Adoniram Judson lay starving in a filthy Burmese prison cell in 1824.
Every night, his guards passed a long bamboo pole between his shackled legs and those of his fellow prisoners and lifted the pole up until only their shoulders and upper torsos touched the vermin-infested floor.
For more than a year, Adoniram’s wife, Ann, kept him alive by supplying him with bits of food, clothing and hope.
Suffering from recurring tropical fever, she was alone during his imprisonment, except for her infant daughter, Maria, their third and only surviving child.
When the fever and malnutrition caused her breast milk to dry up, Ann went door to door begging female strangers with unweaned children to allow baby Maria to nurse at their breasts.
Shortly after Adoniram was released, Ann died. She was 37. Maria died six months later. Adoniram buried his wife and his third child beside their house and then went on with his mission, which he and Ann loved better than life itself.
Adoniram Judson graduated with top honors from Brown University and Andover Seminary. A member of the Congregationalist denomination, at age 22 he committed his life to taking the Christian gospel to India.
No American missionary organization existed to support him. He and a few young friends started one – The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.
Soon thereafter, Adoniram met 21-year-old Ann Hassletine, who shared his calling. The two were married and two weeks later set sail for India.
On the voyage over, Adoniram studied baptism. His research convinced him of the biblical basis of believers’ baptism. He then persuaded Ann. Soon after landing in India, they were baptized into a Baptist church.
Becoming Baptist cost the young couple dearly in two ways. First, they had to resign from their sole means of support, the Congregational missionary society. Second, they were forced to leave India, ending up in Burma in 1813.
On their behalf, former classmate, Luther Rice, founded a Baptist missionary society in America – the 1814 Triennial Convention. Adoniram and Ann were the reason Baptists in the United States first organized nationally.
The Triennial Convention split over slavery in 1845. The anti-slavery side became today’s American Baptist denomination, and the pro-slavers founded the Southern Baptist Convention.
In 1813, the Judsons, almost totally isolated from all European or American contacts, set up a little ministry in Rangoon, Burma, a dangerous country run by a ruthless despot.
Adoniram had three main goals: first, translate the Bible into Burmese; second, initiate rational discussion of the gospel with Burmese seekers; and third, found a church of believers.
Studying Burmese 12 hours a day, Adoniram took 11 years to achieve the first goal, a Bible in Burmese.
To accomplish the second, he and Ann set up a zayat, a traditional Burmese roadside talking place. It took them six years to win the first convert to Christianity.
Through all these years, their existence in Burma was hard and precarious as they faced disease, discrimination and financial hardship.
Ann died having served 13 years in Burma while Adoniram continued working there for another 24 years until his death in 1850.
The year of Adoniram’s death, Burma had a Burmese Baptist presence of 7,000 members and 100 native ministers.
In 2013, the 200th anniversary of the Judsons’ mission to Burma, Burmese Baptists number 900,000 strong in almost 5,000 churches.
Beyond Burma, Adoniram’s and Ann’s sacrificial lives launched a cooperative Baptist mission movement that has become the most numerous and widespread international mission force in the world.
An alliance of Baptist organizations will celebrate the bicentennial of the founding of the Burmese mission in Atlanta on Nov. 14-16.
How should we remember them?
- As starting young.
They were a couple in their early 20s who, with their young friends and against all odds, changed the physical and spiritual lives of unnumbered people.
- As making good use of a good education.
They used their education in service of others rather than as a means to “get a good job” or “make good money.”
- As living out the truth revealed in Psalm 63:3: “There is a love that is better than life itself.”
They chose, at a young age, to commit themselves completely to something greater than themselves. They chose the love revealed in Christ, denying themselves and taking up their crosses to follow Jesus. And they died glad of their calling.
Ann and Adoniram did not live to see the full impact of their lives. Who does?
They remind us that Baptist missions are capable of expressing a love better than life itself. They call us to get on with it.
Wm. Loyd Allen is professor of church history and spiritual formation at the James and Carolyn McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University. You can find out more about the bicentennial celebration of the Judsons’ mission here.
Wm. Loyd Allen holds the Sylvan Hills Chair of Baptist Heritage and is Professor of Church History and Spiritual Formation at James and Carolyn McAfee School of Theology.