Two hundred years and 127,000 American Missionaries later

February 19th, 1812, a man named Adoniram Judson sailed from Salem harbor in Massachusetts to India, and eventually to Burma.  This trip was once called “the most important event of the nineteenth century.”

I wouldn’t be surprised if you never heard of Ann and Adoniram Judson.   I hadn’t either, until I looked at old lists of significant dates and events.

To commemorate the anniversary of Judson’s departure, a re-enactment was staged in Salem harbor, Massachusetts.  The associated press ran a small story on it, but most of the media is more concerned with commemorating the wars and battles from the same year.

The Judson’s story was once big news. Adoniram’s son made the front page of New York’s top newspapers by retelling the story.  Ann Judson met with Wilberforce and other important people in Britain and Burma.  She is also credited with helping to mediate a peace treaty between the two countries.

Biographies of Ann Judson have been written by temperance movement and by feminists.

Not surprisingly, most recent books and websites written about Adoniram are aimed at the Christian market.  However, one of the best appears to be a secular story of the man and his achievements.

Adoniram Judson wrote a Burmese dictionary, and translated most of the Bible into Burmese.  He was a pioneer who started a trend, as before Adoniram Judson, his wife, and their friends Americans didn’t go abroad on missions.

It was Adoniram who raised the cash for the mission, who inspired others to join him.  It was his wife, however, who actually did most of the missionary work, speaking with natives, intervening for political prisoners and taking over social duties while Adoniram was writing books in his study.

Adoniram Judson was driven by a stronger than ordinary desire to make a difference, (and no, despite what some sources say, that desire did not come from hearing a deist die in the room next to him.)

This desire came to Adoniram through strong, faithful parents, and through a combination of extraordinary talents and powerful experiences.  It was strengthened by meeting friends who shared similar goals, by reading inspiring stories of German and British missionaries, and finally he was lucky to meet Ann, a charismatic and intelligent woman who knew how to deal with people.

The only book I’ve read so far that I could recommend about Adoniram Judson is “To the Golden Shore”, written in the 1970s by Courtney Anderson.

Anderson’s is a large book, and can be exhausting at times, but its well written and it presents a well rounded and interesting picture of the man.  What it lacks in humor it makes up for in thoroughness and an excellent pace.

Courtney Anderson came to Judson’s story almost by accident.  Anderson was a documentarian, working on a film about Adoniram Judson (I can’t find the title of that film) and became fascinated with him.   The documentarian did exhaustive research, but doesn’t detail every source in an academic manner.

Most other books I’ve read seem to be poor summaries of Anderson’s work (sometimes exaggerating certain events to try and create a teaching point or to promote a political prejudice.)

Anderson examines the relevant the details about Judson and his time, painting a personal portrait of religion in the early American republic.  Judson’s father, Adoniram Judson senior, was a Congregationalist minister involved in disputes between ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ Congregationalism, giving Anderson the opportunity to present an inside view of the way religion affected New England from independence to just before the War of 1812.   Judson’s wife was caught up in a religious revival in her youth, future President Monroe is said to have contributed to the missionary effort, and we see a Jeffersonian mocking Judson’s voyage.  President Adams lived near the Judsons at one time, but he doesn’t appear to have entered the story much, except as a kind of inspirational guide for an ambitious father (Judson senior) who saw one time President as a role model for his son.

However, powerful men are just a side note to an intricately personal story of a couple who overcame adversity and brought with them a desire to make the world a better place.

Whether or not you agree with Judson’s theology, it’s impossible not to root for them as they do the impossible, dealing with friends and foes alike, and keeping stubbornly to their own system of beliefs.

Anderson uses just the right amount of conjecture (and presents it as conjecture).  He also presents a few facts that aren’t exactly flattering to the Judsons.  This is far from a Hagiography, it’s more of an adventure story.

When Judsons set out, Americans didn’t do missionary work.  Perhaps colonists tried to convert the natives, and there were trips to try and convert the Catholics and the less church going people in the Louisiana territory, but the idea of going across the ocean was seen as more of a British thing.

Judson’s story changed all that, and today the United States sends out about a third of the world’s Christian missionaries, more than any other country.

If anybody has more to add about Judson, I’d love to read it.  We’re planning on adding three stories about him in the near future.  If you can’t wait, I highly recommend The Golden Shore by Courtney Anderson, (although if you can wait, we hope to add a little humor into the stories.)

Website Sources:  Adoniram Judson Biography – Worldwide Missions – Wholesome Words.

In 200-year tradition, most Christian missionaries are American | Reuters.

Book sources.

To the Golden Shore: The Life of Adoniram Judson

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