Adoniram Judson was the first missionary from the United States to go to a foreign country. Although his story occurred in the early 1800s, the accomplishments of his work are still significant and relevant today!
It was the year 1812 when the ship, Caravan, set sail from Salem, Massachusetts. Adoniram was accompanied by his wife, Ann. The next landfall would be India. Though Judson was ordained, sent and funded as a Congregationalist missionary, he and his wife were baptized by immersion in Calcutta, India. When they arrived at their destination in Burma (today known as Myanmar), they were there as Baptist missionaries. To get the full picture of Adoniram Judson’s remarkable story, we must pick up his story a few years earlier.
Adoniram Judson always had a huge intellect and was a “veritable bookworm” as a child. He learned to read at the age of three years, took navigation lessons at ten, studied theology as a child, and entered Providence College (now Brown University) at the the age of seventeen. It must have made his father very proud when Adoniram was named valedictorian of his class upon graduation from the college in 1807.
At that time Adoniram professed the religious philosophy of deism. A deist is one who believes in moral teachings and that God created the universe, but not believe in the divinity of Jesus. A deist also believes that God left the universe to administer itself and to run according to the natural laws He created.
Adoniram believed that he was in good company since Voltaire, Thomas Paine, and Benjamin Franklin had professed their belief in deism as well. He hid his deist belief from his parents, who thought he was a Christian like they were. He wanted fame and fortune, both certainly achievable, since deism allowed a belief in a god who does not intervene in the lives of mankind versus the personal God of the Bible.
His father was a Congregationalist minister in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and expected Adoniram to follow in his footsteps. When Adoniram revolted and told his parents of his belief in deism, he and his father argued and there was division in the household.
Adoniram, like the story of the prodigal son told by Jesus in Luke 15:11-32, went to “a far country”. In this case this was New York City. He wandered for a time but that proved unsatisfactory. He had been taught that the God his parents worshipped was all-knowing, all-powerful and knew the future. He had been told that the God of the Bible was an angry and vindictive God, but that He was also a fair and just God.
A bizarre set of circumstances, which included the death of his closest friend, became the pivotal point in Adoniram’s life. He was shocked by the death of this friend, who had been a staunch deist. According to deist belief his friend was now forever totally lost. Adoniram felt compelled to believe that the God of the Bible was the real God. He returned to his family in Plymouth, but his life was in turmoil. He was now looking for inner certainty and direction for his future.
He enrolled at the new Andover Newton Theological Seminary, where he studied languages. He already knew Greek and Latin and now added the study of Hebrew (Aramaic). From that point on he was a new man and knew he would arrange his life to please the same God his father believed in.
In his second year at Andover he read the sermon “Star in the East” by Dr. Claudius Buchanan, which emphasized evangelism in the Far East. This was the catalyst that caused Adoniram to decide to become a foreign missionary. He evolved from hoping to be a foreign missionary to deciding where he should go to serve. The more he read and studied the more he was sure that signs pointed him to Burma. However, there was no organization yet formed that could offer to sponsor him.
His father did not know of these plans. Unbeknownst to his son, he arranged for Adoniram to become the assistant pastor at the largest church in Boston after he graduated from Andover. All Adoniram had to do was to accept the Boston call. When informed about the Boston arrangement, Adoniram said an emphatic “NO!”. He was going to Burma! Still, he needed to have a foreign mission board sanction and support him.
At this time he met Ann Hazleton, nicknamed Nancy. Though in those days, many marriages were arranged, almost immediately after meeting her, Adoniram wrote a letter to her father asking for her hand in marriage. In it he told about the plans for his life’s work and the possible difficulties and suffering he was asking Nancy to share with him. Her father didn’t answer for Nancy; instead he let her decide.
It was at that time that the War of 1812 between England and France was imminent. Although considered dangerous, Adoniram sailed for England anyway. His purpose was to solicit support from the London Missionary Society to sanction and support his missionary dreams. His ship, the Packet, was a British ship, and it was intercepted and captured by a French ship, the L’Invencible Napoleon. Adoniram and several other passengers were thrown into the hold of the ship. When the ship docked, they and the crew were then imprisoned in Bayonne, France, which is on the Atlantic ocean just north of the dividing line between France and Spain.
Adoniram didn’t know French. He reasoned that God must be giving him a foretaste of missionary life to test his faith and determination. Judson always felt that the time he spent in that dark, damp and chilly underground dungeon in France that was lit only by a single lamp, was one of the ways God used to test him for the missionary field. He later believed that the time he spent there was invaluable.
With the help of an “unknown angel”, known only as an American and called a Philadelphian, he escaped from the prison and went on to England. There he sought the funds and support he needed for the mission field. While in England seeking these funds, a lady named Mrs. Norris died back in America. She left the funds he needed for foreign missions in her will. Except for the experience and time in the French prison, his trip had not been necessary. Adoniram returned to the United States and was ordained as a Congregationalist missionary.
He and Ann (Nancy), who were now married, set sail on February 19, 1812, heading to Burma via India. Their journey was filled with sea-sickness and illness. During the voyage, Adoniram studied the Bible intently and became convicted that baptism should be by immersion. He became so convicted that when they arrived in Calcutta, he and Nancy were both baptized and became confirmed Baptists. He felt it necessary to cut off his support from the Congregationalists and waited until support could be secured from the newly formed American Baptist Missionary Union.
They continued their journey to Burma and began their missionary work. When they arrived, there was not one known Christian in that land of millions. Six years later, after many hardships and great perseverance Adoniram finally baptized his first covert to Christianity. Over the next couple of decades Adoniram studied and learned the Burmese language. By 1834 he completed a translation of the whole Bible into the Burmese language and later provided the Burmese people with a Burmese-to-English Dictionary. Burmese is considered by some to be one of the most difficult languages to master, second only to Chinese!
Judson served in Burma for almost forty years. When he died in 1850 there were one hundred churches and eight thousand believers in Jesus. Statistics from a government survey a few years later recorded that there were 210,000 Christians in the country, which at that time was one out of every fifty-eight Burmans! Perhaps millions more have been saved by their belief in Jesus Christ because of Adoniram Judson’s work.
The story of Adoniram Judson is fascinating and one in which GOD’S OTHER WAYS© are clearly evident. The book “The Light and the Glory” by Peter Marshall and David Manuel tells additional details about Judson’s life and accomplishments. Even today Adoniram’s devotion to the Lord is evident. Judson University, located in Elgin, Illinois, is named in his honor. He was a mighty man of faith, whose sense of purpose, perseverance and love made him a mighty man for God.
Author’s note: After retirement, my dad worked for Judson College (now University) in Elgin, Illinois. When he died a scholarship fund was set up for students. Here is a copy of a letter I wrote to one of those scholarship recipients.
Thanks for your Christmas card. It is a blessing to know that my dad's scholarship funds are still helping others.
I don’t know if you know much about my dad, Cecil. He was quite a guy and one I was proud to call my dad. He always enjoyed young people.
Dad grew up in the 1920s and was president of his senior high school class. During the depression years he went to college full time while at the same time working nights and weekends for the railroad. He received both a BA and MA from Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. In all the report cards I’ve been able to find, he earned straight A’s.
At the railroad he worked as a telegraph operator. During WWII he escorted troop trains. He served in many executive positions including Executive Vice-President of the Burlington Truck Lines. His last position was as director of their training program. After fifty years at the Burlington Railroad he retired. Following his retirement He developed land in and near Aurora, Illinois.
One day, while he was at a bank in Aurora, he met the president of Judson, Dr. Harm Weber. They hit it off and for the next several years he worked for Judson for $1 a year. In fact, I believe that Judson would not have survived its formative years without him and many others like him who believed in Judson.
When he died in 1980 the Cecil G. Kersey Memorial Scholarship was established. I’m glad the scholarship helped you.
Here’s wishing you the best for the future in whatever God has for you to do and wherever He calls you to be. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
In Christ’s Service,
Kenneth Robb Kersey