Judson was the son of a conservative (and rather dour) late-18th century New England minister. He rebelled against his parents' faith and, at the age of 18, he declared himself to be a deist at best, an atheist at worst. His partner in this rebellion was his best friend, a young man named Jacob Eames who, like Judson, had a very bright mind.
Two Dying Men
After renouncing his would-be inherited faith, Judson headed off to New York City to pursue an acting career. When this option fizzled, he enrolled in Brown College. During his second year, while traveling home one weekend, he stayed in a small hotel. The owner told him that the only room available was next door to a dying man.
Desperate for a roof over his head, Judson took the room anyway and listened all night to the blasphemous mutterings and moans of a man who obviously had no knowledge of a personal God. The scenario brought up thoughts of uncertainty about his own death, but he stifled them. Judson specifically recalls wondering what his clear-minded, intellectual friend Eames would say about such boyishness. When Judson awoke, the proprietor informed him that the man had indeed passed away. Out of curiosity, Judson pressed for the man's name.
Judson shivered. One word ran through his mind again and again—lost. He knew that he too was alone and doomed. Three months would pass before young Judson made his ultimate peace with God. And, when he did, he was forever changed. Never again would he stick his finger in the face of the Almighty. Now, instead, he would progressively die to himself and surrender his life to his Creator and Savior.
Ann and the Far East
Over the next four years, sensing a call to serve as a missionary to the far East, Judson attended seminary and fell in love. Ann Hasseltine's story was not so different from Adoniram's. She had undergone a life-changing religious conversion a few years before and had received her own call to overseas missions.
Before their marriage, Adonarim had assembled a team of students and persuaded a group of pastors to support his mission to Burma (today known as Myanmar). As graduation drew near, Adoniram was offered a teaching position in his alma mater, Brown University, and at the same time was invited to be the assistant at the largest, wealthiest congregation in Boston—two tempting dreams of position and financial security. He turned them down for the sake of his call East.
In 1812, at 24 years of age, Judson graduated, was commissioned and ordained, and married Ann. Thirteen days later they sailed for Calcutta (now Kolkata), India, a trip of five months at sea. They were denied entrance to preach the Gospel in India by the East India Company after much effort, and eventually found an open door in Rangoon, Burma.
Hardships at Every Turn
Years earlier, Adonarim wrote these words to Ann's father:
I have now to ask whether you can consent to part with your daughter, whether you can consent to her departure to a heathen land, 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 India, to every kind of want and distress, to degradation, insult, persecution, and perhaps a violent death.
Most of these experiences Adonarim had anticipated would come to pass.
Shortly after landing in Rangoon, Judson lost all of his financial backing over a denominational dispute. Buddhist Burma, Judson was told, was impermeable to Christian evangelism and a place where the king "had supreme power over the life and possessions of every subject. He could confiscate property, imprison, torture, or execute at his pleasure."
Poverty was rampant. The humidity and heat were oppressive. They were lonely and isolated. In the midst of this they had a son, Roger William Judson, who they buried eight months later under a large mango tree.
They persisted in their efforts. Language study was their first concern to which they dedicated twelve hours a day. Exactly three years after arriving, Judson published a simple Burmese-English grammar, and the text of his first tract, "A View of the Christian Religion."
Four years passed before the Judsons dared have a public meeting. He published a simple tract, "The Golden Balance," on the difference between Christ and the Buddha. As he tirelessly worked to complete his translation of scripture, he was determined to make Christianity relevant or, as he put it, "to preach the Gospel, not anti-Buddhism."
God, the Unknown
As time went on, persecution increased and Ann's health began to deteriorate. Suspected of being a British spy, Adoniram was thrown into a "death prison" where he was routinely hung upside down in leg irons. Judson spent nearly two years in that Burmese prison and was eventually freed due, in no small part, to his wife's tireless prayer and advocacy. But prison would not be his darkest hour.
Ann died shortly after his release from imprisonment and Adoniram entered a deep depression. For several months, he was so depressed that he sat daily beside her tomb. After three years, Adoniram wrote, "God is to me the Great Unknown. I believe in him, but I cannot find him."
He built a hut out in the jungle and behind it dug his own grave, spending hours staring into it, contemplating his own demise. He declined an honorary doctorate from Brown University, destroyed many of his letters, and gave the Mission his savings. Over time, he recovered, and entered into a new depth of spirituality that intensified his ministry.
And then, the most amazing conversion of Judson's ministry occurred. A fifty year-old tribal man named Ko Tha Byu (who had been involved in at least 30 murders) was purchased from slavery and learned to read the Burmese Bible that Judson was translating.
When Ko Tha Byu returned to his people, he boldly proclaimed the Gospel. Later known as the "apostle to the Karen," he helped establish a strong church, which still flourishes among the tribe to this day.
Sweetness at the Bottom
It was during this time that George and Sarah Boardman joined the missionary team and set out to work among the Karen animistic tribesmen in the mountains. In just a few years time they saw an amazing harvest. When George died of tuberculosis at 30 years-old, Judson wrote to Sarah, "Take the bitter cup with both hands and sit down to your repast. You will soon learn a secret—that there is sweetness at the bottom."
Eight years after Ann's death and three years after George's, Adoniram and Sarah were married. Adoniram plodded on with his Bible translation, while Sarah established their home. He now read in the morning, preached in the public zayat to anyone who wandered in, and in the afternoon he translated or read proofs of his Bible. In the evenings he conducted worship in the mission chapel. Eight children were born to them during 10 years. In addition to her domestic duties, Sarah poured herself into ministry. She translated the New Testament into the tribal language Peguan. She founded a school, wrote hymns and curriculum in Burmese and translated other material, including part of Pilgrim's Progress.
In 1840 after 23 years of work, Judson finished his translation of the Bible, working from the original Hebrew and Greek. It was a monumental achievement and is still the translation used today.
The Baptist Mission now insisted that he produce a Burmese-English Dictionary, as a help to other missionaries. None knew the language as well as he. Though much more desirous of preaching the Gospel, he submitted, and began work immediately.
However, due to the climate, the bearing of her many children, and the frequent fevers, Sarah's health was shattered, and Adoniram decided to take her to the States, his first furlough after 33 years. As they sailed through the Indian Ocean, after rounding the Cape of Good Hope and heading into the Atlantic, Sarah died. They buried her high on rocky St. Helena.
During his four decades in Burma, Judson led around twenty-five Burmese to the Lord. Perhaps only ten of these displayed a real, living faith in Christ. Over this time period, he also buried two wives, six children, and eleven co-workers. Yet at a celebration to honor the 150th anniversary of Judson's translation of the Burmese Bible, when one of the pastors hosting the celebration was asked what he knew of Judson, he responded:
Whenever someone mentions Judson's name, tears come to my eyes, because we know what he and his family suffered…Today there are six million Christians in Myanmar, and every one of us traces our spiritual heritage to one man—the Reverend Adoniram Judson.
As we ponder Judson's life, we must ask ourselves many questions. Are we as committed to our mission as he was dedicated to his? What sacrifices are we willing to make now to see the Gospel spread? Are we willing to toil day after day—often with limited results—so that God can raise up millions of believers years or centuries after we pass away? Are we willing to imagine what God is capable of doing?