Judson’s Spiritual Formation: Sketches from his Pre-Baptist Days

Editor’s Note: On Feb. 19, 1812, newly-weds Adoniram and Ann Judson set sail with others as the first American foreign missionaries. Later this year, B&H will release “Adoniram Judson: A Bicentennial Appreciation of the Pioneer American Missionary,” edited by Jason G. Duesing with contributions from Southwestern Seminary professors. This article is part of a four-part series on Judson’s life and impact.

Often the work of a historian is similar to that of a criminal detective: we are left with a few shreds of evidence in our effort to reconstruct the past. Take for instance Adoniram Judson (1788-1850). While the famed Baptist missionary to Burma left behind many clues to his heroic missionary endeavors, virtually nothing survives from his youthful pre-Baptist days. Yet the bits of evidence we do have from this period point to one, often overlooked, conclusion: that Adoniram Judson’s upbringing and ministerial training occurred in the context of the New Divinity movement. Who were the New Divinity, how was Judson related to them, and what accounts for their missionary fervor?

Who Were the New Divinity?

The New Divinity movement was a group of pro-revival Congregationalist ministers in New England in the latter half of the 1700s and early 1800s who zealously promoted the revival theology of Jonathan Edwards. The early leaders of the movement, Joseph Bellamy (1719 -1790) and Samuel Hopkins (1721-1803), were personally trained by Edwards and wrote many works advancing Edwardsean theology. But just as important, they exponentially replicated themselves by adopting a system of ministerial training, known as the “school of the prophets,” where newly minted divinity students would move into their parsonages and job shadow for a year. Here, students learned firsthand the rhythms of pastoral ministry and were drilled with the intricacies of Edwardsean theology. This pattern of post-graduate ministerial mentoring worked remarkably well: by 1800 over a quarter of New England’s Congregationalist churches were led by New Divinity ministers. Even more interesting is the fact that the spectacular New England revivals that inaugurated the Second Great Awakening (1790s) were found exclusively among New Divinity congregations. Reflecting on this, one prominent New Divinity minister, Edward Dorr Griffin, noted that “in 1799, I could stand at my doorstep in New Hartford [Connecticut], and number fifty or sixty [nearby] congregations laid down in one field of divine wonders.”

Adoniram Judson’s upbringing and ministerial training occurred in the context of the New Divinity movement.

Adoniram Judson grew up in this context. His uncle, Ephriam Judson, was a well-known New Divinity minister who was trained by Bellamy and who trained several Edwardsean ministers throughout his ministry. Adoniram’s father, Adoniram Sr., also studied with Bellamy before taking churches in Massachusetts. While candidating at his first church, the elder Adoniram was opposed by a powerful layman who objected to his “Hopkintonian” theology (a term used for the New Divinity followers of Samuel Hopkins). Later another church, in an effort to secure Adoniram Sr. as their pastor, did away with its adherence to the “Half-Way Covenant,” an older Congregational policy that the New Divinity abhorred that granted partial church membership to non-Christians. These snapshots provide sound evidence that the future missionary most likely grew up as a pastor’s kid in a New Divinity household.

By 1800 New Divinity leaders began extending their influence beyond local churches. Numerous periodicals that published accounts of local revivals were founded. Several home missionary societies were established for church planting in the west. Edwardsean intellectuals began populating the faculties of the region’s colleges like Dartmouth, Amherst, Union, and most notably, Williams, location of the famed Haystack Prayer meeting. As a teenager, the precocious young Adoniram toyed with skepticism and dreams of worldly success before being drawn by God’s Spirit to gospel ministry. In 1808 he was personally invited by Edward Dorr Griffin and Moses Stuart to become a student at the newly formed Andover Seminary, another New Divinity institution and the first Protestant seminary in North America. There Judson studied under New Divinity professors where he was exposed to their piety and theology, and where he nurtured a vision for world missions.

Recently, historians have tried to pinpoint the sources of the evangelistic activism that characterized the New Divinity and their missionaries. One commonality noted is the radical vision of self-denial that they gleaned from Edwards’s writings (Religious Affections and The Diary of David Brainerd), and reproduced in their journals, letters, and sermons. Hopkins gave this vision a somewhat awkward name, “disinterested benevolence.” He argued that true Christians possess a benevolent principle of the heart, planted by the Holy Spirit, which seeks the good of all things for the glory of God and Christ. Christian benevolence is “disinterested” in the self’s own happiness because of a total preoccupation with the eternal happiness of others in the gospel. Scholars have noted that this Edwardsean ethical theory was partly responsible for the torrent of evangelical, social, and missionary activism they demonstrated.

Effects of “Disinterested Benevolence”

We see the effects of disinterested benevolence in three areas. First, conversion narratives of many New England Christians from the period reflect the presence of language associated with disinterested benevolence. Anne Hasseltine, who would later become Judson’s first wife, explicitly notes in her diary the profound impact Bellamy’s writings had on her conversion. Second, disinterested benevolence has been linked to the New Divinity’s anti-slavery crusade. Samuel Hopkins’ essays against slavery in the 1770s represent the earliest sustained theological polemic waged against America’s peculiar institution by a colonial theologian. Third and already noted, disinterested benevolence was a factor in the surge of missionary activism demonstrated by young New Divinity ministers. It was Judson, along with fellow seminarians Samuel Mills, Samuel Nott, Samuel Newell, and Gordon Hall, who petitioned Massachusetts Congregationalists in 1811 for financial support for foreign missions. Their request led to the formation of the New Divinity institution that perhaps had the most global impact, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.

Judson’s days as a young Christian and his ministerial training took place in a context that was deeply saturated by New Divinity values and aspirations. In short, he was riding a wave generated by the winds of an Edwardsean theology that had been bearing much fruit in the early revivals of the Second Great Awakening and that was just beginning to bear fruit in missions. As he left the Congregationalist world to embrace Baptist principles he undoubtedly brought with him a vision for selfless service forged in the context of the New Divinity movement.