Two Men or One: Jonathan Edwards and David Brainerd
It is not entirely clear how close Jonathan Edwards was with David Brainerd prior to his coming to live with him on May 28, 1747. Edwards certainly knew of Brainerd, whose reputation, especially in his latter years, preceded him. Edwards had met him on a couple of different occasions and they were both involved with the Scottish organization that endeavored for the evangelism of the Indians. Edwards also counseled Brainerd in his attempt to be reinstated to Yale after his dismissal for speaking ill of Mr. Whittelsey, a tutor at the time. Needless to say, Edwards was very impressed and held Brainerd in high regard even before his lodging at the Edwards estate prior to his death. I think it is possible he regarded Brainerd so highly because of the similarities to himself he perceived within him. In reading The Diary of David Brainerd one might begin to think that Edwards and Brainerd were long lost twins.
In Edwards preface he writes that a particular weakness of Brainerd “was his being excessive in his labors; not taking due care to proportion his fatigues to his strength.” I found it ironic Edwards would call this a weakness because of his own struggle in this area. Indeed, this weakness was, I believe, was to be the undoing of Brainerd. In college he was sent home because he studied so much and ate so little, that he became weak, disordered, and sickly. Many times, as a missionary he would ride for days, spitting up blood and being extremely weary, only to spend the entire next day fasting and preaching. Like Edwards, Brainerd did not seem to have a capacity for rest unless a bedridden fever forced him to do so. It is clear that Edwards struggled with this same weakness, many times finding himself so physically broken he could not get out of bed. He does leave Brainerd, and possibly himself an out, saying that “Providence…made it extremely difficult for [Brainerd] to avoid doing more than his strength would well admit of; [because] his circumstances…were such that great fatigues and hardships were altogether inevitable.” Brainerd, and Edwards, seemed always to feel the weight of eternity, the pressing reality that a meeting with the Almighty God was just around the corner. I wish it did more on me.
This points to a second similarity: both were concerned with redeeming the time for the glory of God. Not one second, of one minute, of one day was to be wasted. Both of these men were keenly aware that time was a precious stewardship given by the Lord, and to waste it in frivolous worldly adventures was sinful. Edwards had “Resolved, Never to lose one moment of time, but to improve it in the most profitable way I possibly can.” He wrote of Brainerd that he took constant care “from day to day not to lose time but to improve it all for God.” On one occasion Brainerd wrote that he “was obliged to spend time in company and conversation that was unprofitable. Nothing lies heavier upon me that the misimprovement of time.” This was perhaps one of the more challenging aspects of these men’s lives for me. After reading this diary I have been convicted about how fruitless much of my time may be.
There were two similarities in their theology that I found interesting, especially since their identical conclusions seemed to be formed independently of each other. The first was the distinction between self-love and holy righteous love to God. Edwards speaks directly to this in his work The End For Which God Created the World. When teaching those in his care, Brainerd says that he also “took pains to describe the difference between a regular and irregular self-love; the one consisting with supreme love to God, but the other not; the former uniting God’s glory and the soul’s happiness that they become one common interest, but the latter disjoining and separating God’s glory and man’s happiness, seeking the latter with a neglect of the former.” God’s glory and man’s joy were not at odds. They were intrinsically woven together. The type of love that separated them was an inappropriate self-love that made man the object of his own desires. In all things, both of these men perceived that the glory of God was the highest ideal to be sought and the greatest fountain of man’s delight.
Secondly, having both participated in and seen the amazing work of revival, they went to great lengths to distinguish between true and false marks of religion. After seeing emotional stirrings of a revival among a group of Indians Brainerd was working with he wrote, “I must confess that I had often seen encouraging appearances among the Indians elsewhere prove wholly abortive…” Towards the end of his life, when experience, wisdom, and discernment had time to mature, he wrote, “Oh, the ignorance of the world! How are some empty outward forms, that may all be entirely selfish, mistaken for true religion, infallible evidences of it! The Lord pity a deluded world!” Like Brainerd, Edwards knew that emotional stirrings were not the definitive mark of a true work of God. Both men had on occasion, it seemed, placed more hope in immediate appearances. This led Edwards to write several great works on this very issue.
Indeed there are more similarities that could be provided. Both were Calvinist to the core, seeing conversion as an amazing work of God. Both willingly submitted to the providence of God in all good and bad circumstances in which they found themselves. Though a missionary, Brainerd had the heart of a pastor. Both men had a heart to see the Indians converted, and were angered when they saw them being taken advantage of. In the end, both were mighty instruments in the hand of God, fully submitted to his divine providence, and completely desirous for the glory of his name. The strict discipline and regiment they both applied to their lives was challenging, to say the least. Here were men who even after all their prayers, regimented schedules, and hatred for sin still felt as if they did not do enough.
The question that haunted me while I read Brainerd’s diary, and which I pose to the reader of this post, is what types of qualities and characteristics are indispensable for the man/woman of God, especially those called to vocational ministry? The lives of these men challenged me because I see such a discrepancy in the way I live my life today. Were some of their expectations and regimented schedules unrealistic, or have we become lazy? I am haunted by the fact that the type of devotion I see in these men, seems to be lacking in my own life.