Janet and Geoff Benge
YWAM Publishing, 2000
When I was growing up, missionaries visited our California church often to participate in annual missions conferences and to raise support. My family often took these missionaries out for lunch after church on Sundays and hosted quite a few of them for short stays at our house. I think all the time we spent with missionaries played a big role in God’s call for us to become missionaries when I was in high school. (I talk a little bit more about that in this post.)
Now, let’s move to books. Bangkok is no place for books. They are incredibly expensive and there are very few used bookstores – one closed last week so now I know of only one – but I’ve found Janet and Geoff Benge’s biography of Gladys Aylward, a missionary to China, as well as Jackie Pullinger’s Chasing the Dragon, a book about her work in Hong Kong’s Walled City.
I also found a copy of Janet and Geoff Benge’s biography of Adoniram Judson, which, like their Gladys Aylward biography, is part of a 39-book series called Christian Heroes: Then & Now. The Benge biography of Gladys Aylward, who lived in remarkable obedience to God, was much better written than I expected, so I quickly snagged Judson’s biography (and for only $1!).
I didn’t really know anything about Judson, so I was surprised to learn that he was America’s first foreign missionary. You would think I already knew that (am I the only one who thinks churches should teach believers about the lives of obedient, God-focused missionaries?). What I wasn’t so surprised by was how difficult his life was. For whatever reason, sometimes we Christians think that, because we love God, life is supposed to be easy, though I’m not sure what evidence we have to base this on. Was Jesus’s life easy? What about Paul’s? I’m not sure that a life lived in complete obedience to Christ could ever be considered easy.
Adoniram Judson had it difficult, like early-1800s, one-thing-after-the-next, death-level difficult. Here’s a look at his life separated into 3 parts.
Judson grew up in a Christian family, but at Brown University (where Judson skipped the first year), through the influence of a good friend, he became a Deist, something he didn’t tell his pastor father. An encounter with a young pastor sometime after Judson’s graduation revealed to Judson the purpose and peace he was living without. The night after this encounter, Judson, who was traveling, couldn’t find an available room; the only room he could find was one he shared with a dying man, a man who was dead the next morning, a man Judson knew: his Deist friend from Brown who did not believe in life after death.
Shortly after Judson returned home, two well-respected pastors came to the Judson home to talk to his father about plans to open a seminary in Andover. Adoniram had so many sincere questions that they invited him to attend the seminary. He took them up on their offer and, after studying the Bible in Hebrew and Greek and many hours of conversation, Judson decided the Bible was true and committed his life to God in 1808.
He began reading stories he found in the library, including an account by a British army officer who had been stationed in Burma. This is when Judson felt the call to Burma.
A year after he received salvation, Judson was offered an assistant pastor position after his seminary graduation by one of his professors, who believed Judson would become one of the most well-known pastors in New England, but it seems that this offer didn’t even tempt Judson. His parents did not understand this decision, nor his desire to go to Burma.
Heading for Burma
This part of Judson’s story is a little complicated because, again, he was America’s first foreign missionary, so there were no missions organizations in the US (this is remarkable, because in 2010, the US sent out 127,000 Christian missionaries). I’m going to skip all of the details because I want to get to Burma, but I do want to say that early on, Judson was sent to London to ask the London Missionary Society for funds, but the ship he was on was captured by the French–England and France were at war at the time–and upon reaching France, he, along with the ship’s English crew, was imprisoned. An American military officer miraculously helped him escape, but what a start to his missionary experience!
At this point, Judson was ready to marry Ann Hasseltine, so he wrote this letter to her parents requesting their permission:
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, 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 [Burma]; 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?
Though Ann’s parents did not want this kind of life for her, they let her make the decision and promised to support it. Adoniram and Ann married just 2 weeks before setting sail for India.
Though the couple left for India on February 19, 1812, they didn’t arrive in Burma until July 13, 1813. (I’m going to skip the details here; if you want to know more, I hope you’ll read the book!) Their first major loss occurred before they even got off the ship: the loss of their first child, who was born dead.
The night before the Judsons got off the ship in Rangoon (now Yangon), they asked that God would soon take them to heaven. But little did they know that someone was waiting for them. Judson knew of only one person in Burma: William Carey’s son Felix, who was allowed to live in Burma only because of his Burmese wife. Carey was happy to see them, as he, his wife and their 3 children were about to leave for a visit to his father in India and he needed Christians to take his place while his family was away. Two weeks later, the Judsons found themselves on their own, so they started learning Burmese right away for 12 hours a day, 6 days a week and from a teacher who spoke no English!
When Felix Carey and his family returned to Rangoon, it was only to tell the Judsons they were moving to Ava because Carey had been offered a government position, but only Carey survived the trip. Shortly after, Adoniram and Ann’s son Roger was born, but when he was around 6 months old, he became sick and died.
In 1816, Adoniram and Ann wrote a seven-page tract explaining the gospel in a way that the Buddhist Burmese, who believed in reincarnation and nirvana, could understand and printed 1,000 copies. By December of 1817, Judson was discouraged by the lack of converts, so he decided to visit Chittagong, a seaport fifty miles west of Burma’s border with India, to invite Christians to Rangoon in order to convince the Burmese that it was possible to be Burmese and a Christian. But Judson never made it. The winds and an incompetent captain led to an exhausted supply of food and water and dysentery for Judson, who believed death was certain. He survived thanks to the kindness of a British army officer and finally made it home more than seven months after leaving.
By November 1819, more than six years after the Judsons had arrived in Burma, three Burmese had converted to Christianity—one man in May and two in November. What the Judsons had worked towards all this time was happening, but these conversions resulted in higher profiles both for the Judsons and the Burmese. As the authors write, “Suddenly the missionaries were a threat to the Buddhist way of life.”
Judson decided to appeal to the king. He figured that if the king was okay with their work, they’d be safe, but that if he wasn’t, they’d have to leave Burma. I’ll give you one guess as to the king’s response.
After the king expressed his displeasure with Judson’s Christian beliefs, Adoniram and Ann decided it was time to leave Burma, but the three converts convinced them to stay until there were 8-10 converts.
When Adoniram and Ann left for Calcutta in July 1820 because of Ann’s poor health, ten converts saw them off. But while progress was made in one area, Ann became very sick again and left for Boston on her own. Adoniram and Ann wouldn’t see each other for more than two years. (While Ann was in the US, An Account of the American Baptist Mission to the Burman Empire, a book she wrote, was published. You can download a free PDF of the book by clicking on the title.)
In May of 1824, the first Anglo-Burmese war began, another event that resulted in negative consequences for the Judsons. On June 8, 1824, Judson was arrested and imprisoned because of the Burmese king’s belief that all foreigners were spies. During this time, in January of 1825, Ann gave birth to a baby girl.
We have finally arrived at what I think is the most remarkable moment of Adoniram Judson’s remarkable life. By this time, Judson had finished translating the New Testament into Burmese–a task that took him nine years–and he needed to keep it safe while he was in prison, so he asked Ann to sew the pages of the translation into a pillow and bring it to him. Sometime later, the prisoners were taken elsewhere, so when Judson was finally freed in November 1825, he figured the translation was gone. BUT ONE OF THE BURMESE CONVERTS WENT TO THE PRISON ON THE DAY THAT THE PRISONERS WERE MOVED TO LOOK FOR SOMETHING HE COULD REMEMBER JUDSON BY AND HE FOUND THE PILLOW. WHEN HE WENT TO WASH IT, HE REALIZED SOMETHING WAS INSIDE AND FOUND THE TRANSLATION.
There’s still a lot left to Judson’s story, but I need to wrap it up here. Ann passed away on October 26, 1826; Judson got this news a month later in a letter. He would go on to marry two more times and have eight more children. In October of 1840, Judson held a bound copy of the Burmese Bible for the first time, twenty-seven years after he and Ann arrived in Burma.
I wanted to share this story with you because it challenged and convicted me. It’s too easy for present-day Christians in the West–even for me in Bangkok–to settle in to our Christianity and get comfortable, but we have to realize that obedience is often uncomfortable. While God may not call us to a primitive, sickness-and-death-filled life in Burma, He has called each of us to a particular task, to particular people, to a particular place, and we have to be as obedient as Adoniram Judson. Only complete surrender and complete obedience result in the kind of fruit Adoniram and Ann produced. I don’t want to come to God with only shells when I enter heaven.
I hope each of you will be challenged in the way that I was. There’s still a lot of work to be done.