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Adoniram Judson "Pioneer of American Missions"

by Don Jasmin

Adoniram JudsonAdoniram Judson (1788-1850) was one of the most remarkable men of his age. Described by one of his biographers as the "Christian Hero of the Nineteenth Century," he was truly the "Pioneer of American Missions." Like the apostle Paul, it could be said of Judson that in labors he was "more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons frequent, in deaths oft."

Judson's Early Infidelity

Although he was the son of a congregational preacher, Judson was an unbeliever as a youth, graduating from Brown University in 1807 as a confirmed infidel. While commencing a tour of the United States, however, he began to have serious doubts about his deistic concepts and returned home for the express purpose of examining thoroughly the claims of the Christian religion.

His Conversion Experience

While browsing through a private library in Boston one day, he took from the shelf a book entitled HUMAN NATURE, ITS FOURFOLD STATE by the noted deceased Scottish minister Thomas Boston, (a valuable addition to any preacher’s library!). Becoming convinced both of the divine inspiration of Scripture and his lost condition, he earnestly began seeking the truth.

A Missionary Sermon That Made A Difference

In 1808, Andover Seminary opened its doors as a protest against the Unitarian Liberalism that had captured Harvard University and Judson made application for admission as one of its first students. Although not yet converted, the trustees approved his application because of Judson's intense concern for his soul’s destiny. Within a few weeks, he manifested evidence of saving grace and turned his undivided attention to his theological studies.

During his last year at Andover, he read a famous sermon by Rev. Claudius Buchanan entitled "Star in the East," which had been preached by Buchanan in 1809 in Bristol, England after he had served for twelve years as chaplain for the East India Company. For six months, Judson prayerfully weighed the truth of that sermon in his heart, then decisively made his decision concerning foreign missions.

America's First Mission Society

At the same time, several other young men felt a similar burden, and with Judson, they banded themselves together in a joint pact to engage in foreign mission labors as soon as God opened the door. In June 1810, at a meeting of the Massachusetts Congregational Association, Judson drew up a document seeking counsel about the potential forming of an American mission society and a board was established for that purpose. Thus, it was under Judson’s initiative, that the first foreign mission society, in America was formed.

Since there was still a connectional church-state relationship in the Massachusetts Commonwealth, legislative approval was necessary and there was considerable resistance before permission was granted. Some legislators were just not convinced that there was any need to proclaim the Gospel to the "heathen" nations.

Judson was so highly regarded that the noted Dr. Edwin Doer Griffin, pastor of the Park Street Congregational Church, the largest church in Boston, desired him to become his associate and eventual successor in the ministry there. Judson, however, had already counted the spiritual cost of his decision. Just one month before his marriage to Ann Hasseltine, he wrote her the following words: "What a great change will this year probably effect in our lives. How very different will be our situation and employment ... we shall probably experience seasons when we shall be 'exceeding sorrowful even unto death.' We shall wish to lie down and die and that time may soon come ... Oh for an overcoming faith."

On February 5, 1812, he married his sweetheart and eleven days later on February 16, 1812, he was ordained and consecrated for missionary service. Between 1500-2000 believers crowded into the Tabernacle Church in Salem, Massachusetts for the memorable occasion, with students from Andover Seminary walking the sixteen miles on a cold snowy day to be present for the historic event. On ordination day, the missionary board had only $500 cash and $1200 promised, but before the day’s services has been completed, over $6,000 in cash had been received for the missionary cause.

Judson Leaves For India

On February 19, 1812, the Judsons sailed from Salem Harbor for India, their assumed location for missionary labors. E.H. Gray, one of Judson’s biographers, declared that this event would someday become "the most important event of the nineteenth century." In Gray’s brief biographical sketch of Judson’s life, he wrote that the vessel that day carried on board "the richest boon that America had ever offered to that luxurious and benighted land ... the first company of American missionaries to the benighted idolaters of the East."

A New Testament Study That Made Him A Baptist

During the long voyage across the seas, Judson studied his New Testament extensively, particularly in relation to the subject of baptism. Knowing that when he disembarked in India, he would be meeting the famous English Baptist missionary, William Carey, Judson determined to discover the basis of Baptist beliefs. By the time he reached India, he had become thoroughly convinced that baptism was an ordinance for believers only and that the correct scriptural mode was immersion.

On August 27, 1812, shortly after arriving in India, he wrote Carey a letter stating his convictions and requesting baptism. On September 27, 1812, the Judsons were both immersed. Judson preached a sermon on baptism on that occasion, the content of which he obviously had spent considerable time preparing during his voyage. In a letter to a pastor friend, William Carey declared that it was the "best sermon" he had ever heard on the subject. The sermon was published in India that same fall and later printed by the Baptist mission society with which Judson became identified. The F.D. [Fundamentalist Digest] editor has seen extant copies, both of the original edition published in India, and the edition published by the ABFMS [American Baptist Foreign Missionary Society] in America and will state unreservedly that he believes it indeed is a "classic," the finest in booklet form he has ever read on baptism.

A Baptist Mission Agency Is Formed

Judson sent a copy of the sermon, along with a letter to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the Congregational mission society, informing them of his decision to sever relations, asking for their understanding and prayers.

The significance of this decision can hardly be over emphasized. He was connecting himself with believers to whom he was a total stranger, a group which did not have a missionary organization and which in America had manifested little interest in missions up to that time. Judson appealed to the Baptists in America, suggesting the formation of a foreign mission society and offering himself as the first missionary. In 1814, America’s second mission board, the "Triennial Convention" of American Baptists was formed and once again, Judson had been instrumental in its origin.

Judson's trials began immediately. The British East India Company, under whose direction the country was being governed, was unfriendly to the introduction of Christianity among the heathen. For the next seventeen months the Judson "embarked" and "disembarked" in eastern ports, hoping to obtain permission to conduct their labors, but without success. Fearing that an imminent order might be issued for his departure to England, Judson found one boat in the harbor of Madras ready to sail for Rangoon, Burma and without delay, secured passage. The next 37 years of his life were spent laboring faithfully in that land, with only one trip back to America during that lengthy span.

Faithful Labors Before Harvest

Before he left America, Judson was asked about the prospect for immediate conversion of the heathen. Judson’s reply was that the prospects were "as bright as the promises of God." During his first several years in Burma, his faith in those promises was to be severely tested and proven. In his first four years, he had only one inquirer and it was six long years before that first convert. On June 27, 1819, that convert, the first of Judson’s labors, was baptized.

Another five years rolled by during which time Judson unfatiguingly translated the New Testament into the Burmese language. After 11 years of labor, the number of converts had increased to 18! When conversions seemed to lag and Judson heard rumors from home that his ministry might be considered a failure, he declared, "Tell them to wait a few years and they will hear from us." By the conclusion of his 37 years there, the verbal guns of the critics had been silenced and Judson had become a living legend.

Persecutions And Testings

The persecutions, testings, and adversities Judson faced during those years seem almost overwhelming. For 19 months, he was imprisoned—17 of those months, being bound in fetters (chains). On two occasions, he was nearly executed by knifing, being twice spared at the very moment of death. On another occasion, plans had been made to burn him alive, but each time, God intervened and preserved his choice servant.

While he was away on a mission, his first wife died of a fever. Left widowed, but not childless, his infant daughter died six months later, leaving him all alone. He then spent another seven years completing the translation of the entire Bible, which he finished on January 31, 1834. On that occasion he wrote, "I have dedicated it to His glory. May He make His own inspired Word, now completed in the Burman tongue, the grand instrument of filling all Burma with songs and praises to our Great God and Saviour Jesus Christ."

A Second Fruitful Marriage

On April 10, 1834, he was married to Sarah Boardman. During their eleven years together, Judson fathered eight more children. He also invested another five years revising the Burmese Bible. In 1845, his second wife became desperately ill and a voyage to the United States was determined as the only place where her illness might be cured. At St. Helena, her condition worsened and she died. Since the ship sailed the following morning, Judson had to leave her body behind in a grave quickly prepared for use on the island.

His Third Romance And Final Ministry

Judson arrived back in Boston on October 15, 1845, some 33½ years after his departure, preaching the same night at a church in Bowdoin Square. In June 1846, he was wedded to Emily Chubbuch.

On July 11, 1846, he departed for Burma, arriving on December 5, 1846. For the next three years, he addressed himself again to his customary labors, but in November 1849 his health began to fail. A sea voyage to another climate was determined as the only means of recovery. Enroute on a medical journey, his death came at sea, just three days journey from the land where he had invested his life. His body was committed to the choppy waters of the sea, to await the resurrection call. At age 62, in his 38th year of missionary labors, with seven thousand Burmese believers behind as a testimony, he entered the presence of his Saviour.

Three outstanding traits marked Judson’s life (1) His passion for souls; (2) His faith and perseverance; (3) His self denying and sacrificial spirit. Judson’s life proves what real Christian heroism can accomplish for God, despite adverse circumstances. Adoniram Judson was truly a "Christian Hero of the Nineteenth Century" and a "Pioneer of American Missions." His heroic sacrifice has inspired hundreds to respond to the missionary call and that response still continues today.


Reprinted from The Fundamentalist Digest, February-March 2007. Don Jasmin, editor. P.O. Box 489, West Branch, MI 48661.

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