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Who was Adoniram Judson?

Adoniram Judson
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Adoniram Judson, Jr. (1788—1850) was a pioneering foreign missionary to India and Burma, the first Protestant missionary sent from North America. He was instrumental in launching the Congregationalist Church sending agency known as the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) and the “Triennial Convention” (formally known as the General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States), predecessor to the Southern Baptist Convention. Adoniram Judson spent nearly one quarter of a century translating the Bible into Burmese. He also composed a Burmese dictionary.

Adoniram Judson, Jr., was born in Malden, Massachusetts, on August 9, 1788, the oldest son of the Reverend Adoniram Judson, a Congregationalist pastor, and his wife, Abigail. The younger Adoniram’s mental aptitude and facility for languages became apparent early on when he began reading at age three. By age 18, in 1807, he had graduated as valedictorian from Brown University. With his naturally skeptical, logical, and intellectual mind, Judson unreservedly continued pursuing his love for learning, declaring himself at first a deist and eventually an atheist, much to his family’s distress.

After experiencing a terrifying nighttime battle within his soul, Adoniram Judson woke to an even darker reality—the death of his close friend and staunch atheist, Jacob Eames. The truth of Scripture that his father had always preached suddenly apprehended Adoniram Judson’s heart. He understood at once that his friend was lost for all eternity.

In December 1808, after enrolling in Andover Theological College, Judson committed his life to Jesus Christ. He joined his father’s Congregational Church in Plymouth a few months later. Adoniram graduated from Andover in the fall of 1810, and that same year he and several other students requested support to become foreign missionaries of the Congregationalist Association of churches. As a result, the ABCFM was established.

Adoniram Judson was ordained on February 6, 1812, one day after his wedding to Ann Hasseltine. Within two weeks, the couple set sail for India, supported by the Congregationalist Church. During the voyage, as Judson worked on a Greek-to-English translation of the New Testament, he became convinced of the Baptist theological position concerning believer’s baptism. He now considered the practice of infant baptism to be unbiblical. Once in India, Judson resigned his appointment to the ABCFM. With his wife, Ann, and fellow missionary Luther Rice, Adoniram was baptized by English missionary William Ward, an assistant of William Carey, at the Baptist mission at Serampore.

While the Judsons relocated to Burma (modern-day Myanmar) at William Carey’s urging, Rice returned to the United States to seek Baptist support for their mission. By May 1814, the Triennial Convention, which would later become the Southern Baptist Convention, was organized in Philadelphia. Adoniram Judson was adopted as their first foreign missionary.

Judson applied himself to learning the Burmese language and culture until he was finally fluent enough to preach in the native tongue. He also learned the Pali language of the Theravada Buddhists, set up a traditional Burmese zayat (an open-air meeting place), distributed tracts, taught the people to read and write in their language, and held worship services. Within seven years, in June of 1819, Judson baptized his first Burmese convert. He finished his New Testament translation in Burmese in 1823 (revised in 1829 and 1837).

During the Anglo-Burmese War (1824—1825), Judson and medical missionary Dr. Jonathan Price were falsely accused of being spies and imprisoned for twenty-one months in a deplorable death prison. Not long after his release, Judson’s first wife Ann, who had exhausted herself tending to Adoniram’s needs while in prison, died in October 1826. Six months later, she was followed in death by their baby daughter. The couple had three children; one was stillborn, and the other two died in infancy. Around this time, Judson also received news of his father’s death.

After enduring a time of deep depression, Judson gradually regained emotional well-being and determination. He threw himself into his work again. Judson and missionary colleague George Boardman began ministering among the tribal people known as the Karens. The two men were involved in the conversion of Ko Tha Byu, who would later be called the Karen Apostle and founder of Karen Christianity. Ko Tha Byu saw Christianity and salvation in Jesus Christ as the illuminating fulfillment of the ancient legends that his people had always believed in. Hundreds of thousands were saved and baptized through his ministry in the ensuing years.

In 1834, Judson married Sarah Boardman, the widow of his associate George Boardman. That same year, he completed his translation of the Old Testament (revised in 1835). His translation of the entire Bible, a feat that consumed twenty-three years of his life, was revised and finalized in 1840. In 1842, Judson began composing a Burmese dictionary, completing it in 1849.

After bearing eight children in eleven years, Sarah grew increasingly weak from repeated bouts of dysentery. The couple set sail for the United States, hoping Sarah might rest and recover there, but she died on board the ship in September 1845.

Three months after Sarah’s death and his return to Boston, Judson met the fiction writer Emily Chubbock (pen-named Fanny Forester). The two were married in June 1846. Emily returned with Judson to Burma. They had two children, one of whom died at birth. In April 1850, Adoniram Judson became gravely ill. His doctor prescribed a sea voyage as his only chance of recovery, but He died onboard and was buried at sea near the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean.

John Piper comments on the lasting results of the labors of Adoniram Judson: “Judson’s life was a grain of wheat that fell into the soil of Myanmar and died—again and again (John 12:24). The suffering was immense. And so was the fruit. At the turn from the second to the third millennium, Patrick Johnstone estimated the Myanmar (Burma’s new name) Baptist Convention to be 3,700 congregations with 617,781 members and 1,900,000 affiliates—the fruit of this dead seed” (“He Died a Thousand Times—and Lived,” April 2019, www.desiringgod.com, accessed 11/13/23).

Here are some quotes from Adoniram Judson:

“Let me beg you, not to rest contented with the commonplace religion that is now so prevalent.”

“Thanks be to God, not—only for ‘rivers of endless joys above,’ but for ‘rills of comfort here below.’”

“The motto of every missionary, whether preacher, printer, or schoolmaster, ought to be ‘Devoted for life.’”

“God answers all true prayer, either in kind or in kindness.”

“The prospects are bright as the promises of God.”

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This page last updated: January 30, 2024