Read our other stories about the 200th anniversary of Adoniram Judson’s historic mission trip:
BURMA, Asia (BP) — Most people would have written off Ko Than Byu as hopeless, but pioneer American missionary Adoniram Judson was different from most.
In early 19th-century jungles of Burma, Byu’s neighbors wouldn’t have been surprised to hear that the wild young man who left home at 15 had become a robber who claimed to have killed at least 30 people.
Byu, history records, eventually found himself in trouble and up for sale to pay a debt.
Byu’s temper was considered so volatile that the Burmese Christian who bought him as a servant was glad to give Byu to Judson for the price of the debt.
Something about Judson touched Byu in a way nothing else had. When Byu turned his life over to the Jesus that Judson taught, he was finally able to channel into good the boundless energy that had caused so much trouble.
Byu would return to the mountains with missionaries George and Sarah Boardman and spend the rest of his life evangelizing his fellow ethnic Karen people, many of whom are now Christians.
Byu was just one of many influenced by the man many consider the father of American missions, given Judson’s way of inspiring fellow Christians to look beyond their borders and carry the light of the Gospel to other nations.
Judson’s life had a more promising start than Byu’s, but it hardly felt that way to Judson’s devout parents when he told them he no longer believed in the God preached by his father, a rigid Congregationalist minister. Also disturbing to his parents, Judson was heading for New York to write for the theater. Neither his father’s reasoning nor his mother’s tears and prayers could deter him; but God could plant second thoughts.
A night that changed his life
In an inn en route to New York, Judson was placed in the room next to a dying man. During the night, hearing sounds from the next room, he found himself wondering whether the man was prepared to die, and whether he himself was prepared to face the prospect of bleak nothingness.
The next morning, Judson was told the man had died during the night. When Judson asked who he was, the answer shook him to the core. The man was Jacob Eames, a university friend who had influenced Judson to reject all revealed religion.
That night set Judson on a fresh quest for truth, one that led him to embrace Christ and join with other young men to offer themselves as America’s first global missionaries, starting a movement that continues to move forward today.
On Feb. 19, 1812, aware of the danger ahead, Judson and his new bride Ann “Nancy” Hasseltine Judson sailed for Calcutta, joined by fellow Congregationalist missionaries Samuel and Harriet Newell. They all knew they would meet pioneer English Baptist missionary William Carey.
On board, the Judsons searched the Scriptures, hoping to refute Carey’s promulgation of believer’s baptism. Instead, they concluded he was right and asked for baptism by immersion a few months after landing in India, knowing it meant cutting ties to Congregationalists, who practiced infant baptism by sprinkling.
Carey and others urged Baptists in America to support the Judsons and missionary work. The result was the Triennial Convention, which appointed the Judsons its first missionaries and later gave birth to the American Baptist and Southern Baptist Conventions.
Setting sail for Burma
In spite of warnings that they would not be well received, the Judsons sailed from India to Burma (now Myanmar), the country God had laid on Judson’s heart as he began to ponder missions. The Judsons would spend their lives there serving God.
Judson would wait six tough years, preaching in a roadside “zayat,” a meeting place similar to those used by Buddhists, before seeing his first convert. But by the time he died, Judson would know of 74 churches in Burma, partly because of his evangelism.
A gifted linguist, he would complete a translation of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Burmese that was so accurate it is still used today. Also gifted in languages, Nancy would translate Scripture and tracts into Burmese and Thai and teach women and children.
Judson would endure two years of imprisonment and torture, he and a colleague kept alive by Nancy’s heroic efforts. But he would soon lose Nancy and their young daughter to smallpox, sending him into years of depression.
Except for one trip home, Judson spent nearly 37 of his 61 years in Burma. He suffered the deaths of seven of his 13 children and two of his three wives, accomplished women as dedicated to missions as he. Judson died aboard ship on April 12, 1850, and was buried in the Indian Ocean.
But reports of his heroic efforts reached the United States. Far more than other pioneer American missionaries, he and Nancy inspired others — and still inspire Christians today — to carry the Gospel across cultures.
*Names changed. Shiloh Lane is a former International Mission Board writer based in Asia. Mary Jane Welch is a writer based in Richmond, Va. For more stories specific to Asia, visit the IMB site
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