The salvation story of a five year old who is saved from a lifetime of heartache and bad memories is every bit a work of grace as the salvation of the most debauched sinner (though we have to remember, too, that what we think of as the “bad sins” are no worse than our pride, envy, and lack of love). A person doesn’t have to have a dramatic salvation story to have true faith and depth.
That said, one of the most dramatic salvation stories ever is that of Adoniram Judson. He is not quite as well-known a missionary as Hudson Taylor and Amy Carmichael, but he was among the first missionaries sent by America to another country. I’ll say more about his life and ministry tomorrow, but for today I want to tell how he was saved. All quotes are from To the Golden Shore by Courtney Anderson.
The way the Lord brought this young man to Himself has me on the edge of my seat even though I know the story well. Plus, I have known people in much the same situation as Adoniram, and the obvious hand of God in his life gives hope and encouragement that He is at work drawing them as well, bringing them to the influences and people through whom He can work in their lives.
Adoniram had been raised in a strict Congregationalist pastor’s home in the late 1700s. There was never any indication that he didn’t believe: everything outwardly indicated his lifestyle was in line with what he had been taught all his life. When it was time for him to go to college, his father chose one where he was sure his son wouldn’t be led away from sound doctrine.
Adoniram had a brilliant mind which evidenced itself early in life and which God later used in translation work. He did excellently at college. He fell in with some friends who were Deists, who “rejected all revealed religion…. All the Deist admitted was the existence of a personal God.” They believed the Bible as well as other religions’ texts were only the work of men and that Jesus “was not the Son of God except in the sense that all men are” (pp. 33. 38). One of his best friends who had much influence on him was free-thinking Jacob Eames.
When Adoniram graduated and came home, he felt he could not just quietly go along with the family’s beliefs and practices any more. He broke the news to his parents that he had chosen a different way. His father tried to reason with him. “Very shortly he realized with dismay that every argument he advanced was being met by two better ones. Not for nothing had Adoniram been valedictorian of his class. Exposing the fallacies of his father’s syllogisms was child’s play. Point by point, with crushing finality, he demolished every thesis his father set out to prove…So far as logics and evidence went, Mr. Judson had to concede…He still knew he was right, but he could not prove it” (p. 38). His mother’s tears seemingly had little effect, either.
Adoniram had decided he wanted to go into the theater and perhaps become a playwright, so he left home and made his way to New York.
He happened to arrive during a very quiet time for the theater, He couldn’t find work, and then when he did find a theater troupe that hired him, the morals of the group appalled him.
He left to travel some more and ended up at an uncle’s home during the time a visiting young preacher was filling in for him. He and this young man of God “spent several hours in conversation. Adoniram was struck by the fact that, although his host was as pious as his father, there was a warmth, ‘a solemn but gentle earnestness,’ in his speech which kindled an answering warmth in the heart. To be a devoted minister it was not necessary, it seemed, to be austere and dictatorial like the Reverend Mr. Judson. Adoniram rode away in the morning deeply impressed. …The young minister…would [not] experience the pain of Adoniram’s inner conflict. He was at peace with himself” (p. 42).
Later in Adoniram’s travels, he came to a country inn, looking for a room for the night. The only available room, the innkeeper explained apologetically, was next to a young man who was dying. Adoniram assured the innkeeper that was all right, but through the night, he heard the sounds from the next room, and his thoughts were greatly disturbed considering what might happen after death.
The next morning as Adoniram checked out, he asked about the young man and learned that he had indeed passed away. For some reason he asked the young man’s name, and was startled to hear it was Jacob Eames.
Adoniram was stunned. Though shocked and saddened at the loss of a dear friend , especially one so young, even more disturbing were the thoughts that his beliefs could possibly be wrong. Was his friend even now experiencing “the unimaginable torments of the flames of hell — any chance of remedy, of going back, of correcting, lost, eternally lost?” “For already, this moment, Eames knew his error — too late for repentance” (p.44).
He wasn’t converted immediately, but he did realize that no one but God could have orchestrated all of the events since he left home, that they weren’t mere coincidence: the unexpected conversation with young preacher, the failure and disappointment of his plans in New York, and his ending up in a room in an inn next door to his dying friend. He felt he must learn more.
He went home where, soon afterward, two leading Congregationalist pastors came to visit his father to discuss a new theological seminary. They spent several hours talking with Adoniram. He “made an instant impression on [them]. His personality was ingratiating, yet without false humility. His mind was of the finest order. He already knew more theology than many theological students. He was open to conviction. He understood that he must undergo inner regeneration before he could look forward to faith and personal salvation. But clearly this was not to be accomplished in a few hours of argument. The very qualities that made the boy so worth saving made him hard to save. Yet the visitors felt almost at once that if he could find conviction he could become a minister such as had not been seen since the days of Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards” (pp. 47-48).
Eventually “they suggested that Adoniram enroll in the new seminary, where he would have the materials he needed to study to make up his own mind, and the counsel of some of the best theologians in the country” (p. 48). He was enrolled “as a special student — not as a candidate for the ministry” (p. 48). He began his studies: “under Dr. Pearson, he began to read the sacred literature in the original [languages]. At the same time he began to thrash out his theological doubts with Professor Woods, who turned out to be fully his match as a dialectician” (pp. 49-50).
He “felt no blinding flash of insight,” but by November he “began to entertain a hope of having received the regenerating influences of the Holy Spirit,” and December 2 “made a solemn dedication of himself to God” (p. 50).