BORN: August 9, 1788—Malden, Massachusetts
DIED: April 12, 1850—Bay of Bengal, Burma Coast
LIFE SPAN: 61 years, 8 months, 3 days
One of the world’s most horrible seventeen months of imprisonment was endured by Adoniram Judson from 1824 to 1825 at age 37. Little food was given to him. His feet were bound to a large bamboo pole, his hands to another, and at night his feet were lifted higher than his head. Thus he was to swing suspended on the small of his back, his feet tied to a raised pole. His heroic wife brought little bits of food to him, although she and the baby were near death at times themselves and eventually succumbed to the rigors of life in Burma. What was Judson doing during these days in prison? Translating the Bible, hiding his work in a hard pillow which nobody investigated.
For pure physical suffering for the sake of the Gospel, Judson must be near the top of most lists. Before we join him in Burma, we meet him as the son of Adoniram and Abigail (Brown) Judson, who were pastoring the Congregationalist Church at Malden, Massachusetts.
From childhood he possessed a brilliant mind. His mother taught him to read when he was three, and he became very studious. At twelve he mastered Greek, and at 14 had a very serious illness. He would regularly win highest honors in his class at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where he enrolled in 1804. His parents had high hopes for him, but skeptical friends such as Jacob Eames, a persuasive unbeliever, did all they could to crush his faith. Graduating in 1807, he received valedictorian honors. Adoniram dazzled the audience with his address on the subject of free enquiry.
Back home he opened the Plymouth (Massachusetts) Independent Academy. His father was now the pastor of the Third Congregational Church of Plymouth. He published two textbooks, “Elements of English Grammar” and “Young Ladies’ Arithmetic.”
Being somewhat hypocritical about his living, he announced to his parents one day he was going to New York to write for the stage. The parents, stunned, asked him to consider preaching if he was not happy teaching. This only made him angrier. Their begging wit tears was ignored and he left. However, there was no fortune and fame to be had for him in New York. He traveled back to an uncle’s home, secured a horse, and rode west.
One night he took lodging at a village inn. The landlord told him he had one room, but it was next to someone critically ill. Rest did not come. Through the night he heard sounds of people moving about, weird moans and gasps. He could not stop thinking about death. Finally, sleep did come in the early morning hours. The next day he inquired about the sick man and was told he had died. Judson inquired who it was. Like an arrow to his heart came the reply: “A Jacob Eames from the college of Providence.” He galloped back home toward Plymouth, and spent several long sessions with distinguished Christians until in December, 1808, he dedicated himself fully to the Lord.
He had decided to study for the ministry and entered the Andover Theological Seminary at Andover in the fall of 1808. In May, 1809, he made a public profession of his faith in his father’s church. This was also the year while reading “Buchanan’s Star in the East” that his desire to become a missionary was born. Soon this became an obsession with him.
Back at Williams College in 1806, several young men formed the first foreign missionary society. The famous haystack prayer meeting was a result of a storm at their first meeting which was held outdoors. Samuel J. Mills and four others—Nott, Newell, Hall, and Luther Rice—jumped into a haystack and organized a missionary prayer meeting. Now many of these men were also studying at Andover Seminary and met Judson. His parents begged him to accept a flourishing Boston pulpit which was offered to him. But Judson had the world in his heart and by February, 1810, there was no turning back.
Up until this time work in America was limited to Indians. There were no organized societies sending men to foreign service. On June 28, 1810, Mills, Nott, Newell and Judson presented a statement to the General Association of Congregational Ministers at Bradford, Massachusetts, which led to the organization of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. On June 29, the day following the proposition of the four young Seminary students to go to heathen Asia with the Gospel, they were invited to the Hasseltine residence near Bradford, Massachusetts, for a meal. The Hasseltines were well known for their social functions. Twenty-year-old Nancy—whose real name was Ann—was helping her mother prepare the meal. As she greeted the men, a pair of keen eyes met hers. Judson, the spokesman for the group, soon was composing a graceful sonnet in her praise. One month later a letter came to her from Judson. In it, Judson asked her to marry him and accompany him to India. Two months later she said yes.
In January, 1811, Judson was sent to England by the American Board to promote a measure of affiliation and cooperation between it and the London Missionary Society, which William Carey had started. On his trip over he was captured by a French privateer and imprisoned at Bayonne for a while. Released, he went to London but had no success on his mission. The London group did not want to cooperate with unorganized American churches. Also, growing international tensions on the eve of the War of 1812 made it desirable for the American Board to act independently. They did so immediately thereafter, and Nott, Newell, Hall, Rice and Judson were appointed as their first missionaries.
Judson was married on February 5, 1812, and ordained with his colleagues the next day, February 6, at Salem, Massachusetts. A few days later, on February 19, the Judsons, with their friends, sailed for Calcutta, India. In expectation of meeting Baptists including William Carey at Serampur, they made a study of baptism and, on board the ocean vessel, they became convinced that they should become Baptists. Upon arrival they were immersed in a Baptist church in Calcutta. This meant support from the Congregational Society would stop, and this brought some hardships to Judson. Because of it, Luther Rice returned to America, rallied the Baptist churches, and by 1814 the American Baptist Missionary Union was formed, under which Judson came.
Arriving in Calcutta, Judson found that the War of 1812 between England and America had shut India’s doors to him, as the East India Company, fearing trouble might arise from missionaries working with the natives, advised that he and his friends should sail [back to] America. Unwelcomed by former associates, he wen to Isle of France and Madras.
At that time a vessel was ready for a trip to Rangoon, Burma, and the Judsons decided to go there. However, the first of much coming suffering and anguish was evidenced on this trip. Tossed by a fierce monsoon in the Bay of Bengal, Ann became desperately ill, and Judson expected her death momentarily. Attended only by her husband, Ann gave birth to her first baby, which soon died and had to be buried at sea. They reached Rangoon in July, 1813, taking up residence at the Felix Carey Mission House. Mrs. Judson was still severely ill, so she had to be carried in a stretcher as they disembarked. It was two and a half years before she would receive a letter from home. These were times of strenuous labors and difficulties. The people were engaged in idolatry—mostly devout Buddhists—and the emperor would not tolerate any religious teaching. Finally, through his medical knowledge, Judson was able to gain [the] favor of the emperor. Here the Judsons labored diligently, gathering around them natives as they were able. It was an unspeakably filthy village where they lived, and at night the dogs and pigs would fight over the garbage littered throughout the city.
Ann opened a school for children and for such women as might desire to attend. She was an outstanding missionary in her own right. Judson busied himself with mastering the language, and decided he must translate the Bible into Burmese. He said, “I long to see the whole New Testament complete, for I will then be able to devote all my time to preaching the Gospel.”
Judson felt it time to start preaching the Gospel in public after awhile. In order to make friends with the Burmese people, he would have to make a zayat for them. This was a large public building where the farmers and businessmen could gather to talk or relax at any time. Finding a spot on a busy road, he made the zayat. When the travelers found out the white man was not charging for this service, they soon became very friendly toward the missionaries. While building a small chapel by the roadside, he spoke to hundreds as they traveled to and from the city. The first Christian service in the native tongue was held April 4, 1819. After six years of labor, he had his first convert, Moung Nau, who was baptized in Rangoon on June 27, 1819. Though it took him six years for his first convert, within two years he had 18 baptized converts and a Burmese church started. The Bible translation work was going slow, but progressed.
During this time a son, Roger, was born. He lived only seven months, then died. Soon after this Judson himself became sick. Long hours of study in a hot climate would be difficult, but his “books” were dried palm leaves strung together, with the letters poorly scratched on them. No wonder he complained of eyestrain and headaches. For months he lay in bed, his eyes sore from disease.
In 1821, Ann made a two-year visit to America for her health.
In 1823 Brown University granted Judson an honorary D.D. In June, 1823, Ann embarked for the voyage back to Burma. In December, 1823, the couple left Rangoon. New missionaries had arrived to care for the growing mission there. Adoniram was encouraged by the emperor’s invitation to found a Christian mission in Ava, the capital city, and promise to give them land for a mission station. However, Dr. Price, who had preceded them, met them and warned them that the tide was suddenly turned against foreigners because of imminent war with Great Britain. All white visitors were now looked upon with suspicion. Rangoon had fallen to the British and foreigners were now in trouble in Ava.
On June 8, 1824, begins a story of unbelievable punishments. In their compound Adoniram was thrown to the floor and dragged away, put in prison. For a while it was one dark, filthy room. He was forbidden to speak to his fellow prisoners except rarely, and was denied water and fresh clothing. Fellow prisoners were whipped and, worse still, led forth at three in the afternoon for execution. He never knew what day would be his turn.
The question now was how to preserve the precious manuscripts of exhausting years of Bible translations. Ann decided to hide them in a pillow. She made a hard one. The jailer grabbed it and kept it as his own. Grief filled their hearts. Ann, not to be outdone made a prettier, nicer pillow and brought it to the prison, and Judson said to the jailer, “How would you like to exchange the old, soiled pillow for this bright new one?” Many times, smitten down with disease and at death’s door, he breathed out the prayer, “Lord, let me finish my work. Spare me long enough to put Thy saving Word into the hands of a perishing people.” The prayer was answered. Ann was the first missionary to learn Siamese and to translate a portion of Scripture, the Gospel of Matthew, into that tongue.
Adoniram was bound during nine months of this period with three pairs of fetters. Two months the amount was five pairs. His sufferings from fever, excruciating heat, hunger, repeated disappointments and cruelty of keepers is one of the most challenging narratives in the history of missions. On one occasion, pitifully weak and emaciated, he was driven in chains across the burning tropical sands, until, his back lacerated and his feet covered with blisters, he fell to the ground and prayed for a speedy death. For almost two years he was incarcerated in a prison too vile to house animals. One room which he and many other prisoners were crowded into was without a window and felt like a fiery furnace under the merciless glare of the tropical sun. The stench of the place was terrible, vermin crawled everywhere, and the jailer, Mr. Spotted Face, was a brute in human form. Judson would have fallen except for the tender, persistent ministrations of his wife Ann. Bribing the jailer, under cover of darkness, she crept to the door of Judson’s den bringing food and whispering words of hope and consolation.
At one point, for three long weeks she did not appear. But when she returned, she brought in her arms a new-born baby. This explained her absence. Amid much pain Adoniram Judson crawled forth and took the child in his arms. Afterwards he composed 24 stanzas of poetry in her honor.
Smallpox was raging unchecked through the city, and little Maria Judson was smitten. Ann found herself unable to nurse the little one. Ann took her baby up and down the streets of the city, pleading for mercy and for milk. Through the kindness of a native mother who had a small child, the baby was kept alive.
A caged lion starved to death before an alleged plan to turn [it] loose on some of the prisoners was implemented. Mrs. Judson cleaned out the cage and secured permission for her husband to stay there for a few weeks, since he was critically ill with fever. Her efforts to relieve the sufferings of the English prisoners received tributes of warmest gratitude and praise. She walked fearlessly and was respected from palace to prison.
Once the prisoners were moved ten miles away to a jail at Oung-pen-la. Ann caught up by boat, then oxcart. Not being permitted to put her own little bamboo house near the prison, Ann took refuge in a little room half-filled with grain and accumulated dirt.
Here she stayed for many days, stricken down and lying prostrate by tropical disease. She lay helpless on her mat on the floor for two months. God sent some help at the last possible moment. A Burmese woman offered to care for and to nurse the baby. Then Dr. Price was released from prison and hastened to her bedside. Slowly she was revived, although she could scarcely breathe. She sent a servant to make one more appeal to the governor to release Adoniram. The governor sent a petition to the high court of the empire and Adoniram was released about November, 1825, and that only on a peremptory demand on the part of General Sir Archibald Campbell. He was given the post of interpreter of message for the Burmese government—a job which was practically an imprisonment.
Upon release from this servitude his one thought was—”Is Ann still alive?” Upon reaching the room where he knew she was last he saw a fat, half-naked Burmese woman squatting in the ashes beside a pan of coals, holding on her knees an emaciated baby, so begrimed with dirt that it did not occur to him that it could be his own Across the foot of the bed lay a human object who at first glance was no more recognizable than his child. The face was pale and the body shrunken to the last degree of emaciation. Black curls had al been shorn from the bald head. It was Ann who roused from her stupor, as warm tears fell upon her face.
Nursed slowly back to health, the Judsons transferred their headquarters to Amherst in Lower Burma.
Amherst was on a long strip of Burmese seacoast which Great Britain had secured, and here [the Judsons] and their four Burmese Christian converts created a mission and home in the summer of 1826. In the anticipation that his presence would be of help in insuring religious liberty to the subjects of Burma, Judson was prevailed upon to accompany the British Civil Commissioner to Ava in the capacity of British ambassador. While he was gone, Ann fell victim to another fever; this time, it proved to be too vicious. Before she died she said, “The teacher (husband) is long in coming; and the new missionaries are long in coming; I must die alone and leave my little one. But as it is the will of God, I acquiesce in his will.”
She died October 24, 1826, when she was not yet 37 years of age. When Judson returned his heart was broken, as he buried his wife under a hopia tree in Amherst. About three months later he buried his third child—next to Ann.
In 1827 he moved to Maulmain where he continued to work as long as he lived. In 1828 he began preaching to the Karens, a race of wild people living in the remote areas of the jungles.
An evangelistic opportunity came one day in 1828, when a Karen slave was sold in the bazaar in Moulmain and bought by a native Christian who forthwith brought him to Judson to be taught and evangelized. Ko Tha Byu was a desperate robber bandit and was involved in some 30 murders. Patiently, Judson instructed the depraved creature, who yielded to Christ and went through the jungles as a flaming evangelist among his people. The Karens then prepared for their reception of the Gospel message. God blessed, and other missionaries arrived to assist—among whom were the Boardmans. The tasks and terrible climate all took their toll, and Mr. Boardman died. Mrs. Boardman (born in 1803) remained to teach school in Burma and, in April, 1834, she became Judson’s second wife. Eight children were born in their eleven years of marriage, three of whom died at an early age.
Judson completed a revision of the Old Testament in the Burmese language by 1834, and he finished the Burmese New Testament in 1837. That year there were 1,144 baptized converts in Burma. Judson would preach and teach all morning and in the evening would hold a service for believers and inquirers. But he was finding it more difficult to speak in public. He had been ill so many times his voice was growing weak. His wife Sarah also was repeatedly ill, and so he decided a furlough might be in order. But Mrs. Judson’s health never regained and she died in the port of St. Helena in 1845, at age 42.
After 33 years of absence, Judson was royally received in the United States, where he told the story of Burma missions, which Ann had several years earlier written in book form. The cause of missions was helped, and interest in the cause he represented was evident by the crowded assemblies gathered to see and hear him. Like Livingstone, he shunned the public gaze and was modest and shy when it came to speaking. Home on his first and only furlough, he was asked if the prospects were bright for the conversion of the world. His famous reply was, “As bright, Sirs, as the promises of God!”
On July 11, 1846, he set sail for Burma again, having married on June 2, to Miss Emily Chubbock of Eaton, N.Y. (born in 1817). She became a brilliant writer.
Back in Burma in 1847, divine blessings rested upon his continued Burmese-English dictionary. This was a work first issued in 1826 but revised constantly through his life. Many tracts were printed as well.
Still in poor health, in 1850 he was advised to take a sea voyage to recuperate. His wife, also very ill, could not go with him, so he was carried on board the vessel too weak to walk. Four days later, on April 12, 1850, en route to the Isle of France, Adoniram Judson passed on and was buried at sea. His wife died in 1854, four years later.
Thirty years after Judson’s death the native work which he gave birth to numbered 7,000 converts and some 63 churches. The working staff over which he had oversight consisted of 163 missionaries, native pastors and assistants. There was a publishing house, schools where natives were taught to read, and many more testimonials to his life’s work. One hundred years later, on the anniversary of his death, Burma had some 200,000 Christians.
Judson’s work not only accomplished something in Burma but his general results also affected all of India. In his 37 years of missionary labor he succeeded in gradually working up a sentiment in the East of religious toleration, which bears much fruit even today. One of his most successful efforts was the organization of an extensive trained body of native assistants to aid him in the translation of the Bible and other works into Burmese, and in the compilation of his Burmese- English and English-Burmese dictionary, Burmese grammar and Pali dictionary. These works, though intended primarily as aids for missionaries, have been great aids to the study, by students and scholars, of the languages of the East.
Almost overlooked is the fact that Judson wrote two famous hymn-poems, “Our Father God, Who Art in Heaven” (1825) and “Come, Holy Spirit, Dove Divine” (1832).
Speaking at the dedication of the Judson Memorial Church in New York City, a son, Edward, spoke referring to his father:
“Suffering and success go together. If you are succeeding without suffering, it is because others before you have suffered; if you are suffering without succeeding, it is that others after you may succeed.”
Judson probably illustrated this truth as much as any man who ever lived.