If heroes are people who sacrifice themselves for the good of others, Adoniram and Ann Judson fit the description. Nineteenth-century Americans considered them Christian missionary heroes, but their fame came at the cost of great sacrifice and suffering. Along the way they would wonder how to find God, though their faith in him never wavered.
The two met in June, 1810 in Ann’s hometown of Bradford, Massachusetts. Ann was a devout and sparkling twenty-year-old school teacher, who had dedicated her life to Christian service after reading an appeal by Christian author Hannah More. Adoniram was an outstanding college student and a fairly new believer. His conversion from deism in 1808 had come about after a sleepless night at an inn. All night Adoniram had lain awake listening to the groans of a dying man in the neighboring room. The next morning he learned it was an old school friend who died without hope in Christ. Remembering the faith of his family, Adoniram soon put his trust in Jesus. Now he had come to Bradford to appeal to its Congregational Church to establish a mission to carry the gospel overseas.
Foreign missions were a new outreach for Christians of the United States. African American church planter George Liele had gone to Jamaica thirty years earlier, and a handful of men had worked along the frontier among Indians, but if the Congregationalists established a mission, it would be a new venture.
As it turned out, the Congregationalists did approve a mission organization and chose Adoniram as one of their first five missionaries. He and Ann married on February 5, 1812. The following day, Adoniram Judson, Samuel Newell, Samuel Nott, Gordon Hall, and Luther Rice were ordained for mission work in Salem, Massachusetts. It was a bitterly cold day, but people packed the meeting place, aware that a truly significant event was unfolding. The missionary wives were set apart for Christian service later in a separate gathering. On February 19, 1812, just two weeks after their marriage, Adoniram and Ann sailed for India, a voyage of four months.
Adoniram and Ann Judson Become Baptists
Nothing went as planned. Adoniram expected to meet pioneer Baptist missionary William Carey in Calcutta. Knowing that Congregationalists and Baptists hold different views on baptism, he decided use the long voyage to study the question. To his surprise, he concluded the Baptists were right. There was nothing for him to do but resign from the Congregationalist American Board. Left without friends and funding, he immediately asked America’s Baptists to back his work.
Meanwhile, authorities in India made it clear they did not want the Judsons preaching to Hindus. Adoniram had read a book about Burma (Myanmir) several years earlier and had an interest in that country. Now circumstances pushed the Judsons to sail to Rangoon, Burma. They arrived there on July 13, 1813. But while crossing the Bay of Bengal, Ann miscarried their first child.
Despite this tragedy, Ann wrote long, chatty letters home telling of their work and its snail-like progress. She and Adoniram threw themselves into language learning. Both could soon speak Burmese, and Adoniram prepared a guide to the language. Anne also learned Siamese (Thai) and translated the Gospel of Matthew into it. But six years after arriving in Burma, the Judsons could report the baptism of only one convert, Maung Nau. All the same, the mission saw a few hopeful signs, and by 1822 the little Rangoon church counted eighteen converts and Adoniram was busy translating the New Testament into Burmese.
But five years later, in 1827, he was living alone in a forest, a broken man. The church at Rangoon had collapsed. What had gone wrong?
“More Like The Dead Than The Living”
A series of reversals had followed the slow, early progress of the mission work.
In 1815 Ann bore a son, “little Roger,” who soon died. Her own health failed, and she returned to the US in 1822 for about a year. After she got back to Burma, Adoniram and a fellow missionary, Dr. Jonathan Price, went to Ava, capitol of Burma’s Golden Kingdom where they hoped to convince the king to grant legality to Christians. However, while they were there in 1824, England and Burma went to war. Adoniram and Price were imprisoned as spies. Ann, who was pregnant, worked night and day for their release and paid the guards to ease the captivity of the missionaries. Both Adoniram and Ann suffered greatly. Judson was hung in torturous positions, his naked feet exposed to mosquito bites. Conditions in the prison were filthy. To Adoniram, who had always kept himself spotless, the degrading filth was almost as terrible as the torture.
Ann’s letters continued, reporting that the captives were “more like the dead than the living.” Her health declined, owing to a difficult labor and her constant exertions to free her husband. When born, daughter Marie was sickly.
Eventually, after almost two years of cruel captivity, Adoniram was released. The king needed him to act as a translator in negotiations with the British. Ann died of a tropical fever shortly after Adoniram’s twenty-one month captivity ended; baby Marie followed a few months later.
Adoniram suffered depression and despair. Still recovering from years in captivity, he felt guilty for the deaths of Ann, Roger, and Marie, as well as of others whom he had swayed to become missionaries.
Why had these trials come upon him? Analyzing his own motives, he concluded he had come to Burma for personal fame more than for God’s glory. So he renounced fame, part of his salary, personal funds, an honorary degree, and even letters written long before that seemed to place him in a more honorable light than he felt he deserved. Not satisfied with this, he withdrew into a hut in a forest to read the Bible, meditate, and pray. He even dug a grave so that he could contemplate his death and the inevitable decay of his body. Months later, none of this had helped him feel even a millimeter closer to God. He wrote to two of Ann’s relatives, “Have either of you learned the art of real communion with God, and can you teach me the first principles? God is to me the Great Unknown. I believe in him, but I find him not.”
Gradually his depression lifted and he threw himself with renewed energy into mission work.
Adoniram Judson Recovers From Loss
Adoniram had long been sure that the key to successful Christian work in Burma was translation of the Bible. He had finished the New Testament around 1823. But, for a while it appeared all his work had been lost while he was in prison; miraculously his translation was recovered and printed. Eleven years later, in 1834, he completed the entire Bible.
Meanwhile, one of his first converts, Ko-Thah-a, reopened the church in Rangoon. Other missionaries arrived in Burma and one pair, George and Sarah Boardman, had astonishing success among Burma’s Karen population. God seemed to have prepared the Burmese Karen tribes for the gospel through a number of long-held traditions and through their marginalization by the mainstream Burmese Buddhist culture.
Following George Boardman’s death, Adoniram and Sarah married. They had a happy and fruitful marriage, with five children who survived to adulthood. However, after eleven years Sarah became seriously ill. The Judsons decided to return to the United States in search of a cure, but Sarah died on the voyage.
At Sea For A Cure
Adoniram continued to Boston where he was greeted as a hero. This was his only return to America during his thirty-seven years as a missionary. He visited the places he remembered from childhood, spent time with Samuel Nott, the only other survivor of the five original missionaries, and spoke in many churches. In Philadelphia he met author Emily Chubbock and asked her to write a memoir of Sarah Boardman.
Soon he asked Emily for more than a memoir. He asked for her hand in marriage. Although half his age, she accepted. They would have one child, a daughter also named Emily. By all accounts theirs was a happy union. Adoniram concentrated his last years on preparing a Burmese-English dictionary.
In 1850, he developed a serious lung infection. A doctor recommended he go to sea for fresh air, which he did aboard a French ship, Aristide Marie. However, the voyage was no cure, and he was buried at sea. Emily outlived Adoniram by only four years.
The faithful work of Adoniram Judson and his wives, in spite of terrible suffering, make them Christian heroes worthy of remembrance and imitation. They showed that small beginnings with God’s assistance can lead to great accomplishments. After the deaths of the Judsons, their efforts snowballed into a great church. Judson’s translation is still used 200 years after Adoniram began working on it. Persecution against Christians continues in Burma (now known as Myanmar), but the church grows in spite of it.
Introduce children to the story of Christian missionaries Adoniram and Ann Judson through the Torchlighters Heroes of the Faith video series. This animated program is available on DVD or to stream on your device. Free downloadable leader and student guides are also available for your use.