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Dr. Judson in Burmah

by Claud Field
Dr. Judson—Driven from Calcutta to Burmah—Breaking ground—The first baptism—Outbreak of persecution—Voyage up the Irrawaddy—Interview with the Emperor—Dr. Judson arrested as a spy—The death-prison—Sufferings of Mrs. Judson—The starved lion—A rapture of release—Linguistic labours.

Adoniram JudsonFew missionary biographies are fraught with more romantic interest than that of Dr. Judson, the pioneer missionary to Burmah. During his youth he was infected by the scepticism which was prevalent in America at the time of the French Revolution, but the death of an intimate friend gave his thoughts a more serious direction. He first sailed to England to consult the directors of the Congregational Missionary Institute at Gosport with regard to his destination. On the way he had a foretaste of missionary hardships, as the ship in which he sailed was captured by a French privateer. For some days he was confined in a French prison, and comforted himself by translating verses from his Hebrew Bible into Latin. An Englishman discovered him, and obtained his liberty by bribing the jailor. He subsequently returned to America, and after marrying Ann Hasseltine sailed for Calcutta in 1812. The English Government at that time was extremely distrustful of missionaries, and ordered the Judsons to leave at a few days' notice. William Carey, the first Protestant missionary in India, recorded his impression that they looked too delicate for missionary work, though he little thought of the hardships which lay before them. They sailed for Mauritius, and while there contemplated a mission to Madagascar. This, however, proved impossible at the time, and they finally took ship for Rangoon, then a mere collection of wooden huts and pagodas. Their spirits sank on first landing, as they felt alone in a land of strangers. Dr. Carey's son, Felix Carey, who had been sent to commence a mission at Rangoon, was absent in the interior.

Before engaging in any kind of preaching Dr. Judson had to devote himself for some years to the laborious acquirement of the language, an extremely difficult one. The difficulty was increased by the fact that he had to make his own grammar and dictionary. Not till 1817, as Dr. Judson was sitting with his teacher, did an inquirer appear with the momentous question, "How long a time will it take me to learn the religion of Jesus?" This inquirer had been attracted by seeing two little books published by Dr. Judson. The missionary, overjoyed at the interest exhibited, gave him the two first half-sheets containing the first five chapters of St. Matthew. This inquirer did not appear again for a long time, but others began to come in.

Dr. Judson had caused a bamboo shed with a thatched roof to be built under the shadow of one of the great pagodas. In this he sat daily, like St. Paul, "disputing with all those who came to him." Being Buddhists, the natives were of a keen and philosophic turn of mind, and would demand the definition of the simplest terms, such as "man," before proceeding any further.

Just about this time Dr. and Mrs. Judson were obliged to undergo a severe trial of patience. At the end of the year 1817, in the hope of recruiting his health, which had suffered severely from too close application to study, and also of obtaining a Burmese-speaking Christian helper, Dr. Judson set sail in a ship for Chittagong, on the north-east coast of Bengal. Owing, however, to the incompetence of the captain, they were kept tossing up and down in the Bay of Bengal for three months and then landed at Madras. Here for two or three months longer, Dr. Judson was kept in a state of enforced idleness, while chafing to be at work again, as very few ships sailed from that port to Rangoon. All this time Mrs. Judson had to suffer tortures of suspense, as she received no news whatever of her husband. She was herself on the point of embarking for Bengal when fortunately she heard of his arrival at the mouth of the river Irrawaddy, and they were reunited after a separation of eight months.

At last in June 1819, after six years of patient preliminary seed-sowing, Dr. Judson had the satisfaction of baptizing his first convert, Moung Nau. The ceremony took place without disturbance in a large pond, the bank of which was graced with an enormous image of Gautama Buddha. This convert became an invaluable assistant in the "zayat" or preaching shed, being familiar with the terms necessary for conveying spiritual truth to the Burmese mind.

But this hopeful commencement began to be darkened by gloomy forebodings. One day the Viceroy of Rangoon, seated on a huge elephant, and attended by a numerous suite, passed the zayat. He said nothing, but eyed the missionary very narrowly and the little group of natives with whom he was conversing. He subsequently showed his hostility to the new religion by issuing an order that no one wearing a hat, shoes, or umbrella, or mounted on a horse, should approach within the sacred ground belonging to the great pagoda, which extended on some sides half a mile. This obliged Dr. Judson to make a long detour through the woods to get to his usual place of resort. This pagoda, called the Shwaay Dagon, had been newly gilded, and was considered the most sacred in the whole country on account of its containing six or eight hairs of Gautama.

Towards the end of the same year Dr. Judson was encouraged by the baptism of two more converts. They were somewhat timid, and requested that the baptism might take place in the evening, and their wish was complied with; but the majority of the inquirers had been frightened away by the Viceroy's action, and Dr. Judson had the mortification of sitting whole days in the zayat, without any one coming for conversation, though numbers were constantly passing. Seeing that no further progress could be hoped for until the Emperor's permission to preach Christianity freely was obtained, Dr. Judson presented a petition for leave "to go up to the golden feet and lift up his eyes to the golden face," which was granted.

Accordingly Dr. Judson and Mr. Colman, a newly arrived missionary, prepared for the long voyage of 350 miles to Ava up the Irrawaddy River. They had to take guns with them, as the banks of the river were infested with robbers, and on one occasion a gun had to be fired over the heads of a boat-load of men which was approaching them with apparently hostile intent. It had the desired effect of frightening them away.

On arriving at Ava they laid their request before one of the ministers of state; but they found that they had arrived at an unpropitious time, as the Emperor's mind was full of a military display which he was holding to celebrate his victory over the Cathays. The minister said to them: "How can you propagate religion in this empire? But come along." They were conducted into a spacious hall, the vault and pillars of which were completely covered with gold. Presently the emperor's form was visible between the pillars as he strode majestically into the hall. In his hand he carried the gold-sheathed sword, the symbol of royalty. All present prostrated themselves with their foreheads in the dust except the two Americans, who remained on their knees. "Who are these?" he asked, as he stopped opposite them. "The teachers, great king," Dr. Judson replied. "What! you speak Burmese—the priests that I heard of last night? When did you arrive? Are you teachers of religion? Are you married? Why do you dress so?" After these queries had been answered the King sat down, with his hand resting on the hilt of his sword, looking towards the missionaries. Their petition for toleration for themselves and their converts was then read aloud by the minister of state. The Emperor himself also read it through, and then put out his hand for a tract which the missionaries had brought. Their hearts beat high with mingled hope and apprehension as they prayed silently for a favorable result. To their dismay, the Emperor, after reading the first two or three sentences, dashed it down to the ground in disdain. In vain one of the ministers of state made an effort in behalf of the missionaries by displaying one of the volumes of the Bible in a binding covered with gold leaf, which they had brought for presentation to his Majesty. All the reply they received was: "In regard to the objects of your petition his Majesty gives no order. In regard to your sacred books, his Majesty has no use for them; take them away." The Emperor then, after directing that Colman should be examined with a view to ascertaining whether his medical knowledge would be of any value, strode to the end of the hall, where he threw himself on a cushion, listening to the music, and gazing at the parade before him.

Notwithstanding the keenness of the disappointment, Dr. Judson bravely wrote in his journal: "Arrived at the boat, we threw ourselves down completely exhausted in body and mind. For three days we had walked eight miles a day, most of the way in the heat of the sun, which, even at this season in the interior of these countries, is exceedingly oppressive, and the result of our travels and toils has been—the wisest and best possible—a result which, if we could see the end from the beginning, would call forth our highest praise."

Their fears for their converts were increased at this time by the story of a former Roman Catholic convert which they heard from an English resident. This man, after his baptism, had been to Rome to receive further instruction. On his return he was accused by his nephew, a clerk in the high court of the empire, of having deserted the established religion. Whereupon he was subjected to the torture of the iron mall, i.e. hammered from the ends of his feet to his breast. At each blow he repeated the name of Christ. At last some persons, pitying his condition, went to the Emperor and represented that he was a madman, on which he was let go, and sent by the Portuguese to Bengal, where he died. This and other considerations made Dr. Judson and Mr. Colman contemplate removing to Chittagong, which was under British protection; but the little band of converts and inquirers begged so hard not to be left, that Dr. Judson decided to remain at Rangoon, while Mr. Colman went to Chittagong.

About this time an inquirer of superior rank and intellect, named Moung Shway-gnong, was baptized. The ceremony took place at night by lantern-light, the first Burmese woman convert being baptized at the same time. Moung Shway-gnong's baptism caused considerable stir among the Buddhists, and a complaint was made to the Viceroy that "he was turning the priests' rice-pot bottom upwards." "What consequence?" said the Viceroy; "let the priests turn it back again." A second complaint, however, against this convert, made by the priests to the Viceroy, threatened to have more serious consequences. The Viceroy replied to the priests that if he was indeed endeavouring to subvert the Buddhist religion, he was deserving of death. On hearing this Moung Shway-gnong fled by boat to his own village, where he continued to distribute Christian tracts.

So much alarm was caused by this first open manifestation of a persecuting spirit, that Dr. Judson was obliged to close the zayat and betake himself to translation work. In the meantime a medical missionary, Dr. Price, arrived at Rangoon, and the Emperor, hearing of his arrival, sent an order for both of them to proceed to Ava. They left Rangoon in August 1821, Dr. Judson having in the eight years of his residence there baptized eighteen converts.

Arrived at Ava, they found the Emperor more willing to listen than before. He was especially interested in a galvanic battery brought by Dr. Price, and requested Dr. Judson to give a specimen of his preaching in Burmese. The Emperor's brother also requested to see the "sacred books"—the Bible which had formerly been refused—and held long conversations with Dr. Judson on the subject of Christianity.

In 1824, however, this bright prospect was clouded over by the breaking out of war between England and Burmah. The Burmese were at first astounded at the white strangers' audacity in attacking Rangoon, and the only fears expressed at the palace in Ava were lest the English should escape before they could be captured as slaves. "Send to me," said one of the ladies of a Woon-gyee (or high official), "four white strangers to manage the affairs of my household, as I hear they are trustworthy." "And to me," said a gay young sprig of the palace, "six stout men to row my boat." The Burmese army went down the Irrawaddy in large gilded boats to execute these orders, with warriors singing and dancing in high spirits. Few of them, however, were destined to return home again. As soon as the army was dispatched to Rangoon, suspicion fell upon the Americans of being spies of the English. This suspicion was increased by the fact that Dr. Judson had received sums of money through Mr. Gouger, an English resident. On the 8th of June 1824, to Mrs. Judson's horror, a number of men rushed into their house, and one whose spotted face denoted him as the public executioner, flung Mr. Judson on the floor and tied his arms tightly behind him. Mrs. Judson vainly offered money for his release. He was led away, she knew not where, and she was left, strictly guarded by ten men. Presently a native Christian came with the information that Mr. Judson had been conducted to the death-prison. On the payment of two hundred "tickals" of silver, Mrs. Judson was allowed a five minutes' conversation with her husband, who hobbled to the door of the prison, but she was soon forced away from him and ordered to depart. She then presented a petition to the Empress, but all the reply she obtained was, "He is not to be executed; let him remain where he is."

During the next seven months Mrs. Judson, with marvelous persistency, kept applying to one after another of the members of the Government, being exposed to continual rebuffs and insults. On one occasion a Burmese grandee seized her silk umbrella, and when she begged that he would at least give her a paper one instead, he replied that she was too thin to suffer sunstroke, and drove her away. She managed to communicate with her husband by writing on a flat cake and burying it in a bowl of rice, while he, in return, wrote on a piece of tile, on which, when wetted with water, the writing became invisible, but when the tile was dry became legible. Afterwards she found it more feasible to write on a sheet of paper, which she then rolled up and inserted in the spout of a coffee-pot.

The news of the defeat of the Burmese army by the English, and of the advance of the latter, only made matters worse for the unfortunate prisoners. They were thrust inside the common prison, with five pairs of fetters each, and so crowded that there was not room to lie down. There were at one time a hundred prisoners in one room without a window for the admittance of air. At last Mrs. Judson received an order from the Governor of the city to remove Dr. Judson from the common prison into a little bamboo room, six feet long and four wide. Under the circumstances this seemed a great alleviation.

Soon, however, their sufferings recommenced. An official called the Pakan-woon came into power, and by his orders the prisoners were suddenly removed to a place called Oung-pen-la, with the intention of sacrificing them to secure the success of the Burmese army. One morning, when Mrs. Judson had brought her husband's breakfast as usual, she was summoned to the Governor's, and detained a considerable time. On her return she found the little bamboo shed torn down and the prison empty. Wild with nameless anxiety she hurried back to the Governor, who declared he was ignorant of their fate. He only said in an ominous way, "You can do no more for your husband, take care of yourself."

The next day she obtained a pass from the Government to follow Dr. Judson with her three-months-old infant and a faithful Bengalee servant. When she arrived at Oung-pen-la, ten miles off, she found him half-dead with suffering and fatigue, and his first words were: "Why have you come? I hoped you would not follow, for you cannot live here."

She learnt that as soon as she had left him at the Governor's summons, one of the jailors had rushed into Mr. Judson's room, and stripped off his clothes, except his shirt and trousers. In this state the prisoners were driven, fastened by twos with ropes round their waists, under the burning tropical sun.

Dr. Judson's feet were lacerated by the stones and gravel. He obtained a little relief by leaning on the shoulder of his fellow-prisoner, Captain Laird, but the latter soon found the burden insupportable. So great was Dr. Judson's agony that on crossing a river he would have gladly flung himself into it had not the thought of the guilt of suicide prevented him. A kindly servant tore a strip of cloth off his turban and wrapped it round his wounded feet. In this state he hobbled the remaining distance.

The prison at Oung-pen-la presented a similar scene of horror to that at Ava. The keepers of the prison were all branded criminals, some bearing the name of their crime branded into the flesh of their foreheads or their breasts. At night a long bamboo pole was passed through the ankle-fetters of the prisoners to preclude the possibility of escape, and raised to a considerable height. So suspended, they had to pass the night tortured by the mosquitoes, which bit their bare feet, and which it was impossible to drive away. In the morning the pole was lowered nearer the floor, and the blood flowed slowly back into their benumbed limbs.

A revolting feature of grotesqueness was added to all this horror by the sight, in a bamboo cage close to the prison, of a lion which was being slowly starved to death. It had originally been presented by some foreigner to the Emperor, and was a favourite with him. But when the war with the English began it was whispered about the court that the English bore a lion on their standard, and that this unfortunate beast was in some mysterious way their ally. Accordingly it was sent to the death-prison and slowly starved, while its roarings filled the jail, in the hope that its sufferings would somehow tend to the weakening of the British force. On its death Dr. Judson obtained the reversion of its cage during the day-time, which was a considerable relief to him.

At last, after twenty-one months of misery, from June 1824 to March 1826, Dr. Judson was released on the nearer approach of the British forces, and sent down the river to act as an interpreter in drawing up the treaty with the English. The rapture of release was indescribable. As Dr. Judson said afterwards, when one evening people were comparing different degrees of delightful experiences: "What do you think of floating down the Irrawaddy on a cool moonlight evening, with your wife by your side and your baby in your arms, free, all free? I can never regret my twenty-one months of misery, when I recall that one delicious thrill."

But in a few months Dr. Judson was called again to sorrow. He had gone to Ava to act as interpreter for the English Embassy, while Mrs. Judson remained alone at Amherst. There she sickened and died, with only a few native attendants around her.

Nearly a quarter of a century of labour still lay before her husband. He lived to see the mission which he had begun single-handed spread its branches over a considerable part of Burmah. For several years he laboured assiduously in translating the Bible into Burmese, a translation which competent judges consider one of the best ever made in an Eastern language. He also compiled a Burmese English dictionary.

During his thirty-eight years of missionary service he only once went home to America, on a nine months' visit, and was distressed rather than gratified at the ovation he received. At last, worn out with toils and sufferings, he died at sea, April 12, 1850, during a voyage he had taken for his health. Never more fitly was the title of "Apostle" bestowed than in terming him "the Apostle of Burmah."


Copied for WholesomeWords.org from Heroes of Missionary Enterprise... by Claud Field. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1908.

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