-He was a pioneer missionary to the Indians
-He was expelled from Yale
-His diary and journals are studied by missionaries today
His life would be a short one – he died at the age of twenty-nine – but it would be a life that became a dedicated Christian service which would open the Christian Gospel to the Native Americans living in frontiers of the English colonies in America. His personal ministry to the Indians would only last three years, but his diary and his journal – edited by Jonathan Edwards – would continue to be an influence on missionaries up through the present day.
David Brainerd was born on April 20, 1718 in Haddam, Connecticut to Hezekiah and Dorothy Brainerd. David was the sixth of nine children born to the couple – plus one more child that the widowed Dorothy brought into the marriage with Hezekiah. David’s family was both influential and devout. His grandfather had come to the colonies and became a landowner, commissioner for the General Court, a justice of the peace, and a deacon in the church. David’s father continued in public service, becoming a representative to the General Assembly, Speaker of the House, and a member of the Governor’s Council, as well as being a large landowner. David’s father was known for integrity, personal dignity, and self-restraint, with a strong Christian foundation.
Hezekiah Brainerd died when David was nine, and Dorothy died when he was fourteen. Orphaned, he lived for four years with his older sister Jerusha and her husband, Samuel Spencer. There he suffered from depression and loneliness, and even described himself later in life saying that from his youth he was "somewhat sober, and inclined rather to melancholy." When he was nineteen he moved to a farm in Durham that he had inherited from his father. While living and working on the farm he decided that he needed to obtain an education, and moved in with Phineas Fisk – the pastor of the church at Haddam – to pursue his religious interests. While there he committed his life to the ministry, and – in 1739 – enrolled in Yale.
He suffered from illnesses during his tenure at Yale. First, during his freshman year, he missed several weeks of classes due to the measles. During his sophomore year he was again sent home to rest and recover because he unaccountably began spitting up blood – probably an early sign of the tuberculosis that would eventually take his life.
When he returned from this second extended absence from his classes, David found that the Great Awakening and a visit from evangelist George Whitefield had radically changed the tenor of life and thoughts for the students at the college. While the students embraced the Great Awakening, the administration remained far more staid in their religious views. As disrespect grew between the two camps, the college trustees issued a statement saying: "If any student of this College shall directly or indirectly say, that the Rector, either of the Trustees or Tutors are hypocrites, carnal or unconverted men, he shall for the first offence make a public confession in the hall, and for the second offence be expelled."
During the winter of David’s third year, a freshman overheard David say in a private conversation that the tutor Chauncey Whittlesey had "no more grace than a chair." He was also reported as saying that he was surprised the Rector Thomas Clap "did not drop down dead" for fining students who became followers of Gilbert Tennent. David denied the latter, but refused to offer a public apology for the former, though he confessed his guilt. As a result, he was expelled from the college, though he stood at the top of his class academically.
David was greatly disappointed and depressed at his expulsion, but he continued his religious training, living with and being trained by several pastors, receiving a license to preach in 1742. He was asked to consider a ministry to become a missionary to the American Indians, and on Nov. 25, 1742, accepted the ministry, beginning what was to be a short but far-reaching ministry.
He began his work with the Indians at Kaunaumeek, located eighteen miles southeast of Albany, on April 1, 1743. There he slept on the ground until he built a rough shelter. He learned about the way of life of the Indians, won their trust, taught them English, and tried to teach them about Christianity.
He would write in his journal while on horseback, trying to use his time wisely. A 1743 entry read: “Lord's Day, December 29 ...After public worship was over, I went to my house, proposing to preach again after a short season of intermission. But they soon came in one after another; with tears in their eyes, to know, "what they should do to be saved..."
In 1744 he would be sent to Pennsylvania, arriving near present day Easton. He would be ill and weak from the increasing detrimental effect of tuberculosis for the duration of his stay there, but served as a pastor for the white settlers in the area, as well as traveling on horseback daily to preach, teach, and pray with the Indians of the area. He travelled extensively, travelling 340 miles on horseback in 22 days to visit various Indian tribes. Rain or shine, hailstones or snow could slow him down in his mission to spread the Gospel, but could not stop him.
Yet conversions to the Christian faith on the western frontier were rare. He wrote: “As to my success here I cannot say much as yet: the Indians seem generally kind, and well-disposed towards me, and are mostly very attentive to my instructions, and seem willing to be taught further.”
In 1745 he began to service the Indians in western New Jersey, as well as those in Pennsylvania. Finally he began to see the results of his work in the frontier. His translator, Tattamy, as well as his wife were both converted to Christianity. Soon after that David was preaching to sixty-five Indians, and would have a number of converts, baptizing twenty-five at the end of August. Indians – and white settlers – began to travel from miles around to see this young white preacher, and to respond to his call to the Gospel. By 1746 he had over 140 followers. That same year he engaged a schoolmaster to teach the Indians English, and provided primers for them.
But, his tuberculoses was weakening him. He wrote that he "...sweat much in the night, so that my linen was almost wringing wet all night, was exceedingly weak, so that I could scarcely ride; it seemed sometimes as if I must fall off from my horse, and lie in the open woods..."
He made his last visit to his Indian converts in March 1747, then traveled to New England to try and rest and recover from his disease. He never made it back to the wilderness and the Indians that he loved. He would die on February 14, 1748, while trying to recuperate while at Jonathan Edward’s home. His last words were: "He will come, and will not tarry. I shall soon be in glory; soon be with God and His angels."
David’s legacy is multifaceted. Factors such as overcoming loss of parents, ill health, expulsion from college, dealing with depression, and – finally - the realization that one’s life does not need to be long to leave its mark on history and people. His dedication to the Native Americans continued after his death: His replacement as a missionary was, at his request, his brother John Brainerd, who would labor in the mission field for the next thirty years.
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