Adoniram Judson, 1788-1850, Missionary to Burma
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PUBLISHED ON: March 12, 2003
PUBLISHED IN: Biographies

Adoniram Judson
Pioneer missionary to Burma. Adoniram Judson was the son of a
Congregational minister. He taught himself to read at the age
of three, and by his tenth year he knew Latin and Greek and
was a serious student of theology. At the age of 16 he en-
tered Brown University and was graduated three years later as
the valedictorian of his class.
        At Andover Theological Seminary he could not get away
from the words of a missionary appeal, “Go ye into all the
world.” In 1810 he helped form the American Board of
Commissioners for Foreign Missions, and, two years later, he
and his new wife, Ann, sailed for India.
        When the government refused to allow them to enter
the country, they went to Burma, where they worked for six
years before winning a convert. During those years they were
plagued with ill health, loneliness, and the death of their
baby son. Judson was imprisoned for nearly two years, during
which time Ann faithfully visited him, smuggling to him his
books, papers, and notes, which he used in translating the
Bible into the Burmese language. Soon after his release from
prison, Ann and their baby daughter, Maria, died of spotted
        Judson withdrew into seclusion into the interior,
where he completed the translation of the whole Bible into
        In 1845 he returned for a visit to America, but the
burning desire to win the Burmese people sent him back to the
Orient, where he soon died.
        As a young man, he had cried out, “I will not leave
Burma, until the cross is planted here forever!” Thirty years
after his death, Burma had 63 Christian churches, 163 mis-
sionaries, and over 7,000 baptized converts.

Adoniram Judson
BORN: August 9, 1788
Malden, Massachusetts
DIED: April 12, 1850
Bay of Bengal, Burma coast
LIFE SPAN: 61 years, 8 months, 3 days

ONE OF THE WORLD’S MOST HORRIBLE seventeen months of impris-
onment was endured by Adoniram Judson from 1824 to 1825 at
age 37. Little food was given to him. His feet were bound to
a large bamboo pole, his hands to another, and at night his
feet were lifted higher than his head. Thus he was to swing
suspended on the small of his back, his feet tied to a raised
pole. His heroic wife brought little bits of food to him, al-
though she and the baby were near death at times themselves
and eventually succumbed to the rigors of life in Burma. What
was Judson doing during these days in prison? Translating the
Bible, hiding his work in a hard pillow which nobody
        For pure physical suffering for the sake of the Gos-
pel, Judson must be near the top of most lists. Before we
join him in Burma, we meet him as the son of Adoniram and
Abigail (Brown) Judson, who were pastoring the Congregation-
alist Church at Malden, Massachusetts.
        From childhood he possessed a brilliant mind. His
mother taught him to read when he was three, and he became
very studious. At twelve he mastered Greek, and at 14 had a
very serious illness. He would regularly win highest honors
in his class at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island,
where he enrolled in 1804. His parents had high hopes for
him, but skeptical friends such as Jacob Eames, a persuasive
unbeliever, did all they could to crush his faith. Graduating
in 1807, he received valedictorian honors. Adoniram dazzled
the audience with his address on the subject of free enquiry.
Back home he opened the Plymouth (Massachusetts) Independent
Academy. His father was now the pastor of the Third Congrega-
tional Church of Plymouth. He published two textbooks, Ele-
ments of English Grammar and Young Ladies’ Arithmetic.
        Being somewhat hypocritical about his living, he an-
nounced to his parents one day he was going to New York to
write for the stage. The parents, stunned, asked him to con-
sider preaching if he was not happy teaching. This only made
him angrier. Their begging with tears was ignored and he
left. However, there was no fortune and fame to be had for
him in New York. He traveled back to an uncle’s home, secured
a horse, and rode west.
        One night he took lodging at a village inn. The land-
lord told him he had one room, but it was next to someone
critically ill. Rest did not come. Through the night he heard
sounds of people moving about, weird moans and gasps. He
could not stop thinking about death. Finally, sleep did come
in the early morning hours. The next day he inquired about
the sick man and was told he had died. Judson inquired who it
was. Like an arrow to his heart came the reply: “A Jacob
Eames from the college of Providence.” He galloped back home
toward Plymouth, and spent several long sessions with distin-
guished Christians until in December, 1808, he dedicated him-
self fully to the Lord.
        He had decided to study for the ministry and entered
the Andover Theological Seminary at Andover in the fall of
1808. In May, 1809, he made a public profession of his faith
in his father’s church. This was also the year while reading
Buchanan’s Star in the East that his desire to become a mis-
sionary was born. Soon this became an obsession with him.
        Back at Williams College in 1806 several young men
formed the first foreign missionary society. The famous
haystack prayer meeting was a result of a storm at their
first meeting which was held outdoors. Samuel J. Mills and
four others–Nott, Newell, Hall, and Luther Rice–jumped into
a haystack and organized a missionary prayer meeting. Now
many of these men were also studying at Andover Seminary and
met Judson. His parents begged him to accept a flourishing
Boston pulpit which was offered to him. But Judson had the
world in his heart and by February, 1810, there was no turn-
ing back.
        Up until this time work in America was limited to In-
dians. There were no organized societies sending men to for-
eign service. On June 28, 1810, Mills, Nott, Newell and Jud-
son presented a statement to the General Association of Con-
gregational Ministers at Bradford, Massachusetts, which led
to the organization of the American Board of Commissioners
for Foreign Missions. On June 29, the day following the prop-
osition of the four young Seminary students to go to heathen
Asia with the Gospel, they were invited to the Hasseltine
residence near Bradford, Massachusetts, for a meal. The
Hasseltines were well known for their social functions.
Twenty-year-old Nancy–whose real name was Ann–was helping
her mother prepare the meal. As she greeted the men, a pair
of keen eyes met hers. Judson, the spokesman for the group,
soon was composing a graceful sonnet in her praise. One month
later a letter came to her from Judson. In it, Judson asked
her to marry him and accompany him to India. Two months later
she said yes.
        In January, 1811, Judson was sent to England by the
American Board to promote a measure of affiliation and coop-
eration between it and the London Missionary Society, which
William Carey had started. On his trip over he was captured
by a French privateer and imprisoned at Bayonne for a while.
Released, he went to London but had no success on his mis-
sion. The London group did not want to cooperate with unorga-
nized American churches. Also, growing international tensions
on the eve of the War of 1812 made it desirable for the Amer-
ican Board to act independently. They did so immediately
thereafter, and Nott, Newell, Hall, Rice and Judson were ap-
pointed as their first missionaries.
        Judson was married on February 5, 1812, and ordained
with his colleagues the next day, February 6, at Salem, Mas-
sachusetts. A few days later, on February 19, the Judsons,
with their friends, sailed for Calcutta, India. In expecta-
tion of meeting Baptists including William Carey, at Serampur
they made a study of baptism and, on board the ocean vessel,
they became convinced that they should become Baptists. Upon
arrival they were immersed in a Baptist church in Calcutta.
This meant support from the Congregational Society would
stop, and this brought some hardships to Judson. Because of
it, Luther Rice returned to America, rallied the Baptist
churches, and by 1814 the American Baptist Missionary Union
was formed, under which Judson came.
        Arriving in Calcutta, Judson found that the War of
1812 between England and America had shut India’s doors to
him, as the East India Company, fearing trouble might arise
from missionaries working with the natives, advised that he
and his friends should sail for America. Unwelcomed by former
associates, he went to Isle of France and Madras.
        At that time a vessel was ready for a trip to
Rangoon, Burma, and the Judsons decided to go there. However,
the first of much coming suffering and anguish was evidenced
on this trip. Tossed by a fierce monsoon in the Bay of
Bengal, Ann became desperately ill, and Judson expected her
death momentarily. Attended only by her husband, Ann gave
birth to her first baby, which soon died and had to be buried
at sea. They reached Rangoon in July, 1813, taking up resi-
dence at the Felix Carey Mission House. Mrs. Judson was still
severely ill, so she had to be carried in a stretcher as they
disembarked. It was two and a half years before she would re-
ceive a letter from home. These were times of strenuous la-
bors and difficulties. The people were engaged in idolatry–
mostly devout Buddhists–and the emperor would not tolerate
any religious teaching. Finally, through his medical knowl-
edge, Judson was able to gain the favor of the emperor. Here
the Judsons labored diligently, gathering around them natives
as they were able. It was an unspeakably filthy village where
they lived, and at night the dogs and pigs would fight over
the garbage littered throughout the city. Ann opened a school
for children and for such women as might desire to attend.
She was an outstanding missionary in her own right. Judson
busied himself with mastering the language, and decided he
must translate the Bible into Burmese. He said, “I long to
see the whole New Testament complete, for I will then be able
to devote all my time to preaching the Gospel.”
        Judson felt it time to start preaching the Gospel in
public after awhile. In order to make friends with the Bur-
mese people, he would have to make a zayat for them. This was
a large public building where the farmers and businessmen
could gather to talk or relax at any time. Finding a spot on
a busy road, he made the zayat. When the travelers found out
the white man was not charging for this service, they soon
became very friendly toward the missionaries. While building
a small chapel by the roadside, he spoke to hundreds as they
traveled back and forth to and from the city. The first
Christian service in the native tongue was held April 4,
1819. After six years of labor, he had his first convert,
Moung Nau, who was baptized in Rangoon on June 27,
1819. Though it took him six years for his first convert,
within two years he had 18 baptized converts and a Burmese
church started. The Bible translation work was going slow,
but progressed.
        During this time a son, Roger, was born. He lived
only seven months then died. Soon after this Judson himself
became sick. Long hours of study in a hot climate would be
difficult, but his “books” were dried palm leaves strung to-
gether, with the letters poorly scratched on them. No wonder
he complained of eyestrain and headaches. For months he lay
in bed, his eyes sore from disease.
        In 1821, Ann made a two-year visit to America for her
health. In 1823 Brown University granted Judson an honorary
D.D. In June, 1823, Ann embarked for the voyage back to
Burma. In December, 1823, the couple left Rangoon. New mis-
sionaries had arrived to care for the growing mission there.
Adoniram was encouraged by the emperor’s invitation to found
a Christian mission in Ava, the capital city, and promise to
give them land for a mission station. However, Dr. Price, who
had preceded them, met them and warned them that the tide was
suddenly turned against foreigners because of imminent war
with Great Britain. All white visitors were now looked upon
with suspicion. Rangoon had fallen to the British and
foreigners were now in trouble in Ava.
        On June 8, 1824, begins a story of unbelievable
punishments. In their compound Adoniram was thrown to the
floor and dragged away, put in prison. For a while it was one
dark, filthy room. He was forbidden to speak to his fellow
prisoners except rarely, and was denied water and fresh
clothing. Fellow prisoners were whipped and, worse still, led
forth at three in the afternoon for execution. He never knew
what day would be his turn.
        The question now was how to preserve the precious
manuscripts of exhausting years of Bible translations. Ann
decided to hide them in a pillow. She made a hard one. The
jailer grabbed it and kept it as his own. Grief filled their
hearts. Ann, not to be outdone, made a prettier, nicer pillow
and brought it to the prison, and Judson said to the jailer,
“How would you like to exchange the old, soiled pillow for
this bright new one?” Many times, smitten down with disease
and at death’s door, he breathed out the prayer, “Lord, let
me finish my work. Spare me long enough to put Thy saving
Word into the hands of a perishing people.” The prayer was
answered. Ann was the first missonary to learn Siamese and to
translate a portion of Scripture, the Gospel of Matthew, into
that tongue.
        Adoniram was bound during nine months of this period
with three pairs of fetters. Two months the amount was five
pairs. His sufferings from fever, excruciating heat, hunger,
repeated disappointments and cruelty of keepers is one of the
most challenging narratives in the history of missions. On
one occasion, pitifully weak and emaciated, he was driven in
chains across the burning tropical sands, until, his back
lacerated and his feet covered with blisters, he fell to the
ground and prayed for a speedy death. For almost two years he
was incarcerted in a prison too vile to house animals. One
room which he and many other prisoners were crowded into was
without a window and felt like a fiery furnace under the mer-
ciless glare of the tropical sun. The stench of the place was
terrible, vermin crawled everywhere, and the jailer, Mr.
Spotted Face, was a brute in human form. Judson would have
fallen except for the tender, persistent ministrations of his
wife Ann. Bribing the jailer, under cover of darkness, she
crept to the door of Judson’s den, bringing food and whisper-
ing words of hope and consolation.
        At one point, for three long weeks she did not ap-
pear. But when she returned, she brought in her arms a new-
born baby. This explained her absence. Amid much pain Adoni-
ram Judson crawled forth and took the child in his arms. Af-
terwards he composed 24 stanzas of poetry in her honor.
        Smallpox was raging unchecked through the city, and
little Maria Judson was smitten. Ann found herself unable to
nurse the little one. Ann took her baby up and down the
streets of the city, pleading for mercy and for milk. Through
the kindness of a native mother who had a small child, the
baby was kept alive.
        A caged lion starved to death before an alleged plan
to turn him loose on some of the prisoners was implemented.
Mrs. Judson cleaned out the cage and secured permission for
her husband to stay there for a few weeks, since he was crit-
ically ill with fever. Her efforts to relieve the sufferings
of the English prisoners received tributes of warmest grati-
tude and praise. She walked fearlessly and was respected from
palace to prison.
        Once the prisoners were moved ten miles away to a
jail at Oung-pen-la. Ann caught up by boat, then oxcart. Not
being permitted to put her own little bamboo house near the
prison, Ann took refuge in a little room half-filled with
grain and accumulated dirt.
        Here she stayed for many days, stricken down and ly-
ing prostrate by tropical disease. She lay helpless on her
mat on the floor for two months. God sent some help at the
last possible moment. A Burmese woman offered to care for and
to nurse the baby. Then Dr. Price was released from prison
and hastened to her bedside. Slowly she was revived, although
she could scarecly breathe. She sent a servant to make one
more appeal to the governor to release Adoniram. The governor
sent a petition to the high court of the empire and Adoniram
was released about November, 1825, and that only on a peremp-
tory demand on the part of General Sir Archibald Campbell. He
was given the post of interpreter of message for the Burmese
government–a job which was practically an imprisonment.
        Upon release from this servitude his one thought
was–“Is Ann still alive?” Upon reaching the room where he
knew she was last, he saw a fat, half-naked Burmese woman
squatting in the ashes beside a pan of coals, holding on her
knees an emaciated baby, so begrimed with dirt that it did
not occur to him that it could be his own. Across the foot of
the bed lay a human object who at first glance was no more
recognizable than his child. The face was pale and the body
shrunken to the last degree of emaciation. Black curls had
all been shorn from the bald head. It was Ann who roused from
her stupor, as warm tears fell upon her face.
        Nursed slowly back to health, the Judsons transferred
their headquarters to Amherst in Lower Burma.
        Amherst was on a long strip of Burmese seacoast which
Great Britain had secured, and here they and their four Bur-
mese Christian converts created a mission and home in the
summer of 1826. In the anticipation that his presence would
be of help in insuring religious liberty to the subjects of
Burma, Judson was prevailed upon to accompany the British
Civil Commissioner to Ava in the capacity of British ambassa-
dor. While he was gone, Ann fell victim to another fever;
this time, it proved to be too vicious. Before she died she
said, “The teacher (husband) is long in coming; and the new
missionaries are long in coming; I must die alone and leave
my little one. But as it is the will of God, I acquiesce in
his will.”
        She died October 24, 1826, when she was not yet 37
years of age. When Judson returned his heart was broken, as
he buried his wife under a hopia tree in Amherst. About three
months later he buried his third child–next to Ann.
        In 1827 he moved to Maulmain where he continued to
work as long as he lived. In 1828 he began preaching to the
Karens, a race of wild people living in the remote areas of
the jungles.
        An evangelistic opportunity came one day in 1828,
when a Karen slave was sold in the bazaar in Moulmain and
bought by a native Christian, who forthwith brought him to
Judson to be taught and evangelized. Ko Tha Byu was a desper-
ate robber bandit and was involved in some 30 murders.
Patiently, Judson instructed the depraved creature, who
yielded to Christ and went through the jungles as a flaming
evangelist among his people. The Karens then prepared for
their reception of the Gospel message. God blessed, and other
missionaries arrived to assist–among whom were the
Boardmans. The tasks and terrible climate all took their
toll, and Mr. Boardman died. Mrs. Boardman (born in 1803) re-
mained to teach school in Burma and, in April, 1834, she be-
came Judson’s second wife. Eight children were born in their
eleven years of marriage, three of whom died at an early age.
        Judson completed a revision of the Old Testament in
the Burmese language by 1834, and he finished the Burmese New
Testament in 1837. That year there were 1,144 baptized con-
verts in Burma. Judson would preach and teach all morning and
in the evening would hold a service for believers and
inquirers. But he was finding it more difficult to speak in
public. He had been ill so many times his voice was growing
weak. His wife Sarah also was repeatedly ill, and so he de-
cided a furlough might be in order. But Mrs. Judson’s health
never regained, and she died in the port of St. Helena in
1845, at age 42.
        After 33 years of absence, Judson was royally re-
ceived in the United States, where he told the story of Burma
missions, which Ann had several years earlier written in book
form. The cause of missions was helped, and interest in the
cause he represented was evident by the crowded assemblies
gathered to see and hear him. Like Livingstone, he shunned
the public gaze and was modest and shy when it came to speak-
ing. Home on his first and only furlough, he was asked if the
prospects were bright for the conversion of the world. His
famous reply was, “As bright, Sirs, as the promises of God!”
        On July 11, 1846, he set sail for Burma again, having
married on June 2, to Miss Emily Chubbock of Eaton, N.Y.
(born in 1817). She became a brilliant writer.
        Back in Burma in 1847, divine blessings rested upon
his continued Burmese-English dictionary. This was a work
first issued in 1826 but revised constantly through his life.
Many tracts were printed as well.
        Still in poor health, in 1850 he was advised to take
a sea voyage to recuperate. His wife, also very ill, could
not go with him, so he was carried on board the vessel too
weak to walk. Four days later, on April 12, 1850, en route to
the Isle of France, Adoniram Judson passed on and was buried
at sea. His wife died in 1854, four years later.
        Thirty years after Judson’s death the native work
which he gave birth to numbered 7,000 converts and some 63
churches. The working staff over which he had oversight con-
sisted of 163 missionaries, native pastors and assistants.
There was a publishing house, schools where natives were
taught to read, and many more testimonials to his life’s
work. One hundred years later, on the anniversary of his
death, Burma had some 200,000 Christians.
        Judson’s work not only accomplished something in
Burma but his general results also affected all of India. In
his 37 years of missionary labor he succeeded in gradually
working up a sentiment in the East of religious toleration,
which bears much fruit even today. One of his most successful
efforts was the organization of an extensive trained body of
native assistants to aid him in the translation of the Bible
and other works into Burmese, and in the compilation of his
Burmese-English and English-Burmese dictionary, Burmese gram-
mar and Pali dictionary. These works, though intended prima-
rily as aids for missionaries, have been great aids to the
study, by students and scholars, of the languages of the
        Almost overlooked is the fact that Judson wrote two
famous hymn-poems, Our Father God, Who Art in Heaven (1825)
and Come, Holy Spirit, Dove Divine (1832).
        Speaking at the dedication of the Judson Memorial
Church in New York City, a son, Edward, spoke referring to
his father:

Suffering and success go together. If you are succeeding
without suffering, it is because others before you have
suffered; if you are suffering without succeeding, it is that
others after you may succeed.

        Judson probably illustrated this truth as much as any
man who ever lived.

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