A Soul-Refreshed Life: The Piety of David Brainerd

A Soul-Refreshed Life: The Piety of David Brainerd

On a spring day in 1747, mounted on his horse, twenty-nine-year-old David Brainerd rode into the yard of a Northampton parsonage. It was the home of eminent New England pastor and theologian, Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) and his wife Sarah (1710–1758). It was Thursday, May 28, a day not unlike many others before. The Edwards family often received guests to stay in the pastoral parsonage which often served as lodging for wanders and visiting ministers. Edwards and Brainerd, prior to this day, were relative strangers to one another, having only met once before at the Yale Commencement of 1743.[1] The summer of 1747 would prove to nurture a growing friendship between the two men. The culmination of this friendship would produce one of the greatest missionary biographies in the history of American evangelicalism. 

While staying in the Northampton parsonage, Brainerd shared his journals and diary with Jonathan Edwards. Edwards seemed to immediately see this rich material, full of religious zeal, as something that must be shared with a wider audience. Reluctantly, Brainerd set forth to organize his writings into a volume that would later be published. However, in 1747, the young missionary died from tuberculosis, a disease from which he had suffered for many years. The task of publishing the Brainerd diary feel to Edwards. In 1749, An Account of the Life of the Late Reverend Mr. David Brainerd[2] was published and was destined to become an evangelical classic. Unbeknownst to Edwards, The Life, became widely popular and would eventually surpass all his other polemical and theological works.

The Piety of David Brainerd

Edwards begins the “Author’s Preface” to The Life, “There are two ways of representing and recommending true religion and virtue to the world, which God hath made use of: the one is by doctrine and precept; the other is by instance and example.”[3] It will be the latter that Edwards employs in his biographical account of David Brainerd, as he traces Brainerd’s Christian piety along the following lines of thought:    (1) Evangelical humiliation; (2) A change of nature; (3) Sensitivity toward sin; and finally, (4) Holiness of life. Along these four lines of thought, Edwards seeks to demonstrate, as he puts it, “Mr. Brainerd’s religious impressions, views and affections in their nature were vastly different from enthusiasm.”[4] Edwards desired to set Brainerd’s life and piety in juxtaposition to the fanaticism that had so quickly categorized the Great Awakening.

1. Evangelical humiliation

Brainerd viewed true evangelical humility as the supreme path upon which a true Christian could obtain the knowledge of the glory and excellency of God. On May 9, 1746, he reflects upon the testimony of a man he had just baptized. He labels this man as a “conjurer and murderer.”[5] He said this man seemed desirous to hear the preaching and teaching of Scripture and being in a state where he had resigned to wait upon God “his own way.” Brainerd writes, “After he had continued in this frame of mind more than a week, while I was discoursing publicly he seemed to have a lively, soul-refreshing view of the excellency of God, and the way of salvation by him, which melted him into tears.”[6] It was this superior view of Christ in juxtaposition to man’s wickedness that brings about true holy affections to the soul and causes one to see the smallest degree of sin as truly abhorrent to the divine excellency of the infinite.

2. A change of nature

The stirring of real conversion begins when Brainerd reads the work by Solomon Stoddard (1643–1729), A Guide to Christ, Or the way of direction souls that are under the work of conversion.[7] He attributes this single volume as the instrument “which, I trust, in the hand of God was the happy means of my conversion.”[8] His conversion left him with a willing acceptance of God’s glory and sovereignty, the beauty of Christ and his salvation, and a deep inner desire to serve him in the fullest capacity. Edwards writes of Brainerd’s conversion,

The change that was wrought in him at his conversion was agreeable to Scripture representations of that change which is wrought in true conversion; a great change and an abiding change, rendering him a new man, a new creature: not only a change as to hope and comfort and an apprehension of his own good estate; and a transient change consisting in high flights of passing affections; but a change of nature, a change of the abiding habit and temper of his mind.[9]

From his conversion to the end of his life, Brainerd experienced the dichotomy of living with the constant fluctuation between overwhelming joy and spiritual darkness. Even in this fluctuation of light and darkness, his soul had received God’s light. A change of nature causes the soul, “to be changed, and it becomes properly a luminous thing. Not only does the sun shine in the saints, but they also become little suns, partaking of the nature of the fountain of their light.”[10]

3. Sensitivity toward sin

A propensity toward depression became a serious problem in the life of Brainerd. It is spiritually healthy to have a sensitivity toward sin, but it is not healthy to allow that sensitivity to give way to despair. In The Life, Edwards is careful in dealing with this subject and provides only glimpses of Brainerd’s bouts with melancholy. He often speaks of feeling gloom, darkness, despair, confusion of mind, and his inability to experience the sweetness of God or Christ. There are countless reasons why Brainerd would be prone to such despondency. Writing more than one hundred years after Brainerd’s death, a family descendent explained, “It must, however, be confessed that in the whole Brainerd family for two hundred years there has been a tendency to a morbid depression, akin to hypochondria.”[11] David endures continual difficult struggles throughout his life and ministry that often give way to such depression. However, this propensity does not at all indicate a spiritual deficiency on his part. It should be historically remembered that such eminent Christians like Charles Haddon Spurgeon, John Calvin, Martin Luther, and many others often struggled with despondency. The means Brainerd employed in getting through these valleys was ardent prayer and a tenderness of the presence of the Spirit in his life.

4. Holiness of life

October 20, 1740, David Brainerd records in his diary, “I again found the sweet assistance of the divine Spirit in secret duties both morning and evening and life and comfort in religion through the whole day.” The themes of spiritual growth and holiness of life runs replete throughout Brainerd’s diary and is the subject of the twelfth and most important sign of true genuine affection. Edwards writes, “gracious and holy affections have their exercise and fruit in Christian practice,”[12] or holiness of life. Edwards describes the Christian pilgrimage as one of practical outworking, in practice, of the life that has been given to us by God. In other words, if God resides in the heart and is vitally united to it, “he will show that he is a God, by the efficacy of his operation. For in the heart where Christ savingly is, there he lives, and exerts himself after the power of that endless life that he received at his resurrection.”[13] God, as the supplier and animator of strength within the regenerate person produces genuine spiritual fruit through holiness of life and practice.


If God, according to Edwards, is the pursuit of gracious affections it will result in perseverance in the pursuit of godliness even when it is painful to do so. On the other hand, the unregenerate will automatically abandon any pursuit of godliness when it begins to rob them of comfort and earthly pleasure; whereas the godly will cast off comfort and interest in the pursuit of something far grander. Brainerd loves God for God’s own sake and is propelled by the beauty and excellency of his divine nature. By the example of his life, he affirms no degree of trial or loss will impede him in his journey toward heaven.

“A Soul-Refreshed Life: The Piety of David Brainerd” is an extract from Sweetly Set on God.

[1] Iain Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2008), 300.

[2] The full title is An Account of the Life of the Late Reverend Mr. David Brainerd, Minister of the Gospel, Missionary to the Indians, from the honourable Society in Scotland, for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge, and Pastor of a Church of Christian Indians in New Jersey, Who died at Northampton in New England, Octob. 9th 1747 in the 30th Year of his Age: Chiefly taken from his own Diary, and other private Writings, written for his own Use; and now published, by Jonathan Edwards, A.M. Minister of the Gospel at Northampton (Boston, 1749). In this paper, I shall refer to it as the Life of Brainerd or simply The Life.

[3] Jonathan Edwards, The Life of David Brainerd, ed. Norman Pettit (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 7:89.

[4] Edwards, Life of David Brainerd, 7:93.

[5] Edwards, Life of David Brainerd, 7:391.

[6] Edwards, Life of David Brainerd, 7:391.

[7] Edwards, Life of David Brainerd, 7:123.

[8] Edwards, Life of David Brainerd, 7:123.

[9] Edwards, Life of David Brainerd, 7:502.

[10] Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections, ed. Paul Ramsey (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 2:343.

[11] Thomas Brainerd, Life of John Brainerd, (Kessinger Publishing, 2007), 168. Thomas was a descendent of David and John Brainerd’s uncle, James.

[12] Edwards, Religious Affections, 2:383.

[13] Edwards, Religious Affections, 2:392.

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