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.

Improvement of Time

Philip Lindsley (1786-1855) was a minister and educator who served as acting president of the College of New Jersey (Princeton), 1822-1824; and as the first president of the University of Nashville, Tennessee (1824-1850). 

His Works in three volumes (comprising of Educational Discourses, Sermons and Religious Discourses, and Miscellaneous Discourses and Essays) are filled with much wisdom and piety on topics that include (in Vol. 2 alone) Sabbath-keeping, self-examination, the necessity of a learned ministry, the pastoral office, evangelical repentance, and more. 

Towards the end of 1822, Lindsley gave two discourses at the chapel of the College of New Jersey on the subject of the improvement of time. These discourses were delivered just after a student had passed away the previous month (whose eulogy was given by Archibald Alexander), and another, the previous February, which were rare events at the College. 

Lindsley took occasion to encourage his students on the first Sabbath of December, 1822, on the basis of Psalm 90:12 ("So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom"), to consider the brevity of life, and the need for sobriety and industry, and to be content to "use the world, but abuse it not." He also reminded them to remember to seek first the kingdom of God, and that this life is preparation for the next. 

His next discourse, given on the last Sabbath of December, 1822, and taken from Eph. 5:16 ("Redeeming the time"), reminded his students of the value of time - once lost, it is not to be found again, an appropriate theme for the end of one year and the beginning of another. The opposite of redeeming the time is wasting time. This he warned his hearers against, and preached equally to himself: "We have all erred in this matter. There is not an individual in this house; —there is not a child of Adam on earth who has not abused time. Nay more, there is not a day in which the best of men, when they review, at evening, their conduct during the day, do not find abundant cause of humiliation and repentance before God for their unfruitfulness, their sloth, or their forgetfulness of Him who has solemnly charged them to occupy till he come." 

He then proceeded to direct his students on how to improve the time given to them - in a word, or two, to make religion the "every-day work" of the Christian. Also, to acquire knowledge in the service of God. As students, this was their present business. To them, he said: "Time is the talent committed to you to improve to the very utmost of your ability, according to the opportunities and advantages enjoyed." While giving general guidance about how to study aright, he pointed his hearers first and foremost to the study of the Bible, the class book of the College, and "the richest treasure ever bestowed by heaven on man. The Bible — inestimable, inexhaustible fountain of truth, and wisdom, and purity, and consolation!" There is a lesson here for all of us that is timeless, but requires us to take time to heed it.