31 Days of Missionary Stories: Adoniram Judson, America’s First Missionary

I reviewed To The Golden Shore by Courtney Anderson about the life of Adoniram Judson a few years ago, but I can’t not include it in a month of missionary stories. It’s a missionary classic and compelling reading. So I hope those of you who have seen it before don’t mind the repost.


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 ShoreTo 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.

(You can see other posts in the 31 Days of Missionary Stories here.)

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

31 Days of Missionary Stories: Adoniram Judson’s Conversion

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).