David Brainerd

Brainerd, David (Encyclopaedia Entry)

Early life 1718-38

The American David Brainerd, a convinced Calvinist, was a Presbyterian missionary to the indigenous Americans. He was born in Haddam, Connecticut on April 20th 1718, to Hezekiah and Dorothy Brainerd. He is also noted as having prominent Puritan figures in his lineage such as Rev. Samuel Whiting.[1] He was the sixth child of ten children.

Brainerd’s life was marked by a self-confessed melancholy which caused him to spend considerable time contemplating death and to live a life of prolonged depression interspersed with ecstatic experiences of God.[2] His predisposition towards such thoughts stemmed in part from his being orphaned at a young age, his father dying when he was 8 years old and his mother dying before his 15th birthday.[3]


Conversion 1738-39

Brainerd retreated into religious practices such as prayer and fasting for consolation in his difficult young life, however prior to his conversion they served only to increase in him a sense of sinfulness, distance from God and a complete incapacity to affect any change in his state.[4]

During this period Brainerd’s prayers were littered with pleas to God to awaken him to His grace and to save him. These heartfelt prayers were answered when he was out walking alone in the woods, consumed with a vision of the Glory of God and overcome by ecstatic delight.[5] Brainerd was saved at the age of 21.


College 1739-42

Brainerd entered Yale in the same year as his conversion in the hope of becoming a minister. He excelled in his class in spite of his studies being frequently interrupted with terrible bouts of illness requiring him to take leave and to recuperate.[6]

Significantly, Brainerd’s attendance at Yale coincided with the First Great Awakening which was sweeping through the New England region. During his first year at college Brainerd heard such New Light preachers as George Whitefield and became heavily involved in a new church founded by students of the college. In Yale a large divide began to appear between faculty and students with the former being generally critical of the Great Awakening and the latter being sympathetic. This divide, and Thomas Clap, the College Rector’s desire to have the New Light influence eradicated played a significant part in Brainerd’s dismissal from the college prior to the completion of his studies resulting in him not receiving his degree.[7]

The immediate cause of his dismissal however was a harsh judgement pronounced against one of his tutors. Brainerd claimed the tutor had, ‘no more grace than a chair’ and initially refused to apologise for the slight.[8] Brainerd later made several attempts at reconciliation with both the tutor and the college, but his and the intercession of influential friends fell on deaf ears and no apology was ever accepted.[9]

This dismissal from Yale brought a measure of disgrace upon Brainerd and in effect condemned him to a life of loneliness as the expulsion led him to being officially barred from the ministry.


Preparing for the Mission Field 1742-43

This exclusion from the ministry did not prevent him from filling the pulpits of churches sympathetic to the New Light. His busy preaching schedule caught the attention of the Scottish Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and he was approved to evangelise the indigenous Americans of Pennsylvania in 1742. In preparation to serve he spent time with John Sergeant who had already established a work amongst the people Brainerd was intended to reach. In 1743 he was ordained and sent out alone.[10]


Life amongst the Indians 1743-47

Due to growing racial tensions between the indigenous and settling Americans, Brainerd was unable to serve immediately in Pennsylvania as planned. Instead he moved to Kanaumeek, New York in 1743 for a year of hard service which bore little fruit. In 1744 he moved to his second missionary post in Delaware, Pennsylvania but continued to see very few conversions.[11]

Brainerd’s practice was to speak to his audience through a translator, Moses Tattamy. However Brainerd rarely stayed in one place for any significant amount of time and thus never truly formed any bonds or intimate knowledge of the people he endeavoured to reach.[12]

By 1745 Brainerd finally saw a breakthrough, in part due to a more settled existence and in part due to the indigenous Americans being more receptive to his message. Crowds were being drawn from as far away as 40 miles and a new awakening was beginning with the baptism of 25 converts, including his trusted interpreter. Converts followed for the entire time he remained and by 1746 he had seen nearly 150 Indians come to faith in New Jersey.[13]


Death 1747

During the entirety of his missionary work Brainerd continued to suffer both physically and psychologically. Eventually his propensity to illness forced him to abandon his missionary endeavours and he spent his final days in the home of Jonathan Edwards being nursed by Edwards’s daughter and Brainerd’s fiancé, Jerusha.[14]

Brainerd died within a year of ceasing his missionary work at the age of 29 on October 9, 1747. Subsequent to his death Brainerd’s brother, John, was ordained and continued the work amongst the New Jersey Indians that David had begun.[15]



Prior to his death Brainerd entrusted his diaries and journals to Jonathan Edwards who went on to edit and have them published. The printed diary became a minor classic, epitomizing Puritan virtue and evidencing Brainerd’s devotion to secret prayer and fasting. Through these Brainerd’s influence has extended significantly further than his brief missionary career ought to allow.[16]

As a result of the publication of his diaries and journals, Brainerd is revered for his devotional life and reputation.  His godly example, dedication and sacrificial service have been an inspiration and motivated successive generations of missionaries and ordinary Christians. The impact of these writings is almost immeasurable as those who counted themselves influenced by David Brainerd include the likes of John Wesley, Henry Martyn, Francis Asbury, William Carey[17] and Jim Elliot.[18]

[1] John F. Thornbury, “Brainerd, David,” The Encyclopaedia of Christianity 152.

[2] Kennith Minkema, “Brainerd, David,” Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions 84.

[3] Thornbury, “Brainerd, David,” 152.

[4] Henry W. Bowden, “Brainerd, David,” Dictionary of Evangelical Biography 1730-1860 131.

[5] Thornbury, “Brainerd, David,” 152.

[6] John Thornbury, Five Pioneer Missionaries (ed. S. M. Houghton; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1965), 26.

[7] Minkema, “Brainerd, David,” 84-85.

[8] Bowden, “Brainerd, David,” 131.

[9] Oswald J. Smith, David Brainerd His Message for Today (London: Marshal, Morgan & Scott, 1949).

[10] Minkema, “Brainerd, David,” 85.

[11] Thornbury, “Brainerd, David,” 152.

[12] Bowden, “Brainerd, David,” 131.

[13] Bowden, “Brainerd, David,” 131.

[14] Bowden, “Brainerd, David,” 131.

[15] Minkema, “Brainerd, David,” 85.

[16] Jim Repsome, “Brainerd, David,” Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions 142.

[17] R. T. Coote, N. A. Horner, and J. M. Philips, Mission Legacies – Biogaphical Studies of Leaders of the Missionary Movement (ed. G. H. Anderson; New York: Orbis Books, 1994), 248.

[18] Thornbury, “Brainerd, David,” 154.


Anderson, Gerald H., ed. Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1999.

Bowden, Henry W. “Brainerd, David.”  Page 131 in Dictionary of Evangelical Biography 1730-1860. Edited by Donald Lewis.  Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.

Cohen, Gary G., ed. The Encyclopaedia of Christianity. Del.: National Foundation for Christian Education, 1968.

Coote, R. T., N. A. Horner, and J. M. Philips. Mission Legacies – Biographical Studies of Leaders of the Missionary Movement. Edited by G. H. Anderson. New York: Orbis Books, 1994.

Repsome, Jim. “Brainerd, David.”  Page 142 in Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions. Edited by A. Scott Moreau.  Grand Rapids, Mich.: Barker Books, 2000.

Lewis, Donald, ed. Dictionary of Evangelical Biography 1730-1860. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.

Minkema, Kennith. “Brainerd, David.”  Pages 84-85 in Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions. Edited by Gerald H. Anderson.  Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1999.

Moreau, A. Scott, ed. Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Barker Books, 2000.

Smith, Oswald J. David Brainerd His Message for Today. London: Marshal, Morgan & Scott, 1949.

Thornbury, John. Five Pioneer Missionaries. Edited by S. M. Houghton. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1965.

Thornbury, John F. “Brainerd, David.”  Pages 152-154 in The Encyclopaedia of Christianity. Edited by Gary G. Cohen.  Del.: National Foundation for Christian Education, 1968.



3 Responses to “David Brainerd”

  1. Larry 25/10/2010 at 1:45 pm #

    Gosh. You didn’t use his journals. Impressive, probably a wise choice.

    • sammydaviesjr 25/10/2010 at 3:03 pm #

      The Oswald book, “his message for today” is a very heavily edited version of his journals. Time constraints and trying to get only an overview dictated I not study them too heavily, then when it got to the write up I’d lost all my page references.


  1. Brainerd « saintbeagle - 20/10/2010

    […] David Brainerd […]

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