“Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord…their works follow them” (Revelation 14:13)
David Brainerd (1718-1747) was an 18th century American missionary to the native American Indians of New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Robert Murray M’Cheyne (1813-1843) was a 19th century Scottish minister in Dundee. These two men lived in different centuries, were born in different countries, ministered in differing circumstances and therefore, in some senses, had little in common. However, in another sense they had much in common: each were called to be ambassadors for Christ, gave much in His service, died at 29 years of age, yet were to greatly influence generations to come.
David Brainerd was born in Haddam, Connecticut, on 20 April 1718. His father died when he was 9 and his mother died when he was 14. Brainerd was converted when he was 21 on 12 July 1739. Of this experience he wrote, “Attempting to pray … for nearly half an hour: then, as I was walking in a dark thick grove, unspeakable glory (1 Peter 1:8) seemed to open to the view and apprehension of my soul.” (P.69)
In September of the same year, he enrolled in Yale University in order to become a Minister, only to be expelled a year before his graduation, for suggesting that his tutor, “had no more grace than a chair.” The normal ministerial route was no longer open to him, so he became a missionary.
On 1 April 1743, Brainerd began his mission to the Native Americans. In many respects, Brainerd considered himself to be a failure. He was afflicted by ill health, loneliness, self-doubt and extreme depression, yet as he preached to small numbers of relatively inattentive Indians, he had a strong desire to reach the lost with the Gospel of Christ.
Wonderfully, in the summer of 1745, revival broke out amongst the Indians of Crossweeksung, New Jersey. Brainerd recorded in his diary of 6 August 1745, “In the morning I discoursed to the Indians at the house where we lodged. Many of them were then much affected and appeared surprisingly tender, so that a few words about their souls’ concerns would cause the tears to flow freely, and produce many sobs and groans. In the afternoon, they being returned to the place where I had usually preached among them, I again discoursed to them there….There were scarce three in forty that could refrain from tears and bitter cries. They all, as one, seemed in an agony of soul to obtain an interest in Christ…It was surprising to see how their hearts seemed to be pierced with the tender and melting invitations of the gospel, when there was not a word of terror spoken to them. It was very affecting to see the poor Indians, who the other day were hallooing and yelling in their idolatrous feasts and drunken frolics, now crying to God with such importunity for an interest in His dear Son!” (P 84-86)
Brainerd taught the Indian converts Christian doctrine, which impacted greatly upon their lives. “Much of the goodness of God has appeared in their acquirement of knowledge, both in religion and in the affairs of common life. There has been a wonderful thirst after Christian knowledge prevailing among them in general…They have also taken pains, and appeared remarkably apt in learning to sing Psalm-tunes, and are now able to sing with a good degree of decency in the worship of God. They have also acquired a considerable degree of useful knowledge in the affairs of common life. They now appear like rational creatures, fit for human society, free from that savage roughness and brutish stupidity, which rendered them very disagreeable in their pagan state.” (P.478).
Brainerd died of tuberculosis, in the house of Jonathan Edwards, at 29 years of age on 9 October 1747. His life was short, only 8 years as a believer and 4 of those as a missionary. His life has had quite an impact over the years, primarily as Jonathan Edwards publishing of Brainerd’s diary in 1749. His life is a testimony to the Lord’s power in using a sick, lonely, discouraged believer as an ambassador for Christ and, ultimately the saving of perhaps several hundred Indians.
Robert Murray M’Cheyne
The impact of Brainerd’s ministry on the church at large, through his diary, is impossible to measure. Many well-known ministers and missionaries bore testimony to the great encouragement Brainerd has been to their lives and ministries, including William Carey, David Livingston, Jim Elliot and Robert Murray M’Cheyne.
Robert Murray M’Cheyne was born in Edinburgh on 21 May 1813. He was the youngest of five children and raised in an outwardly religious home. M’Cheyne was academically able and entered the University of Edinburgh at 14. However, he was given as much to the social side of University life – what he later considered to be worldliness, as much as he was to his studies.
The death of his eldest brother David, who died from a fever, at the age of 27, was to profoundly impact M’Cheyne. His brother had been converted and had been given to prayer for his family, “the death of his brother, with all its circumstances, was used by the Holy Spirit to produce a deep impression on Robert’s soul.” (P.5)
M’Cheyne was awakened and began reading sound Christian literature, including the Westminster Standards, the Life of Henry Martyn and Edward’s diary of Brainerd; “June 27 – Life of David Brainerd. Most wonderful man! What conflicts, what depressions, desertions, strength, advancement, victories…I cannot express what I think when I think of thee. Tonight, more set upon missionary enterprise than ever.” (P.18)
He sensed a call to the ministry and studied divinity in Edinburgh under Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847). At this time, he became well acquainted with fellow students, brothers Horatius (1808-89) and Andrew (1810-1892) Bonar and George Smeaton (1814-1889), amongst others. They were godly, gifted young men, whom the Lord raised up to serve the Church in Scotland. Andrew Bonar was to write M’Cheyne’s biography, “Memoir & Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne,” not long after his death, by which so many have become acquainted with M’Cheyne, his life, letters and sermons.
Following the completion of his studies in 1835, M’Cheyne became an assistant minister in Larbert and Dunipace Church of Scotland, before accepting the call to St. Peter’s Church of Scotland in Dundee at 23 years of age. He was to remain in that charge for the remainder of his short life, although he travelled and preached extensively. His preaching was blessed of the Lord in preparing the ground for revival, which was to come as M’Cheyne was away from the pulpit for 8 months, as part of a mission of enquiry to the Jewish people, from which arose a Jewish mission, based in Budapest.
M’Cheyne was a diligent pastor, engaging in early morning meditation and prayer for two hours and visiting many homes each day; “September 26 1838 – Good visiting day. Twelve families; many of them go nowhere. It is a great thing to be well furnished by meditation and prayers before setting out; it makes you a far more full and faithful witness.” (P.60)
Above all else, M’Cheyne was a Christ-centred preacher. In a sermon on Psalm 90:14, on the importance of flying to Christ without delay, M’Cheyne stated, “Some of you may have seen how short life is in those around you. “Your Fathers, where are they? And the prophets, do they live forever?” How many friends have you lying in the grave! Some of you have more friends lying in the grave than in this world. They were carried away, “as with a flood,” and we are fast hastening after them. In a little while the church where you sit will be filled with new worshipers – a new voice will lead the Psalm – a new man of God fill the pulpit. It is an absolute certainty that, in a few years, all of you who read this will be lying in the grave. Oh, what need, then, to fly to Christ without delay!” (P585-586)
M’Cheyne died of typhus on 25 March 1843, a few weeks short of his thirtieth birthday. He was a man of outstanding gifts, which he put to use in service to the Lord’s cause. One of his most famous quotes well summarises his Christ-centred ministry, which in turn we would do well to heed, “for every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ.” (P.293)
What lessons can we learn from the lives of Brainerd and M’Cheyne? Firstly, 29 years would seem to us to be a very short life, yet lived for Christ, the influence of a life, whatever its length, may continue for many years to come. It is doubtless true, that neither Brainerd nor M’Cheyne could have fathomed that their lives would be the subject of spiritual discussion in 2018, yet “their works follow them,” (Revelation 14:13).
Secondly, whatever our gifts may be, a life lived for Christ in whatever century, country or calling we may have is a life lived well and of eternal significance, as Brainerd and M’Cheyne’s lives clearly demonstrate. Thirdly, perhaps the value of writing a diary, particularly in relation to our spiritual experiences, is to be brought to the fore here. Most of us would never be the subject of written biographies, yet we may underestimate the value, for ourselves or others, in keeping such a record.
Finally, both Brainerd and M’Cheyne experienced great spiritual awakening in their ministries, while we live in a day and age where the Church has fallen to a low ebb. Emphasis is put upon gimmicks and church surveys, which seek to discover what the community wants from the church. We have lost confidence in the Gospel. Our churches are in desperate need of awakening and it is our duty to pray God to raise up more and many for faithful ministries like those of David Brainerd and Robert Murray M’Cheyne, “Will You not revive us again, that Your people may rejoice in You?” (Psalm 85:6)
The Life & Diary of David Brainerd, Jonathan Edwards
Robert Murray M’Cheyne: Memoir and Remains, Andrew Bonar