Imagine feeling so convicted and burdened by God’s command to go and share the gospel with every creature and so moved by the state of the lost in other countries that have never heard the gospel that you feel you must go yourself and tell them.
Now imagine doing so when you live in a country where no one has ever done so before.
To The Golden Shore by Courtney Anderson is a classic missionary biography of Adoniram Judson, America’s first missionary. I had read it years ago but felt an urge to revisit it.
Every missionary has to have dedication and has to be willing to make sacrifices, even in our day. But the amount of dedication and sacrifice and willingness to step into the unknown displayed by Adoniram and his wife and the small group who stepped out with them just amazes me. His wife, Ann Hassletine (also called Nancy) is one of the bravest women I have ever read of, going into the great unknown as she did and facing all that she did in later years. The letter Adoniram wrote to ask her father for her hand in marriage is an atypical proposal, but frank:
I have not 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 her departure, and her subjection to the hardships and sufferings of missionary life; whether you can consent to her exposure to the dangers of the ocean; to the fatal influence of the 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 Him who left His heavenly home and died for her and for you; for the sake of perishing immortal souls, for the sake of Zion, and the glory of God?
He was not being melodramatic: he was being realistic. It says a lot about Nancy that she accepted such a proposal.
There are several short biographies of Adoniram online, so I don’t want to retell his life story, but I just want to touch on a few highlights that stood out to me from the book.
I wrote before of his remarkable conversion. His innate intelligence, keen mind, and his own struggles coming to faith uniquely fitted him for the philosophical discussions with the Burmese that were preliminary to their understanding the gospel, and that same mind and the facility he developed with the language uniquely fitted him to translate the Bible into Burmese and to create a Burmese-English dictionary and grammar that were the standard for decades.
He had a stalwart, determined character. That could come across as stubborness in some instances, but when convinced as to the will of God, he was firm. During Adoniram’s studies over the long sea voyage, he became convinced that the Baptist mode of baptism, by immersion after a profession of salvation, was the Biblical way. That put him in a difficult position as a Congregationalist missionary. The subject was discussed and debated amongst the missionary candidates on board, but once Adoniram was convinced of the Scriptural position, he felt he had no choice but to resign as a Congregationalist missionary and seek support from the Baptists. Thankfully, in the providence of God, the situation was handled with grace, and God brought him into contact with Baptist men who took on his support. You may or may not agree about modes of baptism, but what stands out to me here was the character it took to act on what he believed even though it was going to cause difficulties.
The Burmese were open to discussion, but it was six long years before the first one believed. Progress was very slow: there was, of course, not the openness to a variety of religions as we take for granted today. Adoniram was careful not to impinge on their culture — he wasn’t trying to create an American church, but a Christian one. But slowly the gospel took root and grew. Oddly, at the time of greatest oppression by the imperialist Burmese king, when the Judsons feared they would have to leave, they had several inquirers. Some of the Burmese converts came forth as gold in the trials they faced where professing Christ cost something.
When war broke out between Burma and England in 1824, the Judsons thought that they would be safe as Americans. However, the Burmese did not understand the Western system of banking: because the Judsons’ checks were cashed through a British merchant, they were thought to be in league with the British, and Adoniram was imprisoned for twenty-one of the most grueling months of his life. A fastidious man, he dealt with filthy quarters and having his feet in fetters raised up toward the ceiling every night while his weight rested on his shoulders on the floor. Nancy daily sought help and favor for him everywhere she could: she even followed him and the rest of the prisoners on a tortuous march to another prison. As authorities searched their home, she hid what she could, especially the manuscript of the Burmese translation of the Bible over which Adoniram had been working so diligently. She hid it in a pillow and took it to Adoniram in prison. The jailer took a liking to the pillow and confiscated it for himself: Nancy made a nicer one, and Adoniram successfully offered it to the jailer in exchange.
As the war began to grind to an end, Adoniram was called on as a translator between the Burmese and British. Lack of nutrition, ill health, and extenuating circumstances all took their toll on Nancy, and she died, followed soon by their baby. None of their other children had lived.
Adoniram entered into the darkest period of his life. He threw himself into translation and missionary work, but wrestled with losses and grief: not only Nancy and all his children, but several missionary colleagues had died as well as his father back in America. Oddly, he felt guilty over his grief. He withdrew into a kind of asceticism for a while. He dug an open grave and spent long periods of time just staring into it. He requested at this time that his letters to others be destroyed, so we don’t know for sure what all he was thinking during this period. Several shorter biographies bypass this section of his life, but I think it is important to note that in his humanness, the losses he had sustained and the time in prison all had their effect on him, understandably, and it took him about three years to recover.
He eventually married Sarah Boardman, the widow of one of his colleagues, and had several more children. They had a happy eleven-year long marriage before she passed away on his only return trip to America, taken originally to try to help improve her health. God granted him another happy marriage to writer Emily Chubbuck for a few years before his own health failed in 1850 at the age of 61.
His legacies are the souls won to Christ in Burma and the churches started there, the Burmese Bible he translated, the Burmese-English dictionary and grammar, and the stirring testimony and influence of a life of character used by God.