Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on Baptist Press. For more on Adoniram Judson’s life, read “Adoniram Judson: A Bicentennial Appreciation of the Pioneer American Missionary,” edited by Jason G. Duesing, assistant professor of historical theology vice president for strategic initiatives at Southwestern Seminary.
Adoniram Judson underwent a series of conversions on his journey to the mission field.First, a conversion from deism to Christianity overhauled his ambition and redirected his life. Second, his consecration to missionary service surprised many and propelled the American missions movement. Finally, his shift from Congregationalist to Baptist on a ship deck en route to India ushered American Baptists to the ends of the earth.
While the dramatic stories of his salvation and his embrace of believer’s baptism are often rehearsed, little has been told of Judson’s surrender to the missionary task. What compelled Judson to lead a life of service overseas?
In the end, it was a single sermon.
After trusting Christ as a student at Andover Theological Seminary, Judson began to “reflect on the personal duty of devoting his life to the cause of missions.” The idea of consecrating his life to go to the ends of the earth, an abrupt concept for his family, was not a novel development in 1809 New England.
At Andover, Jonathan Edwards’ “Diary and Journal of David Brainerd” found wide reading among the students as the first full missionary biography ever published. Edwards’ 1749 work told the story of Brainerd’s sacrificial life spent reaching Native Americans with the Gospel. Also in New England, especially among evangelicals, there existed a wide following of William Carey. Motivated by the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20, Carey, with the publication of his “Enquiry” in 1792, led British Baptists to support an effort to take the Gospel to “those who have no Bibles, no preachers, nor many other common advantages which are taken for granted at home.”
Judson’s reading of Brainerd and awareness of Carey prepared him to respond to a sermon he read in September 1809 by Claudius Buchanan at the time he needed most to hear a word from God.
Buchanan, an Anglican chaplain and friend of Carey, titled his sermon “The Star in the East,” and started by citing Matthew 2:2: “For we have seen His Star in the East, and are come to worship Him.” Taking the account of Jesus’ birth, Buchanan inventively emphasized the uniqueness of the Gentile visitors, the wise men following a star, as “representatives of the whole heathen world.” The star’s eastern location, Buchanan noted, is significant because “millions of the human race inhabit that portion of the globe.” Therefore, just as in the day of the arrival of God’s Son, the East once again was bearing witness to the Messiah “not indeed by the shining of a Star, but by affording luminous evidence of the divine origin of the Christian Faith.” Buchanan then proceeded to speak of the spread of Christianity in the East and the need for men to take the Gospel to that region of the world.
Judson said the reading of Buchanan’s sermon had two effects on him. First, it enabled him finally to “break the strong attachment I felt to home and country, and to endure the thought of abandoning all my wonted pursuits and animating prospects.” Buchanan’s sermon, which Judson acknowledged was not “peculiarly excellent” in terms of its right handling of the text, still had an epoch-making impact on his life. Second, the sermon focused Judson’s gaze on the East. Judson began to read all that he could regarding countries in that region and, discovering Michael Symes’ “An Account of an Embassy to the Kingdom of Ava,” found his future home in Burma.
On Feb. 19, 1812, Adoniram and Ann Judson departed for Burma. Ann would die in 1826. Judson would lose several children and another wife, Sarah, before returning home in 1846 to a hero’s welcome. After a short stay, he met Emily Chubbuck, married again, and returned to Burma. Illness four years later caused him to attempt to return to America, but he died and was buried at sea in 1850.
What began with Judson’s decision to break with home and country in response to Buchanan’s sermon ended with a translation of the Bible for the Burmese and a life lived in sacrifice for the Gospel.