The Bewildering Mr. Brainerd

I have, for the first time, finally read through David Brainerd's Diary. I'm not sure why it took me this long to get around to it. I now understand why this man, who lived such a short life, has had such an enormous impact on the church and the world of missions. Consider a few of the statements made about Brainerd and his Diary by some of the leading pastors, theologians and missionaries of the past three centuries:

In the Serampore Agreement, William Carey wrote, "Let us often look at Brainerd in the woods of America, pouring out, his very soul before God for the perishing heathen, without whose salvation nothing could make him happy."

Robert Murray McCheyne (the great Scottish pastor and theologian of the 19th Century) noted that it only took him 5 days after purchasing Edwards' Works on June 22. 1832 to dive headlong into Edwards’ publication of The Life and Diary of David Brainerd. Here is his conclusion about the life and labors of this young missionary:

“June 27.—Life of David Brainerd. Most wonderful man | What conflicts, what depressions, desertions, strength, advancement, victories, within thy torn bosom | I cannot express what I think when I think of thee. To-night, more set upon missionary enterprise than ever.”

“June 28.—Oh for Brainerd's humility and sin-loathing dispositions !”

In a letter to W.C. Burns in September of 1840, M'Cheyne wrote, "Oh for Brainerd's heart for perfect holiness--to be holy as God is holy--pure as Christ is pure--perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect."

In his Biographical Sketch of the Log College (which, in turn, became New Jersey College and then Princeton University and Princeton Seminary), Archibald Alexander—the first professor of theology at Princeton—explained that Princeton never would have been formed if it were not for Brainerd's expulsion from Yale. Aaron Burr, Sr.--one of the founders of the College--said, “If it had not been for the treatment received by Mr. Brainerd at Yale, New Jersey College would never have been erected.”

In a letter to a fellow pastor in 1708, John Newton--the renown pastor, theologian and hymn-writer--wrote:

“Next to the Word of God, I like those books best which give an account of the lives and experiences of his people…no book of this kind has been more welcome to me than the Life of Mr. Brainerd, of New England, re-published a few years since at Edinburgh, and I believe sold by Dilly, in London. If you have not seen it, I will venture to recommend it, (though I am not fond of recommending books,) I think it will please you.”

No doubt, it was Brainerd's desire for holiness, zeal for the conversion of the lost, earnestness in prayer and perseverance in the midst of unparalleled affliction that set him apart as one of the most important figures in church history. When we read his Diary we are faced with our own lack in comparison with what we read of his heart. That being said, there are several things that we must be willing to criticize about Brainerd if we are to do justice to the task of theological historiography. 

First, Brainerd's introspection. At his own admittance, Brainerd was given over to what he calls "melancholy" (what we call "clinical depression"). This is evident from reading any number of passages in the Diary. When you wed this to his own perception of his depravity, internal vileness (as he calls it) and a sense of his sinful disposition, you have a recipe for morbid introspection. From the beginning of his Diary to the end, Brainerd reveals his sense of his own "vileness" (which he refers to 86 times) as the predominant thought in his heart. On Thursday, April 16, 1747--just six months prior to his death--Brainerd wrote, 

"Was in bitter anguish of soul in the morning, such as I have scarce ever felt, with a sense of sin and guilt. I continued in distress the whole day, attempting to pray wherever I went; and indeed could not help so doing: but looked upon myself so vile, I dared not look any body in the face; and was even grieved that any body should show me any respect, or at least that they should be so deceived as to think I deserved it."

If anyone rightly falls under the just criticism of being morbidly introspective, it is Brainerd. 

Second, Brainerd's Lack of Gospel Clarity. Connected to the first, is Brainerd's struggle to see clearly the all sufficent sacrifice of Jesus for the forgiveness and sin. A search of the Diary yeilds the conclusion that Brainerd rarely talked about Christ crucified for the forgiveness of his sins. Though he mentions his struggle to come to a place of peace and rest in Christ--based on His saving work--prior to his conversion, he only once writes, "I wondered that all the world did not see and comply with this way of salvation, entirely by the righteousness of Christ." He talked often about Christ as an example of holiness. He spoke of the sufferings of Christ as enacting holiness in the souls of his people. In one place he wrote, "I longed to be perpetually and entirely crucified to all things here below, by cross of Christ." There is only one reference to the blood of Jesus in the entire Diary and, even there, Brainerd reflected--not on his need for the blood of Christ but on his desire to have more compassion for those who are difficult to love since Jesus loved sinful souls and died for them. On Monday, June 14, he wrote, "Oh, my dear Jesus did sweat blood for poor souls! I longed for more compassion towards them." The clearest presentation of the Gospel is found in a sermon that he preached on Oct. 5  on the Lamb of God. In this instance, Brainerd even provided an outline of that sermon. He wrote,

"Discoursed before the administration of the sacrament, from John i. 29. `Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world.' Where I considered, I. In what respects Christ is called the Lamb of God: and observed that he is so called, (1.) From the purity and innocency of his nature. (2.) From his meekness and patience under sufferings. (3.) From his being that atonement, which was pointed out in the sacrifice of lambs, and in particular by the paschal lamb. II. Considered how and in what sense he `takes away the sin of the world:' and observed, that the means and manner, in and by which he takes away the sins of men, was his `giving himself for them,' doing and suffering in their room and stead, &c. And he is said to take away the sin of the world, not because all the world shall actually be redeemed from sin by him; but because, (1.) He has done and suffered sufficient to answer for the sins of the world, and so to redeem all mankind. (2.) He actually does take away the sins of the elect world. And, III. Considered how we are to behold him, in order to have our sins taken away. (1.) Not with our bodily eyes. Nor, (2.) By imagining him on the cross, &c. But by a spiritual view of his glory and goodness, engaging the soul to rely on him."

However, even his own record of his preaching seems to betray that at times he was reticent to hold up Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins. On June 20, 1744, he wrote, "I preached with some life and spirituality, especially in the afternoon, wherein I was enabled to speak closely against selfish religion, that loves Christ for his benefits, but not for himself." Later in the Diary, he wrote, 

"I did not now want any of the sudden suggestions, which many are so pleased with, `That Christ and his benefits are mine; that God loves me,' &c. in order to give me satisfaction about my state: no, my soul now abhorred those delusions of Satan, which are thought to be the immediate witness of the Spirit, while there is nothing but an empty suggestion of a certain fact, without any gracious discovery of the divine glory, or of the Spirit's work in their own hearts."

Brainerd wanted perfect holiness to be the foundation of his assurance of salvation. While our sanctification certainly plays a crucial role in our quest for assurance, it can never be the foundation of our assurance of salvation--otherwise, it is our works rather than Christ's atoning sacrifice that saves us. I walked away from the Diary wondering if Brainerd ever truly had the assurance of the forgiveness of his sins on the basis of the saving work of Jesus at Calvary. His zeal for holiness--both prior and subsequent to his conversion--certainly seems to have eclipsed the comfort of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on his soul. Though some may take issue with this criticism, it is simply to point out that there seems to have been a lack of Gospel sufficiency and clarity in Brainerd's mind and ministry.

Third, Brainerd's Lack of Care for Himself. Brainerd contracted tuberculosis while in college. He tells of spitting up blood over a period of nine years until his death at age 29. He writes about living in the woods, his teeth aching, his body weak and feeble, feeling the effects of the cold, his loneliness, burning fevers, extreme pain in head and stomach, etc. Nevertheless, he rarely took the time to rest and heal. While he didn't have the medical treatments that we have today, one is left wondering--after reading the Diary--whether Brainerd would have had a longer life and ministry if he had cared for himself better. It certainly should be to us a word of caution. John Owen, at the end of his life, also lamented not having taken care of himself suitably out of a desire to give himself fully to his ministerial labors. 

David Brainerd rightly rises to the praiseworthy commendations of some of the greatest pastors and theologians of the last three hundred years. Certainly a man of clay feet, he, neverthless, lived his life desirous of being fully devoted to his Maker. I am sure that none of us have met anyone so wholly given to seeking to live his or her life for the glory of God and the good of the souls of men like David Brainerd. 

Nick Batzig