Adoniram Judson was born in 1788, the son of a devout Congregationalist minister. From early in life he excelled in everything he touched. So excellent was young Judson’s scholarship that he was enrolled at Rhode Island Christian College at the age of 16.
Unlike many other missionaries, Adoniram did not have an early call from God or love for Him. In fact, Judson fell in with a number of atheists, chief of which was James Eames who became his dear friend. By the age of 20, the minister’s son had completely denounced Christ and his upbringing. “Like the prodigal son he left home in quest of an exciting life. He wanted to escape parental restraints.” The story of Adoniram Judson’s conversion has been told so many times that it really does not need to be documented.
Not long after leaving home, sure of his new atheistic beliefs, Judson spent the night at an inn. The innkeeper warned him that the only room he had was a room with a young man who was very ill and dying. Adoniram said that was no problem. Through the night he heard the agonizing cries and pleas of a dying man who obviously did not know God. As the man’s cries grew weaker in the early hours of morning, Judson wondered what the destiny was that awaited such a man or for that matter himself. At sunrise, he inquired of the innkeeper what the condition of the sick man was. “Oh, he died in the night,” was the curt reply. “Do you know who he was?” asked Judson. To his horror he was told that the name of the man he had heard die in the night was James Eames, the man who had led him into unbelief and atheism.
Shaken by the event of his friend’s death, a different Adoniram Judson returned home and sought admission to Andover Theological Seminary. Once enrolled, the writing of the Puritan, Thomas Boston led Judson to full faith in Christ and salvation. Soon, what had once been a raving atheist had been transformed into a young man who felt God calling him into missions.
There was one great problem facing Judson concerning missions; in early 1800 America, there were no foreign missionaries. Sometime around 1811, Judson wrote the following in a magazine article:
“How do Christians discharge this trust committed to them? They let three fourths of the world sleep the sleep of death, ignorant of the simple truth that a Savior died for them. Content if they can be useful in the little circle of their acquaintances, they quietly sit and see whole nations perish for lack of knowledge.”
Through meeting and prayer with other concerned Congregationalists, Judson helped to formulate plans to form a mission society dedicated to sending missionaries to India. The budding missionary found something else during that time, his future wife. At the home of a deacon where the mission society met, Judson fell in love with a godly young woman by the name of Ann. Imagine being Ann’s father when he received this letter from Adoniram Judson:
“I have now to ask, whether you can consent to part with your daughter early next Spring, to see her no more in this world; whether you can consent to her departure, and her subjection to the hardships and sufferings of missionary life; whether you can consent to her exposure to the dangers of the ocean; to the fatal influence of the climate of India; to every kind of want and distress; to degradation, insult, persecution, and perhaps a violent death. Can you consent to all this, for the sake of Him who left His heavenly home and died for her and for you; for the sake of perishing immortal souls, for the sake of Zion, and the glory of God?”
With her eyes wide open to the impending dangers of missionary life, Ann consented to marriage and she and Judson were wed in February of 1812.
The Judsons set sail for India while their good friend Luther Rice prepared to come on a later ship. As they settled in for the four-month journey to India, Adoniram and Ann began an intense study of Scripture. They knew that upon arrival in India they would be ministering alongside the famous Baptist missionaries of Serampore Mission led by none other than William Carey. How would they work together with their differences concerning baptism? Adoniram was also seeking to reconcile some questions he had about his own Covenant Theology. All of their first converts would be adults. He wondered if they should also baptize the children of these new believers in a pagan land. Had the Judsons known that the Baptist missionaries of India had a policy to avoid such controversies, they may never have embarked on this study. Regardless, they became convinced over the weeks of study and prayer that believer’s baptism was the New Testament mandate, and determined to be baptized by immersion when they arrived in India. In God’s providence, Luther Rice would come to the same conclusion separately from them.
Ann and Adoniram left America as Congregationalists, but arrived in India as Baptists. They knew this decision would severely affect their relationship with their friends and family back in America. Ann wrote to one of her closest friends; “My dear Nancy, we are confirmed Baptists, not because we wished to be, but because truth compelled us to be … We anticipate the loss of reputation, and of the affection and esteem of many of our American friends.” When they landed in Calcutta, Judson wrote to William Carey, “… feeling that we are in an unbaptized state, we wish to profess our faith in Christ by being baptized in obedience to his sacred commands.”  The parting of the Judsons and Luther Rice from the Congregationalists was on friendly terms and was used to further the kingdom of God just as did the parting of Paul and Barnabas.
Upon landing in India, the new Baptists found that their greatest enemy was not paganism but the British East India Company. Greed caused the British government to distrust missionaries and the changes that took place in their converts. People freed from sin have a bad habit of bowing down to God rather than man and the British knew that. Refused permanent status in India, Ann and Adoniram set sail for Burma.
No place could have more fulfilled Adoniram’s prophecy in his letter of proposal to Ann’s father than Burma. Burma was a land of superstition, governmental corruption and dedicated Buddhism. William Carey’s son Felix wrote of Burma:
“The houses of Rangoon were miserably built, the streets were filthy with vermin, the rents wickedly oppressive, the taxes absurdly high, and the punishments barbarous.”
Burma was all that and more. Torture and mass executions were common occurrences. Any foreign religion was dealt with swiftly and unmercifully. The country’s rulers were proud men who vainly believed their nation was superior to all others and invincible. This is the place, which Adoniram had brought his fair Ann to minister for the Lord Jesus Christ.
There was plenty to do upon arriving in Rangoon. The Burmese language was difficult beyond belief; a seemingly endless string of words with no punctuation or recognizable sentence structure of any kind. Translating was Judson’s sole work for over six years. Then in 1819, the first Burman, Moung Nau, gave his life to Christ and was baptized. Soon several more were baptized and a new missionary, Dr. Pierce joined them. Things were looking up as they often do just before the storm hits.
Judson and Pierce slowly had gained the king’s approval only to have that destroyed by the announcement that 5000 British troops had attacked and taken Rangoon. Even though the missionaries were not British, they were white foreigners and were soon imprisoned in the most horrid conditions one could imagine. For almost two years, Judson and Pierce were imprisoned along with 100 other men in a single room. Had it not been for Ann’s loving devotion and care they would have surely perished. As the British won battle after battle it became apparent Burma was lost. Seeing the inevitable, the Burmese realized that the missionaries could help them in translation and negotiations. Thus, Judson and Pierce were finally set free.
The long imprisonment had taken its toll on Ann. Through that time she had nursed a child and worked tirelessly to feed her husband and Dr. Pierce. It was more than Ann’s frail body could take. A few months after Adoniram was freed, his dear wife died on October 24th, 1826 to be followed by their daughter Maria in 1827. The call of missions had indeed cost the Judsons dearly. These losses were great but what followed was even more grave.
Adoniram sank into a deep depression. He renounced all outward acceptability, returning an honorary doctorate he had earned from Brown University. Finally he removed himself to the heart of a tiger infested jungle to live alone in a hut. Judson spent forty days in the jungle looking at his heart and contemplating his call. The local natives considered his survival through those days as nothing short of the way that God spared Daniel in the lion’s den.
Just as David found his way out of the cave at Adullam so Judson immerged a better man after those darks nights in the jungle and he plunged into his work with renewed vigor … God blessed the missionaries’ sacrifice with more and more leaving the darkness of Buddhism for the light of Jesus Christ.
Eight years after the death of Ann, Adoniram married the widow of a fellow missionary, Sarah Boardman. None of Ann’s children survived but Adoniram and Sarah would have six children who survived. God had restored much to Judson and in 1840 He allowed him to finish his great translation of the Burmese Bible. Nearly eight more years passed with great victories and great love between Sarah and Adoniram. Again, tragedy visited Judson, as Sarah grew ill. Determined to go with her to America, Judson left Burma with his wife. The trip was too much and Sarah was laid to rest in St. Helena.
Arriving in America, and missing his second wife, Judson was unprepared for the reception he received. It had been 38 years since he last set foot on American soil. Luther Rice had returned to America years before and had tirelessly furthered the cause of supporting foreign missions. Everywhere he went, people wanted Judson to speak and tell of the work of God in Burma. While in America, Judson married for a third time. Emily proved a faithful companion and sister in Christ in the remaining years of Judson’s life when they returned to Burma. Finally, having laid down his all for Christ, Judson died in April of 1850 and was buried at sea.
Adoniram Judson stands as a model of selfless commitment to the cause of Christ. He was not perfect as none of us are. When faced with the loss of his dear Ann and Maria, he slipped into what would probably be diagnosed as manic-depression in another day. His only counselor was the Holy Spirit and his assurance was in a Sovereign God. He was willing to suffer loss for the sake of what he believed to be true doctrine. He believed firmly in the doctrines of grace, the necessity of the Gospel, and the power of the conviction of the Holy Spirit.
At the time of his death there were over 7000 baptized Christians in Burma along with 63 churches and 123 missionaries and pastors. His influence was felt far and wide. Through the mission societies Judson helped establish, there were over 2700 missionaries around the world. Judson’s greatest legacy was his undying love for Christ. While in America someone complained that Judson didn’t tell more thrilling stories of adventure and intrigue. In reply to that, Judson said, “I [am] glad they have it to say [that I] had nothing better to tell than the wondrous story of Jesus’ dying love.”
1 Adoniram Judson and the Missionary Call by Erroll Hulse, Reformation Today Trust, 1996, p. 6.
2 Hulse, p. 7 (The book he read was Human Nature in its Fourfold State by Thomas Boston).
3 To the Golden Shore by Courtney Anderson, Judson Press, 1989, pp. 63-64.
4 Anderson, p. 83.
5 The Life of Adoniram Judson by Edward Judson, Anson D.F. Randolph and Company, 1883, p. 36.
6 Ibid., p. 39.
7 Ibid., p. 42.
8 William Carey by Pearce Carey, Wakeman, 1923, p. 266.
9 Hulse, p. 26.