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Sarah Boardman Judson: The Teacher in the Wilds

In the merchants' windows, at the corners of streets, and amongst the other multifarious announcements of our busy days [mid-1800s], people may from time to time perceive little handbill intimations anent meetings at which some devoted one is to be set apart to labor amongst the far-off heathens. These notices produce little or no effect upon the world generally; but to the Christian churches they are usually of the most lively interest. They illustrate the chivalry of the church, if we may so speak; they exhibit the Christian heroism of our age, and present a lovely moral and religious contrast to the destructive heroism of the world.

It is easy to become a warrior; the poor neglected immortals, whose ferocity has alone been trained, have gained the reputation of dauntless heroism. The applause of the world is of itself sufficient to incite any man to rush into the deadly rift of battle, but the courage requisite for a missionary appears to us to be of the most sublime and noble kind. No world's applause could sustain a man or woman, full of heart-affection for friends and home, amidst the dreary desolate wastes of heathen lands during a life-time. Nothing but the religious sense of duty, and the applause of a pure conscience, could so elevate and sustain the soul amongst weary labors and pestilential airs.

When we look at courage through the true medium, how immeasurably superior to the ferocious passions of a Caesar or a Napoleon do the faithful souls of a Williams, Roberts, and Waddel, appear. The book of history is full of the fame of the former, and their monuments are on almost every chimney-piece; the latter are only known to the Christian world of Great Britain and America, the angels, and the heathen; but their place of remembrance shall be heaven.

The missionary field, however, is not exclusively reserved for the strong and faithful and forward man. As Christianity is woman's bond of equality with man, so is the vineyard of Christ equally her place of labor, and she also goes forth in the faith that maketh strong, to do the will of Him who sends her.

Perhaps it might appear invidious to sketch the life of any one of those amiable heroines of the cross, when the lives of all are so full of true courage and faith; but as, on the other hand, the life of one, save in its incidents, may be looked upon as a parallel to that of all others, it is both necessary and profitable to particularize.

Sarah Boardman Judson was born in 1803, at Alstead, in the state of New Hampshire, and subsequently removed with her parents, Ralph and Abiah Hall, to Danvers, and then to Salem, in the state of Massachusetts. Sarah was the eldest of five children; and, as her parents were of the industrious class, she was constrained, like the majority of poor men's eldest daughters, to devote herself more to the care of her younger brothers and sisters than to the regular cultivation of her own mind.

There are some minds that would never grow strong unless they had something to struggle against. The latent courage of the noblest souls is only aroused and developed by those opposing forces that seem any thing but blessings. Mysterious are the ways of Providence, however, and finite and partial the judgments of men. We know not how the circumstances of life may operate toward the soul—God knows.

Deprived of the power of attending school, Sarah Hall was thrown upon herself. She had no teacher save experience, no guide in her lessons save her books, and to these she applied herself with heroic diligence. Care produced thus early in Sarah Hall that thoughtfulness and patience which, when matured, so beautifully adorn the Christian character, and her self-education was just the path to riper self-reliance. She early began to observe and think, and to write down her thoughts in a little daybook; and then in the form of poetry, when her ideas became more expanded and matured.

At seventeen years of age, Sarah Hall had devoted herself to the business of instructing others, in order that she might obtain the means of educating herself. During the day she taught, and at night she devoted her mind to the acquisition of logic, geometry, and Latin, etc.—a course of severe procedure that none but those who have pursued it can properly estimate. The baptism of Sarah Hall seems to have awakened in her the whole force of her inward life; and her meditations and aspirations seem, shortly after this event, to have been toward the path of a missionary. "I am privileged to worship the true God," she would say, "but, alas! for the poor perishing heathen who has never known Him." There is something so admirable in the spirit of these musings and expressions that, apart from their religious character, they are sufficient to claim the respect of every generous heart. A sense of blessings and privileges, and a strong desire to impart them to others, despite of toil, and uncertainty, and distance, and disease, are the glorious principles which animate those who bear the cross to distant lands. How unlike the vain-glorious spirit of those who go forth to slay!

As time wore onward Sarah Hall's name began to be heard in the literary world, and many looked upon her as a rising poetess, when she married the Rev. George Dana Boardman on the 4th of July, 1825, and the same month proceeded with him to join the American missionaries recently settled at Burmah, in the East Indies. It was here that the most interesting and eventful part of Sarah's life began. It was here that all her self-reliance and courage were called into requisition. Mr. Boardman and his wife settled at a station called Amherst, in order to become acquainted with the key to the heart of the heathen, which is his language. Dr. Judson and his family resided here, and assisted in the studies of the new comers, as well as in encouraging them in their labors.

Burmah was at this time in a most unfavorable condition for receiving from white men the religion of peace, for war and force were the first instruments which the whites had exercised toward the Burmese in visiting their country, and they had little confidence in any peaceful attempt that was made for their good.

After studying for some time at Amherst, Mr. and Mrs. Boardman removed to Maulmain, to a lonely and dangerous mission-house. The spot where it stood was a mile beyond the cantonments, close beside the thick jungle, where, during the night, the wild beasts made dismal howlings. Behind the station rose a fine range of hills, whose solitary aspect was relieved by the gilded masonry of handsome pagodas, and before rolled the broad deep river, where rode an English sloop of war, and where danced the boats of the natives. Just across the river was the Burman province of Martaban, whose terrible freebooters issued from their fastnesses during the night, armed with knives, spears, and sometimes muskets, driving away or slaying the peaceful inhabitants, while they seized upon the produce of their toil.

The English general suggested to Mr. Boardman the necessity of having an armed guard; but this would have totally deprived the missionary of gaining the confidence of the people, and it was declined. It was to study the language, habits, and character of the natives that he had gone thither, and not as a conqueror.

About a month after her settlement at Maulmain, Mrs. Boardman wrote to a friend: "We are in excellent health, and as happy as it is possible for human beings to be upon earth. It is our earnest desire to live, and labor, and die, among this people." The life of a missionary is not one of ease and safety, as the following thrilling incident in the life of young Sarah Boardman will show.

About the middle of June, as the meridian sun came down from its altitude, men in loose garments of gaily-plaided cloth, and with their long black hair wound about their heads, and confined by folds of muslin, looked curiously in at the door of the strange foreigner; and then encouraged by some kind word or glance, or the spreading of a mat, seated themselves in their own fashion, talked a little while with their host, though often, from misapprehension of each others meaning, at cross purposes, and went away, leaving him to his books and teacher. Women and children gathered more timidly, but with curiosity even less disguised, about the Kalahma-pyoo (white foreigners), wondering at her strange costume, the fairness of her skin, and the superiority displayed in her bearing; and some of the bolder of them venturing to touch her hand, or to pass their tawny taper fingers from the covered instep to the toe of the neatly-formed slipper, so unlike their own clumsy sandals. But who, among all these came to inquire of Jesus Christ, or learn the way to heaven? Most emphatically could they say: "We have not so much as heard if there be a God."

On the evening of the fourth day, as it deepened into night, the books of study were thrown aside, and the book of God taken in their stead; then the prayer was raised to heaven, and the little family went to rest. Feeble were the rays of the one pale lamp, close by the pillow of the young mother, scarce throwing its light upon the infant resting on her bosom, and penetrating into the remote darkness but by feeble flickerings. So sleep soon brooded over the shut eyelids, and silence folded its solemn wings about the little habitation. The infant stirred, and the mother opened her eyes. Why was she in darkness? and what objects were those scattered so strangely about her apartment, just distinguishable from the gray shadows? The lamp was soon relighted, and startling was the scene which it revealed. There lay in odd confusion, trunks, boxes, and chests of drawers, all rifled of their contents; and strewed carelessly about the floor, were such articles as the marauders had not considered worth their taking. While regarding in consternation, not appreciable by those who have access to the shops of an American city, this spoiling of their goods, Mrs. Boardman chanced to raise her eye to the curtain beneath which her husband had slept, and she thought of her lost goods no more. Two long gashes, one at the head and the other at the foot, had been cut in the muslin; and there had the desperate villains stood, glazing on the unconscious sleeper with their fierce, murderous eyes, while the booty was secured by their companions. The bared, swarthy arm was ready for the blow, and the sharp knife, or pointed spear, glittered in their hands. Had the sleeper opened his eyes, had he only stirred, had but a heavy, long-drawn breath startled the cowardice of guilt—ah, had it! But it did not. The rounded limbs of the little infant lay motionless as their marble counterfeit; for if their rosy lips had moved but to the slightest murmur, or the tiny hand crept closer to the loved bosom in her baby dreams, the chord in the mother's breast must have answered, and the death stroke followed. But the mother held her treasure to her heart, and slept on. Murderers stood by the bedside, regarding with callous hearts the beautiful tableau; and the husband and father slept. But there was one eye open—the eye that never slumbers—a protecting wing was over them, and a soft invisible hand pressed down their sleeping lids. Nearly every article of value that could be taken away had disappeared from the house; and though strict search was made throughout the neighborhood, no trace of them was ever discovered.

It was at Tavoy, however, that the real labors of the Boardmans began, and here they had to struggle with the utmost difficulties. Both had suffered in their health, and both were called upon to exert themselves to the utmost in the acquirement of the dialect of the people, and in the pursuit of plans for their instruction. The missionaries had not only to contend with the climate, failing strength, and the other accidents of their position, but they had also to share the dangers and trials incidental to those states which forcibly base themselves upon the subjugation of their neighbors.

In August, 1827, at the dead of night, the natives of Tavoy revolted against the British, and drove the commandant of the whites and a hundred sepoys into a blockhouse on the quay. Here the Europeans maintained themselves until the arrival of Colonel Burney, when the revolt was suppressed; but the fatigue, agitation, and exposure, accelerated the decline of Mr. Boardman's already failing health, and hurried him on to that grave which he found on Burmah's distant shore.

And now Mrs. Boardman was left alone with her only child, George. And now came the inquiry from Sarah's widowed heart, "What shall I do?" She wrote to America, to Maulmain, to Rangoon, and Amherst for advice, and prayed to be directed in the way that she should go. Her spirit inclined her, however, to remain in her appointed sphere, and she did remain. "When I first stood by the grave of my husband, I thought I must go home with George. But these poor, inquiring, and Christian Karens, and the schoolboys, and the Burmese Christians, would then be left without any one to instruct them; and the poor, [ignorant] Tavoyans would go on in the road to death, with no one to warn them of their danger. How then, oh, how can I go? We shall not be separated long. A few more years, and we shall all meet in yonder blissful world, whither those we love have gone before us. I feel thankful that I was allowed to come to this heathen land. Oh, it is a precious privilege to tell idolaters of the gospel; and when we see them disposed to love the Saviour, we forget all our privations and dangers. My beloved husband wore out his life in this glorious cause; and that remembrance makes me more than ever attached to the work, and the people for whose salvation he labored till death."

Mrs. Boardman now devoted herself with all the energy of her soul to the instruction of those so much cast upon her by the death of her husband, and moved about from place to place, encountering much danger and enduring much fatigue in her apostolic mission. She went into the jungle amongst the simple Karens, and established schools, with the supervision of which she taxed herself. These day schools attracted the notice of the agents of the British government, and they were allowanced by the same, although differing somewhat in constitution from the formula prescribed in the East India Company's circular.

She soon became a most excellent Burmese scholar, and was enabled to communicate in that language with great fluency. "Mrs. Boardman's tours in the Karen wilderness, with little George, borne in the arms of her followers, beside her—through wild mountain passes, over swollen streams and deceitful marshes, and among the craggy rocks and tangled-shrubs of the jungle—if they could be spread out in detail, would doubtless present scenes of thrilling interest. But her singular modesty always made her silent on a subject which would present her in a light so enterprising and adventurous. Even her most intimate friends could seldom draw from her any thing on the subject; and they knew little more than that such tours were made, and that the progress of the gospel was not suspended among the Karens while her husband's successor was engaged in the study of the language.

There is a note addressed to Mrs. Mason, from a zayat by the wayside, just before she reached the mountains; and this is the only scrap among her writings alluding in any way to these tours. It was sent back by a party of men who were to bring her provisions, and contains only directions about the things necessary to her journey. She says: 'Perhaps you had better send the chair, as it is convenient to be carried over the streams when they are deep. You will laugh when I tell you that I have forded all the smaller ones.'

A single anecdote is related by Captain F___, a British officer, stationed at Tavoy; and he used to dwell with much unction on the lovely apparition which once greeted him among these wild, dreary mountains. He had left Tavoy, accompanied by a few followers, I think on a hunting expedition, and had strolled far into the jungle. The heavy rains which deluge this country in the summer had not yet commenced; but they were near at hand, and during the night had sent an earnest of their coming, which was any thing but agreeable. All along his path hung the dripping trailers, and beneath his feet were the roots of vegetables, half-bared, and half-imbedded in mud; while the dark clouds, with the rain almost incessantly pouring from them, and the crazy clusters of bamboo huts, which appeared here and there in the gloomy waste, and were honored by the name of village, made up a scene of desolation absolutely indescribable. A heavy shower coming up as he approached a zayat by the wayside, and far from even one of those primitive villages, he hastily took refuge beneath the roof. Here, in no very good humor with the world, especially Asiatic jungles and tropic rains, he sulkily 'whistled for want of thought,' and employed his eyes in watching the preparations for his breakfast. 'Uh! what wretched comers the world has, bidden beyond its oceans and behind its trees!' Just as he had made this sage mental reflection, he was startled by the vision of a fair, smiling face in front of the zayat, the property of a dripping figure, which seemed to his surprised imagination to have stepped that moment from the clouds. But the party of wild Karen followers, which gathered around her, had a very human air; and the slight burthens they bore spoke of human wants and human cares. The lady seemed as much surprised as himself; but she curtsied with ready grace, as she made some pleasant remark in English, and then turned to retire. Here was a dilemma. He could not suffer the lady to go out into the rain, but—his miserable accommodations, and still more miserable breakfast! He hesitated and stammered; but her quick apprehension had taken it all at a glance, and she at once relieved him from his embarrassment. Mentioning her name and errand, she added, smiling, that the emergencies of the wilderness were not new to her; and now she begged leave to put her own breakfast with his, and make up a pleasant morning party. Then beckoning to her Karens she spoke a few unintelligible words, and disappeared under a low shed—a mouldering appendage of the zayat. She soon returned with the same sunny face, and in dry clothing; and very pleasant indeed was the interview between the pious officer and the lady missionary. They were friends afterward; and the circumstances of their first meeting proved a very charming reminiscence."

After three years of widowhood, Mrs. Boardman was united to Dr. Judson, of the American mission, at Maulmain, whither she removed with her little son, where she devoted herself to the acquirement of a new language, called the Peguan, in which she made considerable advancement. She revised the standard tracts in Peguan, and the catechism and Gospel according to St. Luke; and, assisted by Ko-man-boke, a Peguan Christian, she translated the New Testament.

The life at Maulmain was one of love, labor, and trial. Eight children were born to her here, and three of them withered away and died, while, to add to the depth of her trials, Dr. Judson was threatened with the fatal disease which had bereft her of her first husband. Here, too, had she parted from her oldest son, and endured all the pangs of a wife and loving mother.

Her last child was born in December, 1844, when she was attacked with chronic diarrhea from which she had suffered much in the early part of her missionary life. It soon became evident, from the sinking of her physical powers, that death was in her cup, unless some remedy could be found to alleviate her sufferings: and a sea-voyage being the only thing that suggested itself to the physician, she departed with her husband and three eldest children for America.

At first, the voyage seemed to produce the most beneficial results, and she even proposed to proceed alone from the Isle of France, but the disease returned once more with fatal virulence, and she died at sea on 1st September, 1845, and was buried at St. Helena. She sleeps amongst the distant mould of the sea-washed solitary isle, and over her ashes her husband has erected a monument, with the following inscription:

"Sacred to the memory of Sarah B. Judson, member of the American Baptist Mission to Burmah, formerly wife of the Rev. George D. Boardman, of Tavoy, and lately wife of the Rev. Adoniram Judson, of Maulmain, who died in this port, September 1, 1845, on her passage to the United States, in the forty-second year of her age, and the twenty-first of her missionary life."

Would that those who declare that there is no vitality in Christianity, could see and appreciate the courage and sacrifices which animate and are demanded from those who, like Mrs. Judson, go forth to tell the darkened savage of Christ!


Copied for WholesomeWords.org from Women of Worth: A Book for Girls. New York: W. A. Townsend & Company, 1861.

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