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Sarah Boardman Judson

by John Telford

This noble woman, whose name is so intimately associated with the American Baptist Mission in Burma, was born at Alstead, in the State of New Hampshire, on November 4, 1803. She was the eldest child of Ralph and Abiah Hall, who moved to Danvers and then to Salem in Massachusetts. There were thirteen boys and girls, and the father's means were scanty, so that Sarah knew what it was to work hard and bear many a disappointment in her girlhood. Her little manuscript journal notes: "Ill; mother cannot spare me to attend school this winter; but I have begun this evening to pursue my studies at home." Next spring we meet traces of continued struggle. "My parents are not in a situation to send me to school this summer, so I must make every exertion in my power to improve at home." Those little notes show that the American girl was bent on self-improvement. Difficulties only roused her to fresh patience and industry. A few years after these juvenile entries she wrote to a friend to suggest that they should select some difficult passages of the Bible and send them to each other for explanation. She thought the plan would strengthen their friendship, teach them to express their ideas with propriety, and, above all, make them better acquainted with the Word of God.

God was working in the girl's heart. The great national festival was near. The maid of twelve writes: "To-morrow will be the day which is called thanksgiving, but I have some fear that it is only in the name. ... But this year I will try to be truly thankful, and not forget the good God who so kindly watches over my youthful days."

When she was seventeen Miss Hall taught in a school for a few months in order to secure some personal training in return. She read Butler's "Analogy," Paley's "Evidences," Campbell's "Philosophy of Rhetoric," and studied logic and geometry. In the winter she returned home to teach her little brothers, and thus gained facilities for learning Latin. Such mental discipline proved of no small service when she had to master difficult languages in Burma.

She joined the Church at the age of sixteen. On June 4, 1820, she writes: "I have this day in the presence of the world, the holy angels, and the omniscient God, publicly manifested my determination to forsake the objects of earth, and live, henceforth, for heaven." We now find her yearning for usefulness, labouring to win her brothers and sisters for Christ, and thinking much about heathenism both at home and abroad.

One day, at a house where she was visiting, a young gentleman left a pack of cards on the table. She wrote on the envelope: "Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them." She was busy as a tract distributer, and established a little prayer meeting, which led all who attended it, with one exception, to make public profession of their faith in Christ.

Miss Hall was now thinking about missionary work among the American Indians. But her lifework lay in the far East. An elegy on the death of Colman, the young American missionary, who died at Chittagong, after two years of labour, attracted the attention of George Dana Boardman, then a student at Waterville College. The young people met, and found that their hearts were as one in devotion to God's work. Sarah Hall gladly promised to share Boardman's labours in Burma.

They were married on July 4, 1825, and embarked the same month for the East Indies. As she leaned out of the stage coach which was to convey her and her husband to their vessel, Mrs. Boardman asked, "Father, are you willing? Say, father, that you are willing I should go." "Yes, my child," was the answer, "I am willing." "Now I can go joyfully, was the response. Her mother had said a month before, "Oh! I cannot part with you," but now she also had become more resigned. "Sarah, I hope I am willing." The young bride had had to bear a heavy load at home with a large family, narrow means, and a mother in feeble health, but she had fulfilled all her tasks with rare fidelity; had found time for careful study, and had taken an active share in Christian work. Her winning manners and attractive appearance made her a general favourite, whilst the more spiritual-minded members of the Church "rejoiced in the symmetry and early maturity of her piety," and felt that there was a bright future for her in Burma.

Such was the lady who sailed for the East in her twenty-second year. Meanwhile the Judsons were passing through those terrible scenes in Ava which form the saddest and most heroic page in the history of Burmese missions. It was necessary for the Boardmans to wait in Calcutta till peace was established. They secured a Burman as their teacher, and began to study the language. By-and-by news came that the Judsons were safe at Rangoon. This was followed by intelligence of Mrs. Judson's death. She had passed through the horrors of the war only to succumb to an attack of fever in October, 1826.

Mr. Boardman was detained awhile in Calcutta, acting as pastor to the Circular Road Church, and waiting till the way opened up to Burma. In January, 1827, his wife dwells on the series of mercies which she had enjoyed since leaving America. "I am blest with excellent health, a most affectionate husband, a lovely daughter, and everything in my outward circumstances to make me comfortable and happy." Not least of her mercies was the near prospect of actual missionary toil among the heathen. Her English friends, we are told, regarded her "as the most finished and faultless specimen of an American woman that they had ever known."

On April 17, 1827, the Boardmans arrived at Amherst. There the young wife and her little daughter were laid low with illness. When they partially recovered the party pushed on to their first station at Moulmain. A small bamboo house had been erected for them, and Mrs. Boardman was carried in a litter to the boat which was to take them to the place. A row of native houses had sprung up near the river, and the little town was growing every day.

The mission-house stood about a mile from the cantonments in a lonely spot near the jungle, so that the roaring of wild beasts could be distinctly heard in the night time. Across the Irrawaddy was the province of Martaban, whence parties of armed dacoits issued to plunder the defenceless villagers. The English general warned Mr. Boardman of his double danger from savage beasts and savage men, and invited him to reside within the cantonments; but the missionary felt that his work would suffer if he withdrew himself from the Burmans, so that he quietly committed himself and his family to the care of God.

His wife began to learn the language, and tried to talk with the half-wild children around her, longing for the day when she would be able to open a school. She writes 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 labour, and die among this people." Four nights later Mrs. Boardman awoke to find all the furniture of their bedroom in disorder. Trunks, boxes, chests of drawers were rifled of their contents. Two long gashes had been cut in the curtain at the side where her husband lay, so that he might be smitten in a moment if he woke. Happily no one stirred. The house was pillaged, but its inmates escaped with their lives. Sir Archibald Campbell now furnished them with a nightly guard of Sepoys, and as the town grew the danger from such marauders was lessened.

Before the year was out Mrs. Boardman had a little Sunday school to teach Burmese girls their catechism and prayers. Reading and sewing were taught in the day school. The young scholars were busy with the multiplication table, and were making their first attempts in arithmetic.

Next January she was able to report that two converts had been baptized. A Karen who had been some time in the service of Dr. Judson was soon afterwards baptized. This was the notorious Ko Thah-Byoo, a terrible criminal who had been personally concerned in more than thirty murders. A tract given him in Rangoon had taught him something of Christianity, and he had entered the missionary's service. His temper was sometimes terrible, but the new masters were patient. He was gradually led into the light. After he had been baptized by Mr. Boardman he became a noted evangelist among the Karens. Once he brought back forty natives who had been so much impressed by his message that they wished to become Christians.

This notable baptism took place at Tavoy, whither Mr. Boardman removed in the spring of 1828. The missionary repaired an old zayat, a wayside building intended as a rest-house for travellers, where he spent part of each day in teaching the natives. His wife had charge of the household and the boys' boarding school, yet she managed, after "unwearied toil, repeated repulses, and discouragements," to establish a girls' school. She taught a woman to read, and thus secured an assistant-teacher. She wrote to a friend: "I am just returned from one of the day schools. The sun had not risen when I arrived but the little girls were in the house ready for instruction! My walk to this school is through a retired road, shaded on one side by the old wall of the city, which is overgrown by wild creepers and pole flowers, and on the other by large fruit trees. While going and returning, I find it sweet and profitable to think on the shortness of time, the vanity of this delusive world, and, oh! I have had some precious views of that world where the 'weary are at rest'; and where sin, that enemy of God, and now constant disturber of my peace, will no more afflict me."

Sometimes she sat in the little back verandah whilst her husband was busy teaching nine little Burmese boys. In one of the side verandahs the native Christians were holding a prayer meeting; in the other a Chinese convert was loudly urging his comrades to worship the true God.

In February, 1829, Mr. Boardman made his first tour among the Karens. When he returned he found that some of the native converts had again fallen into sin. This was a time of great heartsearching for the missionary's wife. God seemed to be preparing her for troubles that were soon to come. That spring she had a severe illness from which she did not rally. Her little boy was very delicate, whilst Mr. Boardman's hectic look showed that his strength was fading. Their little daughter was the only member of the family in perfect health. A short change to the seaside sent them home refreshed. The mother told her friends how "plump and rosy-cheeked" her little girl was. Two weeks later the gentle, loving child, who had won all hearts, was dead.

This great sorrow brought its blessing. Mrs. Boardman had for a long time, even before she left America, begun to question whether God's providence covers the little details of daily life. She did not doubt the over-ruling care of God, but she scarcely saw how to reconcile the vastness of his power with the minute provision for every smallest need. Her child's death taught her that this sorrow had not come in vain, and filled her with that simple trust which brightened all her after life.

The following August a serious revolt broke out. There was no English garrison at Tavoy, only a hundred Sepoys. The officer in charge was dying; Colonel Burney, the head of the civil and military force, was away in Moulmain. A young doctor had to assume command in this crisis. Mr. Boardman was roused from a sound sleep to find two hundred rebels armed with clubs, knives, and spears rushing on the powder magazine and gun-shade, which were defended by six Sepoys under a native officer. Mrs. Boardman snatched up her sickly boy, and took shelter in a wooden shed. The assault on the powder magazine was repulsed, and the insurgents retreated beyond the walls, leaving sixty slain and their leader a prisoner.

Meanwhile, plundering parties had gone through the town, and the criminals of the place had escaped from prison. The Boardmans managed to reach Government House, but, as it was impossible to hold this against the insurgents, the eight Europeans, with Mrs. Boardman and the Colonel's wife, took refuge at a building on the wharf. The English commander, hurried from his death-bed to escape the massacre, looked like a gaunt skeleton. Sepoys and servants swelled the company to three or four hundred. The rebels mounted some cannon, and turned the fire on the refugees, but they aimed badly, and night came on to protect the little party. It was an awful night. Houses were blazing around, and a band of five hundred men made a desperate rush on the wharf. Next morning Colonel Burney came to the rescue. His little steamer carried his wife and Mrs. Boardman back to Moulmain, and brought European soldiers with all possible speed. The insurgents were soon driven out and peace restored. Colonel Burney's little child died from the exposure of that night, but Mr. Boardman's boy seemed spared as if by miracle.

Next January Mrs. Boardman was prostrate with illness. It seemed as though she could not recover. When she gathered strength she had to nurse her husband, who had a consumptive cough, brought on, his wife thought, by the exposure and strain of the rebellion, and increased by his missionary journeys among the Karens. "He used sometimes to walk twenty miles in a day, preaching and teaching as he went, and at night have no shelter but an open zayat, no food at all calculated to sustain his failing nature, and no bed but a straw mat spread on the cold, open bamboo floor."

He toiled on, but it was evident that his days were numbered. His wife wrote: "God is calling to me in a most impressive manner, to set my heart on heavenly things." Two children were in heaven; little George was often ill, her own health was poor, her husband so emaciated and weak that he could scarcely move. They had removed to Moulmain, but came back to Tavoy to examine the candidates for baptism, and instruct those recently baptized. Sometimes Mr. Boardman had strength to say a few words, but often his wife sat on his couch and interpreted his feeble whispers.

When the day for the baptism ceremony came the Karens carried Mr. Boardman to the spot in his cot. The little company passed the monasteries where multitudes of priests and novitiates watched them over the high brick walls. The common people reviled them: "See your teacher! a living man carried as if he were already dead!" The touching baptismal service and the Lord's Supper in the evening were never forgotten by the heartbroken wife.

The Rev. Francis Mason came in January, 1831, in time to witness the closing scene. The party set out on a little missionary tour in the Karen wilderness. It was thought that the change would be beneficial to the dying man. At one place nearly a hundred Karens assembled. Three years ago they were sunk in heathen darkness, now more than half of these visitors were seeking baptism. Mr. Boardman felt that after such an ingathering he might well pray, "Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace."

One night he asked his wife to read him some hymns on sickness and death. They had only "Wesley's Hymns," but Mrs. Boardman read, "Ah, lovely appearance of death," and several others. He saw thirty-four persons baptized, and was able after tea to say a few words to the new disciples. Next morning the mission party turned homewards. A storm broke on them, and they were refused shelter at the only house near. After much difficulty they were permitted to sleep on the verandah. Next morning they took boat for home. Mr. Boardman died almost as soon as he got on board. Then the mournful little company floated down to Tavoy.

Mrs. Boardman thought at first that she would be compelled to return with her boy to America. Dr. Judson showed her great kindness in this hour of sorrow.

Gradually she saw that she could not leave the fields which were white for harvest. She was busy from sunrise till ten o'clock at night. The Karens began to come in for instruction. The Church in Tavoy numbered a hundred and ten members, mostly Karens. Some of these came forty or fifty miles on foot to hear the gospel. One woman found the floods so deep that she had to wait till the men felled trees for her to cross. Sometimes she walked through waters that reached to her chin.

Mrs. Boardman had to superintend the food and clothing of the boarding schools, and take charge of five day schools which were under the care of native teachers. The Government made a grant for schools throughout the provinces, "to be conducted on the plan of Mrs. Boardman's at Tavoy." The propagation of Christianity in these was afterwards forbidden, but she was always allowed to teach what she wished. She was well read in Burmese, and greatly enjoyed Dr. Judson's version of the Scriptures. Sometimes she made tours in the Karen wilderness, fording the smaller streams on foot. Her little boy was carried by the attendants.

Mrs. Boardman married Dr. Judson on April 10, 1834.

She now began to study Peguan that she might work among the Peguans in Moulmain and Amherst. She held female prayer-meetings in her husband's church, and gathered the Burmese women into classes for Bible study and prayer.

She had a serious illness, but afterwards managed to preserve her health by vigorous morning walks. Mrs. Judson set her husband free for other work by giving instruction and advice to the native Christians, and settling any little difficulties among them. She revised the standard tracts in Peguan, and translated the New Testament and a Life of Christ into that language. She sat at her study table, with two or three assistants about her, toiling at this fruitful work. George Boardman had been sent to America for education, but a little family was growing up around her. She had eight children at Moulmain, five of whom survived her. The little ones played in the verandah adjoining the room where she was busy with her Peguan translator. This was open to the road, so that Mrs. Boardman often had enquirers dropping in to learn about Christianity.

Six years after their marriage Dr. Judson was troubled with an ominous cough, which showed that he also was in danger of consumption—the Burmese scourge. Amid the cares of nursing, his wife began to translate the "Pilgrim's Progress," and prepared questions for her Burmese Sunday school and Bible classes.

Mother and children were prostrated with sickness, and found it necessary to take a sea-voyage to Calcutta. Dr. Judson and two of the boys stayed at Serampore, whilst the mother and two elder children went on to Calcutta. Thence Mrs. Judson was recalled in haste to the death-bed of her little son Henry.

After many heavy trials the family returned to Moulmain. There the old labours began afresh. The truth was taking hold of many hearts, so that Mrs. Judson never for a moment regretted that she had consecrated her life to Burma. At last her health broke down, and she was compelled to return to America. It was the one hope left. Dr. Judson sailed with her. When they reached the Mauritius she seemed to have gained strength, so that she wanted her husband to return to Burmah, where he was sorely needed. Her trembling fingers wrote that touching farewell:—

"We part on this green islet, Love,
  Thou for the Eastern main,
I for the setting sun, Love,
  Oh, when to meet again?

* * * *

"Then gird thy armour on, Love,
  Nor faint thou by the way,
Till Boodh shall fall, and Burmah's sons
  Shall own Messiah's sway."

These were the last words she wrote. Her strength gradually ebbed away, and she was laid to rest at St. Helena. At two o'clock in the morning her husband asked, "Do you still love the Saviour?"

"Oh yes," she replied, "I ever loved the Lord Jesus Christ."

"Do you still love me?" he asked once more. The dying wife replied in the affirmative, and her husband gave her a farewell kiss. An hour later, and she was gone to her reward.

Dr. Judson sailed homewards. For a few days he seemed to sit, with his weeping children, broken down with sorrow; then he was able to lift up his heart.

America gave the apostle of Burmah a noble welcome. Before he returned to his Eastern home he married Miss Emily Chubbuck, a lady whose books were widely read in America. She had prepared the life of Sarah Boardman Judson, and now cast in her lot with the missionary.

Three years more of toil, then Dr. Judson had to take a voyage in the hope of regaining strength. He died at sea. He had buried his dead at Rangoon, Amherst, Moulmain, Serampore, and St. Helena. He himself rests beneath the ocean wave. But the work of God in Burma, especially among the Karens, still shows that he and Boardman, with their devoted wives, had not laboured in vain.

"Do you think the prospects bright for the speedy conversion of the heathen?" a gentleman asked him at Boston. "As bright," was the answer, "as the promises of God."

In that faith he and his heroic fellow-workers both lived and died.


Copied for WholesomeWords.org from Women in the Mission Field... by John Telford. London: Charles H. Kelly, 1895.

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