FORT WORTH, Texas (BP) — In 1816, Adoniram Judson, a legendary Baptist missionary to Burmese Buddhists, completed a tract that still brings Christ’s light to a dark world and challenges 21st century missionaries to rethink their methods.
This summer, Judson’s tract once again made it into the hands of Buddhists when professors and students from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary proclaimed the Gospel in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
“The tract was directly linked to Judson’s first Burmese convert,” Keith Eitel, dean of the seminary’s Roy Fish School of Evangelism and Missions, said. Eitel came across the tract during research for an essay on Judson and had it translated into the Thai language. Eitel had been studying Judson’s missions practices for a book to be published by B&H next year celebrating the bicentennial of Judson’s departure from America.
Judson, who became a Baptist soon after entering the mission field, wrote the tract in order to share the Gospel with Theravada Buddhists in Burma (modern-day Myanmar). After reading the tract, Eitel thought it would have a great impact on the Theravada Buddhists in Chiang Mai as well. Responses from native Thai Christians have confirmed his theory.
“They are intrigued by how well it is written and especially its clear description of God in relation to the Trinity,” Eitel said. “They found this theologically informed tract useful both for discipleship and evangelism, and they have requested more copies of the tract to help them explain the Gospel to Buddhist family members.
“It articulates the Gospel better than they can,” Eitel said, adding that a new Buddhist believer who is growing in the Lord, when bombarded by family members with questions about what he now believes, may find it hard to explain because he is just learning the Christian vocabulary and concepts. But the tract can help him communicate.
“This is probably the most valuable way this tool can be used,” Eitel said.
The tract also displays an evangelistic method that flies in the face of many 21st century theories about how to communicate the Gospel across cultures.
“In order to soften the apparent idea of Christ’s exclusivity, some missiologists have borrowed cultural anthropology’s techniques and employ a comparative model to communicate the biblical message cross-culturally,” Eitel said. “The intent is to build from points of apparent similarity to apparent points of contrast in order to communicate the Gospel.”
Such a method concerns Eitel, since it threatens the missionary’s ability to share the Gospel with biblical integrity and clarity, he says. In contrast to this method, Eitel suggests that missionaries should begin where religions differ, although always in a spirit of kindness and respect. Judson’s tract does exactly this. Even in the first sentence, he undercuts Buddhist teaching:
“There is one Being who exists eternally; who is exempt from sickness, old age, and death; who was, and is, and will be, without beginning and without end. Besides this, the true God, there is no other God.”
On the other hand, Eitel said, Judson shows sensitivity to Buddhist culture and concerns. In the last paragraph of the tract, for example, Judson dates the tract, in Burmese style, as being written on day 967 “of the lord of the Saddan elephant and master of the Sakyah weapon, … the 12th day of the wane of the moon Wahgoung, after the double beat.”
Judson’s prayer at the end of the tract also appeals to the Buddhist desire for enlightenment. With Judson’s prayer on their lips, Eitel and the Southwestern Seminary missions team took this newly translated tract to the Buddhists of Thailand: “May the reader obtain light. Amen.”
Benjamin Hawkins writes for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.