Fruitful Affliction: The Example of Adoniram Judson

“There is no success without sacrifice. If you succeed without sacrifice it is because someone has sacrificed before you. If you sacrifice without success it is because someone will succeed after.” – Adoniram Judson

On February 19, 1812, Adoniram Judson and his wife Ann set sail for Burma.[1] As the first missionaries of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the Judson family represented a missionary movement inspired by the work of William Carey. Judson left his home, family, and everything he had ever known. When he arrived in Burma, at the age of twenty-four, it was an unreached and hostile place. Judson labored for thirty-eight years with only one visit home. His example stirs our hearts still today. [2]

In introducing Judson’s biographical summary, John Piper writes,

“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.” [4]

This is a fitting introduction to a man who died to himself more than most so that he could see the kingdom of God expand through him more than most. Missionary living in Asia was difficult. Beyond the heat and frequent sickness, venomous and offensive reptiles and insects abounded. His son, Edward Judson, writes of the living conditions,

“The scorpion, with its painful sting, and the centipede, with its poisonous bite, may be found in your garden. The children must be warned not to race through the bushes in your compound, lest they encounter the hated cobra, whose slightest nip is sure and speedy death. The author remembers his father taking the Burman spear, the only weapon which he ever used, and going down into the poultry-yard to dispatch a cobra, whose track had first been discovered in the dust beneath the house.”[5]

The harsh conditions of missionary living would take the life of two of Judson’s wives, seven of his thirteen children, and multiple dear friends. There was also opposition from the indigenous people. Between 1824 and 1825, Judson spent seventeen grueling months in prison.

Amidst all of this, Adoniram was fully engaged in the toil of language learning and translating the Bible from Greek and Hebrew. One might think that to faithfully endure such struggles and sicknesses there must have been obvious and ongoing fruit of Judson’s labor in his lifetime, but this was not the case. It was six years before Judson saw the first Christian convert and an additional 12 years before there was a larger outpouring of God’s Spirit.[6] Adoniram pressed forward only by a deeply grounded faith in the sovereign hand of God. He writes,

“If I had not felt certain that every additional trial was ordered by infinite love and mercy, I could not have survived my accumulated sufferings.”[7]

Fruitful Affliction

Judson believed that his suffering was not wasted. It was doing something. It was through his affliction that the fruit of his labor would be made possible. God was working beautiful things through the very ugly and difficult things. He was saving the world through sacrifice. Adoniram Judson was simply modeling what Jesus Christ had done perfectly.

Though his efforts may have seemed fruitless for long periods of painful and difficult toil, the Baptist Convention of Burma recorded the fruit of Judson’s labor at the turn of the 21st century. In a place where there had previously been no Christian witness, the Baptist Convention recorded 3,700 congregations with 617,781 members and 1,900,000 affiliates.[3] His suffering was not wasted. Judson could not have imagined such kingdom expansion in the midst of the deep sorrow, but he knew that God had called him to be faithful to the mission at hand.

Adoniram wrote a letter to the Foreign Missionary Association in 1832 hoping to offer words of advice for missionary candidates. Ten words of wisdom were given for preparing the candidates for mission work. Firstly, Judson passionately exhorts the missionary candidates not to set out for missions if their mind was set only on a short term. He writes, “Do not fancy that you have a true missionary spirit, while you are intending all along to leave the heathen soon after acquiring their language. Leave them! For what? To spend the rest of your days in enjoying the ease and plenty of your native land?”[8] Judson warns of the harsh realities of mission work in Asia. He writes candidly, “It may be profitable to bear in mind, that a large portion of those who come out on a mission to the East die within five years after leaving their native land. Walk softly, therefore; death is narrowly watching your steps.”[9]

Throughout the letter, Judson warns against the many hardships of missionary life. He warns of discouragement, fatigue, pride, discontentment, temptation to return home, and the ongoing temptation to live like a European rather than like an Asian.  He even warns against the neglect of bodily exercise.[10] The whole of the missionary person must be disciplined and prepared for the afflictions to come. It is clear that Judson anticipates only some and not all of his readers to join the work overseas. In conclusion, he writes, “Praying that you may be guided in all your deliberations, and that I may yet have the pleasure of welcoming some of you to these heathen shores I remain.”[11]

From the beginning, Christianity has been a missionary movement. In Acts 2:47, God begins to add to the number of those who were being saved day by day. By Acts 13, the church in Antioch is heeding the Spirit’s guidance by affirming, sending out, and supporting the missionary work of Paul and Barnabbas. Adoniram Judson retrieved something of the New Testament’s example, but what can the American church of the 21st century learn about biblical missions from the 19th century missionary life of Adoniram Judson? We must let his life’s example shock our modern American senses. His story is intriguing because it is so other than what is experienced in modern day life and even modern-day missions. What took Adoniram and his family a year to travel, modern Americans can now travel in less than two days. The distance and loneliness that Adoniram experienced can now be partially averted by cell phones and internet. Medical developments and resources that are available even to the most remote of missionaries have eased the uncertainty in missionary life that Adoniram endured continuously.

In a world of health insurance, instantaneous communication, and such accessible comfort, modern churches can sometimes forget the Biblical teaching of Jesus which prepares his followers for great tribulation. Kingdom expansion has always required great sacrifice, and if we are not careful, we can unintentionally serve the God of Christianity only if that service does not jeopardize our regular worship of the god of comfort. Adoniram Judson confronts everything we believe about faithfulness to the mission of God. It challenges our faith in God’s providence and puts into question our commitment to future glory over present pleasure. Much would be accomplished if the modern church could sit at the feet of Judson to hear his stories of sacrifice and celebrate the ongoing impact of his faithfulness.

[1] Jason G. Duesing, Adoniram Judson: A Bicentennial Appreciation of the Pioneer American Missionary (Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 2012), xxi.

[2] John Piper, 21 Servants of Sovereign Joy: Faithful, Flawed, and Fruitful (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018), 555.

[3] Ibid., 556.

[4] Ibid., 555.

[5] Edward Judson, Adoniram Judson: A Biography (Philadelphia : American Baptist Publication Society, 1894), 59.

[6] Piper, 21 Servants of Sovereign Joy, 564.

[8] Judson, Adoniram Judson, 577–578.

[9] Ibid., 578.

[10] Ibid., 578–579.

[11] Ibid., 579.

[12] Piper, 21 Servants of Sovereign Joy, 556.

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