At times mistakenly referred to as the first Protestant missionary to Burma, he was in fact preceded by James Chater and Richard Mardon (who both arrived in 1807) as well as by Felix Carey. However, since those predecessors did not remain long, and Judson also translated the Bible into Burmese, as well as established a number of Baptist churches in Burma, Judson is remembered as the first significant missionary in Burma, as well as one of the very first missionaries from America to travel overseas.
Judson was born on August 9, 1788, in Malden, Middlesex County, Massachusetts. He was born to Adoniram Judson, Sr., a Congregational minister, and Abigail (née Brown). Judson entered the College of Rhode Island & Providence Plantations (now Brown University) when he was sixteen, and graduated as valedictorian of his class at the age of nineteen. While studying at college, he met a young man named Jacob Eames, a devout deist and skeptic. Judson and Eames developed a strong friendship, leading to Judson's abandonment of his childhood faith and parents' religious instruction. During this time, Judson embraced the writings of the French philosophes. After graduating from college, Judson opened a school and wrote an English grammar and mathematics textbook for girls.
Judson's deist views were shaken when his friend Eames fell violently ill and died. Both had been sleeping in separate rooms at an inn, and Judson heard the death throes of the person next door, only to learn from the clerk the next morning that his anonymous neighbor had been Mr. Eames, who had indeed died. The shock of learning the dying neighbor's identity – and that Eames had led Judson away from the Christian faith into skepticism, but was now dead – returned Judson back to the faith of his youth, although he was already attending the Andover Theological Seminary. In 1808, Judson "made a solemn dedication of himself to God". During his final year at the school, Judson decided upon a missionary career.
In 1810, Judson joined a group of mission-minded students who called themselves "the Brethren". The students inspired the establishment of America's first organized missionary society. Eager to serve abroad, Judson became convinced that "Asia with its idolatrous myriads, was the most important field in the world for missionary effort". He, and three other students from the seminary, appeared before the Congregationalists' General Association to appeal for support. In 1810, impressed by the four men's politeness and sincerity, the elders voted to form the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.
On September 19, Judson was appointed by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions as a missionary to the East. Judson was also commissioned by the Congregational Church, and soon married Ann Hasseltine on February 5, 1812. He was ordained the next day at the Tabernacle Church in Salem. On February 19, he set sail aboard the brig Caravan with Luther Rice; Samuel and Harriett Newell; and his wife, Ann (known as "Nancy") Judson.
The Judsons arrived in Calcutta on June 17, 1812. While aboard ship en route to India, he did a focused study on the theology of baptism. He came to the position that believer's baptism was theologically valid and should be done as a matter of obedience to the command of Jesus (Matthew 28:19–20).
On September 6, 1812, he switched to the Baptist denomination along with his wife and they were baptized by immersion in Calcutta by an English missionary associate of William Carey named William Ward.
Both the local and British authorities did not want Americans evangelizing Hindus in the area, so the group of missionaries separated and sought other mission fields. They were ordered out of India by the British East India Company, to whom American missionaries were even less welcome than British (they were baptized in September, and already in June, the United States had declared war on England). The following year, on July 13, 1813, he moved to Burma, and en route his wife miscarried their first child aboard ship.
Judson offered to Baptists in the United States to serve as their missionary. Luther Rice, who had also converted, was in poor health and returned to America where his work and William Carey's urging resulted in the 1814 formation of the first national Baptist denomination in the United States for Foreign Missions (commonly called the Triennial Convention) and its offshoot the American Baptist Missionary Union.
It was another difficult year before the Judsons finally reached their intended destination, Burma. Buddhist Burma, Judson was told by the Serampore Baptists, was impermeable to Christian evangelism. Judson, who already knew Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, immediately began studying the Burmese grammar but took over three years learning to speak it. This was due, in part, to the radical difference in structure between Burmese and that of Western languages. He found a tutor and spent twelve hours per day studying the language. He and his wife firmly dedicated themselves to understanding it.
During this time they were almost entirely isolated from contact with any European or American. This was the case for their first three years in Burma. Four years passed before Judson dared even to hold a semi-public service. At first, he tried adapting to Burmese customs by wearing a yellow robe to mark himself as a teacher of religion, but he soon changed to white to show he was not a Buddhist. Then, he gave up the whole attempt as artificial and decided that, regardless of his dress, no Burmese would identify him as anything but a foreigner.
He accommodated to some Burmese customs and built a zayat, the customary bamboo and thatch reception shelter, on the street near his home as a reception room and meeting place for Burmese men. Fifteen men came to his first public meeting in April 1819. He was encouraged but suspected they had come more out of curiosity than anything else. Their attention wandered, and they soon seemed uninterested. Two months later, he baptized his first Burmese convert, Maung Naw, a 35-year-old timber worker from the hill tribes.
First attempts by the Judsons to interest the natives of Rangoon with the Gospel of Jesus met with almost total indifference. Buddhist traditions and the Burmese world view at that time led many to disregard the pleadings of Adoniram and his wife to believe in one living and all-powerful God. To add to their discouragement, their second child, Roger William Judson, died at almost eight months of age.
Judson completed translation of the Grammatical Notices of the Burman Language the following July and the Gospel of Matthew, in 1817. Judson began public evangelism in 1818 sitting in a zayat by the roadside calling out "Ho! Everyone that thirsteth for knowledge!" The first believer was baptized in 1819, and there were 18 believers by 1822.
In 1820, Judson and a fellow missionary named Colman attempted to petition the Emperor of Burma, King Bagyidaw, in the hope that he would grant freedom for the missionaries to preach and teach throughout the country, as well as remove the sentence of death that was given for those Burmese who changed religion.
Bagyidaw disregarded their appeal and threw one of their Gospel tracts to the ground after reading a few lines. The missionaries returned to Rangoon and met with the fledgling church there to consider what to do next. The progress of Christianity would continue to be slow with much risk of endangerment and death in the Burmese Empire.
It took Judson 12 years to make 18 converts. Nevertheless, there was much to encourage him. He had written a grammar of the language that is still in use today and had begun to translate the Bible.
His wife, Ann, was even more fluent in the spoken language of the people than her more academically literate husband. She befriended the wife of the viceroy of Rangoon, as quickly as she did illiterate workers and women.
A printing press had been sent from Serampore, and a missionary printer, George H. Hough, who arrived from America with his wife in 1817, produced the first printed materials in Burmese ever printed in Burma, which included 800 copies of Judson's translation of the Gospel of Matthew. The chronicler of the church, Maung Shwe Wa, concludes this part of the story, "So was born the church in Rangoon–logger and fisherman, the poor and the rich, men and women. One traveled the whole path to Christ in three days; another took two years. But once they had decided for Christ they were his for all time."
One of the early disciples was U Shwe Ngong, a teacher and leader of a group of intellectuals dissatisfied with Buddhism, who were attracted to the new faith. He was a Deist skeptic to whose mind the preaching of Judson, once a college skeptic himself, was singularly challenging. After consideration, he assured Judson that he was ready to believe in God, Jesus Christ, and the atonement.
Judson, instead of welcoming him to the faith, pressed him further asking if he believed what he had read in the gospel of Matthew that Jesus the son of God died on the cross. U Shwe Ngong shook his head and said, "Ah, you have caught me now. I believe that he suffered death, but I cannot believe he suffered the shameful death on the cross." Not long after, he came back to tell Judson, "I have been trusting in my own reason, not the word of God…. I now believe the crucifixion of Christ because it is contained in scripture."
The essence of Judson's preaching was a combination of conviction of the truth with the rationality of the Christian faith, a firm belief in the authority of the Bible, and a determination to make Christianity relevant to the Burmese mind without violating the integrity of Christian truth, or as he put it, "to preach the gospel, not anti-Buddhism."
By 1823, ten years after his arrival, membership of the little church had grown to 18, and Judson had finally finished the first draft of his translation of the entire text of the New Testament in Burmese.
Two irreconcilable hungers triggered the First Anglo-Burmese War of 1824: Burma's desire for more territory, and Britain's desire for more trade. Burma threatened Assam and Bengal; Britain responded by attacking and absorbing two Burmese provinces into her India holdings to broaden her trade routes to East Asia. The war was a rough interruption of the Baptists' missionary work. English-speaking Americans were too easily confused with the enemy and suspected of spying.
Judson was imprisoned for 17 months during the war between the United Kingdom and Burma, first at Ava and then at Aung Pinle. Judson and Price were violently arrested. Officers led by an official executioner burst into the Judson home, threw Judson to the ground in front of his wife, bound him with torture thongs, and dragged him off to the infamous, vermin-ridden death prison of Ava.
Twelve agonizing months later, Judson and Price, along with a small group of surviving Western prisoners, were marched overland, barefoot and sick, for six more months of misery in a primitive village near Mandalay. Of the sepoy British prisoners-of-war imprisoned with them, all but one died.
The sufferings and brutalities of those 20 long months and days in prison, half-starved, iron-fettered, and sometimes trussed and suspended by his mangled feet with only head and shoulders touching the ground is described in detail by his wife, shortly after his release.
Ann was perhaps the greater model of supreme courage. Heedless to all threats against herself, left alone as the only Western woman in an absolute and anti-Christian monarchy at war with the West, beset with raging fevers and nursing a tiny baby that her husband had not yet seen, she rushed from office to office in desperate attempts to keep her husband alive and win his freedom.
The end of the war should have been a time of rejoicing for the mission. As soon as her husband was released by the Burmese, Ann wrote that one good result of the war could be that terms of the treaty which ceded Burmese provinces to the British might provide opportunity to expand the witness of the mission into unreached parts of the country.
On October 24, 1826, Ann died at Amherst (now Kyaikkami), Burma, a victim of the long, dreadful months of disease, death, stress and loneliness that had been hers for 21 months. Their third child died six months later. She died while her husband was out exploring the ceded province of Tenasserim. It was in the wild hills of that newly British province of Tenasserim that the first signs of rapid growth in Protestant Christianity in Burma began. Within a few years of the end of the war, Baptist membership doubled on an average of every eight years for the 32 years between 1834 and 1866.
The collapse of Burma's armies brought Judson out of prison, but his release was not complete freedom. In 1826, several months after the surrender, Burma pressed Judson into service as a translator for the peace negotiations. Some have used Judson's acceptance of a role in the treaty negotiations as evidence of complicity in imperialism, but it should be noted that he first acted on behalf of the defeated Burmese as translator, not for the Western victors.
Three significant factors had a part, though not the only part, in the rise of the Burmese Baptist churches. Most of the growth was in British-ruled territory, rather than the Burmese-ruled kingdom. It may also be significant that after an Anglo-Burmese war, the missionaries were American, not British. The most telling factor was religion. Most of the growth came from animist tribes, rather than from the major population group, the Buddhist Burmese. The first Burmese pastor he ordained was Ko-Thah-a, one of the original group of converts, who refounded the church at Rangoon.
While the nation was Burmese, a lost province of Great Britain, and the missionaries were American, the apostle of that first numerically significant evangelistic breakthrough was neither Burman, British, nor American. He was a Karen, Ko Tha Byu. Credit is due also to the three missionary pioneers to the Karen people, George Boardman and his wife, Sarah; and Adoniram Judson.
The Karen people were a primitive, hunted minority group of ancient Tibeto-Burman ancestry scattered in the forests and jungles of the Salween River and in the hills along the southeast coast. Judson was the first missionary to make contact with them in 1827, when he ransomed and freed a debt-slave from one of his early converts. The freed slave, Ko Tha Byu, was an illiterate, surly man who spoke almost no Burmese and was reputed to be not only a thief, but also a murderer who admitted killing at least 30 men, but could not remember exactly how many more.
In 1828, the former Karen bandit, "whose rough, undisciplined genius, energy and zeal for Christ" had caught the notice of the missionaries, was sent south with a new missionary couple, the Boardmans, into the territory of the strongly animistic, non-Buddhist Karen. Ko Tha Byu was no sooner baptized, when he set off into the jungle alone to preach to his fellow tribe members. Astonishingly, he found them prepared for his preaching. Their ancient oracle traditions, handed down for centuries, contained some startling echoes of the Old Testament that some scholars conjecture a linkage with Jewish communities (or possibly even Nestorians), before their migrations from western China into Burma perhaps as early as the 12th century.
The core of what they called their "Tradition of the Elders" was a belief in an unchangeable, eternal, all-powerful God, creator of heaven and earth, of man, and of woman formed from a rib taken from the man. They believed in humanity's temptation by a devil, and its fall, and that some day a messiah would come to its rescue. They lived in expectation of a prophecy that white foreigners would bring them a sacred parchment roll.
While the Boardmans and Ko Tha Byu were penetrating the jungles to the south, Judson shook off a paralyzing year-long siege of depression that overcame him after the death of his wife and set out alone on long canoe trips up the Salween River into the tiger-infested jungles to evangelize the northern Karen. Between trips, he worked unceasingly at his lifelong goal of translating the entire Bible into Burmese. When he finished it at last in 1834, he had been labouring on it for 24 years. It was printed and published in 1835.
In April of that same year, he married Sarah Hall Boardman, widow of fellow missionary George Boardman. They had eight children, five of whom survived to adulthood. Sarah's health began failing and physicians recommended a return to America. Sarah died en route at St. Helena on September 1, 1845. He continued home, where he was greeted as a celebrity and toured the eastern seaboard raising the profile of and money for missionary activity. Because he could barely speak above a whisper, due to pulmonary illness, his public addresses were made by speaking to an assistant, who would then address the audience.
On June 2, 1846, Judson married for the third time, to writer Emily Chubbuck, who he had commissioned to write memoirs for Sarah Hall Boardman. They had a daughter born in 1847.
Judson lived to approve and welcome the first single women as missionaries to Burma. A general rule of the mission had hitherto prevented such appointments. Judson said it was "probably a good rule, but our minds should not be closed" to making exceptions. The first two exceptions were extraordinary.
Sarah Cummings and Jason Tuma arrived in 1832. Cummings proved her mettle at once, choosing to work alone with Karen evangelists in the malaria-ridden Salween River valley north of Moulmein, but within two years she died of fever.
In 1835, a second single woman, Eleanor Macomber, after five years of mission to the Ojibway Indians in Michigan, joined the mission in Burma. Alone, with the help of Karen evangelistic assistants, she planted a church in a remote Karen village and nurtured it to the point where it could be placed under the care of an ordinary missionary. She lived there five years and died of jungle fever.
Judson developed a serious lung disease and doctors prescribed a sea voyage as a cure. On April 12, 1850, he died at age 61 onboard ship in the Bay of Bengal and was buried at sea, having spent 37 years in missionary service abroad with only one trip back home to America. A memorial to Judson was built on Burial Hill in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
When Judson began his mission in Burma, he set a goal of translating the Bible and founding a church of 100 members before his death. By the time of his death, he had accomplished those goals and more: leaving the translated Bible as well as a half-completed Burmese-English dictionary (discussed below), 100 churches, and over 8,000 believers. In large part due to his influence, Myanmar has the third largest number of Baptists worldwide, behind the United States and India. The majority of adherents are Karen and Kachin.
Judson compiled the first ever Burmese-English dictionary; missionary E. A. Steven completed the English-Burmese half. Every dictionary and grammar written in Burma in the last two centuries has been based on ones originally created by Judson. Judson "became a symbol of the preeminence of Bible translation for" Protestant missionaries. In the 1950s, Burma's Buddhist prime minister U Nu told the Burma Christian Council "Oh no, a new translation is not necessary. Judson's captures the language and idiom of Burmese perfectly and is very clear and understandable." His translation remains the most popular version in Myanmar.
Each July, Baptist churches in Myanmar celebrate "Judson Day," commemorating his arrival as a missionary. Inside the campus of Yangon University is Judson Church, named in his honor, and in 1920 Judson College, named in his honor, merged into Rangoon College, which has since been renamed Yangon University. The American University named in his honor, Judson University was founded in Elgin, Illinois, in 1963, as the liberal arts Judson College was separated from the Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, which moved from Chicago to Lombard, Illinois. This American Judson College became Judson University in 2007 and now also has a campus in Rockford, Illinois.
Judson's change to the validity of believer's baptism, and subsequent need of support, led to the founding of the first national Baptist organization in the United States and subsequently to all American Baptist associations, including the Southern Baptists that were the first to break off from the national organization. Publication of his wife Ann's letters about their mission inspired many Americans to become or support Christian missionaries. At least 36 Baptist churches in the United States are named after Judson, as well as the town of Judsonia, Arkansas. Judson College in Alabama is named after his wife Ann and a dormitory at Maranatha Baptist University carries his name to inspire young ministers. His undergraduate alma mater, Brown University, also has named a house after him, now owned by Christian Union. His seminary alma mater, Andover Theological Seminary, (now Andover Newton Theological School), named their prestigious annual award as The Judson Award.
Judson is honored with a feast day on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) on April 12.
In World War II, the United States liberty ship SS Adoniram Judson was named in his honor.Burmese Bible, as well as portions published before the entire text was translated
A Burmese-English dictionary (English-Burmese portion completed posthumously, see below)
A Burmese Grammar
Two hymns: Our Father, God, Who art in Heaven and Come Holy Spirit, Dove Divine