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Adoniram Judson: Missionary to Burma

Updated on November 23, 2017
Adoniram Judson, 1846
Adoniram Judson, 1846 | Source

Adoniram Judson was like any other early nineteenth century American missionary: ambitious, caring, and adventurous. Judson was possibly more adventurous than most missionaries of his time. In fact, he decided to travel to a part of the globe where few, if any, Americans have ever been: Burma. Known as Myanmar since 1989, Burma did not have much contact with the western world except for the British and Dutch traders. Predominantly Buddhist, the Burmese people and their government officials did not take too kindly to Christianity and felt that this strange religion was not intended to be part of their native heritage. Consequently, Judson, and his wife Ann, who traveled with him to Burma, met with hostility and a prison sentence which lasted for tenty-one months between 1824 to 1826.

Originally a Congregationalist but later a convert to the Baptist church, Judson and his wife set sail aboard a clipper named Caravan from Salem, Massachusetts, in February 1812. They headed towards Asia, with the entire voyage lasting four months. Judson and Ann arrived in Calcutta, India in June that year. It was at this time when Judson decided to convert to the Baptist church, firmly believing that baptism must be performed as an act of belief. Under the direction of William Ward, a British Baptist missionary, Judson became baptized and declared his new religious belief.

While Judson would have been happy to mission to the Hindus in India, the British government forbade him from doing so. The British East India Company eventually forced Judson and his wife to leave India for Burma, giving Judson the opportunity to evangelize where competing western officials would not prohibit him from doing so. Adoniram, however, was up against some major challenges. To start with, he had to learn the Burmese language. Not having access to Burmese grammars or dictionaries in the United States, he had to set about creating his own, once he found a willing tutor in Burma. Learning the Burmese alphabet was a task in itself, since it is uses an alphabet that is very different from the Latin one. Derived from the Brahmi script of India, the Burmese alphabet was a series of curves and loops which made for attractive calligraphy. It took Judson and his wife three years to learn the language, but they persevered, so that they could become fluent in order to convert the Burmese to Christianity. Once he was fluent in Burmese, Judson started to translate the Bible into Burmese, a monumental task which he achieved while gathering up the courage to hold a public sermon.

Unfortunately for Judson, two thing happened which led to his imprisonment: one, trying to convince King Bagyidaw (who ruled Burma from 1819 to 1837) to not punish Burmese who converted from Buddhism to Christianity with a death sentence, and two, the Anglo-Burmese War, which lasted from 1824 to 1826. Western influences were not exactly welcome in Burma, especially when it came to religion, and as for the war, Judson was perceived by the Burmese as being a British spy. Arrested at his home by members of the Burmese army, Judson's arms were tied behind his back and carried off to a prison at Ava in Mandalay. His wife Ann made the mistake of trying to bribe the soldiers with money to release her husband, which only resulted in her being left behind on her own, guarded by ten Burmese soldiers. She even tried to appeal to the queen, Nanmadaw Me Nu, but Ann's plea went unheeded. Adoniram Judson was to remain in jail but not be executed, perhaps to increase Ann's worry as to what the Burmese government really planned to do with him.

Ann Judson refused to give up trying to get her husband free. The Anglo-Burmese war took a toll, with Burma on the losing side, which exacerbated problems for the British and American prisoners at Ava and Oung-pen-la, the latter which Judson was transferred to. The Burmese prison seemed to favor torture to the prisoners' feet by means of gravel, rocks, and mosquitoes. With their ankles tied together and suspended from a bamboo pole several feet above the ground, Judson and the other prisoners were all but helpless in their state. Compound the site with an ever scarier one – a lion slowly being starved to death in a nearby cage watching the prisoners, one could only hope for a miracle.

Finally, in March 1826, the British released Judson after spending almost two years in prison. Confirmed by his belief in God, Adoniram Judson remained in Burma for thirty-eight years, carrying out his mission work until his death in 1850 at the age of 61 when he was sailing in the Bay of Bengal. He succeeded in achieving his dream, leaving behind over 8,000 Burmese Christian converts. Due to Judson's hard work, Myanmar has the third highest number of Baptists in the world, following the United States and India.


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