Adoniram Judson: Endurance Personified in the Life of Burma's First Protestant Missionary From North America

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By Paul Borthwick, CP Guest Contributor
May 14, 2012|5:51 pm

As we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Adoniram and Ann Judson's sailing from Salem, Massachusetts to India and later Burma, we are not merely celebrating a critical early event in the North American Mission Movement. We celebrate the life of a devoted follower of Christ whose life and ministry personified the long-term impact of endurance, perseverance, and tenacity.

To begin, however, join me on a ministry trip to Burma (Myanmar) several years ago. Under the auspices of the World Evangelical Alliance and the Myanmar Evangelical Fellowship, my wife and I traveled to Yangon, Myanmar (Rangoon, Burma) to speak to youth and youth workers.

To connect our trip with missions history, we decided to re-read the biography of Adoniram Judson, pioneer to Burma, during our trip. Judson and his wife, Nancy (also called Ann) Hasseltine Judson, went out as one of the first North American missionaries, sailing in 1812 from Massachusetts.

The Burmese capital city, still dominated by the overwhelming Shwe Dagon Pagoda, looked much like the city Judson described to supporters at home. With the exception of signs of technological development and the increased population, we could easily imagine the Judsons sailing up the Irrawaddy River facing unknown challenges and what we know now as unimaginable hardship.

Indeed, the most striking aspect of the Judson-Burma story is endurance in spite of suffering. From start to finish, his biography describes hardship. He, his family, and his co-workers lived lives of affliction almost unparalleled in modern mission history.

Lest we forget, however, Judson pursued his calling knowing full well that sufferings lay ahead - a significant lesson in itself to us Christians 200 years later whose first question is often, "Is it safe to go there?"

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In writing to Ann Hazeltine's father for permission to marry her, Judson wrote:

I have now to ask whether you can consent to part with your daughter early next spring, to see her no more in this world. Whether you can consent to see her departure to a heathen land, and her subjection to the hardships and sufferings of a missionary life? Whether you can consent to her exposure to the dangers of the ocean; to the fatal influence of the southern climate of India; to every kind of want and distress; to degradation, insult, persecution, and perhaps a violent death? Can you consent to all this, for the sake of perishing immortal souls; for the sake of Zion and the glory of God? Can you consent to all this, in hope of soon meeting your daughter in the world of glory, with a crown of righteousness brightened by the acclamations of praise which shall redound to her Savior from heathens saved, through her means, from eternal woe and despair?

His anticipation of the hardships ahead almost all came true. Their tribulations began on the sail to India (his first anticipated destination) from Salem, Massachusetts. A devout Congregationalist, Judson had not resolved the issue of immersion baptism, so he set his sights on studying the issue on the three-month sail. On the journey, he decided that the Baptist perspective was the correct one, and he and Nancy were baptized upon arrival. He wrote to his Congregationalist supporters in Massachusetts, provoking the first crisis. They immediately cut all of their support.

Support from Baptists came, but not without some very uncomfortable weeks. But this problem was only the beginning. The Judsons encountered visa difficulties in India, and their first years took them from India to Mauritius (Isle of France) to Malaysia, while considering both Ceylon and Java. They reluctantly ended up in Burma in 1813.

As hard as it is to believe, these struggles pale in comparison to the amount of personal grief that surrounded the Judson mission. Reviewing the detailed account of Judson's life in To the Golden Shore illustrates the biblical teaching that "unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains by itself, alone. But if it dies, it bears much fruit" (John 12:24).

Statistics are not clear, but it seems that there were between a dozen and twenty-five enduring Burmese converts at the time of Judson's death. No matter what the statistics, the Judson-mission-deaths seem to have equaled or exceeded the number of converts.

But one mission had been completed. The Burmese had the Bible in their own language-with a Burmese-English dictionary completed as well.

Leave the Judson saga and return with my wife and me to our visit a few years ago. In a meeting with youth and youth leaders, we picked up a copy of the Burmese Bible. The Burmese script was unintelligible to us, but we noticed one English sentence on the title page: "Translated by the Reverend A. Judson."

A Bible translation that had stood the test of time - over 150 years! It stands as a testimony to Judson's scholarship and meticulous linguistic study.

I took the Bible over to our host, the head of the Evangelical Fellowship. "Matthew," I asked, pointing to the English sentence, "Do you know who this man is-Judson?"

"O yes!" he exclaimed. "Whenever someone mentions the name 'Judson,' great tears come to our eyes because we know what he and his family suffered for us."

He went on with great emotion, "We know about the sicknesses they endured. We read about the Death March and the Death Prison. We know about the wives who died, and the children who died, and the co-workers who died.

Later in the 19th century, one of Adoniram's only surviving sons, Edward, speaking at the dedication of the Judson Memorial Church in New York City, summarized his father's story:

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. Probably the greatest lesson we can learn from the life of this great man is that we have to trust in the work of God, even if our efforts seem fruitless and wasted. Judson's life is proof that God is faithful in bringing about His work in due time, and we simply need to remain faithful and trusting in Him.

When Adoniram Judson died on April 11, 1850, he had not seen vast numbers saved directly through his ministry. He will be remembered, however, for his role in the establishment of US missions, his outstanding translation of the Bible into Burmese and his foundational work among the Burmese people.

Endnotes
Article based on a transcript of the address presented at the February 6, 2012 Bicentennial Celebration, Salem, MA.

On the web: Missio Nexus and  Mission Frontiers

From Mission Frontiers, May 2012. Reprinted with the permission of Missio Nexus and Mission Frontiers, the news and issues journal from the U.S. Center for World Mission. Paul Borthwick is a Senior Consultant with Development Associates International, a teacher at Gordon College and Urbana/Missions Associate to InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.
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