Gospel Fellowship Association Missions

Harriet Atwood Newell

Harriet Atwood Newell was a missionary who, in the eyes of many, might seem hardly worthy of our consideration or of the title "missionary" or "martyr."  She never went to a Bible school; had no missionary training; never learned a foreign language; never, to our knowledge, led a soul to Christ; never established a mission station; and left the work in less than one year to the great devastation of fellow co-workers.  She is hardly one to lift up as an example; but as I have studied this life, I have been greatly blessed, challenged, and encouraged to give all to Christ.

My wife and I had for many years been greatly blessed and motivated and, at times, rebuked by reading of the lives of missionaries of past generations. Whenever we had the opportunity, we would search Christian used-book stores and other sources of used books for missionary biographies.  While we were in New Hampshire, we were told of a large book barn not far from where we were ministering.  We took opportunity to visit that barn.  It was huge, and there were thousands of used books.  As we searched through many a volume, we came across one small leather-covered book that became a treasure to us.  My wife looked upon it as one of the most challenging books in our library.  It was A Sermon, Preached at Haverhill, Massachusetts, in Remembrance of Mrs. Harriet Newell . . . to which are Added Memoirs of her Life.  The copy that we have is the 9th edition published in 1849.  Harriett Atwood Newell died November 30, 1812, on the island of Mauritius, and I believe the first edition was published in 1815.  Concerning her journal, you will rarely find such a challenging book as the one this young lady left as her memorial.

Harriet Atwood Newell was born October 10, 1793, and died November 30, 1812.  She was a frail wisp of a girl who never enjoyed good, robust health.  Her father and other close family members died of tuberculosis.  She was quiet and reserved but not a recluse.  She was highly regarded by her many friends.  One of her best friends, Ann Haseltine, who was four years her senior, became the wife of Adoniram Judson.

Harriet began keeping a journal at age 13; and from this and the many letters she wrote to friends, we learn a great deal about her.  It appears that she accepted Christ as her Savior at age 13.  She was well versed in Scripture and frequently quoted long passages very appropriately.  I've extracted a few quotations from her journals and letters.

On learning that her good friend Ann Haseltine was to marry Adoniram Judson and go with him to Asia as a missionary, she made this entry: 

"How did this news affect my heart?  Is she willing to do all this for God, and shall I refuse to lend my little aid in a land where divine revelation has shed its clearest grace?  I have felt more for the salvation of the heathen this day than I recollect to have felt through my whole past life . . . . What can I do that the light of the Gospel may shine upon them?  They are perishing for lack of knowledge while I enjoy the glorious privilege of a Christian land.  Great God, direct me.  Oh, make me in some way beneficial to their immortal souls."

Less than a month later, she made this entry:  "Sleep has fled from me, and my soul is enveloped in a dark cloud of troubles.  Oh, that God would direct me, that He would plainly mark out the path of duty and let me not depart from it."

Ann and Adoniram Judson were married on the 5th of February 1812.  Later on that day, Parson Allen preached a sermon in Haverhill Church which was especially directed to Ann and Harriet, both of whom he had known from childhood.  He told Ann and Harriet that as missionaries' wives, they would have a special duty to the women of India or Burma, whichever country their husbands might be serving.  To convert these women, he instructed them, will be your business, my dear children, to whom your husbands can have little or no access.  Go then, and do all in your power to enlighten their minds and bring them to the knowledge of the truth.  Teach them to realize that they are not an inferior race of creatures but are on a par with men.  Teach them that they have immortal souls and are no longer to burn themselves on the same fire with the bodies of their departed husbands.

It had been the practice for centuries among the adherents of Hinduism that when a woman's husband died, he was cremated; and the living wife was placed upon the pyre and died in the flames that cremated her deceased husband-a very cruel and wicked practice.  William Carey in particular fought this practice during his long years in India, and it was finally outlawed by the British government; but the practice was continued for many years well into the mid- and last half of the 1800s. 

The day following the Judsons' marriage, February 6, 1812, five young men were ordained as Christian ministers and commissioned by the Church of America as its first missionaries to heathen lands.  They were Adoniram Judson, Samuel Newell, Samuel Nott, Gordon Hall, and Luther Rice.  Ann was a bride of one day.  Harriet would wed Newell a few days later.

A group of young students from the Academy and Theological Seminary at Andover had walked 16 miles through deep snow to attend.  On the long walk back, one academy boy collapsed from the cold and would have frozen to death by the wayside had not some theological students found him.  In years to come, this boy, William Goodell, was himself to serve as a missionary in Turkey. 

Harriet Atwood was Ann Haseltine's best and closet friend, and Ann encouraged the romance of Harriet and Samuel Newell.  Referring to the proposal of marriage to Mr. Newell, Harriet wrote:

"Shall I refuse the offer?  Shall I love the glittering toys of this dying world so well that I cannot relinquish them for God?  Forbid it Heaven!  Yes, I will go.  However weak and unqualified I am, there is an all-sufficient Savior ready to support me."

A friend remarked that, "A little, slender woman may endure losses and suffering as cheerfully and resolutely as an apostle." 

Harriet wrote these words concerning her mother:  "She had committed her child to God's parental care, and although her affection was not lessened, yet with tears in her eyes she said, ‘If a conviction of duty and love for the souls of the perishing heathen led you to India, as much as I love you, Harriet, I can only say Go.'"

The Judsons and Newells never planned to return.  Their journey to Burma was to be one way only.  On February 18, 1812, the newlyweds boarded the sailing vessel the Caravan.  It set sail the following day, February 19, 1812.  The day of boarding was a bitterly cold day with biting wind.  Well-meaning friends found it impossible to stand for long on the freezing wharf.  The afternoon went by and still the Caravan could not sail.  The Judsons, Newells, and two young male students who decided to keep them company overnight, went below to the cabins.  The experience was a new one for Ann and Harriet.  Harriet listened to the harbor waves lapping at the side of the vessel, the creaking of the timbers, and the cry of the wind through the naked masts.  Then she heard her companions joyfully singing:

          Landed safe in distant regions,

          Tell the Burmans Jesus died.

          Tell them Satan and his legions,

          Bow to Him they crucified.


          Far beyond the mighty Ganges,

          When vast floods beyond us roll,

          Think how widely Jesus ranges,

          Nations wide from pole to pole.

That first night on board the brig Caravan was spent in the singing of hymns and prayer.  Later in the evening, Harriet wrote her mother a letter to be sent back by the pilot boat on the morrow:

Here I am, my dear mother, on board the brig Caravan in a neat little cabin.  I have at length taken leave of the land of my forefathers and entered the vessel which will be my place of residence until I reach the desired haven.  Think not, my dear mother, that we are now sitting in silent sorrow, strangers to peace.  Oh no, though the idea that I have left to see you no more is painful indeed, yet I think I can say I have found the grace of my Redeemer sufficient for me.  His strength has been made perfect in my weakness.  We have been engaged in singing this evening, and can you believe me when I tell you that I never engaged in this delightful part of worship with greater pleasure.  And now, my dear mother, what more shall I say but ask you to pray for me and engage other Christians to do the same.  It is late.  I must retire.  Dear mother, adieu.

A little after sunrise the following morning, the 19th of February, the Caravan spread her sails to the wind and steered her course straight out to sea.  It was a voyage of 114 days from Salem, and they arrived at the Bay of Bengal on the 18th of June, 1812.  Traveling up the Hoagli River, they had opportunity to eat pineapples and bananas for the first time.  During the voyage, Harriet had become pregnant and was due to give birth in November of 1812.  The Judsons and the Newells spent some time with the Careys and others at Serampore.

On July 1, 1812, they were ordered by the police to leave India by the 15th of July and to return to America or any other place not under British rule.  ­­­­­­­­ The Judsons and Newells did not intend or want to return to America.  There was one ray of hope.  The governor of Ille de France (Mauritius) would welcome missionaries. This small island was 5,000 miles away.  A ship, the Colonel Gillespie, was ready to sail.  Due to Harriet's pregnancy, the Newells were chosen to take the two passenger places available on this ship.  They sailed from India on the 1st of August 1812.  A few days after leaving India, Harriet was taken with a fever.  On recovering from this, she was attacked with dysentery. 

The ship on which the Newells had taken passage from Calcutta had been battered unmercifully by winds and waves; so the voyage lengthened into three anxious months.  Far out on the Indian Ocean on October 8, two days before Harriet's 19th birthday, she gave birth to a baby girl in a little cabin on the ship's deck attended only by Samuel Newell.  The baby was given her mother's name, Harriet Atwood.  For a few days joy and hope abounded in the hearts of the parents, but cold and rain speedily fell upon the ill-fated ship; and the baby, unable to endure the exposure, died in her mother's arms. 

Following the child's death, Harriet showed the first signs of the fatal disease that rapidly consumed her life.  When at length the dreadful voyage was over and the belated ship came to port, a British surgeon and a Danish physician ministered to the sick wife but to no avail.  Gradually her health waned until the last flicker of hope for her recovery vanished.  Night and day Samuel Newell sat by the bedside of his dear one, trying to catch every precious word she spoke.  Her thoughts seemed to dwell with perfect restfulness upon Christ and Heaven, referring sometimes to her mother across the sea in the Atwood homestead in Haverhill:  "Tell my dear mother," she said, "how much Harriet loves her.  Tell her to look to God and keep near to Him, and He will support and comfort her in all her trials.  Tell my brothers and sisters from the lips of their dying sister that there is nothing but religion worth living for.  Tell them and also my dear mother that I have never regretted leaving my native land for the cause of Christ." 

One afternoon in November, the blindness of death sealed Harriet's brown eyes, and there in the little mud-walled cottage, she quietly breathed her last.  Throughout that awful night, Samuel Newell watched beside his dead.  A Negro servant was his only companion in the silent house.  In a land of strangers without one friend to weep with him, he followed the body of his wife to the graveyard of Port Louis.  There, in the heathy ground under an evergreen tree that suggested her New England home, was buried the young woman who was the first American to give her life for the cause of Christ in the non-Christian world.

Earlier Harriet had made this entry in her journal, and it was a prophetic statement: 

"Perhaps no cordial, sympathizing friend will stand near my dying bed to administer consolation to my departing spirit, to wipe the falling tear or the cold sweat away, to close my eyes, or to shed a tear upon my worthless ashes.  Weep, oh my soul, over the forlorn state of the benighted heathen and oh that the friends of Immanuel in my Christian country would shake off their criminal slothfulness and arise for the help of the Lord against the mighty in lands where the Prince of Darkness has long been adored."

Harriet died November 30, 1812, of tuberculosis, the disease that had taken her father and other close family members.  On January 17, 1813, the Judsons and Luther Rice reached Ille de France via the ship, the Creole, to learn of Harriet Newell's death.  Ann was devastated.  Some years later she made this note in her journal: 

Farewell to thee, Harriet, thou sweet and gentle one.  Early didst thou quit the scenes of toil for the land of rest, while thine associates were spared to labor and to suffer for the perishing and lost.  Yet thy missionary life has not been useless as it was brief.  You were not permitted to share in the labors and the triumphs of the Apostles to benighted Burma.  Thy brief career has not been in vain.  Hundreds have melted into sympathetic tears and kindled with missionary fire and zeal at the touching recital of thy youthful piety, thy stern self-sacrifice, thy early death, and thy island grave.  Some already have and others doubtless shall be prompted by thy bright example to devote themselves to the salvation of the perishing heathen through whose labors many shall be turned from idols to serve the living God, and thus in the great day of account, generations of heathen yet unborn shall rise up and call thee blessed.  

Note Acts 20:24:  "But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the Gospel of the grace of God." 

This verse captures the spirit of this frail young American woman who gave her life for the cause of Christ in the Orient.

In March of 1813, Samuel Newell departed Ille de France for Ceylon.  Luther Rice returned to America to appeal to the Baptist churches, and the Judsons left Ille de France in the spring of that year for Burma.


JAD  2/5/97