By Doug Gehman
As a self-absorbed young man, Adoniram Judson first rejected the claims of Christianity, and then came face-to-face with the convicting and transforming power of the Gospel. He committed his life to the Gospel and determined he would take the message of Jesus Christ to the unreached people of Asia. This decision made him one of the first protestant missionaries to be sent from North America.
Adoniram and his bride Ann were married for less than one week when they and six colleagues – a total of three married couples and two single men – left the shores of New England in 1812 on a missionary quest to India. The sailing expedition would take them six months under dangerous conditions – weather, rough seas and nefarious privateers and pirates. By the time Adoniram and Ann reached Burma, they had spent over three years in transitional uncertainty. The team had all but disbanded, trying to find places where they would be permitted to live and do missionary work.
What began as an aspiration for greatness in mission – Adoniram Judson was only twenty-three-years old when he and Ann embarked – became a daunting challenge of moral courage that began with the death of some of their colleagues and their children. Then, the Judson’s first child, a son, was still born. Soon after, Adoniram was imprisoned by the Burmese government, suspected of spying. He languished in jail for a year. Their second child, a son named Roger, lived only six months. Later, they had a daughter. When Maria was two years old, Ann succumbed to a tropical disease and Maria followed her mother to the grave six months later.
Adoniram married again, to Sarah Boardman, the widow of another missionary. In time Adoniram and Sarah had eight children. Two died in infancy. When Sarah fell ill, the Judson’s rushed back to the United States to get her medical treatment. They had to leave their three younger children in Burma with missionary friends because they feared to bring them on the long journey home. Sarah died on the voyage. Adoniram arrived in Boston a broken middle-aged man. He received a hero’s welcome home. From the moment he stepped foot onto the dock, crowds thronged him. America had never seen anything like this missionary hero.
Less than a year after Sarah’s death, Judson met Emily Chubbock, a young Christian writer, who offered to help him write his memoirs. She was half his age, so the courtship and marriage created controversy, but Adoniram was too old and too focused on his work to care. The couple were married in June, 1846, and had their first child, a daughter, Emily Frances, eighteen months later. They returned to Burma the following year. Three years later, when Adoniram was sixty-one years old, he became seriously ill. Friends carried him aboard a French ship bound for the Isle of France in the Indian Ocean, in hopes he could get better medical care. Nine days into the voyage, on April 12, 1850, Judson died and was buried at sea.
Adoniram Judson had spent more than three decades in Burma. In those years, he lost two wives and five children. He also mastered the Burmese language and translated the entire Bible into Burmese, from the original Hebrew and Greek. To this day, Judson’s Burmese Bible is the only translation in use in Burma. Judson, his wives and his colleagues courageously introduced the Burmese people to Jesus Christ. The Burmese Church was born and continues to grow today. In some districts of this staunchly Buddhist land, it has flourished.
Against the influences of contemporary secular culture, it is difficult to understand the commitment of the Judson family. Were they following God or were they impetuous fools? Was their vision worth the suffering and loss they endured? Compared to the dangers the Judson family endured, missions today is a walk in the park. The planet has been tamed. We expect ease and comfort. They expected hardship and danger. We expect to live a long life and come home healthy. They expected to die on the field. We assume protection is a part of biblical Christianity. They assumed danger, even death, was their lot in life. We are unfamiliar with hardship. They knew it as a constant companion.
On one hand we are grateful for the safety and prosperity of the modern world. On the other, we would be wise to question how much we attribute ease, comfort, and safety to God’s purposes. Could God ask us to go somewhere or do something that includes suffering? To contract disease? To lay down our lives? I admire the Judson family. In the face of incredible odds, great loss, and sometimes appalling treatment, they did not quit. I admire the women who served beside Adoniram Judson. These strong, gifted women were filled with vision of their own. Ann Judson opened doors in Burma with her amicable personality. Her Esther-like boldness in approaching and befriending Burmese royalty could have resulted in her death. Sarah Judson stayed in Burma after losing her first husband and all of her children, save one, and married Adoniram. She could have quit and gone home. But, together with her second husband, she pursued their God-given vision, even in terrible loss and grief, and stuck to the task they had received. The Judson family gave their lives for the Burmese people and walked out a bold vision to plant the Gospel in a faraway land. Might God ask the same from us?
The more I have studied perseverance, and the longer I have lived the more I have come to believe that the most powerful force for the advance of the Gospel is God’s determined people, and the most powerful force behind them is the glory of God. We cannot endure for long on our own. But, we can do all things through Christ who gives us strength! Even with the unsupportive influences of contemporary culture, we can follow Jesus Christ in His mission! It is Jesus who empowers us. It is Jesus who gives us grace. As Paul says, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” (I Corinthians 15:10 ESV)
Morally courageous people see something that is more vivid than the rising sun, and more inspiring than a brilliant night sky. They see God – His sovereignty, His omnipotence, His omniscience, His omnipresence, above all they see His benevolence – revealed in Jesus Christ, a love and nearness that flows through their lives in witness and service. It is grounded in intimacy with God’s Word and His Holy Spirit. It is founded on God’s eternal truth and His boundless love. Its effect on us is profound. It helps us forgive. It helps us endure. It helps us move forward in faith. It helps us serve even when we hurt and our work seems pointless. Paul had this to say about suffering for Christ…
“For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:17-18 NKJV)
My prayer is that each of us will so experience God’s glory and so comprehend the immeasurable goodness of God that we too will be able to endure all things for the sake of the fulfillment of God’s purposes in and through our lives!