How God Caught Adoniram Judson for Burma
God is closing in on some of you. He is like the “Hound of Heaven” who means to make you far happier in some dangerous and dirty work. Missionaries and ministers of mercy don’t come from nowhere. They come from people like you, stunned by the glory of God and stopped in your tracks. Sometimes it happens when you are going in exactly the opposite direction.
That’s the way it was with Adoniram Judson, the first overseas missionary from America, who sailed with his wife at age twentythree on February 17, 1812. They had been married twelve days. He spent the rest of his life, until 1850, “suffering yet always rejoicing” to bring Burma under the sway of Christ and make the people glad in God forever. But first God had to turn him around, and he did it in a way that so stunned Judson, he never forgot the providence of God in his conversion.1
The son of a pastor, he was a brilliant boy. His mother taught him to read in one week when he was three to surprise his father when he came home from a trip.2 When he was sixteen he entered Rhode Island College (later Brown University) as a sophomore and graduated at the top of his class three years later in 1807.
The Detour from God
What his godly parents did not know was that Adoniram was being lured away from the faith by a fellow student named Jacob Eames, who was a Deist.3 By the time Judson’s college career was finished, he had no Christian faith. He kept this concealed from his parents until his twentieth birthday, August 9, 1808, when he broke their hearts with his announcement that he had no faith and that he wanted to write for the theater and intended to go to New York, which he did six days later on a horse his father gave him as part of his inheritance.
It did not prove to be the life of his dreams. He attached himself to some strolling players and, as he said later, lived “a reckless, vagabond life, finding lodgings where he could, and bilking the landlord where he found opportunity.”4 The disgust with what he found there was the beginning of several remarkable providences. God was closing in on Adoniram Judson.
He went to visit his Uncle Ephraim in Sheffield but found there instead “a pious young man” who amazed him by being firm in his Christian convictions without being “austere and dictatorial.”5 Strange that he should find this young man there instead of the uncle he sought.
God does not call us to ease, but to faithful joy.
The Unforgettable Night
The next night he stayed in a small village inn where he had never been before. The innkeeper apologized that his sleep might be interrupted because there was a man critically ill in the next room. Through the night Judson heard comings and goings and low voices and groans and gasps. It bothered him to think that the man next to him may not be prepared to die. He wondered about himself and had terrible thoughts of his own dying. He felt foolish because good Deists weren’t supposed to have these struggles.
When he was leaving in the morning he asked if the man next door was better. “He is dead,” said the innkeeper. Judson was struck with the finality of it all. On his way out he asked, “Do you know who he was?” “Oh yes. Young man from the college in Providence. Name was Eames, Jacob Eames.”6
Judson could hardly move. He stayed there for hours pondering death and eternity. If his friend Eames were right, then this was a meaningless event. But Judson could not believe it: “That hell should open in that country inn and snatch Jacob Eames, his dearest friend and guide, from the next bed—this could not, simply could not, be pure coincidence.”7 God was real. And he was pursuing Adoniram Judson. God knew the man he wanted to reach the Burmese people.
Alive to Christ and Dead to America
Judson’s conversion was not immediate. But now it was sure. God was on his trail, like the apostle Paul on the Damascus road, and there was no escape. There were months of struggle. He entered Andover Seminary in October 1808 and in December made solemn dedication of himself to God. On June 28, 1809, Judson presented himself to the Congregationalists for missionary service in the East.
He met Ann that same day and fell in love. After knowing Ann Hasseltine for one month he declared his intention to become a suitor. He knew that the life he was about to embrace would not only be dangerous and dirty, but also distant. He never expected to return to America. He did only once, thirty-three years later, then never again. Ann went with him and died in Burma. Here is the letter Judson wrote to her father asking for her partnership in missions:
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?8
Her father let her decide. She said yes.
God does not call us to ease, but to faithful joy. He is closing in on some of you, smiling and with tears in his eyes, knowing how much of himself he is going to show you—and how much it will cost. As I write, I pray that you will not turn away.
- For more on Adoniram Judson, see John Piper, Filling Up the Afflictions of Christ: The Cost of Bringing the Gospel to the Nations in the Lives of William Tyndale, Adoniram Judson, and John Paton, The Swans Are Not Silent (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009).
- Courtney Anderson, To the Golden Shore: The Life of Adoniram Judson (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1956), 14.
- Deism was “the belief, based solely on reason, in a God who created the universe and then abandoned it, assuming no control over life, exerting no influence on natural phenomena, and giving no supernatural revelation,” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed. (Boston: Houghton Miflin, 2000).
- Anderson, To the Golden Shore, 41
- Ibid., 42.
- Ibid., 44.
- The source of this story is oral reports from family members recorded in Francis Wayland, A Memoir of the Life and Labors of the Rev. Adoniram Judson, D. D., 2 vols. (Boston: Phillips, Sampson, and Co., 1854), 1:24–25.
- Anderson, To the Golden Shore, 45.
- Ibid., 83.
This article is adapted from Don’t Waste Your Life by John Piper.
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