The American Foreign Missions Movement and Missionary Adoniram Judson
Adoniram Judson went to Burma as America’s first foreign missionary in 1813. But why Burma and why Judson? Seven years earlier, in 1806, while most American Christians and churches were looking westward to the Frontier, a group of Congregational preacher-boys at Williams College had a vision to fulfill Christ’s Great Commission, from America, and to take the Gospel to the whole world. Led by student Samuel J. Mills, he and four other young men were walking across campus when a storm suddenly arose. Closer to them than the buildings of the young college, the boys ran for shelter to a haystack in the field of an adjacent farm. While hiding in the haystack they had a prayer meeting and God gave them a vision to spread the Gospel, to not only their Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria but, to the “uttermost part of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) Those young men spread that vision across America resulting in the formation of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions and catalyzing a movement that would propel thousands of church-planters for the next two hundred years, beginning with Adoniram and Ann Judson, William Boardman, Luther Rice, and Samuel and Harriett Newell.
Having proposed marriage to Miss Ann Hasseltine and explaining to her father that, if he was to allow the wedding, he might never see his daughter alive on earth again, Adoniram Judson and his bride were joined on February 12, 1812. One week later, on February 19, the Judsons and their friend Luther Rice stood on the dock with all of their packed belongings and a King James Bible and prepared to board the ship Caravan. But before they climbed aboard to begin the treacherous four-month voyage, a Baptist preacher named Rev. Thomas Conant walked down the dock, faced the rookie missionaries and asked, “As you go around the world to win heathen souls to Christ, what are you going to do with your converts?” Judson turned to Conant and asked what he was talking about. Luther Rice had been teaching school to pay for his further studies at college and he and Conant had become friends. In a chain of correspondence between the two, Conant encouraged Rice to study the biblical doctrine of baptism. They argued back and forth on the subject. But as they stood on the dock with Judson looking inquisitively, Rice turned to Conant and said, “Tell him!” Would they practice New Testament believers’ baptism on the mission field or the infant sprinkling of the Congregational and other Protestant and Catholic churches?
That one question would haunt the missionaries to such an extent that by the time they reached Calcutta they had studied their Bibles and knew there was only one thing to do. They would ask an associate of English missionary William Carey to baptize them by immersion. But this created another problem: Having been convinced and convicted of the Baptist doctrine and having received the ordinance at the hands of a Baptist preacher and his church, they could no longer with good conscience continue as Congregational missionaries. Yet other challenges were looming: Judson and company had thought that God had called them to India but the longer they stayed there the more unwelcomed they became. And Luther Rice was sick. At William Carey’s urging Rice returned to America and in 1814 helped to form the first national association of Baptist churches to support foreign missions (commonly called the Triennial Convention) and its offshoot, the American Baptist Missionary Union. The Serampore Baptists of India told Judson that the land of Burma was impermeable to the Gospel. Several British missionaries connected with William Carey had gone to Burma to try to plant churches but none stayed long, each leaving in disappointment. But on July 13, 1813 Judson and company sailed to the city of Rangoon, Burma. Along the way a severe storm occurred at sea and Mrs. Ann almost perished as she miscarried their first child aboard ship. It was only the beginning of difficulties but these missionaries were in Burma to stay.
Adoniram Judson would lose two wives and several children. He was imprisoned and tortured as a spy during the Anglo-Burmese War of 1824. He saw his friend and co-worker, William Boardman, succumb to jungle fever. And he himself would be buried at sea after a long-fought bout with tuberculosis. And yet the impact that Judson and his fellow missionaries made upon Burma was undeniable: Judson completed a Burmese-English Dictionary and, his life-long goal, the translation of the Burmese Bible. He also completed the Grammatical Notices of the Burman Language which, for the first time, gave structure to the Burmese dialect. And even though it took six years to win the first Burmese convert, hundreds of churches were planted; schools and orphanages were built. Even a university was started. Judson’s impact upon the nation and several different Burman people groups (the Karen, Chin, Mon tribes) remains today as they still celebrate a “Judson Day” annually. NOW…200 years later Jehovah God, or the Burmese “Pya Thakin,”has called us again to reach Burma, now known as Myanmar, for Christ. BUT WHY BURMA? What is so special or important about Burma or Myanmar? Besides the fact that there are SIXTY MILLION unreached souls there, MYANMAR is the center or “hub” of Southeast Asia being surrounded by twelve other countries, physically touching five. This is the land of Buddhism and Hinduism with a quickly growing Islamic population. Myanmar is the geographical center of the Buddhist world and the cities of Rangoon (now known as Yangon) and Mandalay are its meccas.
And the time is right! Myanmar has been closed and virtually isolated from the rest of the world for the past fifty-plus years. But a new openness created by recent elections has provided the opportunity to do the work of God there that has only been dreamed of heretofore. We are persuaded that God wants us to train an army of preachers and missionaries to send from Myanmar to the surrounding countries of India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, China, Laos, North & South Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore. But for us, GLBM is not just about reaching the Burmese, Myanmar, or the Buddhist world. It is about a revival or a renewing of the American vision to obey Christ’s command, to both send and take the message of the Gospel to our Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the earth. And Christ’s command is not that we should do this progressively but simultaneously – all at the same time. It is every church’s and every Christian’s calling and responsibility. It is the heartbeat of “Pya Thakin.”