his death deeply affected the older man.

After reading Brainerd’s journal, Edwards immediately dropped the anti-Arminian book he was writing and set about compiling what would become one of the most influential books of the 18th Century, An Account of the Life of the Late Reverend Mr. David Brainerd.

Edwards edited out a lot of Brainerd’s references to his depression, his flagging faith, and his desire to die. He majored more on Brainerd’s theology and his missionary zeal.  I’m not suggesting anything untoward here. Edwards wanted to focus on Brainerd’s intense faith in order to inspire others.

And it worked. I can’t overstate how incredibly influential this book became. It was one of the instigators of the whole modern missions movement of the 19th Century, and affected such missionaries as Henry Martyn, William Carey, Adoniram Judson, and Jim Eliot.

You know all those adventurous stories of rugged, courageous missionaries climbing mountains and slashing their way through jungles to preach the gospel? Well, amazingly, many of them were inspired to do all that by a sickly, depressed, lonely cleric who didn’t travel more than a few hundred miles from where he grew up.

 

As Brainerd lay dying, agonizing over whether he’d done enough, conscious of the great limitations placed upon him, and desiring even deeper communion with God, he would have had no way of knowing that his host was going to turn him into such a remarkably influential figure.

He once wrote, “I long to be as a flame of fire, continually glowing in the Divine service, and building up Christ’s kingdom, to my last, my dying moment.”

And yet, thanks to Edwards, his flame burnt brightest after his dying moment. In death Jonathan Edwards turned David Brainerd into the poster child for classic evangelicalism.

John Piper wrote of him, “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.”

Amen to that.

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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11 thoughts on “7 Broken Men: David Brainerd

  1. I think too many young bible students seek the immediate glory of the pulpit (guilty here). I blame this on a 21st century pre-rapture mentality. I don’t think enough give thought to legacy, other than “riches in the world to come”. We should never count our influence in terms of cold statistical headcounts. It’s the lives that are influenced. Not the bums on the seats.

  2. Hey mike how bout a second series St Jerome, St Augustine, Martin luther, William Cowper, and yes John wesley in his own way

    1. Why did you choose that particular list of men?

  3. This blog was… how do you say it? Relevant!! Finally I’ve found something which helped me.
    Thank you!

  4. I personally think that Brainerd’s physical and mental health issues and his early death stem from a warped, performance oriented view of God. That he was operating from a place of slaveship versus sonship. I read a book a few years ago about burnout and depression amongst missionaries, written by a Christian psychiatrist, who has done a lot of work with missionaries. She said that a common factor in those cases was the “mindset” of the ministry: working as a slave, thinking that you must prove your worth to God and man by what you do, as opposed to working as a son. I was in my own season of overcoming that mindset. Even though I wasn’t a missionary, I viewed my work as my ministry. I suffered from severe burnout and breakdown.

    And, like these broken men…my own abandonment trauma was at the root of it. The rejection that I faced from my own father was at the root of my warped view of God. A God who, like Jonathan Edwards, created me as a disgusting spider and is waiting for an excuse to drop me into the flames of Hell. I do not personally believe that this kind of theology breeds virtues of faith, hope and love. It certainly didn’t in my life.

    1. Wow, you summed that up so well. I struggle with those same feelings and it has crippled me these many, many years.

      1. thank you :). Glad I was able to give voice to this issue.

    2. Hi Lila, this has been my experience too. It nearly killed me. I am just working through it now after a breakdown that has taken me five years to even begin to recover from. I was so anxious I began to have delusions. I was in an elite academic career before and have just today started a new academic job. I would love to connect if you were open to it!

      1. I’d love to connect!
        Should I put my email here?

  5. I have been reading Brainerd’s Diary. If the day to day entries accurately reflect his experience, he must have been manic-depressive. Frequently declaring himself a nothing whom God has left and then hours later declaring he’d never felt more Spirit enabled to devote himself to God forever, his was an emotionally intense roller coaster of a daily life. His extremes of feeling about himself and his religious practices couldn’t have been good for his physical health. Humility before God and man can become an idol.

    1. You should read “Scattershot” by David Lovelace. It’s a great memoir of a man and his bipolar family. The father was a pastor, and was really into studying the Puritans.

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