“Wand’ring Pilgrim” was commissioned by Joe Tyrpak as part of a media project at the tail end of his doctoral work on David Brainerd. The following notes by Joe tell the backstory:
On Sunday, April 25, 1742, David Brainerd penned two eight-line poems in his diary (pp. 163-64, The Life of David Brainerd, vol. 7 in The Works of Jonathan Edwards [Yale, 1985]). He wrote the poems a few days after he turned 24 years old, which was only a few months following his expulsion from Yale. During this “wand’ring season” of his life David lived with Jedidiah Mills, an experienced pastor in Ripton, Connecticut. There he engaged in ministerial studies, preparing 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 wrote two poems which (till 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), Crossweeksung (Crosswicks, New Jersey), Shamokin (Sunbury, Pennsylvania), and Cranberry (Cranbury, 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.
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 only imbalanced, not in error. His weaknesses reflect corresponding strengths. Every believer should learn from Brainerd’s “other-worldliness.” 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 every believer should continually exclaim, “Whom have I in heaven by you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you,” and that the greatest good in life is “for me…to be near God” (Psalm 73:24, 28, ESV).
[Joe’s project includes a DVD documentary and a devotional based on the book “The Life of David Brainerd” by Jonathan Edwards. Follow the link to find out more about these products (available for preorder).]