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He Died a Thousand Times — and Lived

Adoniram Judson (1788–1850)

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

The story of Adoniram Judson’s losses is almost overwhelming. Just when you think the last one was the worst, and he could endure no more, another comes. In fact, it would be overwhelming if we could not see it all from God’s long historical view. The seed that died a thousand times has given life in Myanmar (formerly Burma) to an extraordinary movement to Christ.

“Judson’s life was a grain of wheat that fell into the soil of Myanmar and died — again and again.”

When Adoniram Judson entered Burma in July 1813, it was a hostile and utterly unreached place. William Carey had told Judson in India a few months earlier not to go there. Today it probably would have been considered a closed country — with anarchic despotism, fierce war with Siam, enemy raids, constant rebellion, and no religious toleration. All the previous missionaries had died or left.

But Judson went there with his 23-year-old wife of 17 months. He was 24 years old, and he worked there for 38 years until his death at age 61, with one trip home to New England after 33 years. The price he paid was immense. He was a seed that fell into the ground and died again and again.

An Unusual Proposal

Judson entered Andover Seminary in Newton, Massachusetts, in October 1808, and on December 2 made solemn dedication of himself to God. The fire was burning for missions at Andover. On June 28, 1810, Judson and others presented themselves for missionary service in the East. He met Ann Hasseltine that same day and fell in love. After knowing Ann for one month, he declared his intention to become a suitor and wrote to her father the following letter:

I have now to ask, whether you can consent to part with your daughter early next spring, to see her no more in this world; whether you can consent to her departure, and her subjection to the hardships and sufferings of missionary life; whether you can consent to her exposure to the dangers of the ocean, to the fatal influence of the southern climate of India; to every kind of want and distress; to degradation, insult, persecution, and perhaps a violent death. Can you consent to all this, for the sake of him who left his heavenly home, and died for her and for you; for the sake of perishing, immortal souls; for the sake of Zion, and the glory of God? Can you consent to all this, in hope of soon meeting your daughter in the world of glory, with the crown of righteousness, brightened with the acclamations of praise which shall redound to her Savior from heathens saved, through her means, from eternal woe and despair? (To the Golden Shore, 83)

Her father, amazingly, said she could make up her own mind. Adoniram and Ann were married on February 5, 1812, and sailed for India fourteen days later with two other couples and two single men divided among two ships, in case one went down. After a brief time in India, Adoniram and Ann chose to take the risks of venturing to a new field. They arrived in Rangoon, Burma, on July 13, 1813.

A Long and Painful Harvest

In Burma, there began a lifelong battle in 108-degree heat with cholera, malaria, dysentery, and unknown miseries that would take not only Ann but a second wife, seven of his thirteen children, and colleague after colleague in death.

Through all the struggles with sickness and interruptions, Judson labored to learn the language, translate the Bible, and do evangelism on the streets. Six years after he and Ann arrived, they baptized their first convert, Maung Nau. The sowing was long and hard, the reaping even harder, for years. But in 1831, nineteen years after their arrival, there was a new spirit in the land. Judson wrote,

The spirit of inquiry . . . is spreading everywhere, through the whole length and breadth of the land. [We have distributed] nearly 10,000 tracts, giving to none but those who ask. I presume there have been 6,000 applications at the house. Some come two or three months’ journey, from the borders of Siam and China — “Sir, we hear that there is an eternal hell. We are afraid of it. Do give us a writing that will tell us how to escape it.” Others, from the frontiers of Kathay, 100 miles north of Ava — “Sir, we have seen a writing that tells about an eternal God. Are you the man that gives away such writings? If so, pray give us one, for we want to know the truth before we die.” Others, from the interior of the country, where the name of Jesus Christ is a little known — “Are you Jesus Christ’s man? Give us a writing that tells us about Jesus Christ.” (To the Golden Shore, 398–99)

But there had been an enormous price to pay between the first convert in 1819 and this outpouring of God’s power in 1831.

Imprisoned and Alone

In 1823, Adoniram and Ann moved from Rangoon to Ava, the capital, about three hundred miles inland and further up the Irrawaddy River. It was risky to be that near the despotic emperor. In May of the next year, a British fleet arrived in Rangoon and bombarded the harbor. All Westerners were immediately viewed as spies, and Adoniram was dragged from his home. On June 8, 1824, he was put in prison. His feet were fettered, and at night a long horizontal bamboo pole was lowered and passed between the fettered legs and hoisted up until only the shoulder and heads of the prisoners rested on the ground.

“His sufferings had disengaged him from hoping for too much in this world.”

Ann was pregnant, but she walked the two miles daily to the palace to plead that Judson was not a spy and that they should have mercy. On November 4, 1825, Judson was suddenly released. The government needed him as a translator in negotiations with Britain. The long ordeal was over — seventeen months in prison and on the brink of death, with his wife sacrificing herself and her baby to care for him as she could. Ann’s health was broken. Eleven months later, on October 24, 1826, she died. And six months after that, their daughter died.

“I Find Him Not”

The psychological effect of these losses was devastating. Self-doubt overtook his mind, and he wondered if he had become a missionary for ambition and fame, not humility and self-denying love. He began to read Catholic mystics like Madame Guyon, Fénelon, and Thomas à Kempis who led him into solitary asceticism and various forms of self-mortification. He dropped his Old Testament translation work, the love of his life, and retreated more and more from people and from “anything that might conceivably support pride or promote his pleasure” (To the Golden Shore, 387).

He had a grave dug beside his hut and sat beside it contemplating the stages of the body’s dissolution. He retreated for forty days alone into the tiger-infested jungle and wrote in one letter that he felt utter spiritual desolation. “God is to me the Great Unknown. I believe in him, but I find him not” (To the Golden Shore, 391).

His brother Elnathan died May 8, 1829, at the age of 35. Paradoxically, this proved the turning point of Judson’s recovery, because he had reason to believe that the brother that he had left in unbelief seventeen years earlier had died in faith. All through the year of 1830, Adoniram was climbing out of his darkness.

A Finished Bible and a New Wife

Central to Judson’s missionary labors from the beginning, and especially at this juncture in his life, was the translation of the Bible. In these years of spiritual recovery, without a wife and children, he confined himself to a small room built for the purpose of being able to devote almost all his energy to refining the New Testament translation and pressing on with the Old Testament. At the end of 1832, three thousand copies of the completed New Testament were printed. He finished the Old Testament on January 31, 1834.

With the first draft of the Bible in Burmese complete, it seems as though God smiled on these labors with the favor of a new wife. Three years earlier, another missionary in Burma named George Boardman had died. His widow, Sarah, stayed in Burma and became a legend in her own right, pressing into the interior with her baby, George. In February 1834, Judson received a letter from Sarah. On April 1, he left Moulmein for Tavoy, resolved to court her. On April 10, they were married.

These were to be some of his happiest times in Burma, but not without pain, and not to last much more than a decade. After bearing eight children in eleven years, Sarah became so ill that the family decided to travel to America in the hopes that the sea air would work healing. Judson had not been to America now for 33 years and was returning only for the sake of his wife. As they rounded the tip of Africa in September 1845, Sarah died. The ship dropped anchor at St. Helena Island long enough to dig a grave, and bury a wife and mother, and then sail on.

This time, Adoniram did not descend into the depths of depression as before. He had his children. But even more, his sufferings had disengaged him from hoping for too much in this world. He was learning how to hate his life in this world without bitterness or depression (John 12:25). And now, he had one passion: to return and give his life for Burma.

Few Die So Hard

Judson’s stay in the States did not go according to plan. To everyone’s amazement, he fell in love a third time, this time with Emily Chubbuck, and married her on June 2, 1846. She was 29; he was 57. She was a famous writer and left her fame and writing career to go with Judson to Burma. They arrived in November 1846. And God gave them four of the happiest years that either of them had ever known.

Adoniram and Emily had one child. Things looked bright, but then the old sicknesses attacked Adoniram one last time. The only hope was to send the desperately ill Judson on a voyage. On April 3, 1850, they carried Adoniram onto The Aristide Marie bound for the Isle of France with one friend, Thomas Ranney, to care for him. In his misery, he would be roused from time to time by terrible pain ending in vomiting. One of his last sentences was, “How few there are . . . who die so hard!” (To the Golden Shore, 504).

“The seed that died a thousand times has given life in Myanmar to an extraordinary movement to Christ.”

At 4:15 on Friday afternoon, April 12, 1850, Adoniram Judson died at sea, away from all his family and the Burmese church. That evening the ship hove to. “The crew assembled quietly. The larboard port was opened. There were no prayers. . . . The captain gave the order. The coffin slid through the port into the night” (To the Golden Shore, 505).

Ten days later, Emily gave birth to their second child, who died at birth. She learned four months later that her husband was dead. She returned to New England that next January and died of tuberculosis three years later at the age of 37.

The Fruit of This Dead Seed

Judson’s life was a grain of wheat that fell into the soil of Myanmar and died — again and again (John 12:24). The suffering was immense. And so was the fruit. At the turn from the second to the third millennium, Patrick Johnstone estimated the Myanmar (Burma’s new name) Baptist Convention to be 3,700 congregations with 617,781 members and 1,900,000 affiliates — the fruit of this dead seed.

Of course, there were others besides Judson — hundreds of others over time. They too came and gave away their lives. Many of them died much younger than Judson. They only serve to make the point. The astonishing fruit in Myanmar today has grown in the soil of the suffering and death of many missionaries, especially Adoniram Judson.