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Adoniram and Ann Judson had the distinction of being America’s first foreign missionaries. Adoniram Judson was the son of an austere Congregational minister. Adoniram learned to read by age three. From the beginning it was clear that he was destined for an exceptional life.
When he entered Brown University on Rhode Island, he became enchanted with Deism and unbelief and slipped into a restless life. After graduation he wrote for the stage in New York. Then he chose to head West for the frontier. En route, at an Inn, he listened all night to a man dying in the next room. In the morning he was shocked to learn that the deceased man was one of his closest companions at college, an outspoken unbeliever who had opposed the Gospel of Christ vehemently. Adoniram knew that Jacob Eames was lost, but he also recognised that the same was true of himself. The West lost its allure, he turned his horse around and enrolled at a Theological Seminary. He was converted to Christ there, in 1808.
The conviction grew that he was called to be a Missionary to Burma, but there were no missionary societies in America yet. So Adoniram travelled to England to consult with the London Missionary Society.
His voyage by sea involved being captured by a French warship and imprisoned in France. Adoniram showed the kind of ingenuity which was to characterise his whole missionary life, by escaping from this French prison and making his way back to America, arriving 8 months after he had left. Despite opposition from family and friends, Adoniram lost no time in making preparations.
Adoniram courted Ann Hasseltine who was generally accepted as “the most beautiful girl in Bradford, Massachusetts.” His letter to her father is a classic: “I have now to ask whether you can consent to part with your daughter, whether you can consent to her departure to a heathen land, and her subjection to the hardships and suffering of a missionary life? Whether you can consent to her exposure to the dangers of ocean, to the fatal influence of the southern climate of India, to every kind of want and distress, to degradation, insult, persecution, and perhaps a violent death?” John Hasseltine consented and Adoniram married Ann Hasseltine.
They were consecrated for missionary service the day after their wedding, and within 2 weeks they were sailing for India - sent out by the newly formed American Board of Commission for Foreign Missionaries.
Adoniram and Ann spent much of their honeymoon arguing - about baptism. By the time they had reached Calcutta, Ann had also come to agree with the Baptist position and they sent a resignation letter back to the Mission Board that had just sent them out! They then convinced the Baptists to adopt them with the formation of the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society.
En-route to Burma, the Judsons visited William Carey – the Father of Modern Missions - in India. There they were baptised by immersion, by Carey’s co-worker, William Ward.
En-route by ship to Rangoon, their first child was stillborn during the voyage. In July 1813, the Judsons reached Rangoon. Their hearts sank at the sights and the smells of the place. Burma was a resistant Buddhist nation, under a cruel and despotic king, who viciously opposed their work. The Judson’s 7-month old son died.
Adoniram was struck by fever, which left him close to death. One missionary excursion dragged into a nightmare that lasted 7 months, much of it afflicted by fever. Back in Rangoon, Ann was subjected to severe harassment and withstood a devastating plague of cholera which swept the city.
The Judsons used a Zayat (a shelter) to provide rest for travellers, where discussions took place. It was at this Zayat in June 1819 that the Judsons were blessed, after 7 years of labour, with the first Burmese convert, Maung Nau.
At one point, Adoniram Judson sought an audience with the Emperor, to present the Gospel to him. His attempt was abruptly dismissed by the Emperor. The Judsons battled discouragement and ill health.
At one point Ann had to be sent back to America to recover from a debilitating fever. She returned with more missionary volunteers.
In 1824, war broke out between Great Britain and Burma. Although Judson was an American, he was accused of being an English spy and incarcerated in “Death Prison” for 18 months. Adoniram was mistreated and tortured by the Burmese, confined with 50 others in the most atrocious conditions, filth and squalor. At night his feet were tied to a bamboo pole, which was raised above his head so that he was forced to sleep, if at all, with only his head and shoulders on the ground.
On the first occasion that Ann was allowed to visit her husband, eight months after his arrest, she carried their new born daughter, Maria. Ann was shocked that her normally fastidious, neat and presentable husband was in such a degrading state, having to crawl towards her in a condition that she was not even able to describe.
When the British were able to free Adoniram, he was hit with another devastating blow, his beloved wife Ann had died. Six months later, their 2-year-old daughter, Maria, was buried alongside her mother. Adoniram sunk into extreme depression, and for a time, the work of the Gospel in Burma came to a halt.
Inspired by the steadfastness of the Judsons, new Missionaries from America began arriving. More and more Burmese were converted to Christ. In one year, 200 converts were baptised. In 1832, Judson’s translation of the New Testament was completed, followed in 1834 by the Old Testament.
Adoniram then married Sarah Boardman, the widow of a missionary colleague. He worked at revising his translation of The Bible, alongside instructing native preachers and Evangelists. When his work on The Bible was finally done, he turned his attention to a Burmese dictionary.
As Sarah’s health deteriorated, Adoniram accompanied her by sea back to America for recuperation, but she died en-route and was buried on the Island of St. Helena in August 1845. Then the news reached him that their 1½-year-old son, Charles, had died a month before his mother.
Although by now, he could barely whisper, large crowds gathered to hear him speak in America. When he returned to Burma, he took his third wife, Emily Chubbuck, with him. Emily generated some controversy as she was half his age and a writer of popular stories. Nevertheless, there was no doubt that she was a dedicated Christian and devoted to the Mission.
Karen for Christ
By 1849, the English-Burmese Dictionary had been completed. By the time Adoniram died in 1850, he had established 63 Churches amongst the Karen tribe. Over 100 000 Karen people had been baptised. Before he died, Adoniram declared: “When Christ calls me home, I shall go with the gladness of a boy, bounding away from his school.” All Judson’s 5 surviving children grew up to distinguish themselves in Christian service. The Karen people in Burma have remained steadfast in their Christian Faith despite severe persecution, an island of Christianity in a sea of Buddhism.
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the Faith.” 2 Timothy 4:7
Dr. Peter Hammond
This article was adapted from a chapter of The Greatest Century of Missions book (224 pages with 200 photographs, pictures, charts and maps), available from: Christian Liberty Books, PO Box 358 Howard Place 7450 Cape Town South Africa Tel: 021-689-7478, Fax: 086-551-7490, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Website: www.christianlibertybooks.co.za.