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"A Goodly Heritage" (6): Adoniram Judson 1788-1850

R W Cargill, St Monans

Remembered as the man who gave the Bible to Burma and first brought the gospel to the Karen peoples, this servant of God also has left a goodly heritage which has lasted to this day. In fact, this month, July, 2013, marks the 200th anniversary of his arrival in Burma. All his tasks were carried through at great personal cost and with much suffering, culminating in his eventual death and burial in an unmarked grave.

Unlike others whom we have described recently, he was American. Born on 9th August, 1788 in Malden, Massachusetts, he quickly showed he was a brilliant child, learning to read when he was three years old, and soon mastering mathematics, Latin, and Greek at school. In 1804 he went up to Rhode Island College which his father, a strict, conservative pastor believed would be safer for him than the more liberal Harvard. But this did not work out as planned for by the end of his course he had become a deist, no longer believing in the existence of a personal God or a Saviour, and he went on to New York to join a troupe of travelling actors.

One night he was staying at an inn, and was disturbed by noises from the next room. He was horrified to discover that these were the dying groans of his college friend, the very one who had influenced him to reject faith in God. The fate of an unsaved soul so affected him that he returned to Plymouth to his parents' home. Within three months he was converted, regaining what he had lost for these years. In December, 1808 he wrote in his journal: "This day I made a solemn dedication of my life to God". Five months later, now age 20, he joined his father's Congregational Church in Plymouth.

Attending Andover Seminary he found a group of young men interested in missions, not only now among the native American Indians, but farther afield. As a result, in 1811 a Foreign Missions Board of the Congregational Churches of Massachusetts was formed. First Judson was sent to England (was captured by French privateers on the way!) to see if co-operation with the London Missionary Society would be possible. This was unsuccessful, and returning to Plymouth his mentors agreed to his going to Burma "or elsewhere as…Providence shall open the most favourable door". In February, 1812 he married Ann Hasseltine, and before the end of the month they had set sail from Salem on a small cargo ship, the Caravan, for the four months' voyage to Calcutta.

While at sea, another important change occurred in his thinking. He had with him a letter of introduction to William Carey whom he knew was a Baptist missionary. He was keen to study what the New Testament taught about baptism, hoping to be able to defend his own (congregationalist) views on this. But he became convinced that believers' baptism was correct and necessary, and Ann agreed, though they knew this would cut off all support from their friends at home. Having counted the cost, they were baptised by William Ward, one of Carey's associates, after they arrived in India.

Once in Calcutta, however, their difficulties multiplied. Not only had they no support from home, but the British East India Company did not want any "American Missionaries", more so now that Britain and America were at war again. So they were all ordered out of the country. Somehow they found themselves on a ship which landed at Mauritius. On the way Mrs Judson had her first baby, which died. On 13th July, 1813 they got to Rangoon which they found was a really filthy and corrupt place. They were able to settle in a mission house where Felix Carey had begun a gospel work but had left it to enter government service.

They set about learning Burmese, a complex language which seemed to be an unbroken string of strange characters. Ann became more fluent in everyday speech, whilst Adoniram studied its structure carefully to give him confidence in translation. He saw that the Burmese people already had an extensive literature which they read seriously, and he became even more convinced that the Bible in Burmese was essential for the progress of the gospel. He obtained a small printing press and in May, 1817 published his translation of the Gospel of Matthew. He was also compiling a Burmese grammar book, all the while suffering from long illness and also grieving over the death of Roger, their second child, aged seven months.

In 1819, he felt confident enough to begin preaching. In the fashion of the place he erected a zayat, a small hut on posts, by a main road where people could come in and listen to a teacher, in this case, a Christian one. In June, 1819, Judson baptised his first convert, Moung Nau, age 35, a labourer. By 1822 eighteen believers were meeting together.

At this time Ann's health was causing great concern. They went back to Calcutta for a few months in 1820, but decided that a spell at home was best for her. She went during 1822-23 and recovered. After her return to Rangoon, Adoniram decided that he should visit Ava, the capital of the Burmese empire with the court of the powerful "Golden Emperor". He hoped that he would grant religious tolerance and allow Christianity to continue in his country.

At first he was favourably received, but a few months later war broke out between the emperor and the British over a dispute at the Indian border. Foreigners were regarded as spies, and Judson with many others was thrown into prison for 17 months in appalling conditions. During a forced 8 mile march from one prison to another on scorching hot sand and gravel, his feet were so lacerated that he had to be carried at the end. It was only by his wife's intervention and intercessions to the authorities that he survived the cruel ordeals. She also preserved his precious manuscripts.

At last they were able to return together to Rangoon in 1826 but they found anarchy and the mission property destroyed. They moved the remaining believers to a safer location at Amherst. In September Adoniram was asked back to Ava to help the British negotiate a treaty. During his absence Ann developed fever again and died on 24th October, aged 37. It was a month until Adoniram received this news. He returned to Amherst on 24th January, 1827. Exactly three months later his little daughter, Maria Elizabeth, also died, just over two years old.

Now followed several months of lonely grief and depression. He felt desolate, as if he had lost everything. However, some helpers arrived from America, including George and Sarah Boardman, and a new work was begun at Moulmein in the south, now under British control, and a permanent church was established. Sadly George died in February, 1831. Three years later Adoniram married his widow, a capable schoolteacher. During eleven years together they had five surviving children. He revised his Burmese Bible while continuing mission work in Moulmein and among the Karen people. At times he felt his language work took up too much time which he would rather have used for preaching the gospel.

In 1844, Sarah's health was clearly failing, and their return to America was now inevitable. With three of their older children they set sail, but she died at St. Helena in the South Atlantic on 1st September, 1845. Judson continued to Boston, by now well-known and expected. Although weakened by illness he travelled widely and was eagerly listened to.

In Philadelphia he met a popular writer, Emily Chubbock. He asked her to write an account of Sarah's life. He married her and she became a capable wife and devoted mother to her step-children back in Burma, and to their own daughter Emily, born in 1847. Now after 35 years, 23 of them in Moulmein, Judson could rejoice in knowing of over 7,000 Burmans and Karens saved and publicly baptised, and 63 churches established.

The last years of his life were given to writing an English-Burmese dictionary but the work was never completed. He developed a serious lung infection and a sea voyage was prescribed as a cure. But he died on board the ship on 12th April, 1850, and was buried at sea in the Indian Ocean. Ten days later, unaware of his death, Emily gave birth to a son, Charles, but he died the same day. She later returned to America and died in June, 1854.

Adoniram Judson had said, "All missionary operations, to be permanently successful, must be based on the written word". This is how he is best remembered, as his tombstone declares –


To be continued.

Information for this article came from several sources, including www.wholesomewords.org and Quarterly Record, Trinitarian Bible Society, 2005.


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