He attempted farming, but on July 12, 1739, he had an experience with God of "unspeakable glory" that gave him a desire to "seek first His Kingdom."
A Connecticut law forbade the appointment of ministers unless they graduated from Harvard, Yale or a European institution, so in 1740, Brainerd entered Yale.
His freshman year, he wrote:
“I was spending some time in prayer and self-examination, when the Lord by His grace so shined into my heart that I enjoyed full assurance of His favor.
Passages of God’s Word opened to my soul with divine clearness, power, and sweetness ... with clear and certain evidence of its being the Word of God.”
As the Great Awakening grew, tensions arose between the New Lights, who supported enthusiastic Holy Spirit led revivals, and the Old Lights, who opposed revivals as fanatical.
This spread onto college campuses, with students focusing on personal salvation, and faculty focusing on the strictures of the Bible covenants.
Great Awakening preachers included:
Ebenezer Pemberton, and
The books Beloved Yankee by David Wynbeck (Eerdmans, 1965) and The Life and Diary of David Brainerd by Jonathan Edwards, (Moody Press), record that during Brainerd’s sophomore year:
“A great and general awakening spread itself over the college.”
“I was much quickened and more abundantly engaged.”
Wanting his classmates to know Jesus, he “visited each room in the college, and discussed freely and with great plainness.”
David Brainerd helped lead the “New Light” movement at Yale.
Rather than dead religious formality of the "Old Lights," he wanted to exhibit “a living faith preached by a living preacher.”
Some in the Connecticut legislature were embarrassed to learn:
“... some undergraduate students have made it their practice, day and night, and sometimes for several days together, to go about in the town of New Haven as other towns, and before great numbers of people to teach and exhort, much after the same manner that ministers of the gospel do in their public preaching.”
They urged the college to reign in these overzealous students.
In 1741, Yale trustees decreed that:
"If any student of this College shall ... say, that the rector ... trustees or tutors are hypocrites, carnal or unconverted men, he shall for the first offense make a public confession in the hall, and for the second offense be expelled."
Brainerd was accused of saying that his tutor, Chauncey Whittelsey, "has no more grace than a chair."
Brainerd was expelled.
In 1742, he obtained a license to preach from an organization of "New Light" evangelicals.
He was offered respectable pastorates in New England towns, but instead became a missionary to the Indians, learning their language and living as they did.
He was supported by the "Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge" to do missionary work among Native Americans.
He also began to display early symptoms of tuberculosis.
For two years, it seemed as if there would be no fruit, but then a revival began.
Brainerd said as he preached to the Indians on God's love:
“I stood amazed at the influence, that seized the audience almost universally, and could compare it to nothing more aptly than the irresistible force of a mighty torrent of swelling deluge ...
Old men and women who had been drunken wretches for many years, children, and persons of middle age began crying 'Guttummaukalummeh,' i.e., ‘have mercy on me' ...
It might have convinced an atheist, that the Lord was indeed in the place.”
A chief’s daughter converted, then her husband “whom she had brought to hear of the Jew who had died also for the Lenni-Lenape Indians.”
Husbands and wives reunited, and an ancient conjurer converted, and later became an evangelist.
“Love seemed to reign among them,” said Brainerd, “They took each other by the hand with tenderness and affection, as if their hearts were knit together.”
David Brainerd worked in a Housatonic Indian settlement near present day Nassau, New York, starting a school for Native American children.
He worked among the Delaware Indians along the Delaware River northeast of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
His interpreter, Moses Tunda Tatamy, helped him minister to Indians along the Susquehanna and Delaware Rivers.
Camping at night, David Brainerd wrote in his Journal:
"FORKS OF DELAWARE, Pennsylvania, Lord's day, July 21, 1745.
Preached to the Indians ... Divine truth seemed to make very considerable impressions and caused the tears to flow freely.
Afterwards I baptized my interpreter and his wife, who were the first I baptized among the Indians ...
Though before he had been a hard drinker ... it is now more than six months since he experienced this change;
in which space of time he has been exposed to strong drink in places where it has been moving free as water; yet has never desired after it ...
He discourses feelingly of the conflicts and consolations of a real Christian."
David Brainerd worked with the Crossweeksung Indians in New Jersey, starting a church which grew to 130 members.
"It is remarkable that God began this work among the Indians at a time when I had the least hope, and to my apprehension the least rational prospect of success."
He wrote in his diary:
"I could have no freedom in the thought of any other business ... All my desire was the conversion of the heathen, and all my hope was in God:
God does not suffer me to please or comfort myself with hopes of seeing friends, returning to my dear acquaintance, and enjoying worldly comforts."
"Here am I, send me; send me to the ends of the earth; send me to the rough, the savage lost of the wilderness ... send me even to death itself, if it be but in your service, and to promote your kingdom."
"I care not where I go, or how I live, or what I endure so that I may save souls. When I sleep I dream of them; when I awake they are first in my thoughts."
"We should always look upon ourselves as God's servants, placed in God's world, to do his work ... not with a design to grow rich and great, but to glorify God, and do all the good we possibly can."
"It is impossible for any rational creature to be happy without acting all for God ... There is nothing in the world worth living for but doing good and finishing God's work, doing the work that Christ did."
"I see nothing else in the world that can yield any satisfaction besides living to God, pleasing Him, and doing his whole will."
"I cared not where or how I lived, or what hardships I went through, so I could but gain souls to Christ."
David Brainerd traveled over 3,000 on horseback in his missionary efforts and often slept in cold, rainy woods.
An Indian convert told her grandchildren of the beloved Yankee missionary:
“He slept on a deer skin or a bear-skin. He ate bear-meat and samp (corn meal); then we knew he was not proud ...
He was a young man; he was a lovely man; he was a staff to walk with."
Regarding his relationship with the Lord, he wrote:
"Let me forget the world and be swallowed up in the desire to glorify God."
"There is a God in heaven who overrules all things for the best; and this is the comfort of my soul."
"Give yourself to prayer, to reading and meditation on divine truths: strive to penetrate to the bottom of them and never be content with a superficial knowledge."
"Oh! one hour with God infinitely exceeds all the pleasures and delights of this lower world."
"I love to live on the brink of eternity."
"Take heed that you faithfully perform the business you have to do in the world, from a regard to the commands of God; and not from an ambitious desire of being esteemed better than others."
"I have received my all from God. Oh, that I could return my all to God."
"If you hope for happiness in the world, hope for it from God, and not from the world."
"It is sweet to be nothing and less than nothing that Christ may be all in all."
"I have appointments with God. From these silences I come forth with spirit refreshed, and with a renewed sense of power. I hear a voice in the silences, and become increasingly aware that it is the voice of God.
"Whatever else you fail of, do not fail of the influence of the Holy Spirit; that is the only way you can handle the consciences of men."
Overcoming lack of food and depression from advanced stages of tuberculosis, sometimes coughing up blood, Brainerd wrote in his diary:
"In the greatest distress that ever I endured having an uncommon kind of hiccough; which either strangled me or threw me into a straining."
Finally too ill to minister, he was taken in by Princeton president Jonathan Edwards, who wrote down his life story.
Published in 1749, An Account of the Life of the Late Reverend Mr. David Brainerd, the book has never been out of print, and has inspired millions, including:
William Carey, missionary to West Bengal, India, who said “Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God”;
Adoniram Judson, missionary to Burma, who said "If you succeed without sacrifice it is because someone has suffered before you. If you sacrifice without success it is because someone will succeed after";
Oswald J. Smith, internationally known pastor, church planter and author, who said “The church that does not evangelize will fossilize," “The fullness of the Spirit is not a question of our getting more of the Holy Spirit, but rather of the Holy Spirit getting more of us,” "I want Thy plan, O God, for my life. I want it; oh, I want it."
Jim Eliot, missionary-martyr to Ecuador, who said "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose" ; and
John Wesley, who wrote: "What can be done to revive the work of God where it is decayed? Let every preacher read carefully over the life of David Brainerd."
In his final illness, David Brainerd stated:
"All my desire was the conversion of the heathen...
I declare, now I am dying, I would not have spent my life otherwise for the whole world."
"I longed to be a flame of fire continually glowing in the divine service and building up of Christ's kingdom to my last and dying breath."
David Brainerd died at the age of 29.
His gravestone notes his work with Indians of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania:
"Sacred to the memory of the
Rev. David Brainerd.
A faithful and laborious
Missionary to the
Tribes of Indians
who died in this town.
Oct. 10, 1747."
Brainerd's life played a role in establishing the colleges of Dartmouth and Princeton.
Jonathan Dickinson actually began Princeton (The College of New Jersey) by teaching classes in his home while David Brainerd was recovering there.
Dartmouth College began in 1748 as a school for Native Americans and colonists, founded by Eleazar Wheelock, who had been inspired by Brainerd's ministry to the Indians.
Yale's Divinity School named a building "Brainerd Hall," the only building named after a student who had been expelled.
David Brainerd wrote:
"Lord, let me make a difference for you that is utterly disproportionate to who I am."
"The Lord help me to press after God forever."
"Oh, how precious is time, and how it pains me to see it slide away, while I do so little to any good purpose. Oh, that God would make me more fruitful."