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Adoniram Judson (1788 - 1850): Perseverance through Suffering

Not far from a huge statue of Buddha, Adoniram Judson led Maung Nau down into a Rangoon pond until they were waist deep. “A wondering crowd of gaily clad Burmans watched from the hill above.”1 On the basis of Maung Nau’s written testimony that he was “taking refuge in the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ,”2 Judson baptized this poor, 35-year-old timber worker. And this was no ordinary baptism; Nau was the missionary’s very first convert after seven years of service in South Asia. The date was June 27, 1819.

Intellectually gifted, Judson finished top of his class at Providence College (later Brown University) in 1807, and a few years later the faculty invited him to return. But much had changed in the intervening time. On December 2, 1808, Judson dedicated his life to Christ. Shortly thereafter, he felt the call to foreign missions and vowed to follow God’s leading. Yet, his Christian family was horrified, his mother and sister pleading with him not to go.

Two days after leaving his parents in February 1812, Judson married his fiancée Ann (Nancy) Hasseltine, and two weeks later they sailed for Calcutta, India. Judson spent the four-month journey wrestling with the Bible’s teaching on baptism and eventually adopted the Baptist understanding. This was not an easy decision because, after landing, his mission board cut off his support, and he was stranded until the American Baptist Missionary Union was founded.3

The Judsons moved on to Burma in July 1813, and Adoniram began learning the local language without any lexical help or English-speaking teacher. Remarkably, within three years he completed a grammar book, and in May 1817, he finished a translation of Matthew’s Gospel. But his ministry among the locals remained slow and difficult, and it was not until 1819 that he preached his first Burmese sermon and saw his first convert, the aforementioned Maung Nau.4

Throughout these years, he was continually harassed by Burmese officials. Then, in 1824, things went from bad to worse; war broke out between Burma and Britain and the local authorities threw Judson into prison for a total of 18 months, where 11 of those months he spent in the filthy, overcrowded “Death Prison” on a charge of spying for the British. Fitted with shackles, Judson and the other prisoners had their legs elevated each night to prevent them from escaping.

With jests and jokes, [the guards] lowered [a] long horizontal bamboo pole from the ceiling, passed it between the fettered legs of the prisoners, re-secured it at the ends, and hoisted it up with the aid of the block-and-tackle. Gradually the feet of the prisoners rose into the air until only their shoulders and heads rested on the floor.5

Judson’s release in 1826 allowed him to return to ministry, but in his absence the small native church had scattered and the mission property had been destroyed. Then, while away on mission business later that year, he learned of his wife’s death from fever,6 and he fell into severe depression.7 As he sat by her grave in a foreign land, he wrote “God to me is the great unknown; I believe in him but I cannot find him.”8 Later in his life, Judson was to lose another wife, Sarah, who was weakened by childbirth and dysentery.9 Yet despite military, marital, and ministerial setbacks Judson continued with his translation, completing the entire Bible in 1834,10 and today, it remains the Bible of the Burmese church.

The legacy of this faithful brother is enormous. Returning from a trip to Myanmar on the 150th anniversary of Judson’s translation, American missiologist Paul Borthwick11 told of asking his host, Matthew Hla Win, what he knew of this remarkable man. The Burman replied, “Whenever someone mentions Judson’s name, tears come to my eyes, because we know what he and his family suffered . . . Today there are six million Christians in Myanmar, and every one of us traces our spiritual heritage to one man—the Reverend Adoniram Judson.”12


Courtney Anderson, To the Golden Shore: The Life of Adoniram Judson (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1956), 228.


Ibid., 224.


Ruth A. Tucker, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 132.


Ibid., 135.


Anderson, 305.


Ibid., 370.


Tucker, 137.


Lindsay Brown, Shining Like Stars: The Power of the Gospel in the World’s Universities (Nottingham: InterVarsity, 2006), 172.


Anderson, 434-441.


It took seven years of revision before the book was ready for printing in 1840. See Tucker, 137-138.


See “Biography,” Paul Borthwick Website, http://www.borthwicks.org/biography.php (accessed July 2, 2008).


Quoted in Alec Hill, “Great Cloud of Witnesses,” Urbana Website, http://www.urbana.org/wtoday.witnesses.cfm (accessed July 2, 2008).