Voices

Gospel cyclone

After Adoniram Judson went to Burma, neither would be the same

Issue: "Ethiopia's new flower," May 31, 2008

The cyclone that hit Burma earlier this month brings to mind the story of Adoniram Judson, who around 1808 was studying at Andover seminary in Massachusetts when he read Puritan Thomas Boston and glowed hot for Christ.

If you sense a call to missions, and there's no mission board to send you, what do you do? You find friends and start one yourself. Congregationalists liked Judson. And Judson liked a girl named Ann, and asked for her hand in marriage, by a letter pretty much promising her father that he would "see her no more in this world."

Moreover, he told the old man, his daughter would know "the hardships and sufferings of missionary life, . . . 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." The father consented, and so did Ann.

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In January 1811, a French privateer captured their ship and imprisoned everyone. The next year Judson was ordained in Salem, and the couple booked a Calcutta-bound ship, hunkering down with a Bible for the four-month trip to fathom the doctrine of baptism. They arrived in India newly minted Baptists. The British East India Company, not friendly toward the United States in the year of 1812, handed them their hat, whereupon the Judsons moved to Burma, Ann miscarrying their first child on the way. They were told the place was impermeable to the gospel.

Judson knew Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, but Burmese was a tough case. He retained a tutor and studied 12 hours a day. Ann leaped ahead in fluency. Four years later Judson held his first worship service. He experimented with different customs for the gospel's sake (before anyone was emphasizing "contextualization"). He built himself a zayat of bamboo and thatch by the roadside. He would sit in it and cry out in his best Burmese, "Ho! Everyone who thirsteth for knowledge!" The message was mostly met with total indifference. Judson baptized one convert in 1819. The couple's second child died.

Seventeen years into the work, a man with a printing press showed up and produced the first materials ever printed in Burma, including 800 copies of Judson's Gospel of Matthew translation. By 1823, Judson had completed translation of the entire New Testament; the church had grown to 18.

Enter the Anglo-Burmese War of 1824. Americans look like Englishmen, so Judson was imprisoned with other Westerners for 17 months in the vermin-infested "death prison" at Ava. The prisoners were force-marched barefooted, half-starved, and sometimes suspended by their feet. Ann, raging with fever and nursing an infant, visited him, exhorting him not to give up. Adoniram was finally released; Ann died in 1826, their third child six months later.

Judson gave up. He burned all correspondence that mentioned Jesus, he abandoned his translation project, and went off to live alone in a hut in the jungle. I learned in a sermon by Covenant Seminary's Bryan Chappell that what brought him back was news from stateside of his alcoholic brother's coming to faith in Christ.

Judson canoed down the Salween River back into the jungle to a tribe called the Karen, whose pagan traditions were strangely amenable to the gospel-they had a Creator of man, and woman from his rib; an ancient temptation and fall; expectation of a white man's appearance with a sacred parchment. Breakthrough. When Adoniram Judson died, there were 8,000 believers and 100 churches in Burma, which today, known as Myanmar, has the third-largest population of Baptists in the world, mostly the Karen and Kachin tribe.

Adoniram Judson. "Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated-of whom the world was not worthy" (Hebrews 11: 35-38). They were fools for Christ (1 Corinthians 4:10).

They did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death (Revelation 12:11).

If you have a question or comment for Andrée Seu, send it to aseu@worldmag.com.

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again. Follow Andrée on Twitter @Andreespeterson.

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