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Like a Steersman in a Storm: The Courage of Adoniram Judson

Near the end of his life, the pioneer American missionary, Adoniram Judson (1788-1850), returned to America for the first time since he departed nearly 35 years prior. The twice–widowed Judson along with his children came in need of recuperation and rest and were welcomed with virtual celebrity status all along the Eastern seaboard. Instead of rest, Judson was shuttled from meeting to meeting speaking to churches both north and south.During his stay, Judson met and married his third wife, secured care for his children and prepared to return to his Burmese home to finish the gospel work he started. Before leaving America, he gave a parting address on June 30, 1846. Surrounded by a new generation of church leaders and senders of missionaries who were not present when he left in 1812, Judson indicated he felt out of place. Yet, this did not deter him from challenging his audience to take up the mantle and press forward.

Judson’s self-portrait here actually describes quite well his lifelong courageous perseverance in the missionary task and in one way calls to mind the Apostle Paul’s admonition in 1 Cor 16:13 for believers to “act like men.”

At the start of the address he likened himself to “a steersman in a storm” who “must keep a steady eye to the compass and a strong arm at the wheel.” Judson’s self-portrait here actually describes quite well his lifelong courageous perseverance in the missionary task and in one way calls to mind the Apostle Paul’s admonition in 1 Cor 16:13 for believers to “act like men.”

This three–word phrase “act like men” in English actually comes from a single Greek word and thus can also be translated as “be courageous.” Standing the midst of four other commands that convey a military theme, Paul is directing the believers how to live as spiritual warriors (see also Eph 6). To “act like men” is a call to an offensive maneuver prompting the believer to engage not as fearful children but rather as courageous men. Judson’s life very much is a testimony to this type of courageous engagement, and it is there we see a fitting model of biblical manhood though not exactly in all the ways one might expect.

The pairing of courage and manhood is a natural one for which even those not viewing the world through biblical spectacles can resonate. Yet, biblical courage is distinct and more defined than a typical rendering of a simple self-sacrificial action or standing to speak when everyone else is silent. To be sure, biblical courage contains these noble feats but is also marked by acts that are less visible. Noah’s ark-constructing obedience to God in the midst of an age of great defiance (Lk 17:27) was courageous, but so was Job’s private covenant he made with his eyes (Job 31:1). Stephen preaching and falling before Saul of Tarsus was brave (Acts 7), but so was the steadfast intercession of Epaphras on behalf of the Colossians (Col 4:12). Biblical courage manifests itself in forms both visible and invisible, arrives on the biggest stages of cataclysmic events and resides in the quiet decisions of the mind. But the call to “act like men” is ever present and requires the gift of supernatural vigilance from the Spirit of God, a gift that Judson received in droves. While much is known of Judson’s remarkable courage in the face of deep tragedy, personal loss, and physical trial, here are two examples from Judson’s life of his display of significant, biblical courage in less visible areas:

  1. Adoniram Judson helped form the first missions sending agency in American history. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions arose out of a network of New England Congregationalist churches of which Judson’s father was a pastor. However, while en route to Asia, Judson became convinced that the practice of infant baptism by those churches did not fit with what he came to see as clear teaching from the Bible on the matter. Thus, when and his wife arrived in India, he sent word that he could no longer serve in good conscience with the very mission board he helped found and on whose financial support he depended. When the Judsons joined the Baptists, they did so without any clear path of financial security or even a plan to carry out their missionary task. He cut off the only lifeline he had and trusted the Lord to provide. Judson could have asked for a short-term provision from the ABCFM until they landed on their feet or arrived at their destination. He also could have downplayed the issue as a mere ecclesiological variance, not a major departure of doctrine. But, here Judson’s biblical courage appeared as he moved forward by faith in his new-found convictions even though, like Abraham, “he went out, not knowing where he was going” (Heb 11:8).
  2. In 1832, Judson responded to an inquiry from the States to provide his advice to those considering missionary service. In his seventh of ten provisos, he stated, “Beware of pride; not the pride of proud men, but the pride of humble men–the secret pride which is apt to grow out of the consciousness that we are esteemed by the great and good.” Judson knew that survival on the mission field did not solely come at hands of physical health, wise diplomacy, and dogged commitment to the task. Here he spoke of another internal battle just as draining and every bit as dangerous. For even though the missionary may walk at the ends of the earth, he can neither escape the Spirit of God (Ps 139:9) or the prowling adversary (1 Pet 5:8). To serve with faithfulness in that place requires the biblical courage of self-control and the hunting down and harvesting of sins, like pride, that can easily entangle (1 Pet 2:24).

In that 1846 parting address to the next generation, Judson reminded, “The obligation, therefore, on the present generation, to redeem the pledge given by their fathers, is greatly enhanced. … Look forward with the eye of faith.” The missionary father was pointing a way to the future, and his life and legacy left a model of steadfast biblical courage. Like a steady steersman in a storm, Judson was calling the next generation to “act like men” both in visible displays of timely heroism and perseverance as well as in the less visible but still vital battles of the mind and heart.

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on the blog for The Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW).

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Jason Duesing

Jason Duesing

Vice President for Strategic Initiatives and Assistant Professor of Historical Theology and assistant professor of historical theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

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