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Adoniram Judson, the "Haystack" Missionary to Burma

by Thomas John Bach

Adoniram JudsonAdoniram Judson was born in Malden, Massachusetts, on August 9, 1788. His father was a minister of the gospel, serving a Congregational church. While attending Brown University and Andover Theological Seminary, Judson distinguished himself as a brilliant and thrifty student. He was possessed of deep spiritual convictions and manifested earnest devotion to Christ and His cause.

He was a member of the group of students who met at the famous haystack near Williamstown [Williams] College in the year 1806, the place which thus became "the birthplace of American foreign missions." Judson, together with three other young men, offered his life for foreign missions.

As a result of the consecration, prayers, and efforts of this "Haystack group," there came into existence The American Board of Commissions for Foreign Missions. It was organized in the year 1810 in the famous Park Street Congregational Church of Boston, Massachusetts. Adoniram Judson was one of the first missionaries to be accepted and commissioned by that society. On February 5, 1812, he was married to [Ann] Nancy Hasseltine; and on February 24 of the same year they sailed for India.

Two vital changes took place in the lives of Judson and his wife at that period. The one was concerning the doctrine of baptism. They knew that when they arrived in India they would meet the distinguished Baptist missionary leader, William Carey. During the voyage, they studied the issue of baptism as held by the Congregational Society and that which Carey held as a member of the English Baptist Society. They became convinced that Baptist doctrine and practice were right for them. When they arrived at Calcutta, they were immersed by William Ward.

Change of Field

The other important change was that of the field for their future, influential work. A fellow missionary of Judson's, Luther Rice, had reached the same conclusion concerning baptism. He returned to the United States to encourage the Baptist churches of this land to form a Baptist foreign missions society. His suggestion was accepted, and in 1814 the Baptist Foreign Missionary Society was organized.

The powerful East India Company, in the meantime, had reached the conclusion that the recent mutiny among Indian troops had its origin in religious antagonism to the presence and teaching of foreign missionaries. Therefore, the unfriendly East India Company would not grant the Judsons permission to remain in India. The American Baptist Society advised them to turn to Burma, where they landed in the city of Rangoon in July, 1813. They were welcomed there into the home of English Baptist missionaries.

Judson gave himself to the study of the Burmese language, prepared a dictionary and a grammar, and wrote and translated many important tracts with Biblical messages. It was not until 1819 that he was privileged to baptize his first convert.

In the year 1824, the Anglo-Burmese war broke out. Judson and other white men were thrown into prison as political suspects. He spent twenty-one months in prison and suffered great privation. His wife, who so faithfully ministered to her husband while he was in prison, died in 1826. In 1834 [Judson] married Sarah Hall Boardman, the widow of a fellow missionary.

Adoniram Judson believed in the great ministry of the printed message of the gospel, as all successful pioneer missionaries have done. He completed a translation of the whole Bible into the Burmese language in 1834.

Broken in health, he began his journey toward the United States, at the age of sixty-two years. He died on board ship, April 12, 1850. His body was buried at sea. It is said that he left behind him in Burma seven thousand Christians, sixty-three churches, and one hundred and sixty-three missionaries.

Adoniram Judson was an outstanding pioneer missionary in scholarship, in self-denial, in saintliness, and in humility.

It is said that when Judson was a young man he had one question which he used as a test for all his behavior. That question was, "Is it pleasing to God?" Lest he should forget the test, he wrote the question on several pieces of paper and put them in various parts of his room. This attitude continued all through his life, making it possible for him to serve God in difficult places if only he might please Him.

During the early, preparatory years of Judson's ministry in Burma (while foundations were being laid for both evangelistic and literature work, but there were as yet no converts), Judson was criticized by some at home. In reply to such he wrote:

"If any ask what prospect of ultimate success, tell them, as much as there is an almighty and faithful God, who will perform His promises, and no more. If this does not satisfy them, beg them to let me stay and make the attempt... And if we live twenty or thirty years, they may hear from us again."

Shortly before his death, Adoniram Judson said: "I am not tired of my work, neither am I tired of the world; yet, when Christ calls me home, I shall go with gladness...'

The American Board of Foreign Missions, so closely associated with Judson and others of the "haystack group," was one of several boards which were formed during a dark period of political upheaval, military strife, and economic depression in Europe, the years from 1790 to 1820. Some of God's greatest agencies for spreading the gospel came into existence during that time, including:
The Baptist Missionary Society, London 1792.
The London Missionary Society 1795,
The Netherlands Missionary society, which was founded in the year that Holland was invaded by the French 1797
The Church Missionary Society 1799
The British and Foreign Bible Society 1804
The American Board of Foreign Missions 1810
The American Bible Society 1812

These and other Holy Spirit-inspired agencies as well as individual supporters and intercessors were called into action for the proclamation and publishing of the Word of God. Because of the formation of these organizations, many missionaries went forth to all parts of the world as pioneers, many becoming martyrs for the cause of Christ.

From Pioneer Missionaries for Christ and His Church by Thomas John Bach. Wheaton, Ill.: Van Kampen Press, ©1955.

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