Adoniram Judson (1788 – 1850)
Born: Malden, Massachusetts, USA
Role: Missionary to Burma; Bible Translator; Author
Emphases: non-coercive, indigenised propagation of the gospel; optimistic postmillennial outlook on mission; credobaptism; self-denial
Adoniram Judson’s early twenties saw several incredible changes take place in his life. He experienced a conversion to evangelical Christianity at age 20, leaving behind the deism of his late-teenage years for the truth of the gospel. Over the next few years he became active in his family’s church, applied to serve as a missionary in Asia, married his first wife Ann, had a theological shift from Congregationalism to a Baptist position and began his ministry in Burma just before his 25th birthday.
The Judsons were the first Baptist missionaries to set out from America – indeed they were some of the very first American overseas missionaries. Adoniram was also the most significant figure in the early history of Christianity in Burma. Over a number of years he strove to learn Burmese well enough to communicate the gospel effectively and from 1819 he began a preaching and teaching ministry, with a Burmese zayat or meeting place in Rangoon (now Yangon) as his base.
Judson saw his first converts relatively early and during his years in Burma the Christian population went from non-existent to around 8000 believers. He worked hard to ensure that the Scriptures were available in the local languages and that Burmese Christians were trained as gospel workers to effectively reach their own people in subsequent generations.
He suffered greatly as an innocent man caught up in the First Anglo-Burmese war (1824-26), being subjected to imprisonment and torture under the misapprehension of the Burmese that he was a foreign spy.
Piper describes his mistreatment in his biography of Judson:
His feet were fettered and at night a long horizontal bamboo pole was lowered and passed between the fettered legs and hoisted up till only the shoulder and heads of the prisoners rested on the ground.
He lost his first wife to illness a few months after his release and his young daughter also succumbed to illness six months later. This led to a period of great personal isolation, grief and spiritual depression. Though this looked like it could have easily been the end for the overwhelmed missionary, God had other plans. Judson experienced a resurgence in the early 1830s and gradually saw more fruit from the gospel work.
Judson would not marry again for another seven years, but he wed a fellow missionary, Sarah Boardman in 1834. They would be married for just over a decade before she too succumbed to illness. The loss of his two wives and seven of his thirteen children are a testimony to the extreme hardship of missionary life in 19th century Burma.
He met and married his third wife, Emily, while in the United States following the voyage upon which Sarah had died. They returned to Burma in 1846, where Judson would have just four more years of ministry before his own death at 61.
Adoniram Judson’s impact on Christianity among the Burmese and Karen people has endured for the many years since his death. Piper again:
[T]oday there are close to about 3,700 congregations of Baptists in Myanmar who trace their origin to this man’s labors of love.
His ongoing significance is also felt in the development of American Christianity – with the Baptist churches who joined together to support the Judsons effectively constituting the first national Baptist denomination in North America. “The General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States of America for Foreign Missions” was pivotal in mobilising American Baptists for global missions and the largest denomination in the US today, the Southern Baptist Convention, is an offshoot of this original convention.
Judson is another wonderful example of a man whose life was radically transformed by the gospel and who took great pains to ensure that the Word of God was made available to those who lacked access to it – that they might receive life in Christ through its testimony. His life will no doubt continue to inspire many to follow his footsteps in taking the good news of Jesus to the unreached parts of the world.
You can read John Piper’s account of Judson’s life here.
Other sources consulted
K.P. Mobley, “JUDSON, Adoniram” Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals.
“Adoniram Judson” wikipedia.