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David Brainerd: Missionary, Man of Prayer, Mighty Spiritual Influence

Man praying

David Brainerd was a missionary to the Indians in his 20’s. Although he died when he was 29, and his years as a missionary were brief, his ministry has dramatically impacted the lives of many—and continues to impact believers today.

Brainerd was born in 1718, the year that John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards turned 14, Benjamin Franklin turned 12 and George Whitefield 3.

He was 21 years old when he entered Yale to prepare for the ministry. The next year he was so sick he was spitting up blood, so he was sent home. He already had the tuberculosis that would take his life seven years later in Jonathan Edwards’s home. As someone who lives with chronic illness, it amazes me that as sick as Brainerd was, he was able to endure such harsh living conditions and accomplish as much as he did as long as he did.

Tremendous Impact

Of Brainerd’s twenty-nine years on this earth, he lived only eight of them as a believer and only four as a missionary. Yet his life has impacted people through the centuries to the present day—people including such spiritual greats as Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, William Carey, Robert M’Cheyne, David Livingston, Andrew Murray and Jim Elliot.

Jonathan Edwards esteemed Brainerd so highly that he preserved and edited his diaries, added his own notes and reflections, and published them in 1749 in a book called The Life and Diary of David Brainerd.

Brainerd’s diaries have continued to challenge and affect believers—so much so that Edwards’ The Life of Brainerd has never been out of print!

John Wesley said, “Let every preacher read carefully over the ‘Life of Brainerd.'” Henry Martyn said that “perusing the life of David Brainerd, his soul was filled with a holy emulation of that extraordinary man; and after deep consideration and fervent prayer, he was at length fixed in a resolution to imitate his example.” William Carey regarded Edwards’ Life of Brainerd as a sacred text.

Constant Struggles

Brainerd struggled with chronic sickness, depression, and loneliness—and as stated, he battled harsh living conditions as a missionary.

David Brainerd

David Brainerd

His life is an undeniable reminder that God uses even the weakest saint upon his knees—the one who trusts in God alone and puts no confidence in the arm of the flesh. It doesn’t matter how sick, how discouraged, how weary, how lonely we may be, God uses His saints who cry out to Him to use them for His glory and His kingdom.

The impact of Brainerd’s prayer life, which continues to this day, is a prime example of why, as William Cowper so aptly stated, “Satan trembles when he sees the weakest saint upon his knees.”

In spite of his immense struggles, Brainerd never gave up. He never gave up on his ministry, or his faith. He never gave up investing hours on his knees crying out in prayer.

I first discovered the beauty in Brainerd’s diaries when I was researching the history of the concert of prayer in America. As I read his entries, Brainerd’s heart of prayer and intercession moved me. I, like so many before me who have read his entries, wanted to emulate him.

Lifestyle of Prayer and Fasting

Brainerd was diligent in prayer and fasting. He wrote of spending whole days in prayer. For him, fasting was a lifestyle, as you’ll see in the excerpts below.

When Brainerd was dying in Jonathan Edwards’s house, he urged young ministers who came to see him to engage in frequent days of private prayer and fasting because of how useful it was.

Jonathan Edwards said,

Among all the many days he spent in secret fasting and prayer and that he gives an account of in his diary, there is scarce an instance of one but what was either attended or soon followed with apparent success and a remarkable blessing in special incomes and consolations of God’s Spirit; and very often before the day was ended.

As you read Brainerd’s diary entries, his longing for holiness is infectious. You can’t read of his unquenchable desire for holiness and not have it affect your own desires.

Brainerd wrote,

…God has been pleased to keep my soul hungry, almost continually; so that I have been filled with a kind of pleasing pain. When I really enjoy God, I feel my desires of him the more insatiable, and my thirstings after holiness the more unquenchable … Oh! I see that ‘the law is spiritual, but I am carnal.’ I do not, I cannot live to God. Oh for holiness! Oh for more of God in my soul! Oh this pleasing pain! It makes my soul press after God … O that I may feel this continual hunger, and not be retarded, but rather animated by every cluster from Canaan, to reach forward in the narrow way, for the full enjoyment and possession of the heavenly inheritance! O that I may never loiter in my heavenly journey!”1

Given what a man of prayer Brainerd was, I believe this passion for holiness was a result of the time he invested in prayer.

Ten Diary Entries on Fasting and Prayer

“Monday, April 19. I set apart this day for fasting, and prayer to God for his grace; especially to prepare me for the work of the ministry, to give me divine aid and direction in my preparations for that great work, and in his own time to send me into his harvest. Accordingly, in the morning, I endeavoured to plead for the divine presence for the day, and not without some life. In the forenoon, I felt the power of intercession for precious, immortal souls; for the advancement of the kingdom of my dear Lord and Saviour in the word; and withal, a most sweet resignation, and even consolation and joy in the thoughts of suffering hardships, distresses, and even death itself, in the promotion of it; and had special enlargement in pleading for the enlightening and conversion of the poor heathen. In the afternoon, God was with me of a truth. O it was blessed company indeed! God enabled me so to agonize in prayer, that I was quite wet with perspiration, though in the shade, and the cool wind. My soul was drawn out very much for the world; for multitudes of souls. I think I had more enlargement for sinners, than for the children of God; though I felt as if I could spend my life in cries for both. I enjoyed great sweetness in communion with my dear Saviour. I think I never in my life felt such an entire weanedness from this world, and so much resigned to God in every thing.–O that I may always live to and upon my blessed God! Amen, Amen.” 2


 

“Monday, May 3. Had a sense of vile ingratitude. In the morning I withdrew to my usual place of retirement, and mourned for my abuse of my dear Lord: spent the day in fasting and prayer. God gave me much power of wrestling for his cause and kingdom; and it was a happy day to my soul. God was with me all the day, and I was more above the world than ever in my life.” 3


 

“Monday, June 14. Felt something of the sweetness of communion with God, and the constraining force of his love: how admirably it captivates the soul, and makes all the desires and affections to centre in God!–I set apart this day for secret fasting and prayer, to entreat God to direct and bless me with regard to the great work I have in view, of preaching the gospel; and that the Lord would return to me, and show me the light of his countenance. Had little life and power in the forenoon: near the middle of the afternoon, God enabled me to wrestle ardently in intercession for absent friends:–but just at night, the Lord visited me marvellously in prayer: I think my soul never was in such an agony before. I felt no restraint; for the treasures of divine grace were opened to me. I wrestled for absent friends, for the ingathering of souls, for multitudes of poor souls, and for many that I thought were the children of God, personally, in many distant places. I was in such an agony, from sun half an hour high, till near dark, that I was all over wet with sweat; but yet it seemed to me that I had wasted away the day, and had done nothing. Oh, my dear Jesus did sweat blood for poor souls! I longed for more compassion towards them.–Felt still in a sweet frame, under a sense of divine love and grace; and went to bed in such a frame, with my heart set on God.” 4


 

“Wednesday, April 20. Set apart this day for fasting and prayer, to bow my soul before God for the bestowment of divine grace; especially that all my spiritual afflictions and inward distresses might be sanctified to my soul. And endeavoured also to remember the goodness of God to me the year past, this day being my birth-day. Having obtained help of God, I have hitherto lived, and am now arrived at the age of twenty-five years. My soul was pained to think of my barrenness and deadness; that I have lived so little to the glory of the eternal God. I spent the day in the woods alone, and there poured out my complaint to God. O that God would enable me to live to his glory for the future!5


 

“Thursday, Nov. 3. Spent this day in secret fasting and prayer, from morning till night. … My soul was ardent in prayer, was enabled to wrestle ardently for myself, for christian friends, and for the church of God. And felt more desire to see the power of God in the conversion of souls, than I have done for a long season. Blessed be God for this season of fasting and prayer! May his goodness always abide with me, and draw my soul to him!” 6


 

“Thursday, Dec. 22. Spent this day alone in fasting and prayer, and reading in God’s word the exercises and deliverances of his children. Had, I trust, some exercise of faith, and realizing apprehension of divine power, grace, and holiness; and also of the unchangeable of God, that he is the same as when he delivered his saints of old out of great tribulation. My soul was sundry times in prayer enlarged for God’s church and people. O that Zion might become the ‘joy of the whole earth!’ It is better to wait upon God with patience, than to put confidence in any thing in this lower world. ‘My soul, wait thou on the Lord;’ for ‘from him comes thy salvation.‘” 7


 

“Tuesday, Jan. 3. …I find that I do not, and it seems I cannot, lead a christian life when I am abroad, and cannot spend time in devotion, christian conversation, and serious meditation, as I should do. Those weeks that I am obliged now to be from home, in order to learn the Indian tongue, are mostly spent in perplexity and barrenness, without much sweet relish of divine things; and I feel myself a stranger at the throne of grace, for want of more frequent and continued retirement. When I return home, and give myself to meditation, prayer, and fasting, a new scene opens to my mind, and my soul longs for mortification, self-denial, humility, and divorcement from all the things of the world. This evening my heart was somewhat warm and fervent in prayer and meditation, so that I was loth to indulge sleep. Continued in those duties till about midnight.” 8


 

“Friday, Jan. 6. Feeling and considering my extreme weakness, and want of grace, the pollution of my soul, and danger of temptations on every side, I set apart this day for fasting and prayer, neither eating nor drinking from evening to evening, beseeching God to have mercy on me. My soul intensely longed, that the dreadful spots and stains of sin might be washed away from it. Saw something of the power and all-sufficiency of God. My soul seemed to rest on his power and grace; longed for resignation to his will, and mortification to all things here below. My mind was greatly fixed on divine things: my resolutions for a life of mortification, continual watchfulness, self-denial, seriousness, and devotion, were strong and fixed; my desires ardent and intense; my conscience tender, and afraid of every appearance of evil. … I solemnly renewed my dedication of myself to God, and longed for grace to enable me always to keep covenant with him. Time appeared very short, eternity near; and a great name, either in or after life, together with all earthly pleasures and profits, but an empty bubble, a deluding dream. 9


 

“Thursday. Dec. 6. … I set apart this day for secret prayer and fasting, to implore the blessing of God on myself, on my poor people, on my friends, and on the church of God. At first I felt a great backwardness to the duties of the day, on account of the seeming impossibility of performing them; but the Lord helped me to break through this difficulty. God was pleased, by the use of means, to give me some clear conviction of my sinfulness, and a discovery of the plague of my own heart, more affecting than what I have of late had. … I enjoyed much more intenseness, fervency, and spirituality, than I expected; God was better to me than my fears. And towards night I felt my soul rejoice, that God is unchangeably happy and glorious; that he will be glorified, whatever becomes of his creatures. I was enabled to persevere in prayer till some time in the evening; at which time I saw so much need of divine help, in every respect, that I knew not how to leave off, and had forgot that I needed food. 10

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You can purchase your own copy of The Life and Diary of David Brainerd by Jonathan Edwards (Kindle versions are just $.99). John Piper has written a short, free e-book on Brainerd that is excellent. You can download it here.

As we get a glimpse into Brainerd’s life of prayer and fasting, the topic of his prayers, and the nature of them—agonizing and wrestling—the shortcomings of our own prayer lives are exposed.

It’s apparent that Brainerd fasted not for the sole sake of doing without food. He fasted as a companion to prayer and devotion. He didn’t ‘diet’ as he fasted (neglecting prayer, amounting to a diet). As he fasted, he travailed and agonized in prayer—to the point of being “all over wet with sweat.”

In Brainerd we see a standard in prayer that is often missing in today’s complacent culture. We also see an example of a life fully yielded to Christ and His kingdom—an example we need in this “me” age in which we live.

Questions:

  • When was the last time you agonized in prayer?
  • Like Brainerd, have your prayers for the advancement of Christ’s kingdom led you to a sweet resignation, and even joy, in thoughts of hardships, distresses, and even death itself in the promotion of it? Do you feel weaned from the world?
  • While fasting and praying, has your soul longed for the stain of sin to be removed from it? Has your conscience become tender, afraid of every appearance of evil?
  • Does time appear short and eternity near? Does a great name along with all earthly pleasures and profits appear empty, a deluding dream?
  • If you were to keep a prayer journal as you fast and pray, what would it look like?

    • If someone else were to read it years from now as we’re reading Brainerd’s, would they read about you wrestling in prayer?
    • Would they read about your surrender to Christ and His kingdom?
    • Would they see your desire for God’s glory above all else?
    • Would they see an unquenchable desire for holiness?

RELATED ARTICLES ON PRAYER

FASTING DAY 18 FROM THE ARCHIVES

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1. Brainerd, David; Edwards, Jonathan (2013-06-04). The Life and Diary of David Brainerd with Notes and Reflections by Jonathan Edwards (Illustrated) (Kindle Locations 1287-1296). . Kindle Edition.

2. Ibid., 742-756

3. Ibid., 849-852

4. Ibid., 932-946

5. Ibid., 1693-1698

6. Ibid., 2110-2136

7. Ibid., 2224-2229

8. Ibid., 2276-2282

9. Ibid., 2293-2298

10. Ibid., 3192-3197

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