Have You Read the Letters of David Brainerd?

Among classic Christian writings are the letters of John Calvin (French Huguenot); Martin Luther (German Reformer); Samuel Rutherford (Scottish Covenanter); and Joseph Alleine (English Puritan). The letters of David Brainerd (1718-1747), American Presbyterian missionary to the Delaware Indians of New Jersey, are perhaps less well-known, but are equally devotionally precious. 

The life of this young man was cut short in the providence of God at the age of 29. It was in the house of Jonathan Edwards, Sr. that Brainerd died of tuberculosis, and it was Edwards who wrote the life of Brainerd based on his diary. This work, the most-reprinted work written by Edwards, was originally published in 1749 under the title An Account of the Life of the Late Rev. David Brainerd. In the genre of Christian biography, it remains a classic (reprinted under a variety titles). Of this work, Henry Martyn once wrote: "Oh! blessed be the memory of that beloved saint! No uninspired writer ever did me so much good." 

From here we have gleaned some extracts from Brainerd's letters (beginning at p. 261) which illustrate the experimental piety of this young man. They savor so sweetly of heaven that they seem sent from Immanuel's Land. Though his time in this vale of tears was short, he was conscious of the preciousness of time, possessing as he did a view of eternity, and made the most of the time given to him in order to answer his chief end, that is, to glorify God. And that was the view of time which he bequeathed to others. This is the counsel of one who tasted eternal bliss while on his earthly pilgrimage, and now sends word to us from heavenly places to be heavenly-minded.

Letter (II) to John Brainerd (Dec. 27, 1743):

I find nothing more conducive to a life of Christianity than a diligent, industrious, and faithful improvement of precious time.

Letter (III) to Israel Brainerd (Jan. 21, 1743/4):

Again, Be careful to make a good improvement of precious time. When you cease from labour, fill up your time in reading, meditation, and prayer: and while your hands are labouring, let your heart be employed, as much as possible, in divine thoughts.

Letter (IV) to a Special Friend (July 31, 1744):

Verily, no hours pass away with so much divine pleasure, as those that are spent in communing with God and our own hearts.

Letter (VI) to John Brainerd (Dec. 25, 1745):

My brother, "the time is short." Oh let us fill it up for God; let us "count the sufferings of this present time" as nothing, if we can but run our race, and finish our course with joy." Let us strive to live to God....I think I do not desire to live one minute for any thing that earth can afford. Oh that I could live for none but God, till my dying moment!

Letter (VII) to Israel Brainerd (Nov. 24, 1746):

Let me intreat you to keep eternity in view, and behave yourself as becomes one that must shortly "give an account of all things done in the body."

Letter (VIII) to Israel Brainerd (June 30, 1747):

It is from the sides of eternity I now address you....But let me tell you, my brother, eternity is another thing than we ordinarily take it to be in a healthful state. Oh how vast and boundless; how fixed and unalterable! Of what infinite importance is it, that we be prepared for eternity!

Letter (IX) to a Young Gentleman, a Candidate for the Ministry (Summer 1747):

How amazing it is that "the living who know that they must die," should notwithstanding put far away the evil day, in a season of health and prosperity; and live at such an awful distance from a familiarity with the grave, and the great concerns beyond it. Especially it may just fill us with surprise, that any whose minds have been divinely enlightened, to behold the important things of eternity as they are, I say, that such should live in this manner. And yet, Sir, how frequently is this the case. How rare are the instances of those who live and act, from day to day, as on the verge of eternity; striving to fill up all their remaining moments in the service and to the honour of the great Master. We insensibly trifle away time, while we seem to have enough of it; and are so strangely amused as in great measure to lose a sense of the holiness and blessed qualifications necessary to prepare us to be inhabitants of paradise. But oh, dear Sir, a dying bed, if we enjoy our reason clearly, will give another view of things.

Spiritual Improvement on a Journey Homeward

"There is no object that we see; no action that we do; no good that we enjoy; no evil that we feel, or fear, but we may make some spiritual advantage of all: and he that makes such improvement is wise, as well as pious" (American Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet, Meditations Divine and Moral I).

From English Anglican Bishop Joseph Hall's Occasional Meditations (1630) to English Puritan John Flavel's Husbandry spiritualized, or, The Heavenly Use of Earthly Things (1674) to Anne Bradstreet's Meditations, we have examples of devotional literature wherein the pious writer takes note of ordinary or extraordinary things around him or her and with meditation finds spiritual application and benefit. 

One such example from the literature of American Presbyterianism comes from the Journal of Samuel Davies. In 1753, he left Virginia to visit England and Scotland. That is when his Journal begins. He often took note of the wind, waves and weather around him as he sailed, and sometimes inspired his poetry, but it was not until he was almost back home, off the coast of North Carolina, in 1755, that he really began to takes notes on what he saw for purposes of spiritual meditation and improvement (George William Pilcher, ed., The Reverend Samuel Davies Abroad: The Diary of a Journey to England and Scotland, 1753-55). 

"Wednesd. Feb. 12. Blessed be God, we had the wellcome [sic] Sight of Land this Morning; and suppose we are on the Coast of N. Carolina, about 20 Leagues S. of Cape Henry. The Wind is contrary; and if a Storm should rise, we might be driven out to Sea again. 

Since my last Remarks, we have had strong Gales and violent Storms of Snow, with violent intense Cold. It has been so cloudy; that we have had no good Observations of 9 Days; and our Reckoning for Longitude being out [editorial note: John Harrison's marine chronometer was not invented until 1761], we knew not where we were. We have been expecting Land, and sounding for Ground, these 14 Days, but were still disappointed 'till this Morning. If the Longitude, which has been so long sought for in vain, could be certainly discovered, it would be vastly to the Advantage of Navigation. 

Tho' my Mind has been in such a confusion, during the Passage, that I have not been able to make any useful Remarks to any Advantage; yet the various Phenomenon of the Ocean have suggested to me such Hints as might be well improved by a spiritual Meditant. And I shall take short Memorandum of them that if I should happen to be disposed for it hereafter, I may improve upon them. 

The majestic Appearance of this vast Collection of Waters, may suggest to use -- the Majesty -- and Power of God, the Author -- and his uncontroulable Government who rules so outragious an Element as he pleases, and stills it with one almighty Mandate, 'Peace, be still,' -- and the Terror of the Conflagration which shall dry it up. 

The alternate Storms and Calms are a picture of the Mutability of human Life on this World -- of the various Frames of a Xn.

As Storms and Hurricanes purifie the Sea, and keep it from corrupting; so Afflications are necessary to purge and sanctifie the People of God, and shall work together for their Good. And so God brings Good out of Evil. 

It is calm in some Parts of the Ocean, while it is tempestous [sic] in others. So, particular Persons -- and Countries, are alternately happy and miserable. 

The Sea in the Ferment of a Storm gives us an Image -- of a Mind agitated with furious Lusts and Passions -- and a riotous Mobb. 

The Ship is our only Safety. So is Xt. to the Souls amid the Ruins of Sin. 

After a Storm and a gloomy Night, how wellcome and chearing is the Return of a Calm, and a the Morning Light! So is the Return of Peace and the Light of God's Countenance to a Soul in Darkness and Distress. 

The Want of an Observation to discover the Latitude, in cloudy Weather, leaves the Mariner perplexed about his Course. Thus perplexed is the Xn. when God withdraws the Light of his Countenance, or when the Meaning of the Scripture is uncertain. 

It is a great Disadvantage to Navigation, and occasions the Loss of many Ships, that the Longitude is not discovered. Thus would it have been, with the moral [sic?] World, if it had not been favoured with the Light of Revelation; and thus is the heathen Part of Mankind at a Loss about the Way to Heaven. 

After a long and dangerous Voyage, how eager are the Seamen looking out for Land; and how rejoiced at the Sight of it! Thus eager are some Xns and thus eager should they all be, to see Immanuel's Land, and arrive there. 

It is a striking Evidence of the Degeneracy of human Nature, that those who traverse this Region of Wonders, who see so many Dangers and Deliverances, are generally tho'tless, vicious and impenitent. 

Such Remarks as these, decorated with lively Images and good Langue, would be both useful and entertaining." 

It was the next day that Samuel Davies arrived in Yorktown, Virginia, and two days following he returned home to his dear wife. 

Pictured: Winslow Homer, Northeaster (1895).

A Gem From Charles Hodge

Just as the Apostle Paul speaks of a distinction between "godly sorrow" and "sorrow of the world" (2 Cor. 7:10), so a distinction can be made between Christian humility and secular or worldly humility. The latter is often portrayed as a virtue that characterizes the good man considered in himself; the former acknowledges the good gifts in a believer in a manner which exalts the grace of God, as Paul does in 1 Cor. 15:10, when he says "...but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me." 

Charles Hodge in his Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 318, helps to flesh out the reality of our cooperation with the grace of God and how that squares with the principles that all good in us is to be ascribed wholly to the grace of God: "Yet not I, i.e. the fact that I laboured so abundantly is not to be referred to me; I was not the labourer — but the grace which was with me....In the one case grace is represented as co-operating with the apostle; in the other, the apostle loses sight of himself entirely, and ascribes every thing to grace. 'It was not I, but the grace of God.' Theologically, there is no difference in these different modes of statement.... True, he did co-operate with the grace of God, but this co-operation was due to grace — so that with the strictest propriety he could say, 'Not I, but the grace of God.'"

Hodge further gives us a definition (p. 317) that is worthy to meditate upon: "Christian humility does not consist in denying what there is of good in us; but in an abiding sense of ill-desert, and in the consciousness that what we have of good is due to the grace of God."

Memento Mori

If there a place that proclaims Memento Mori more loudly and clearly than the Princeton Cemetery, it is unknown to this writer. In the Presidents Plot alone, there are three ministers who died soon after preaching a New Year's sermon on the Scriptural text Jer. 28:16: "This year thou shalt die": Aaron Burr, Sr. (1716-1757); Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758); and Samuel Davies (1723-1761) (the same is true of Jonathan Edwards, Jr. (1745-1801), who is buried elsewhere).

The day of my visit happened to coincide with the anniversary of Charles Hodge's passing into glory. The morning began with a passing rain shower, but the clouds parted and the sun shined. There was time to meditate at the graves of Archibald Alexander, and many others. The weather was very different when Moses Hoge visited the cemetery in 1820. 

"He also visited Princeton College, which, in 1810, had conferred on him, in company with his friend, Mr. [Archibald] Alexander, the degree of S.T.D.; and passed a few days with Dr. Alexander. A cold easterly rain was falling the whole time of his visit. He examined thoroughly the condition of the two institutions, the College and the Seminary, with reference to the two in Prince Edward. He rejoiced in the extended influence of his friend Alexander, and [Samuel] Miller the co-laborer. He could not refrain from a visit to the grave-yard to meditate by the tombs of [Aaron] Burr, [Sr. and Jr.]; [Jonathan] Edwards, [Samuel] Davies, [John] Witherspoon, and [Samuel Stanhope] Smith. As he tarried in that hallowed spot, the bleak wind pierced his diseased frame, and hastened his descent into the valley of death. His heart was elevated as he went from grave to grave, and read the epitaphs of these Presidents of College and teachers of Theology; and his body under the cold rain was chilled in preparation for his own resting in the silent tomb. The conversations of Hoge and Alexander those few days, had there been a hand to record them, laying open the hearts, as by a daguerrotype, of men of such exalted pure principle, so unselfish and so unlike the mass of men - what simplicity of thought, benevolence in feeling, and elevation of piety! -- but there was no man to pen what all men would have been glad to read. Mr. Hoge took his seat in the Assembly - but his fever returned upon him, of a typhus case, and by means of the cold caught in Princeton, became too deeply seated for medicine to remove. He bowed his head meekly to the will of the Head of the Church, and fell asleep in Jesus, on the [5th] of July" (William Henry Foote, Sketches of Virginia, Second Series, p. 373). 

The French Huguenot Charles Drelincourt once wrote (The Christian's Defence Against the Fears of Death, p. 59): 

"And let the most learned Philosophers learn, That the soundest Philosophy is the Meditation of Death.

In short, Whatever be our Employment, Condition, or Age, let us lift up our Minds and Hands unto GOD, to speak to him in the Language of the Prophet DavidLord, let me know my end, and the number of my days, that I may know how long I am to live. Or of MosesSo teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto Wisdom." 

Today is always a good day to consider one's standing before God (Rom. 13:11). Memento mori

Directions for Observance of the Lord's Day

In his Brief Compend of Bible Truth (1846), pp. 191-193, Archibald Alexander gives five directions to guide the Christian in the proper observance of the Lord's Day, or Christian Sabbath, which merit repeating today. 

"1. Let the whole day be consecrated to the service of God, especially in acts of worship, public and private. This weekly recess from worldly cares and avocations, affords a precious opportunity for the study of God's word, and for the examination of our own hearts. Rise early, and let your first thoughts and aspirations be directed to heaven. Meditate much and profoundly on divine things, and endeavour to acquire a degree of spirituality on this day which will abide with you through the whole week.

2. Consider the Lord's day an honour and delight. Let your heart be elevated in holy joy, and your lips be employed in the high praises of God. This day more resembles heaven, than any other portion of our time; and we should endeavour to imitate the worship of heaven, according to that petition of the Lord's prayer — 'Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.' Never permit the idea to enter your mind, that the sabbath is a burden. It is a sad case, when professing Christians are weary of this sacred rest, and say, like some of old,  'When will the sabbath be gone, that we may sell corn, and set forth wheat?' As you improve this day, so probably will you be prospered all the week.

3. Avoid undue rigour, and Pharisaic scrupulosity; for nothing renders the Lord's day more odious. Still keep in view the great end of its institution; and remember that the sabbath was instituted for the benefit of man, and not to be a galling yoke. The cessation from worldly business and labour is not for its own sake, as if there was any thing morally good in inaction, but we are called off from secular pursuits on this day, that we may have a portion of our time to devote uninterruptedly to the worship of God. Let every thing then be so arranged in your household, beforehand, that there may be no interruption to religious duties, and to attendance on the means of grace. There was undoubtedly a rigour in the law of the sabbath, as given to the Jews, which did not exist before; and which does not apply to Christians. They were forbidden to kindle a fire, or to go out of their place on the sabbath; and for gathering a few sticks, a presumptuous transgressor was stoned to death. These regulations are not now in force.

As divine knowledge is the richest acquisition within our reach, and as this knowledge is to be found in the word of God, let us value this day, as affording all persons an opportunity of hearing and reading the word. And as the fourth commandment requires the heads of families to cause the sabbath to be observed by all under their control, or within their gates, it is very important that domestic and culinary arrangements should be so ordered, that servants and domestics should not be deprived of the opportunity of attending on the word and worship of God which this day affords, by being employed in preparing superfluous feasts, as is often the case. The sabbath is more valuable to the poor and unlearned than to others, because it is almost the only leisure which they have, and because means of public instruction are on that day afforded them by the preaching of the gospel. If we possess any measure of the true spirit of devotion, this sacred day will be most welcome to our hearts; and we will rejoice when they say, 'Let us go unto the house of the Lord.' To such a soul, the opportunity of enjoying spiritual communion with God will be valued above all price, and be esteemed as the richest privilege which creatures can enjoy upon earth.

4. Whilst you conscientiously follow your own sense of duty in the observance of the rest of the sabbath, be not ready to censure all who may differ from you in regard to minute particulars, which are not prescribed or commanded in the word of God. The Jews accused our Lord as a sabbath-breaker, on many occasions, and would have put him to death for a supposed violation of this law, had he not escaped out of their hands. Beware of indulging yourself in any practice which may have the effect of leading others to disregard the rest and sanctity of the sabbath. Let not your liberty in regard to what you think may be done, be a stumblingblock to cause weaker brethren to offend, or unnecessarily to give them pain, or to lead them to entertain an unfavourable opinion of your piety.

5. As, undoubtedly, the celebration of public worship and gaining divine instruction from the divine oracles, is the main object of the institution of the Christian sabbath, let all be careful to attend on the services of the sanctuary on this day. And let the heart be prepared by previous prayer and meditation for a participation in public worship, and while in the more immediate presence of the Divine Majesty, let all the people fear before him, and with reverence adore and praise his holy name. Let all vanity, and curious gazing, and slothfulness, be banished from the house of God. Let every heart be lifted up on entering the sanctuary, and let the thoughts be carefully restrained from wandering on foolish or worldly objects, and resolutely recalled when they have begun to go astray. Let brotherly love be cherished, when joining with others in the worship of God."

The Heaven of the Bible

Have you looked for a book about heaven that is grounded in what we know from the Bible and avoids mere wishful speculation beyond what Scripture teaches? Just such a volume was written in the 19th century by James Madison McDonald (1812-1876): My Father's House; or, The Heaven of the Bible (1855). 

The author considers it an important subject, and so should we. He emphasizes how meditation on heaven is of great value to the Christian because this is where our true citizenship resides as we pass through this earthly vale. And he recognizes the many misconceptions of heaven and the afterlife which prevailed in his day (and ours), in part because of occultic ideas. 

We are reminded by the author of what heaven is not, or rather, what it lacks - there will be no more pain, no more sorrow, no more night, no more death, and no temple. Indeed, one characteristic of heaven is that of all things that accompany the joy of the presence of God there will be no lack at all. 

He addresses who will be in heaven, and who will not. He examines the issue of children who die in infancy. He responds to the question of whether the saints will know one another in heaven (also addressed by John Aspinwall Hodge here).

Several of our Log College Press authors are cited in this volume, among them Archibald Alexander, J.W. Alexander, Charles Hodge, William Armstrong Dod and Gardiner Spring. He acknowledges also the great writings on heaven that precede him by men such as Richard Baxter and John Howe. 

Great pains are taken to speak to what the Bible teaches, and to leave off where the Bible does so. Not all is revealed at present, but all shall be revealed in heaven, and that is part of the reason we are to stick to the Bible on our pilgrimage to heaven. If you have sought a devotional treatise from an American Presbyterian, and fellow pilgrim, about the heaven of the Bible, which avoids the vain imaginations of men, download this book for your prayerful study and meditation.