Two Men or One: Jonathan Edwards and David Brainerd

[This is a guest post by Billy Cash.  Billy is a graduating Th.M. student at Western Seminary and is participating in this summer’s Th.M. seminar on Jonathan Edwards.]

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.

Posted on July 11, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Billy – thanks for taking up the mantle of reading and reporting on this. This work is perhaps one of JE’s most influential writings.

    Brainerd functions for many evangelicals (not necessarily you, Cash) as a totem of idealized Christian devotion which romanticizes the mojo of live fast and die young. “Better to burn out, than fade away,” as Neil Young might put it. But is zeal and faithfulness to be measured this way? (e.g. Didn’t Jesus refuse this path when He resisted the temptation to jump off the temple?) Is it even the predominate model in Scripture? Is it even IN Scripture?

    We can recognize Brainerd’s faithfulness, tenacity, sincerity. But also his faults. I think most pastors, were they to counsel Brainerd, might come well short of writing a hagiography (did JE even give us Brainerd or some Platonic outline of him? JE wasn’t afraid to “embellish”). These pastors might, rightfully, urge him to redirect his passions. It could be argued to him that in failing to care for himself, he wasted years or decades of life that might have been meaningfully given to mission, pastoring, scholarship, etc. That his devotion, might also have hidden a cloud of messianism. Or, would Brainerd have concluded that ministers offering this counsel were contemptible (“graceless as chairs”), as he concluded about others at Yale – which lead to his expulsion.

  2. Thanks for the post Billy! These men surely put every moment of their time and energy into the furtherance of the gospel and seeing Christ built up in others lives. What greater thing is there?

    Many would not (could not) keep up this sort of regiment in managing every minute and counting those (minutes) that didn’t measure up as loss. It seems like Paul’s theology, ‘to die is gain’. It seems as though these men couldn’t wait to be in the presence of the Lord.

    It seems in our culture we are always looking for balance in life and love and ministry. Christ took time out of his schedule to pray and be sure He was following God’s specific plan for His life and not His own agenda – let this cup pass – but He was also quickly back to work of doing what He was sent to do – proclaim the truth.

    I’m with you that I stand extremely convicted by those who live out their lives in such a way as to not waste any of it. Maybe they could have gone on to do more great things if they had lived longer but their lives are still inspiring us today. It’s a hard balance and I don’t think their is counsel that works across the board for each one must live according their design.

    I love the challenge they bring to the table and hopefully I won’t waste it!

  3. Mirche Tanchev

    It is interesting that John Wesley (an Arminian Methodist) recommends David Brainerd (a calvinist to the core?!) and not JE. Many of the first methodists die young but not like John Wesley (1703-1791) who was ready and near to die younger at least 2 times in his life.

  4. I fear that as Americans we live in a culture where men are now lovers of pleasure rather than of God. Certainly there is nothing wrong with pleasure, we are designed to experience it. But when Paul said to do all things in moderation, I think that he included pleasure (read entertainment) in that umbrella statement.

    Yet I think the same could be said for the “work” of ministry. Certainly Paul makes it clear that failing to provide for our family’s needs is a failure of Christian life, so to the extent that we drive ourselves to meet everyone else’s needs but neglect our family’s needs we are failing in our ministry. Now, I doubt that many of us are in danger of failing in such a fashion as a result of too much emphasis on ministry. I think I can confidently say that I am not. But part of the requirements for being an elder is that one manage their household well.

    So I do think that there is solid ground to say that we must find some sort of necessary balance between doing ministry and providing for and caring for our families. Paul’s recommendation that Timothy (no relation) drink some wine for his stomach could be taken to infer that we should take care of our health. I think Brainerd’s view of finding joy in God’s glory might help mitigate our desires for ever more entertainment. I will ponder that after I watch something on Netflix! 😀

  1. Pingback: Elsewhere (07.13.2011) | Near Emmaus

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