THERE are two ways of representing and recommending true religion and virtue to the world; the one, by doctrine and precept; the other, by instance and example; both are abundantly used in the Holy Scriptures. Not only are the grounds, nature, design, and importance of religion clearly exhibited in the doctrines of Scripture--its exercise and practice plainly delineated, and abundantly enforced, in its commands and counsels--but there we have many excellent examples of religion, in its power and practice, set before us, in the histories both of the Old and New Testament.
JESUS CHRIST, the great Prophet of God, when he came to be “the light of the world”--to teach and enforce true religion, in a greater degree than ever had been before--made use of both these methods. In his doctrine, he not only declared the mind and will of God--the nature and properties of that virtue which becomes creatures of our make and in our circumstances--more clearly and fully than ever it had been before; and more powerfully enforced it by what he declared of the obligations and inducements to holiness; but he also in his own practice gave a most perfect example of the virtue he taught. He exhibited to the world such an illustrious pattern of humility, divine love, discreet zeal, self-denial, obedience, patience, resignation, fortitude, meekness, forgiveness, compassion, benevolence, and universal holiness, as neither men nor angels ever saw before.
God also in his providence has been wont to make use of both these methods to hold forth light to mankind, and inducements to their duty, in all ages. He has from time to time raised up eminent teachers, to exhibit and bear testimony to the truth by their doctrine, and to oppose the errors, darkness, and wickedness of the world; and he has also raised up some eminent persons who have set bright examples of that religion which is taught and prescribed in the word of God; whose examples have, in the course of divine providence, been set forth to public view. These have a great tendency both to engage the attention of men to the doctrines and rules taught, and also to confirm and enforce them; especially when these bright examples have been exhibited in the same persons who have been eminent teachers. Hereby the world has had opportunity to see a confirmation of the truth, efficacy, and amiableness of the religion taught, in the practice of the same persons who have most clearly and forcibly taught it; and above all, when these bright examples have been set by eminent teachers, in a variety of unusual circumstances of remarkable trial; and when God has withal remarkably distinguished them with wonderful success of their instructions and labours.
Such an instance we have in the excellent person, whose life is published in the following pages. His example is attended with a great variety of circumstances tending to engage the attention of religious people, especially in these parts of the world. He was one of distinguished natural abilities; as all are sensible, who had acquaintance with him. As a minister of the gospel, he was called to unusual services in that work; and his ministry was attended with very remarkable and unusual events. His course of religion began before the late times of extraordinary religious commotion; yet he was not an idle spectator, but had a near concern in many things that passed at that time. He had a very extensive acquaintance with those who have been the subjects of the late religious operations, in places far distant, in people of different nations, education, manners, and customs. He had a peculiar opportunity of acquaintance with the false appearances and counterfeits of religion; was the instrument of a most remarkable awakening, a wonderful and abiding alteration and moral transformation of subjects who peculiarly render the change rare and astonishing.
In the following account, the reader will have an opportunity to see, not only what were the external circumstances and remarkable incidents of the life of this person, and how he spent his time from day to day, as to his external behaviour; but also what passed in his own heart. Here he will see the wonderful change he experienced in his mind and disposition, the manner in which that change was brought to pass, how it continued, what were its consequences in his inward frames, thoughts, affections, and secret exercises, through many vicissitudes and trials, for more than eight years.
He will also see, how all ended at last, in his sentiments, frame, and behaviour, during a long season of the gradual and sensible approach of death, under a lingering illness; and what were the effects of his religion in dying circumstances, or in the last stages of his illness. The account being written, the reader may have opportunity at his leisure to compare the various parts of the story, and deliberately to view and weigh the whole, and consider how far what is related is agreeable to the dictates of right reason and the holy word of God.
I am far from supposing, that Mr. Brainerd’s inward exercises and experiences, or his external conduct, were free from all imperfections. The example of Jesus Christ is the only example that ever existed in human nature as altogether perfect; which therefore is a rule to try all other examples by; and the dispositions, frames, and practices of others must be commended and followed no further, than they were followers of Christ.
There is one thing in Mr. Brainerd, easily discernible by the following account of his life, which may be called an imperfection in him, which--though not properly an imperfection of a moral nature, yet--may possibly be made an objection against the extraordinary appearances of religion and devotion in him, by such as seek for objections against every thing that can be produced in favour of true vital religion; and that is, that he was, by his constitution and natural temper, so prone to melancholy and dejection of spirit. There are some who think that all serious strict religion is a melancholy thing, and that what is called christian experience, is little else besides melancholy vapours disturbing the brain, and exciting enthusiastic imaginations. But that Mr. Brainerd’s temper or constitution inclined him to despondency, is no just ground to suspect his extraordinary devotion to be only the fruit of a warm imagination. I doubt not but that all who have well observed mankind, will readily grant, that not all who by their natural constitution or temper are most disposed to dejection, are the most susceptive of lively and strong impressions on their imagination, or the most subject to those vehement affections, which are the fruits of such impressions. But they must well know, that many who are of a very gay and sanguine natural temper are vastly more so; and if their affections are turned into a religious channel, are much more exposed to enthusiasm, than many of the former. As to Mr. Brainerd in particular, notwithstanding his inclination to despondency, he was evidently one of those who usually are the furthest from a teeming imagination; being of a penetrating genius, of clear thought, of close reasoning, and a very exact judgment; as all know, who knew him. As he had a great insight into human nature, and was very discerning and judicious in general; so he excelled in his judgment and knowledge in divinity, but especially in things appertaining to inward experimental religion. He most accurately distinguished between real, solid piety, and enthusiasm; between those affections that are rational and scriptural--having their foundation in light and judgment--and those that are founded in whimsical conceits, strong impressions on the imagination, and vehement emotions of the animal spirits. He was exceedingly sensible of men’s exposedness to these things; how much they had prevailed, and what multitudes had been deceived by them; of their pernicious consequences, and the fearful mischief they had done in the christian world. He greatly abhorred such a religion, and was abundant in bearing testimony against it, living and dying; and was quick to discern when any thing of that nature arose, though in its first buddings, and appearing under the most fair and plausible disguises. He had a talent for describing the various workings of this imaginary, enthusiastic religion--evincing its falseness and vanity, and demonstrating the great difference between this and true spiritual devotion--which I scarcely ever knew equalled in any person.
His judiciousness did not only appear in distinguishing among the experiences of others, but also among the various exercises of his own mind; particularly in discerning what within himself was to be laid to the score of melancholy; in which he exceeded all melancholy persons that ever I was acquainted with. This was doubtless owing to a peculiar strength in his judgment; for it is a rare thing indeed, that melancholy people are well sensible of their own disease, and fully convinced that such and such things are to be ascribed to it, as are its genuine operations and fruits. Mr. Brainerd did not obtain that degree of skill at once, but gradually; as the reader may discern by the following account of his life. In the former part of his religious course, he imputed much of that kind of gloominess of mind and those dark thoughts to spiritual desertion, which in the latter part of his life he was abundantly sensible were owing to the disease of melancholy; accordingly he often expressly speaks of them in his diary as arising from this cause. He often in conversation spoke of the difference between melancholy and godly sorrow, true humiliation and spiritual desertion, and the great danger of mistaking the one for the other, and the very hurtful nature of melancholy; discoursing with great judgment upon it, and doubtless much more judiciously for what he knew by his own experience.
But besides what may be argued from Mr. Brainerd’s strength of judgment, it is apparent in fact, that he was not a person of a warm imagination. His inward experiences, whether in his convictions or his conversion, and his religious views and impressions through the course of his life, were not excited by strong and lively images formed in his imagination; nothing at all appears of it in his diary from beginning to end. He told me on his death-bed, that although once, when he was very young in years and experience, he was deceived into a high opinion of such things--looking on them as superior attainments in religion, beyond what he had ever arrived at--was ambitious of them, and earnestly sought them; yet he never could obtain them. He moreover declared, that he never in his life had a strong impression on his imagination, of any outward form, external glory, or any thing of that nature; which kind of impressions abound among enthusiastic people.
As Mr. Brainerd’s religious impressions, views, and affections in their nature were vastly different from enthusiasm; so were their effects in him as contrary to it as possible. Nothing like enthusiasm puffs men up with a high conceit of their own wisdom, holiness, eminence, and sufficiency; and makes them so bold, forward, assuming, and arrogant. But the reader will see, that Mr. Brainerd’s religion constantly disposed him to a most mean thought of himself, an abasing sense of his own exceeding sinfulness, deficiency, unprofitableness, and ignorance; looking on himself as worse than others; disposing him to universal benevolence and meekness; in honour to prefer others, and to treat all with kindness and respect. And when melancholy prevailed, and though the effects of it were very prejudicial to him, yet it had not the effects of enthusiasm; but operated by dark and discouraging thoughts of himself, as ignorant, wicked, and wholly unfit for the work of the ministry, or even to be seen among mankind. Indeed, at the time forementioned, when he had not learned well to distinguish between enthusiasm and solid religion, he joined, and kept company with, some who were tinged with no small degree of the former. For a season he partook with them in a degree of their dispositions and behaviours; though, as was observed before, he could not obtain those things wherein their enthusiasm itself consisted, and so could not become like them in that respect, however he erroneously desired and sought it. But certainly it is not at all to be wondered at, that a youth, a young convert, one who had his heart so swallowed up in religion, and who so earnestly desired his flourishing state--and who had so little opportunity for reading, observation, and experience--should for a while be dazzled and deceived with the glaring appearances of mistaken devotion and zeal; especially considering the extraordinary circumstances of that day. He told me on his death-bed, that while he was in these circumstances he was out of his element, and did violence to himself, while complying, in his conduct, with persons of a fierce and imprudent zeal, from his great veneration of some whom he looked upon as better than himself. So that it would be very unreasonable, that his error at that time should nevertheless be esteemed a just ground of prejudice against the whole of his religion, and his character in general; especially considering, how greatly his mind soon changed, and how exceedingly he afterwards lamented his error, and abhorred himself for his imprudent zeal and misconduct at that time, even to the breaking of his heart, and almost to the overbearing of his natural strength; and how much of a christian spirit he showed, in condemning himself for that misconduct, as the reader will see.
What has been now mentioned of Mr. Brainerd, is so far from being a just ground of prejudice against what is related in the following account of his life, that, if duly considered, it will render the history the more serviceable. For by his thus joining for a season with enthusiasts, he had a more full and intimate acquaintance with what belonged to that sort of religion; and so was under better advantages to judge of the difference between that, and what he finally approved, and strove to his utmost to promote, in opposition to it. And hereby the reader has the more to convince him that Mr. Brainerd, in his testimony against it, and the spirit and behaviour of those who are influenced by it, speaks from impartial conviction, and not from prejudice; because therein he openly condemns his own former opinion and conduct, on account of which he had greatly suffered from his opposers, and for which some continued to reproach him as long as he lived.
Another imperfection in Mr. Brainerd, which may be observed in the following account of his life, was his being excessive in his labours; not taking due care to proportion his fatigues to his strength. Indeed the case was very often such, by the seeming calls of Providence, as made it extremely difficult for him to avoid doing more than his strength would well admit of; yea, his circumstances and the business of his mission among the Indians were such, that great fatigues and hardships were altogether inevitable. However, he was finally convinced, that he had erred in this matter, and that he ought to have taken more thorough care, and been more resolute to withstand temptations to such degrees of labour as injured his health; and accordingly warned his brother, who succeeds him in his mission, to be careful to avoid this error.
Besides the imperfections already mentioned, it is readily allowed, that there were some imperfections which ran through his whole life, and were mixed with all his religious affections and exercises; some mixture of what was natural with that which was spiritual; as it evermore is in the best saints in this world. Doubtless, natural temper had some influence in the religious exercises and experiences of Mr. Brainerd, as there most apparently was in the exercises of devout David, and the apostles Peter, John, and Paul. There was undoubtedly very often some influence of his natural disposition to dejection, in his religious mourning; some mixture of melancholy with truly godly sorrow and real christian humility; some mixture of the natural fire of youth with his holy zeal for God; and some influence of natural principles mixed with grace in various other respects, as it ever was and ever will be with the saints while on this side heaven. Perhaps none were more sensible of Mr. Brainerd’s imperfections than he himself; or could distinguish more accurately than he, between what was natural and what was spiritual. It is easy for the judicious reader to observe, that his graces ripened, the religious exercises of his heart became more and more pure, and he more and more distinguished in his judgment, the longer he lived: he had much to teach and purify him, and he failed not to make his advantage.
But notwithstanding all these imperfections, I am persuaded every pious and judicious reader will acknowledge, that what is here set before him is indeed a remarkable instance of true and eminent christian piety in heart and practice--tending greatly to confirm the reality of vital religion, and the power of godliness--that it is most worthy of imitation, and many ways calculated to promote the spiritual benefit of the careful observer.
It is fit the reader should be aware, that what Mr. Brainerd wrote in his diary, out of which the following account of his life is chiefly taken, was written only for his own private use, and not to get honour and applause in the world, nor with any design that the world should ever see it, either while he lived or after his death; excepting some few things that he wrote in a dying state, after he had been persuaded, with difficulty, not entirely to suppress all his private writings. He showed himself almost invincibly averse to the publishing of any part of his diary after his death; and when he was thought to be dying at Boston, he gave the most strict, peremptory orders to the contrary. But being by some of his friends there prevailed upon to withdraw so strict and absolute a prohibition, he was pleased finally to yield so far as that “his papers should be left in my hands, that I might dispose of them as I thought would be most for God’s glory and the interest of religion.”
But a few days before his death, he ordered some part of his diary to be destroyed, which renders the account of his life the less complete. And there are some parts of his diary here left out for brevity’s sake, that would, I am sensible, have been a great advantage to the history, if they had been inserted; particularly the account of his wonderful successes among the Indians; which for substance is the same in his private diary with that which has already been made public, in the journal he kept by order of the society in Scotland, for their information. That account, I am of opinion, would be more entertaining and more profitable, if it were published as it is written in his diary, in connexion with his secret religion and the inward exercises of his mind, and also with the preceding and following parts of the story of his life. But because that account has been published already, I have therefore omitted that part. However, this defect may in a great measure be made up to the reader, by the public journal.--But it is time to end this preface, that the reader may be no longer detained from the history itself.
N.B. Those parts of the following Life and Diary which are not in turned commas, are the words of the publisher, President Edwards. They contain the substance of Mr. Brainerd’s Diary for the time specified. By this mode, needless repetitions were prevented.