Adoniram Judson

Adoniram Judson (1788-1850), Baptist missionary, was the first American clergyman to devote himself to Christianizing Burma.

Adoniram Judson was born in Malden, Mass., on Aug. 9, 1788. His father, a Congregationalist minister, encouraged Adoniram's ambitions, and he was pressed toward intellectual excellence by his forceful mother as well. He entered the sophomore class of Brown University at the age of 16. Graduating first in his class in 1807, he taught school at Plymouth while preparing The Young Lady's Arithmetic and Elements of English Grammar. In 1808, uncertain about a permanent vocation, he began a short tour of the North. He entered Andover Seminary in 1808 but did not announce his ministerial intentions until 1809.

Influenced by contemporary romantic sentiments for preaching to the heathen, Judson joined other youthful seminarians in forming the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (1810). In 1811 the board dispatched him to seek joint missionary action with the London Missionary Society. The ship on which Judson sailed was captured by a French vessel, and only after 6 weeks' confinement in France did he reach London. On his return to Boston he convinced the board to proceed without British aid.

Though censured for rashness, Judson and his new bride, Ann Hasseltine, received permission to locate in India. Soon after arrival, the Judsons announced their conversion to the Baptist faith and severed connections with the board. Judson gained support from the American Baptist Missionary Union, which had been formed in response to his activities in India.

The hostility of the British East India Company forced Judson to establish his missionary headquarters in neighboring Rangoon. An able linguist, he translated Scriptures and wrote tracts in Burmese. After 7 months' imprisonment during the Anglo-Burmese War of 1824, he successfully urged the Burmese king to negotiate his domain's dismemberment in the interests of peace. After Mrs. Judson's death in 1826, he moved to Moulmein in British (Lower) Burma (now Myanmar) but never succeeded in posting missions in the native sectors. An interest in Catholic ascetic mysticism temporarily clouded his reputation among American Protestants.

Sarah Hall Boardman, widow of a fellow missionary, became Judson's second wife. Several months after her death in 1845, he married Emily Chubbuck. In his last 4 years at Moulmein, Judson completed his Dictionary, English and Burmese. He died at sea on April 12, 1850. His contemporaries considered Judson one of America's greatest missionary leaders, and his colorful adventures, publicized in press and pulpit, helped stimulate the missionary spirit in Protestant America.

Further Reading on Adoniram Judson

The standard work on Judson is Francis Wayland, A Memoir of the Life and Labors of the Rev. Adoniram Judson, D.D. (2 vols., 1853). See also Edward Judson, The Life of Adoniram Judson (1883); Stacy R. Warburton, Eastward! The Story of Adoniram Judson (1937); and Courtney Anderson, To the Golden Shore: The Life of Adoniram Judson (1956).

Additional Biography Sources

Anderson, Courtney, To the Golden Shore: the life of Adoniram Judson, Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1987.

McElrath, William N., To be the first: adventures of Adoniram Judson, America's first foreign missionary, Nashville: Broadman Press, 1976.

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