September 27, 2012

A Life Not Wasted: Adoniram Judson

by Nathan Busenitz

Adoniram_JudsonI have been profoundly impressed with the sacrifices made by Christian men and women throughout the centuries of church history. From martyrs to missionaries, these individuals have served their King with greatest intensity and courage, valiantly standing as examples for those who come behind them. They are individuals of whom “this world was not worthy” (Hebrews 11:38) because their eyes were not set on the worth of this world, but rather on the values of heaven.

One of those individuals is Adoniram Judson.

Though he grew up in a pastor’s home, Judson walked away from the truth as a young man, only to be recovered in a dramatic fashion. John Piper details this part of Judson’s life in his book Don’t Waste Your Life:

What his godly parents did not know was that Adoniram was being lured away from the faith by a fellow student named Jacob Eames who was a Deist. By the time Judson’s college career was finished, he had no Christian faith. He kept this concealed from his parents until his twentieth birthday, August 9, 1808, when he broke their hearts with his announcement that he had no faith and that he wanted to write for the theater and intended to go to New York, which he did six days later on a horse his father gave him as part of his inheritance.  . . .

[Some time later, Judson] stayed in a small village inn where he had never been before. The innkeeper apologized that his sleep might be interrupted because there was a man critically ill in the next room. Through the night Judson heard comings and goings and low voices and groans and gasps. It bothered him to think that the man next to him may not be prepared to die. He wondered about himself and had terrible thoughts of his own dying. He felt foolish because good Deists weren’t supposed to have these struggles.

When he was leaving in the morning he asked if the man next door was better. “He is dead,” said the innkeeper. Judson was struck with the finality of it all. On his way out he asked, “Do you know who he was?” “Oh yes. Young man from the college in Providence. Name was Eames, Jacob Eames.”

Judson was stunned. Though he had tried to run away, it was obvious that God was pursuing him. The Lord providentially used the death of the antagonistic Jacob Eames to bring Adoniram Judson back to Himself.

In 1808, Judson entered Andover Seminary and dedicated himself to full-time missionary service. Four years later, in 1812, he would become one of the first foreign missionaries to set out from North America. Significantly, he married his wife Ann on February 5, 1812. Just two weeks later, the newlyweds set sail for India.

In a moving letter to his future father-in-law, Adoniram Judson spelled out the sacrifice he was asking his future bride to make. Here is part of that letter:

I have now 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 for a heathen land, and her subjection to the hardships and sufferings of a missionary life; whether you can consent to her exposure to the dangers of the ocean; to the fatal influence of the southern 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? Can you consent to all this in hope of soon meeting your daughter in the world of glory, with a crown of righteousness brightened by the acclamations of praise which shall redound to her Savior from heathens saved, through her means, from eternal woe and despair?”

That letter would prove to be prophetic. The couple’s missionary endeavors, taking them first to India and later to Burma (present-day Myanmar), were fraught with suffering and tragedy. They underwent economic challenges, losing the financial backing of their supporters only a few months after leaving the United States. Their plans unexpectedly changed when problems with their visas in India forced them to settle in Burma.

Once there, they faced a severe language barrier — studying the language for 12 hours a day for over three years in order to learn it. When they finally could communicate, their message met with relative indifference from the Burmese citizens — due in part to the prevelant Bhuddism and also to the imperial death-sentence that awaited anyone convicted of changing religion. After 12 years of work, Judson and his fellow missionaries saw only 18 conversions.

Beyond the constant threat of sickness and disease, Judson also faced serious dangers from the government. Suspected of being a spy during Burma’s civil war, he was sent to a death prison where he was tortured, and forced on a death march that nearly killed him. In all, he spent 17 months behind bars while his wife Ann did everything she could to secure his release.

More painful than that, Judson endured the pain of loss some two dozen times. His wife Ann died just a few months after he was released from prison. She would not be the only family member who died during his tenure. From 1812 to 1850, twenty-four of Judson’s relatives or close associates went home to heaven, including several of his children.

As a husband, father, missionary, and friend, Judson truly knew what it was to sacrifice and suffer. Nevertheless, enduring all of this, he steadfastly pursued his goal of evangelizing the Burmese people and translating the Bible into their language. When he died, the translation work had been completed, 100 churches had been planted, and 8,000 Burmese professed faith in Jesus Christ.

Adoniram Judson and his family made enormous sacrifices for the sake of the gospel. From a worldly perspective, some might argue that they wasted their lives. They moved far away from the comforts of their North American roots; endured the pain of rejection, hunger, torture, and loss; and did all of this to bring good news to a largely antagonistic and indifferent audience.

Looking back, of course, we see that Judson’s efforts were not in vain. His translation of the Bible is still used in Myanmar today, and his spiritual legacy continues to bear fruit. In 1993, the head of the Myanmar Evangelical Fellowship stated, “Today, there are 6 million Christians in Myanmar, and every one of us trace our spiritual heritage to one man—the Reverend Adoniram Judson.”

Nathan Busenitz

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Nathan serves on the pastoral staff of Grace Church and teaches theology at The Master's Seminary in Los Angeles.