He died when still a young man. Only 29. But David Brainerd, a young Puritan who ministered to the Indians, was one of America's most influential missionaries. Though his life was brief, Brainerd's intense, passionate devotion to God affected countless Christians for many generations.
Born in 1718 to a devout Puritan family in Haddam, Connecticut, David Brainerd was orphaned at the age of 14. At twenty-one, swept up by the Great Awakening, he had a conversion experience and enrolled at Yale. Though an excellent student, Brainerd was dismissed in 1742 for criticizing one of the tutors, saying he had no more grace than a chair! Brainerd's regret over his rash statement could not secure his reinstatement. He ever afterward remained sensitive about criticism and maintaining Christian unity.
Brainerd studied with pastor Jedidiah Mills to prepare for the ministry and was soon licensed to preach. He went to work among the Indians at Kaunameek, about half way between Stockbridge, Massachusetts and Albany, New York. He diligently learned the Indian language but had little missionary success. So he moved on.
After being ordained by the Presbytery of New York, David began a new work among the Delaware Indians of Pennsylvania. Here too Brainerd saw little success in his ministry. Though often despondent because of his ineffective ministry, loneliness, and repeated illness brought on by tuberculosis, Brainerd determined to live wholly for God, whatever his outward success.
During 1745-1746, David Brainerd traveled to minister to the Indians near Trenton, New Jersey and was amazed at the immediate responsiveness of the Indians to the Christian message. Over 100 Indians at a time came to him in the region. Brainerd poured out his life in ministry to these Indians, writing that he wanted "to burn out in one continual flame for God." He helped secure land for the Indians when theirs was threatened and soon constructed a church, school, carpenter's shop, and infirmary.
By the fall of 1746 Brainerd was increasingly coughing up blood. The famous theologian-pastor, Jonathan Edwards, brought him to his home in Northampton, MA. There David Brainerd spent his last months, succumbing to tuberculosis on October 9, 1747.
Jonathan Edward's daughter Jerusha nursed Brainerd during his last illness, and a deep love developed between them. Edwards once overheard Brainerd tell Jerusha, "If I thought I should not see you, and be happy with you in another world, I could not bear to part with you. But we shall spend a happy eternity together." Jerusha contracted tuberculosis and died a few months after David, at the age of eighteen.
After David Brainerd's death, Jonathan Edwards edited and published his diary, describing it as an example of a devotional life "most worthy of imitation." This diary was to influence many missionaries in future generations, including William Carey and Henry Martyn, who went to India and Jim Eliot, the twentieth century missionary who gave his life ministering to the Auca Indians.