Over the years thousands of freshmen have come to Yale. They have studied four years, graduated, and passed into obscurity. Others have left an indelible mark on the university.
David Brainerd was one Yale student who did not “pass to be forgotten like the rest.” Although he died before age thirty, his biographies are still being printed, and his personal journal is considered a classic in American literature.
Brainerd entered Yale at age 21, fearing lest he “should not be able to lead a life of strict religion in the midst of so many temptations,” as he put it. So he began to pray for help. “I was spending some time in prayer and self-examination, when the Lord by His grace so shined into my heart that I enjoyed full assurance of His favor. Passages of God’s Word opened to my soul with divine clearness, power, and sweetness… with clear and certain evidence of its being the Word of God.” This assurance stayed with him throughout his years at Yale.
During Brainerd’s sophomore year, “a great and general awakening spread itself over the college.” He wrote, “I was much quickened and more abundantly engaged.” Concerned with the spiritual welfare of his classmates, he “visited each room in the college, and discussed freely and with great plainness” the gospel of Jesus.
Brainerd became a key figure in the “New Light” movement at Yale, whose ideal was “a living faith preached by a living preacher,” not the dead formality of traditional religion. The Connecticut legislature’s leaders were horrified that “some undergraduate students have made it their practice, day and night, and sometimes for several days together, to go about in the town of New Haven as other towns, and before great numbers of people to teach and exhort, much after the same manner that ministers of the gospel do in their public preaching.” They urged Yale to crack down on these students. Brainerd was eventually expelled from Yale for making a somewhat blunt and unwelcome comment on the spiritual state of one of the faculty.
Within a few months, David Brainerd became a missionary to the Indians, the most despised people of his day. He refused pastorates in comfortable New England towns to go to these tribes, learning their language and living as they did. After two years of hardship, disappointment, and illness, revival began among the Indians.
Brainerd said that once, when he was preaching about the love of God, “I stood amazed at the influence, that seized the audience almost universally, and could compare it to nothing more aptly than the irresistible force of a mighty torrent of swelling deluge…. Old men and women who had been drunken wretches for many years, children, and persons of middle age” began crying ‘Guttummaukalummeh,’ i.e., ‘have mercy on me’…. It might have convinced an atheist, that the Lord was indeed in the place.”
A chief’s daughter was converted along with her husband, “whom she had brought to hear of the Jew who had died also for the Lenni-Lenape Indians.” Husbands were reunited to their wives, and an ancient conjurer was converted, who later became an evangelist. “Love seemed to reign among them,” said Brainerd, “They took each other by the hand with tenderness and affection, as if their hearts were knit together.”
Later, though suffering from the onset of tuberculosis, he continued his work until shortly before his death at age 29. Brainerd had helped to spread revival among the Indians of New York State, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, just as he had at Yale.
Decades later, one of his Indian converts told her grandchildren of the beloved Yankee missionary: “He slept on a deer skin or a bear-skin. He ate bear-meat and samp [corn meal]; then we knew he was not proud…. He was a young man; he was a lovely man; he was a staff to walk with….” (from Beloved Yankee by David Wynbeck, Eeerdmans, 1965 and The Life and Diary of David Brainerd by Jonathan Edwards, Moody Press)