Adoniram Judson, the first foreign missionary from America, declared early on that the motto for a missionary should be—DEVOTED FOR LIFE. Judson certainly lived up to that motto. At the time of his death in 1850, he’d spent thirty seven years as a missionary to Burma, with only one nine-month furlough to America.
Even as a small child, Judson’s parents realized he was going to accomplish great things and become during his adult years—”A MIGHTY MAN.” He began reading at the age of three, took navigation lessons at ten, studied theology as a child and entered Providence College at seventeen.
Judson had been born into a Christian family, his father being a Congregational minister. But, just as today, leaving home will introduce a different type of thinking and different kind of people into the life of a young person. The different kind of person to enter Adoniram’s life was Jacob Eames, who declared one night that he didn’t believe in God. Judson was shocked that anyone should have such a belief, but as time went on, he became more and more under the influence of Jacob Eames and decided he too would become a confirmed deist. When he came home to tell his parents about this change in his life, they were shocked. His mother left the room in tears while his father declared—”Did you come home to break our hearts?”
With that Judson simply walked out of the house. His heart had hardened to the point where he could simply abandon those who loved him and take up the life of a libertine. He joined up with a group of traveling actors who toured the country putting on plays and taking advantage of those who fed and housed them. But one night, during a drinking party, Judson’s conscience began to bother him as he thought of his mother and home. He got on his horse and simply rode away from his friends. For weeks he rode alone, trying to figure out what he was going to do with his life. What was the answer: depending on himself or Christianity?
One night he stopped at an inn to get lodging. There was only one room available and the inn keeper told him it might be uncomfortable as a very sick man was in an adjoining room and was quite loud. All night Judson listened to the groans of the suffering man. Who was he? What was wrong? Then the idea hit him—if the man died this night, what would happen to him? Where would he go after his death? Were heaven and hell real?
Come morning, as Judson was leaving, he asked about the suffering man in the next room. “Unfortunately the young man died during the night. He was from Providence College. His name was Jacob Eames.” Adoniram fell to the floor and wept for his dead friend. “Was he a friend?” asked the inn keeper. “He was,” replied Judson, “and I let him die without Christ.” With that Adoniram headed for home and the arms of his mother. “I’m sorry mother, I want to know about God; I want to know Jesus.”
In October of 1808 Judson entered the Theological Institute of Andover, Massachusetts, even though he was not a candidate for the ministry. On the 2nd of December, 1808, he made a solemn dedication of himself to God; and on the 28th of May, 1809, when he was twenty one, he joined the Third Congregational Church of Plymouth, Massachusetts.
It was during 1809 that Judson first began to think of foreign missions and by 1810 his decision had come to fruition. Another young man, Samuel Nott Jr., a missionary associate, was seriously thinking of carrying the Gospel to the heathens. At about the same time, four other young men arrived from Williams College. This sextet formed a missionary society and they soon began the habit of meeting beneath a haystack near the college grounds. The Haystack monument still stands at Williamstown. The six consecrated themselves to the work of foreign missions and this spot among the Berkshire Hills is considered the birthplace of American foreign missions. To say that Judson’s family and friends were ecstatic over his decision to go to India would be a gigantic overstatement. His mother was upset as she said her oldest son should stay close to home, while his father had hopes that his son would become his associate. But Judson was adamant. “I do not want to serve in Boston—I want to be much further away.”
It was about this time the most important person ever to come into Judson’s life made an appearance. Her name was Ann Hasseltine. They met in June of 1810 when Judson attended sessions of the Massachusetts General Association of Congregational Churches held in Bradford and hosted by Ann’s father. Judson had come to ask for support from American churches for himself and others who wanted to serve in the foreign mission field, something American churches didn’t do. He was totally smitten by the lovely young woman who was waiting tables and she was taken with him whose dark hair and eyes matched hers. However, when she learned of his plans for the mission field in India, well, that was another matter. They would be the first Americans to carry the Gospel to India and public opinion was set against it. It was considered absurd for a man and as for a woman—it was totally inconsistent with prudence and delicacy. The voyage in the sailing ships of the day was long and dangerous, the climate hot and much of the population was thought to be hostile. The average American girl of the day would never have considered such an undertaking, but Ann Hasseltine was no average American girl and apparently her father was a bit extraordinary himself. If this was what Ann wanted he would not stand in her way. But one wonders if Ann’s father had known that India would not be her final destination, whether he would’ve felt the same. In a letter to her best friend, Ann shows she’s every bit as courageous as her young husband and has the faith to match his. “Yes, Lydia I have come to the determination to give up all my comforts here, sacrifice my affection to relatives and friends, and go where God, in his providence, shall see fit to place me.”
But while Ann, Adoniram and his contemporaries were anxious to take the Gospel to the heathens, it was actually the job of older, wiser heads to get them there, which meant someone had to put up the money. The closest American churches came to foreign missions was the western part of the United States. The nine men on the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions doubted the ability of their churches to support such an undertaking, so they contacted their English Brethren as to whether they’d participate in a joint effort, and in addition sent Adoniram Judson to England to plead his case. He was promptly met with a rebuff as to a joint venture but was told by the London Missionary Society that they would support the venture, that joining with America might get too complicated. They added that America should be able to support her own missionaries.
Adoniram Judson returned to America and on the 18th of September, 1811, met with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, where he was informed that he and his contemporaries should not align themselves with England; that they would be assigned as American missionaries to the continent of Asia, and every country would be open to them.
On the 5th of February, 1812, Adoniram and Ann were married at Bradford, Massachusetts. On the seventh of February they were on the brig Caravan, bound for Calcutta, India. Judson had been ordained as a Congregational Minister before he left America. He apparently did not tell the minister who ordained him he’d been struggling with the subject of baptism
for some time. Congregational-ists were Pedobaptists (baptism of infants) and so was Ann Hasseltine. The stage was set for the first disagreement among the young couple. In a letter to her parents, Ann showed she would not always back down in conversations with her new husband. “I tried to have him give it up, and rest satisfied in his old sentiments, and frequently told him, if he became a Baptist, I would not.” Both she and her husband had very real fears about becoming Baptists, including abandonment of their family and friends in America and there was no guarantee the American Board of Commissioners would continue their support. The more Adoniram studied the Scriptures in regard to total immersion baptism the more he believed the Baptists were right, even though it would create havoc in he and Ann’s life. Ann must have wondered why her husband waited until they were on the way to India to broach a subject he knew could cost them so dearly. Did he wait until they were aboard ship because he didn’t want to face his parents or the Board of Commissioners, knowing it could destroy his relationship with his family and the board; people critical to the success of the mission? Even if Ann had these thoughts, she eventually decided that “the Baptists were right about this”—even though they began to feel as if they had no home in the world and no friend but each other.
Ann and Adoniram were baptized in the Baptist chapel after arriving in Calcutta. They were greeted by the English Baptist missionary, Pastor Cary. In time, Adoniram’s change of denomination, which caused quite a stir initially, became less of a problem. Men of good conscience realized that it proved a blessing to the Christian world at large in that it brought about the formation of a second missionary society. But a major problem was waiting on the horizon for Adoniram and Ann Judson.
The government official wore a fancy coat and carried a sword. “You must leave India at once! We want no more missionaries here!” Adoniram jumped to his feet. “But England rules India and surely England wants India reached for Jesus Christ!” The man with the sword spoke again—loudly. “My dear young man, India is ruled by the East India Tea Company. The company doesn’t want the natives to become Christians. If they do, there might be trouble between those who become Christians and those who do not! We don’t want any trouble do we?” “But we only want to spread the Gospel,” replied Adoniram. The man with the sword spoke again. “You cannot stay here; go back to America where you belong.”
And that explains how Adoniram and Ann Judson came to Rangoon, Burma, a deadly, inhospitable land where there were no Christians; but that would change. The story of two young American missionaries, who would bring Christianity to a land that had never experienced it, though they suffered mightily while doing so, is one for the ages. They won souls and the Bible that Adoniram Judson translated into Burmese is still being read today.
The one thing Adoniram and Ann didn’t consider was the number of infectious and communicable diseases they would have to endure: typhoid, cholera, consumption (tuberculosis), ague (malaria) and small pox. The disease referred to as “the fever” hit Ann particularly hard and was nearly her constant companion. There can be no doubt the illnesses wore on her
small body and led to her death when she was in her thirties. Still, the word heroine certainly applies to this young woman who’d led a happy, if sheltered existence in America. But, when she needed to, she displayed remarkable loyalty to her husband and her God. Only once did she display a sense of frustration over her situation. “This is too hard.” She uttered, at the end of another grueling day. But then she collected herself and said, “With God all things are possible.” It was the same phrase she used when her husband seemed over-burdened after a day in trying to bring Christ to a people who’d never heard the Gospel, and still find time to translate the Bible into Burmese, a language he had to learn after he got to Burma.
It took the Judsons 18 months to get from Boston to their home in Burma, which was really a vacant Baptist meeting house. Adoniram Judson was a man, who after getting kicked out of India, exhibited no bitterness. If Burma was where God wanted him he’d concentrate on soul winning in Burma. He befriended an old Burmese man to help him learn the language. This same man suggested he build a Zayat (a house on stilts made of bamboo with a thatched roof) along the road whereby he could sit in the doorway and preach to passersby. Burma was a Buddhist country and a monarchy, ruled by a King who had the power of life and death over his subjects. While Burmese would visit with Adoniram, even listen to him preach, even become a friend, they had an inordinate fear of the King. After six years there were no converts. In time Judson gained one convert to Christianity, a man named Moung Nau. “We now have a church of three. We may have a little church but the God who builds it is great,” said Ann.
The day Adoniram told Ann he wanted to go to the city of Ava she became upset.
“That’s where the King lives.”
“That’s why I’m going.”
“But he could have you killed just like anyone else.”
“But he could also give me permission to preach all over Burma.”
But the King did no such thing. He didn’t want a tract and he didn’t want the gift of a gold plated Bible. Also, the King was now aware of this missionary and he knew where he was. War with England was on the horizon.
When Adoniram told Ann he wanted to move to Ava, she disagreed. “What will happen to our little church here?”
“But we have other missionaries here now and Doctor Price, (Price was a physician who was popular with the Burmese because of his medical skills). The church here has eighteen members now, it will not suffer.”
Ann relented again. “I will go wherever you go.”
Things went well in Ava for a while, until the day soldiers burst through their door. “We’re at war with England, all Englishmen must leave or you’ll be killed!” “But we’re Americans, we have nothing to do with England.” Their words went unheeded; then men carrying whips and weapons burst through the door. They threw Adoniram to the floor and bound his arms and legs, then carried him off. Ann ran after them. “We are not English, we are Americans!” The next nineteen months were abject horror for Adoniram who was whipped, starved and harassed by his jailers. Ann fought off illness the entire time. She also found she was pregnant soon after the imprisonment and gave birth to a little girl. Yet, despite her condition, she walked two miles to the prison in an effort to get some food and medicine to Adoniram, while seemingly battling fever every day. Her husband would tell her to stay home yet he knew he would not survive without her visits.
Even when he was transferred to a prison that was further away and worse than the first, she came, carrying a baby named Maria, who would die at the age of two. She bore three children in Burma and they all died. Then came the day when a guard shouted out, “The war is over, you can all go home!” But what would Adoniram find in Rangoon?
The Burmese Christians were still there and so were Ann and Maria. But the people of Rangoon had suffered greatly, some from starvation and many were killed by the wild animals—they too were starving. Adoniram looked around. “We cannot live here. It’s unsafe for you and Maria. We’re moving to Amherst.”
For a while it looked as though they had the home they deserved. Amherst was a good place with plenty of opportunity to evangelize. Everyone was happy but their happiness was short lived. The same government and King that had rejected them wanted Adoniram to return to Ava, a place he hated, as a translator. “I don’t want to go to Ava, too many painful memories. I wish we had stayed in America.” Ann took his hand. “If we’d stayed in America there would be no Burmese Christians. Go to Ava and do God’s work.” Adoniram went to Ava.
While in his room at the inn in Ava, Adoniram Judson received a letter edged in black. This meant death. Had a relative in America died? The message: “Dear Sir: I regret that I bring bad tidings. Your beloved wife Ann is dead.”
The best remembrances of Ann Judson may not have come from her husband, her family or her friends. Instead, they come from a British army officer. Major Calder Campbell, describing “an adventure in Ava” in the year 1826, gives a beautiful and affecting description of Mrs. Judson. Major Campbell, then a Lieutenant, when descending the Irrawaddy river in a canoe manned by Burmese, was attacked in the night while asleep by his faithless boatmen, and severely wounded and robbed. While waiting on the beach with much anxiety and distress for the passage of some friendly bark, a rowboat was seen approaching. Signals of distress were made and a skiff sent to his assistance. The following is the language of the writer.
“We were taken on board. My eyes first rested on the thin, attenuated form of a lady—a white lady! The first white woman I’d seen for more than a year! She was standing on the little deck of the rowboat, leaning on the arm of a sickly-looking gentleman with an intellectual cast of countenance, in whom I at once recognized the husband or the brother.”
“His dress and bearing pointed him out as a missionary. I have said that I had not beheld a white female for many months; and now the soothing accents of female words fell upon my ears like a household hymn of my youth.”
“My wound was tenderly dressed my head bound up, and I was laid on a sofa bed. With what a thankful heart did I breathe forth a blessing on these kind Samaritans!
“With what delight did I drink in the mild gentle sounds of that sweet woman’s voice, as she pressed me to recruit my strength with some of that beverage “which cheers but does not inebriate!” She was seated in a large sort of swinging chair, of American construction in which her slight, emaciated but graceful form appeared almost ethereal. Yet with much of heaven, there were still the breathings of earthly feelings about her, for at her feet rested a babe, a little wan baby, on which her eyes often turned with all a mother’s love; and gazing frequently upon her delicate features, with a fond yet fearful glance , was that meek, missionary, her husband. Her face was pale, very pale, with that expression of deep and serious thought which speaks of the strong and vigorous within the frail and perishing body; her brown hair was braided over a placid and holy brow; but her hands-those—small, Lilly-hands—were quite beautiful; beautiful they were , and very wan; for ah they told of disease, of death—death in all its transparent grace—when the sickly blood shines through the clear skin, even as the bright poison lights up the Venetian glass which it is about to shatter. That lady was Mrs. Judson, whose long captivity and severe hardship amongst the Burmese have since been detailed in her published journals.
“I remained two days with them; two delightful days they were to me. Mrs. Judson’s powers of conversation were of the first order and the many affecting anecdotes she gave us of their long and cruel bondage, their struggles in the cause of religion and their long residence at the court of Ava, gained a heightened interest from the beautiful, energetic simplicity of her language as well as from the certainty I felt that so fragile a flower as she in very truth was, had but a brief season to linger on earth.
“When I left the kind Judson’s, I did so with regret. When I looked my last on her mild worn countenance, as she issued some instructions to my new set of boatman, I felt my eyes fill with prophetic tears. They were not perceived. We parted and we never met again; nor is it likely that the wounded subaltern was ever again thought of by those who succored him. Mrs. Judson and her child died soon after the cessation of hostilities.”
Adoniram Judson was married twice more during his lifetime. In April of 1845, he married Sarah Hall Boardman, widow of
missionary George Boardman. They had eight children, five of whom survived until adulthood. One of their sons, Edward wrote the book, Adoniram Judson, A Biography. Sarah died on September 1, 1845. On June 1, 1846, Judson married for the third time to writer Emily Chubbuck. They had one daughter. Because of the age difference, some of Emily’s family and friends objected to her marrying “an old missionary.”
Surely Judson cherished all three of his wives. But just as surely his thoughts would often wander back to a young woman named Ann, who when things looked their darkest would deliver a kiss on the cheek and utter the words, “with God, all things are possible”.
Adoniram Judson went to the mission field when the likelihood of not returning was high and accomplishments were sometimes small. To be the first in a location such as Burma was fraught with danger, but Judson had staying power along with a brilliant intellect, and he had chosen well when it came to a life partner. Also, to be fair, missionaries should be judged by the final outcome of any particular mission. A look at Burma at the time of Judson’s death shows the number of converts had gone from 0 to 8,000, the number of churches was 100, and we can’t forget his marvelous project of translating the entire Bible to Burmese—his translation is still in use today. When all is said, his parents’ prediction came to fruition. He was a “Mighty Man.”
In April of 1850, Judson became ill. The standard treatment in those days seems to be an ocean voyage. Though his wife and everyone except his Doctor tried to persuade him not to go, he obeyed his physician. During the voyage his illness increased and he died. He was buried at sea. No grave stone marks the spot where the mighty man died.
Unless otherwise noted, photographs from Judson the Pioneer, American Baptist Publication Society, 1883.
Biography of Adoniram Judson by Edward Judson
Memoir of Ann Judson by Ann Hasseltine Judson
Imprisoned in the Golden City by Dave and Neta Jackson
Adoniram Judson, God’s Man in Burma by Sharon Hambrick