There are few in the history of the church who have suffered so much for the cause of Christ as Adoniram Judson. Born August 9, 1788, in Malden, Massachusetts, into the home of a strict, domineering Congregational minister, young Adoniram was brilliant, proper, proud, cultured, and refined. At the age of three he was taught by his mother to read during the absence of his father for a weeklong preaching mission and surprised him upon his return by reading a whole chapter from the Bible. Always far ahead of the other students, he had dreams of success from a worldly standpoint. At age 14, he was critically ill and took more than a year to convalesce. He was a voracious reader. It was about this time that he read Embassy to Ava by a British sea captain named Symes. It undoubtedly influenced Judson later regarding his mission to Burma. By his 16th birthday in 1804, he was ready to enter college. He was a very brilliant student. His father sent him to Rhode Island College (Brown University) because Yale and Harvard were too liberal. Brown was a Baptist school. Judson learned from his father, a graduate of Yale University, "Never compromise."
At Brown University, he was at the top of every class; and when he graduated in 1807, he was the valedictorian, receiving the highest academic commendations. In college he was caught up in the French infidelity of the early 1800s and became openly atheistic. He came under the influence of an upperclassman, Jacob Eames, who was very brilliant, cultured, charming, and an atheist.
After college he was not sure what to do. He went home to Plymouth, Massachusetts, and opened the Plymouth Independent Academy. During that time he wrote two school books: Elements of English Grammar and The Young Lady's Arithmetic. His school closed after one year. He set out to see New England and began a tour on horseback. He embarked on what he later confessed to be "a wild, reckless life" and seemed headed for a life of disillusionment. In New York City he joined a band of strolling players. He lived a very reckless, vagabond life, finding lodging where he could and bilking the landlord whenever he found opportunity—in other words, running up a score and then decamping without paying the reckoning. He left his troupe of players after only a few weeks and continued to roam.
One evening he stopped to spend the night in an inn. From the next room he heard the death cries of one dying. The agony and distress were spiritual more than physical. In the morning he was shocked to learn that the one who died was his atheistic friend and hero, Jacob Eames. This led him to a very serious reflection. His friend was lost—hell-bound. This all became very real and clear to the young Adoniram. He promptly returned home, where his parents were able to help him find faith in Jesus Christ on the 22nd of September, 1808. He was 21 years of age. Ephesians 3:17-19 became his life verses. He knew the heights and the depths but was yet to learn the breadth and length of the love of Christ.
He went to seminary to prepare—for what? His father wanted him to be a minister, but God laid His hands on him for foreign service. Adoniram said, "Of how much real happiness we cheat our souls by preferring a trifle to God."
He entered Andover Theological Seminary on October 12, 1808. It was there on December 2, 1808 (a day he should never forget) that he made a solemn dedication of himself to God. He simply asked himself, "How shall I so order my future being as best to please God?" During his seminary days the Life of David Brainerd and the Works of William Carey greatly influenced him, and he yielded to the call of God. He also read the lives of early German missionaries to India: Bartholomew Ziegenbalg, who translated the New Testament into the Tamil language in 1715, and Christian Frederick Swartz, who served for almost 50 years in the mid 1700s in South India.
In September 1809, when Judson was 21, there came to his hand a sermon preached in the parish church in Bristol, England, by Dr. Claudius Buchanan, who had for many years been a chaplain to the British East Indies Company. The sermon, entitled "The Star in the East," had for its text Matthew 2:2: "For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him." Judson stated, "I have always felt thankful to God for bringing me into the state of excitement which is perhaps necessary in the first instance to enable to break the strong attachments I felt to home and country and to endure the thought of abandoning all my wanted pursuits and animating prospects. That excitement soon passed away, but it left a strong desire to prosecute my inquiries and ascertain the path of duty."
For several days he could think of nothing but Buchanan's powerful message. "It was during a solitary walk in the woods behind the college while meditating and praying on the subject and feeling half inclined to give it up, that the command of Christ to ‘go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature' was presented to my mind with such clearness and power that I came to a full decision and, though great difficulties appeared in my way, resolved to obey the command at all events."
Adoniram was not the first to feel the call of God to foreign service. One of his earliest missionary associates was Samuel Nott, who likewise shared strong conviction that he was to serve the Lord on the foreign field. On a hot, humid Saturday afternoon in August 1808, Adoniam and Samuel Nott, along with several students from nearby Williams College, were led by Samuel Mills in a prayer meeting. Joining them were James Richards, Luther Rice, Samuel Newell, and Gordon Hall. A storm came up, and while lightening and thunder cracked overhead, these students enthusiastically approved a proposal to send the Gospel to the pagans of Asia and to the disciples of Mohammed. Mills said, "Come, let us make it a subject of prayer under the haystack." They formed a group known as The Brethren, who were committed to missions and met regularly at night beneath the haystack near the college grounds. Having been petitioned by the Congregational Church to send them as missionaries, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions was founded on December 25, 1810. Judson, Newell, Nott and Hall were accepted as their first missionaries.
Although most biographies and mission textbooks refer to the Judsons as being the first American missionaries to go overseas, this is not exactly the case. The first missionary to leave the shores of America for foreign service was George Leile, a former slave. As was often the case, he was removed from his family very early in his life, but he always entertained the news that his father was a very godly man. His owner, Deacon Sharp of the First Baptist Church of Savannah, Georgia, recognized that his slave was called of God and emancipated him, allowing him to be fully engaged in a Gospel ministry to the "people of color." Leile was ordained on May 20, 1775, and labored in and around Savannah with great success before leaving as a missionary for Jamaica in 1779. Thus we see that Leile predated the service of William Carey, the founder of modern Baptist missions, who went to India in 1793 and the Judsons, who left the American shores in 1812.
Toward the end of 1811, plans were coming together for the ordination and subsequent departure of the first missionaries under the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Adoniram's reckless life and unpaid debts haunted him, so he retraced his steps, making restitution and paying all those obligations. On February 5, 1812 (a dull, warm Wednesday), Adoniram and Nancy (Her given name was Ann Haseltine, although her family called her Nancy.) were united in marriage by Parson Allen in the very room in Bedford, Massachusetts where they had met two years earlier. A few days earlier Adoniram's close friend Samuel Newell had married Harriett Atwood, an 18-year-old close friend of Nancy. The following day, February 6, at Tabernacle Church in Salem, five missionaries were ordained. At the laying on of hands, Nancy slipped out of the family pew and knelt beside the missionaries. Dr. Spring gave the charge, "No enterprise comparable to this has been embraced by the American church." Adoniram Judson, Samuel Newell, Samuel Nott, Gordon Hall, and Luther Rice were publicly set aside to carry to the poor heathen the Good News of pardon, peace, and eternal life.
The Judsons and Newells sailed from Salem on the brig "Caravan," which left early on the morning of February 19, 18l2. It was to be a one-way journey; they never intended to return. During the long sea voyage, Judson searched the Scriptures concerning baptism. The result of this searching investigation was the reluctantly formed conclusion that he was wrong and that the Baptists were right-that faith should always precede baptism and that baptism is by immersion. He said, "We are confirmed Baptists, not because we wish to be but because truth compelled us to be."
Upon arrival in Calcutta, India, on June 17, 1812, they were met by Dr. William Carey. Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Nott, Gordon Hall, and Luther Rice sailed together and arrived in India on August 8, 1812. The East Indies Company would not permit them to stay in India. Adoniram and Nancy Judson were baptized by Mr. Ward in the Lal Bazar Chapel, a Baptist church in Calcutta, on September 6, 1812. The picture painted concerning Burma was so bleak that they thought of going to Java.
The Newells preceded the Judsons since there was room for only two passengers on the first ship available out of Calcutta. On the voyage to Ille de France, the ship that the Newells were on encountered a very severe storm; and Harriet gave birth to their fistborn with her husband Samuel as the only attendant. The baby died after five days and was buried at sea. They reached Ille de France, where Harriet's health rapidly declined, and she died in Port Louis, Ille de France, on the 30th of November, 1812. She was the first American to give her life for the cause of Christ in a non-Christian world.
The Judsons followed on the next available ship, arriving in Port Louis on January 17, 1813. Nancy Judson was devastated to learn of the death of her very close friend Harriet and her baby.
Newell subsequently sailed for Ceylon and Bombay and died a broken man a few years later. Rice, who had also come to the conclusion that the Baptist doctrines were scripturally right, had been baptized in Calcutta and had accompanied the Judsons to Ille de France.
Luther Rice returned to the United States from Ille de France because of ill health and to raise interest among the Baptist churches and support for the missionaries.
On learning of the position that the Judsons and Rice had taken, the Baptists in the United States founded a second foreign missionary society named the "Baptist Society for Propagating the Gospel in India and Other Foreign Parts." On May 7, 1813, the Judsons left Port Louis for Madras. Again, due to the East Indies Company policy, they could not stay and left for Rangoon on June 22. Nancy wrote, "I have been accustomed to view this field of labor with dread and terror, but I now feel perfectly willing to make it my home the rest of my life." Adoniram wrote, "Dissuaded by all our friends at Madras, we commended ourselves to God."
During this voyage Nancy gave birth to her first child, which was born dead and was buried at sea in the Bay of Bengal. Nancy was left very weak. On July13, 1813, they arrived at the entering of the Rangoon River, one of the Irrawaddy's many tributaries. Little did they know of the tribulations that lay ahead, but they were assured of the Lord's presence, comforted by His promises, and made strong in His love.
Burma would be the place where God would use them. Rangoon was a dirty, bedraggled, overgrown village of 10,000 people at the most. It was the unhappiest evening they had ever spent. At last they had arrived at the destination Adoniram had aimed at for three years—the place he dreamed of, the goal of his ambitions—and they had never regretted anything more in their lives. Felix Carey had made somewhat of a beachhead in Rangoon, and the Judsons were able to move in with him and his Burmese wife. They began to study the language 12 hours a day. On September 19, 1813, Adoniram and Ann (Adoniram usually called her by this abbreviation of Nancy) partook together of the sacraments of the Lord's Supper. Thus was born the Baptist Church of Burma. The prayer of the Judsons was, "God grant that we may live and die among the Burmans, though we never should do anything else than smooth the way for others."
Judson's brilliant mind went to work learning the Burmese language and translating the Bible. Along the busy paths that led to the famous Shwe Dagon Pagoda Buddhist Temple, he built a zayat (an open-sided building) where he stayed studying the language and welcoming any who would stop and listen to him as he preached the Gospel of redeeming grace. Felix Carey wrote to his father William Carey, "They are just cut out for this mission. I thought so as soon as I first met them. In six months Mr. Judson had a splendid grasp of the language and is the very colleague I wanted."
It was in this zayat that on May 9, 1819, Moung Nau openly professed his allegiance to Jesus Christ, esteeming it a rare privilege to be the first Christian convert among the Burmese people even though he had naught to expect in this world but persecution and death. This was the first fruit of six years of labor. There, on a Sunday afternoon after Moung Nau's baptism, the Lord's Supper was for the first time administered by Mr. Judson in two languages—English and Burmese—an event that had been the desire of his heart for six long years. A few months later two more were baptized.
On July 12, 1823, Adoniram Judson completed translating the New Testament into Burmese. Ann, who had gone to the U.S. for health reasons, returned on December 5, 1823, full of health after 27 months. On one occasion Judson wrote to Rice, "If they ask again what prospect of ultimate success there is, tell them ‘as much as there is an almighty and faithful God Who will perform His promises and no more.'"
Over the years the local viceroys in Rangoon had made it extremely difficult for the Judsons, and on several occasions it appeared as if they were going to be forced to leave the country. Adoniram purposed to go to the capital of Ava to petition the emperor himself for permission to propagate Christianity. On two occasions he made the long journey up the Irrawaddy River to Ava only to receive rejection of his petitions, but some favorable contacts were made. He eventually determined to move his mission to Ava. He arrived there in January of 1824, built a small house near the city, began his ministry, and continued his translation work of the Old Testament.
Satan was not about to abdicate his dominion. On June 8, 1824, Adoniram was suddenly arrested and taken to the infamous Let-may-yoon Prison. He was imprisoned in a most vile place, made to go through great indignities, and suffered much sickness, torture, hunger. Had it not been for his faithful wife Ann, he most certainly would not have survived. Day after day she brought food to him and importuned the vile keeper of the prison to let her have a small shelter constructed under which he could rest from the sun. Again and again the death threat hung over him, but the love of Christ sustained him. Apparently the reason for this imprisonment was due to an impending conflict with Britain, and it was thought that Judson was an emissary of the British crown. During Judson's imprisonment, he was often heard to repeat the verse of Madame Guyon:
No place I see but to fulfill,
In life and death Thy lovely will.
No succor in my woes I want,
Except that Thou are pleased to grant.
Throughout this time Ann continually made intercession with various palace authorities, hoping to get his release, but to no avail. On January 26, 1825, she gave birth to a daughter, Marie Elizabeth Butterworth Judson. It was 20 days before Ann was able to recover from this delivery and bring the new babe to the prison for Adoniram to see. He beheld Ann standing in the doorway (for she was never permitted to enter the prison), her little blue-eyed blossom wailing upon her bosom. The chained father crawled forth to the meeting. He composed a beautiful poem at that time. I'll read only a few of the 14 verses:
Sleep, darling infant, sleep,
Hushed on thy mother's breat'
Let no rude sound of clanking chains
Disturb thy balmy rest.
Sleep, darling infant, sleep;
Blest that thou canst not know
The pangs that rend thy parents' hearts,
The keenness of their woe.
Sleep, darling infant, sleep;
May Heaven its blessings shed,
In rich profusion, soft and sweet,
On thine unconscious head!
Why ope thy little eyes?
What would my darling see?
Thy sorrowing mother's bending form?
Thy father's agony?
In order to preserve the precious manuscripts of the Burmese New Testament, they were hidden in a pillow. This was taken from him by the jailer; but by the clever work of Ann, it was exchanged for a better pillow, thus preserving the valuable documents. Even these were left behind when on May 2, 1825, Judson was very quickly removed from the death prison to the prison in Oung-pen-la, some eight miles' distance. The pillow with the manuscripts was thrown away when he was removed to the second prison, but a servant of the Judsons found it and buried it by their house, preserving it until he was finally released from imprisonment. Thus, by very unusual means, the precious manuscripts of the New Testament translation were preserved.
The second prison was, if anything, more vile than the first. For a while Adoniram was kept in a cage that once housed a lion—not high enough to stand up in, not broad enough to lie down in. Here he was kept for an additional six months, during which time both Ann and Maria were very ill; and yet Judson was kept alive by Ann's efforts in begging food to provide nutrition for him. Finally, in November of 1825, he was taken out of prison and, under guard, sent to the headquarters of the Burmese army where he was able to serve as interpreter in the negotiation of the peace treaty with the British. Upon his return to Ava, he found Ann and the baby both desperately ill. Through his tender care, they were able to improve and to eventually return to Rangoon.
Judson had two master goals (passions): (1) translate the Bible into the Burmese language, and (2) live to see 100 converts. As mentioned earlier, it was six long years of witness before the first Burmese soul came to know Christ. By the time of Judson's death, there were 63 churches and 7,000 converts. Of the Karen peoples, there were 800 churches and 150,000 believers.
Over the years, largely through the influence of Luther Rice (who never returned to the field but was representing the mission in America), new missionaries arrived on the field for various aspects of the ministry. One of these couples was George and Sarah Boardman. They, along with others of the newer missionaries, were targeting the tribal people, particularly the Karen, a predominately pagan, animistic tribes people.
Another such missionary was Elisha L. Abbott, who has been credited as the creator of the indigenous policy. He arrived in Burma sometime around 1837 and was a contemporary of Adonirom Judson. The thing that particularly distinguishes Mr. Abbott was his vision of self-support of these churches. He was the instrument God used to raise up 50 churches and thousands of believers. His motto was "American support for Americans; Karen support for Karens." One missionary raised an extra $5,000 for the Burma field, but Abbott would have nothing to do with these funds. In fact, he twice returned half of the gifts back to America, but the American Baptist Missionary Union was never in agreement with this indigenous policy. Neither was the aging veteran, Adoniram Judson, who felt it would give support to the "good works" philosophy of Buddhism. Looking back over the ministries causes us to reflect on whether the rapid growth of the ministry among the indigenous tribes people (which has continued right down to the present time) is related to the indigenous principles founded by Mr. Abbott. Today there is virtually no church of a Fundamental nature among the Burmese per se that is the outgrowth of Adoniram Judson's ministry.
Adoniram left Ann and the infant Maria in a more healthful location and was summoned back up to the British camp as an interpreter in the ongoing negotiations with the Burmese. Ann died at the age of 37 at Amhurst, a British settlement, on October 14, 1826. Adoniram did not learn of her death until a month later. The infant Maria was cared for by some fellow missionaries but also died about six months later at the age of 27 months and was buried beside her mother.
Judson's wife and all their children died in the first 14 years of his missionary career, and he became very despondent. He questioned: Did he carry death with him like a contagion? In the beginning there had been Harriet Newell and her baby; followed by Samuel Newell, who died a few years later in Bombay; then Judson's own son Roger; his wife Ann; and now his daughter Maria. He hoped—he believed—he carried the gift of life eternal into the next world, but wondered why he carried the gift of death in this? Most importantly, since these dead were happy, he wondered why he grieved. He later began to suspect that his real motive in becoming a missionary had not been genuine humility and self abnegation but ambition to be the first American foreign missionary—the first missionary to Burma, the first translator of the Bible into the Burmese, the first in his own eyes and the eyes of men. He had a lust to excel.
Toward the end of October 1828, he built a little hut in the jungle some distance from the mission house and dubbed it the Hermitage. It was in a dangerous, tiger-infested area. He moved into the hut October 24, 1828, the second anniversary of Nancy's death. He wrote, "It proves a stormy evening, and the desolation around me accords with the desolate state of my own mind, where grief for the dear departed combines with sorrow for present sin; and my tears flow at the same time over the forsaken grave of my dear love and over the loathsome sepulcher of my own heart." He dug a grave near the Hermitage, and for days sat beside it deliberately considering the stages of decay of a human body in all of its gruesome details, hoping that he might thus arise above fleshly considerations and, through solitary reflections, bring himself close to the same imitation of divinity.
During this period of depression and melancholy, self-denial and seclusion, Judson, with his Bible under his arm, went over the hills behind the Hermitage even deeper into the tiger-infested jungle behind the Hermitage until he found a place that suited him near a long-abandoned pagoda. Here he began spending his days reading, reflecting, praying. Each evening he returned to the Hermitage. Adoniram spent forty days in this solitary meditation by the old pagoda. His entire diet consisted of nothing but a little rice. This time probably marked the extreme in his search for some sign that God had forgiven him.
What seemed to bring him out of his three years of deep depression was news that his younger brother Elnathan had professed salvation before his death. This had been a heavy burden on Adoniram, and he rejoiced in the knowledge that his brother had finally come to peace with God.
He threw himself wholly into the completion of the Old Testament translation of the Bible into the Burmese language. In 1833 he wrote to the secretary of the Baptist Board, referring to short-term missionary service and some missionaries, "They come out for a few years with the view of acquiring a stock of credit on which they may vegetate the rest of their days in the congenial climate of their native land. The motto of every missionary, whether preacher, printer, or school master, ought to be devoted for life." On another occasion he wrote, "It is a mistake to suppose that a dull and second-rate man is good enough for the heathen. The worst off needs the very best we have. God gave His best, even His only begotten Son, in order to redeem a lost world. Christianity will advance over the earth with long, swift strides when the churches are ready to send their best men and the best men are ready to go."
In April of 1834, almost eight years after the death of Ann, he married Sarah Boardman, whose husband had passed away some three years earlier. Unlike most missionary widows who, on the death of their spouse, return to their homeland, Sarah had remained in Burma and had very faithfully carried on in the ministry. She became a very loving and supportive wife to Adoniram and bore him a number of children. On September 26, 1835, he completed the Old Testament translation and one month later baptized the 100th member of the Burmese church. Thus his goals of translating the complete Bible into the Burmese language and seeing a church of 100 Burmese Christians had been accomplished.
Due to Sarah's declining health, Adoniram Judson decided to take her to America. She died en route at St. Helena and was buried there. Adoniram continued on to the States-his first furlough in 33 years. He was welcomed back as a hero and was in great demand in the churches of America. During this time in the States he met, fell in love with, and married a young journalist by the name of Emily Chubbuck. Many of his peers and admirers criticized him severely for marrying one about whom he knew so little and who was almost half his age, but he did not heed their advice or respond to their criticism. They were married in June of 1846, and they left for Burman the following month.
He was sure he would never see his native land again; and although he felt sadness, he had no regrets. He still felt like the Adoniram Judson of 1812. He was still capable of work and love, and he still looked forward to the future with confidence and even joy. On the field and at home his one theme was "the love of Christ." In the spring of 1850, he took seriously ill. It was felt that a long sea voyage might restore his health. He, along with fellow missionary Thomas Ranney, set sail on April 3, 1850. Eight days later he died at sea; and as was his request, he was buried in a watery grave in the Bay of Bengal. He died with the following words on his lips:
The Love of Christ
Boundless in its breadth,
Infinite in its length,
Fathomless in its depths,
And measureless in its height.
In these deserts let me labor.
On these mountains let me tell,
How he died, the blessed Savior,
To redeem a world from hell.
Today, at the entrance to the Judson Chapel in the First Baptist Church of Malden, Massachusetts, is a marble slab with the following inscription:
Rev. Adoniram Judson
Born Aug. 9, 1788
Died April 12, 1850
Malden, his birthplace.
The ocean, his sepulchre.
Converted Burmans, and
The Burman Bible
His record is on high.