By KEITH DAHLBERG
Adoniram Judson, at age nineteen valedictorian of Brown College’s class of 1807, returned home to Massachusetts after an unsuccessful summer in New York City’s theater district.
Uncertain of his goal in life, although a successful author, he had little ambition in literature. And certainly no intent to follow his father’s career as a church pastor.
On his way home from New York, Judson chanced to stop at a small town inn over night.
The only remaining room was next to that of a very ill man.
The man caused no real disturbance, but Judson heard occasional moans, and people coming and going next door.
When paying his bill next morning, Judson casually asked about the man’s condition.
“He’s dead,” the inn-keeper said.
“Who was he?”
“Young man from the college in Providence. Name was Eames. Jacob Eames.”
Judson’s closest friend in college and a man with little or no belief in God.
His shock left no recollection of the next few hours, but he arrived home in mortal fear for his own soul.
He had only one question to ask himself, “How shall I so order my future as best to please God?”
Judson became the first American missionary to foreign lands.
In 1813 he and his wife Ann (“Nancy”) reached Burma (now called Myanmar), an Asian country with twice the population of the whole USA at the time.
Burma’s king ruled his Buddhist country with an iron grip.
Few Burmans dared express interest in Christianity.
Judson spent the first six years on translating the Bible into Burmese.
It’s a difficult language, letters like circles and half-circles, no spaces between words, and entirely different meanings depending on the spoken tone.
Yet both Adoniram and Nancy became fluent.
Nancy cultivated acquaintance with the Rangoon city governor’s chief wife.
Arrival of another missionary with a printing press made possible a much wider spread of the Gospel.
Judson’s first Burman convert to Christianity occurred six years after Judson’s arrival.
Rangoon was in turmoil, King Bodawpaya had died; the British government reacted with hostility to Burma’s incursions into India.
When young King Bagyidaw summoned the viceroy of Rangoon to Ava, the national capital 400 miles up-river, Judson obtained permission to accompany him and petition the King to permit publication of the Bible in Burmese. The new King expressed no interest.
In 1821, however, a new missionary and physician, Dr. Jonathan Price arrived.
His skill in removing eye cataracts caught the King’s attention, who then commanded Price’s appearance “at the Golden Feet.” in Ava.
Judson was the only one fluent enough in Burmese to translate for this meeting, so he accompanied Price to Ava.
After questioning Price, the King turned to Judson, whom he evidently did not recognize from the previous trip.
“And are you a medical man too?”
“A teacher of religion, your Majesty”
“Have any embraced your religion?”
Judson’s life might depend on his answer. “Not here in Ava,” he evaded.
“Are there any in Rangoon?”
“There are a few.”
“Are there any foreigners?”
“Some foreigners and some Burmans.”
Judson waited for royal wrath to descend.
It did not.
His Majesty went on to ask about geography and astronomy.
The crisis passed.
1823 was a year of favor for Judson’s mission.
The King’s close relative, “Prince M” took a liking to Judson, but appeared interested only in science, not religion.
But 1824 brought war with Britain.
Burma, usually victorious over its neighbors was shaken when the British easily defeated Burma’s forces and occupied Rangoon.
The King’s Council, poorly informed about distant lands like Britain and America, now assumed all English-speaking foreigners were spies and placed them under arrest, heavily chained and consigned to Burma’s equivalent of death row.
Only Nancy and one of her servants, were allowed to visit Adoniram, and then only by bribing the guards.
Most of Judson’s possessions were confiscated.
Nancy saved the manuscript of Judson’s Burmese Bible by hiding it in a pillow too filthy for the prison guards to want.
By hot season [March to May, before monsoon rains begin], Judson and seven others had been in prison eleven months.
With British gunships approaching Ava, the foreign prisoners were herded on foot, sick and starving, farther north to Aungbinlay.
The war ended in Burma’s defeat and the Treaty of Yandabo in February, 1826.
The British freed the foreign prisoners and knew of Adoniram’s long months as prisoner and Nancy’s faithful care.
The treaty conference began with maximum British pomp, the commanding general in full dress uniform at the head of the procession.
He stopped at Judsons’ tent, entered, and emerged escorting Nancy, whom he seated on his right at the banquet table.
This panicked many Burman delegates who had scorned her during the past year.
The commander also employed Adoniram as his interpreter for the treaty negotiations.
Burma had to cede control of two provinces to British India.
Judson shifted his own mission headquarters to Moulmein farther south, taking advantage of greater tolerance to Christianity, although he still worked in Ava and Rangoon too.
Nancy’s death in 1826, followed by the death of their one surviving child in 1827, devastated Adoniram.
Early death from tropical diseases was common then.
Some missionaries returned to America after losing a spouse.
Adoniram, after a year of deep depression, recovered and continued both publishing and teaching the Gospel.
He was aware that one widow, Sarah Boardman, had continued to work and travel to new villages after her husband’s death in 1831.
He married her in 1834, and they had eight children during the next 10 years.
Then she, too, became ill.
They sailed for America, but too late.
She died on the way and was buried on the island of St. Helena.
Arriving in Boston, Adoniram found he was legendary for his hardships and the growth of Christianity in Asia.
He felt almost lonely among America’s changes---railroads, westward expansion, and river travel.
He spoke about the Gospel, but not about his own adventures.
During a train delay, a pastor with whom he was traveling loaned him a book by a popular author, Fanny Forester, the pen name of Emily Chubbuck.
After reading part of it, Judson remarked on her excellent writing, but trivial topics.
“It’s a pity that such fine talents should be employed upon such subjects.”
His companion smiled.
“You can tell her yourself. She is a guest at my house.”
In visiting her next day, Adoniram found her lively humor therapy for his recent loss.
He soon told her he wanted to prepare a memoir of Sarah.
Would she be interested?
An active Baptist, she had been following the careers of the Burma missionaries since she was a teen.
Within a month, Adoniram began thinking that Emily not only should write Sarah’s biography, but should take Sarah’s place.
Within six months they were married, and six weeks later were on board ship to Burma.
Emily adapted to Asian life readily: “I think I was made for an uncivilized land.”
She adopted the two small children Adoniram and Sarah had had to leave behind, now age 4 and 2.
Adoniram took general supervision of the mission again, besides completing the Burmese dictionary, before he died in 1850.
He left a tremendous legacy.
165 years later, there are now over one million Burma Baptists, in a population of 51 million.
Many are tribal people, Karen, Kachin, Shan, etc, each with its own language, schools, and literature in addition to Burmese language.