Wand’ring Pilgrim

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On Sunday, April 25, 1742, a few days after his twenty-fourth birthday, David Brainerd included two original eight-line poems in his diary (The Life of David Brainerd, vol. 7 in The Works of Jonathan Edwards [Yale, 1985], pp. 163-64). He had been expelled from Yale only a few months before. During this “wand’ring season” of his life David lived with Jedidiah Mills, an experienced pastor in Ripton, Connecticut. There he continued to pursue ministerial studies, preparing himself for a licensing examination in July—which would give him authority to preach as an itinerant in Connecticut.

Before the sun rose on this Sunday morning, David had “spent about two hours in secret duties.” He experienced in prayer both agony (to the point of sweat) and delight (to the point of poetry). He begged God to convert unbelievers, to help him forgive those who had hurt him, and to completely conform him to Jesus. He prayed, “O for sanctification! My very soul pants for the complete restoration of the blessed image of my Saviour; that I may be fit for the blessed enjoyments and employments of the heavenly world.” Then he included two poems which (til now) have never been put to music:

Farewell, vain world; my soul can bid adieu: 
My Saviour’s taught me to abandon you.
Your charms may gratify a sensual mind; 
Not please a soul wholly for God designed. 
Forbear to entice, cease then my soul to call: 
‘Tis fixed, through grace; my God shall be my all. 
While he thus lets me heavenly glories view,
Your beauties fade, my heart’s no room for you.

Lord, I’m a stranger here alone;
Earth no true comforts can afford:
Yet, absent from my dearest One, 
My soul delights to cry, My Lord! 
Jesus, my Lord, my only love, 
Possess my soul, nor thence depart; 
Grant me kind visits, heavenly Dove:
My God shall then have all my heart.

Within three months of composing these lines Brainerd was licensed to preach. Later the same year he was commissioned to evangelize Native Americans in New England. He spent the next four years preaching the gospel to Indian communities at Kaunaumeek (East Nassau, New York), Forks of the Delaware (Easton, Pennsylvania), and Crossweeksung (Crosswicks, New Jersey). During one year of ministry in Crossweeksung David baptized about 130 newly converted Native Americans. Brainerd died of tuberculosis at 29 years old.

After reading these poems, some may justly criticize Brainerd’s heavenly hope as too “Christoplatonic” (to use Randy Alcorn’s term). David mostly longed to be “absent from the body,” and he rarely longed for the experience of sinlessness as physical life in a resurrection body on perfectly remade planet. Yet, Brainerd was not in error. At the very worst, he was imbalanced, and his imbalances reflect corresponding strengths. Every believer should learn from Brainerd’s “other-worldliness” because these two poems profoundly express the solidly biblical truths that we are “no more than foreigners and nomads here on earth” (Hebrews 11:13, NLT), that “there is nothing on earth that I desire besides [God],” and that the greatest good in life is “for me…to be near God” (Psalm 73:24, 28, ESV). Every believer should hear strong echoes of Psalm 73 in this Brainerd text.

Notes by Joe Tyrpak