Dead Men Talking

Dead Men Talking

On the last day we will meet those who, “…conquered (the adversary) by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (Revelation 12:11). David Brainerd and Henry Martyn are two such men. Here are three reasons why.

Who are Brainerd and Martyn?

David Brainerd (1718-1747) and Henry Martyn (1781-1812) were missionaries whose examples still loom large on the Evangelical landscape. Brainerd was well known for his missionary work among the Delaware tribe in colonial America. Martyn was equally famous for his ministry in India and Persia, especially among Muslims. Both men kept journals that were posthumously published and immensely influential.

Brainerd’s diary was edited by the storied Jonathan Edwards and was a huge influence on Henry Martyn’s decision to become a missionary. Since it was first published, Brainerd’s diary has never been out of print. Martyn’s journal, edited by John Sargent, was possibly the most moving missionary biography of the 19th century and remains readily available today. The extreme settings in which Brainerd and Martyn worked cost them their lives. Consider three common characteristics that reveal why they were willing to, in Martyn’s prophetic words, “burn out for God.”

Their eyes were fixed on the last day

First, Brainerd and Martyn fixed their eyes on a common goal. Unlike most 21st century Westerners, that goal was not the upcoming weekend, summer vacation or early retirement. Rather, this pair firmly set their gaze on the last day when “the kingdom of this world shall become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ and he shall reign forever and ever” (Revelation 11:15).

Brainerd expressed this aim when he reflected, “Towards night, was very weary and tired of this world of sorrow. The thoughts of death and immortality appeared very desirable and even refreshed my soul” (Brainerd, 75). In the same vein, Martyn confessed, “I feel that my heart is wholly for heaven and the world mainly behind my back” (Martyn, 54).

Their hearts were set on the gospel

Second, because their eyes were firmly fixed on the last day, Brainerd and Martyn set their hearts on proclaiming the gospel. Both men understood that the only way for one to see the last day was to place his faith in God through the finished work of his Son, Jesus Christ. Brainerd, who ministered on behalf of an organization called The Society for Propagating the Gospel, declared that he “wanted to live out (his) life for (Christ’s) service and for his glory” (Brainerd, 46). And while stationed in a setting that, compared to his native England, was strange and uncomfortable, Martyn concluded, “I feel…determined to use every effort to give the people the Gospel” (Martyn, 172).

Their efforts went to great lengths

With their eyes fixed on the last day and their hearts set on the gospel, Brainerd and Martyn went to great lengths in pursuing their work. They were willing to endure harsh conditions for the sake of those among whom they ministered.

Early in his work with Native Americans, Brainerd wrote, “I live poorly with regard to the comforts of life. Most of my diet consists of boiled corn, hasty pudding (corn meal mush), etc. I lodge on a bundle of straw, my labor is hard and extremely difficult and I have little appearance of success, to comfort me” (72).

About a month before Christmas 1745, Brainerd recorded this staggering fact, “I have now ridden more than three thousand miles [on horseback]…since the beginning of March” (251).

Martyn’s conditions were no less challenging. Soon after establishing his work in India, Martyn realized that “every native I meet is an enemy to me because I am an Englishman” (184). Later, while traveling from one people group to the next, Martyn languished in temperatures that never dipped below ninety degrees, struggled to sleep in the stifling heat and suffered from a severe lack of appetite (Martyn, 384). These and other extreme conditions took such a toll on Brainerd and Martyn that the former died at age twenty-nine and the latter at age thirty-one.

The loss of each man was immediately and deeply felt. In his preface to Brainerd’s diary, Jonathan Edwards wrote that, “what is here set before (the reader) is indeed a remarkable instance of true and eminent Christian piety…worthy of imitation.” (Brainerd, liii). And Martyn’s mentor, Charles Simeon, while gazing at the portrait of his late curate  hanging over his mantle, thoughtfully confessed, “No one looks at me as he does – and he never takes his eyes off me; and he seems to be saying, ‘Be serious – be earnest – Don’t trifle – don’t trifle.’ And I won’t trifle – I won’t trifle” (Simeon’s Memoirs, 391).

What about me?

The bracing examples of Brainerd and Martyn provide a quick and compelling corrective for a flagging or unfocused faith. They are also a reminder that, though these men are dead, yet they still speak (c.f. Hebrews 11:4). Consider again the reasons behind their enduring influence as well as some questions for further reflection. What are David Brainerd and Henry Martyn saying to you?

  1. The eyes of Brainerd and Martyn were fixed on the last day. For what are you living? Is your heart wholly for heaven and the world entirely behind your back? (Hebrews 12:1-2)
  1. The hearts of Brainerd and Martyn were set on the gospel. On what are your affections set? Are you using every effort to live for Christ’s service and for his glory? (1 Peter 1:8-9)
  1. The efforts of Brainerd and Martyn went to great lengths. How far will you go for the gospel? Do you have an earnest, whatever-it-takes willingness that is void of trifling? (Galatians 2:20; 6:14)

Randall J. Gruendyke

Brainerd, David. The Life and Diary of David Brainerd. Edited by Jonathan Edwards. Chicago, IL: Moody Press.

Martyn, Henry. The Life and Letters of Henry Martyn. Edited by John Sargent. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1985.

Simeon, Charles, Memoirs of the Life of the Rev. Charles Simeon, M.A. Edited by Rev. William Carus, M.A.  London: J. Hatchard and Son, 1848.

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