Born in Haddam, Connecticut, April 20, 1718, his parents died while he was a young teenager. He attempted farming, but on July 12, 1739, he had an experience with God of “unspeakable glory” that gave him a “hearty desire to exalt Him, to set Him on the throne and to ‘seek first His Kingdom.'”
This was colonial Indian missionary, David Brainerd.
A Connecticut law forbade the appointment of ministers unless they graduated from Harvard, Yale or a European institution, so in 1740, David Brainerd began attending Yale. He soon began to show symptoms of tuberculosis.
When Great Awakening preachers George Whitefield, Gilbert Tennent, Ebenezer Pemberton and James Davenport began spreading spiritual enthusiasm, tension emerged at Yale between faculty and students. In 1741, Yale trustees decreed that “if any student of this College shall … say, that the Rector … Trustees or tutors are hypocrites, carnal or unconverted men, he shall for the first offense make a public confession in the hall, and for the second offense be expelled.”
Accused of having said his tutor, Chauncey Whittelsey, “has no more grace than a chair,” David Brainerd was expelled.
In 1742, David Brainerd was licensed to preach by evangelicals known as “New Lights.” He was supported by the “Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge” to do missionary work among Native Americans.
David Brainerd worked in a Housatonic Indian settlement near present day Nassau, New York, starting a school for Native American children. He worked among the Delaware Indians along the Delaware River northeast of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. His interpreter, Moses Tunda Tatamy, helped him minister to Indians along the Susquehanna and Delaware Rivers.
Camping at night, David Brainerd wrote in his journal: “Forks of Delaware, Pennsylvania, Lord’s day, July 21, 1745. Preached to the Indians. … Divine truth seemed to make very considerable impressions and caused the tears to flow freely. … Afterwards I baptized my interpreter and his wife, who were the first I baptized among the Indians. … Though before he had been a hard drinker … it is now more than six months since he experienced this change; in which space of time he has been exposed to strong drink in places where it has been moving free as water; yet has never desired after it. … He discourses feelingly of the conflicts and consolations of a real Christian.”
David Brainerd worked with the Crossweeksung Indians in New Jersey, starting a church which grew to 130 members. David Brainerd wrote in his diary: “(I) could have no freedom in the thought of any other circumstances or business in life: All my desire was the conversion of the heathen, and all my hope was in God: God does not suffer me to please or comfort myself with hopes of seeing friends, returning to my dear acquaintance, and enjoying worldly comforts.”
David Brainerd traveled over 3,000 on horseback in his missionary efforts and often slept in cold, rainy woods. Overcoming lack of food, and spitting up blood from advanced stages of tuberculosis, David Brainerd fought immobilizing depression where dozens of times he wished for death.
Finally too ill to minister, he was taken in by Princeton president Jonathan Edwards, who wrote down his life story. David Brainerd died at the age of 29.
In 1749, Jonathan Edwards published “An Account of the Life of the Late Reverend Mr. David Brainerd,” which inspired millions, including William Carey, Adoniram Judson, Oswald J. Smith, and John Wesley, who wrote: “What can be done to revive the work of God where it is decayed? Let every preacher read carefully over the life of David Brainerd.”
David Brainerd’s life played a role in establishing the colleges of Princeton and Dartmouth. Yale’s Divinity School named a building “Brainerd Hall,” the only building named after a student who had been expelled.
David Brainerd wrote: “Oh, how precious is time, and how it pains me to see it slide away, while I do so little to any good purpose. Oh, that God would make me more fruitful.”
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