Six Years, No Converts: Harvesting with Judson in the Hardest Fields

After nearly 35 years on the mission field, Adoniram Judson reflected on what compelled churches in New England to send him and his wife, Ann, to Burma. “American Christians pledged themselves to the work of evangelizing the world,” he wrote. “They had but little to rest on except the command and promise of God.”1

If trusting in God’s promises served to launch the missionaries, is this also the secret to what sustained them? “We’re resting on the promises of God” sounds like something a missionary should say. Yet for the Judsons, it was more than mere sentiment. The promises of God represented a rock-solid foundation of hope that strengthened them through excruciating trials — trials that began even before their ship docked in Burma.

Painful Arrival

In 1813, the Judsons were living in India, seeking mentorship from William Carey and giving thought to their future location for missionary service. However, complications for Americans living abroad (in light of the War of 1812) compelled them to leave sooner than expected. Adoniram and Ann, now with child, scrambled to find a ship headed for Burma, only to find their stress and challenges increase. Ann’s delivery nurse passed away on board, and this lack of aid compounded with the rapid decline of Ann’s health. Tragedy culminated in the stillborn arrival of the baby while at sea.

Fatigued and downcast, the Judsons arrived in Burma, a country known for its political corruption and bloody punishments for even the smallest of crimes.2 They found the city flooded with water, hidden by fog, and “gloomy and distressing.”3

“Where the Burmese constructed skylines of Buddhist pagodas for worship, Judson saw foundations for future churches.”

Despite the gloom, the Judsons did not run away from, but leaned into, their trust in the promises of God. Where the Burmese constructed skylines of Buddhist pagodas for worship, Judson saw foundations for future churches. He reported that he “took a survey of the splendid pagodas. . . . The churches of Jesus will soon supplant these idolatrous monuments, and the chanting of the devotees of [Buddha] will die away before the Christian hymn of praise.”4

Labor and Loss

The Judsons were welcomed to their living accommodations by Felix Carey, son of the British missionary, who had labored there without success for four years. As Carey and his family were soon to relocate to another city, the Judsons started their ministry without a support network. Further, they had no training books in Burmese to guide them.

Driven by the need for the Burmese to have a translation of the Bible, the Judsons devoted themselves first to learning the language. From these rudimentary beginnings, Adoniram, ever the linguist, invested twelve hours a day in exhausting effort amid the abundant humidity and insects.5 Further, the Judsons labored without any other English speakers, learning to rely on one another.

After eighteen months, Ann was expecting and, again, her health began to deteriorate. Without doctors or medical books, the Judsons determined to send her to nearby India for help. Adoniram pressed on in her absence as they both endured her four-month journey. Thankfully, she returned strengthened.

In September 1815, the Judsons received mail from the States for the first time in two years. They learned that their former companion, Luther Rice, had organized the Baptist Churches in America to form a new mission board, and that board appointed the Judsons as their first missionaries. This brought a conclusion to two years of uncertainty regarding their funding and church support, following their convictional decision to embrace believer’s baptism after arriving in India. Following this encouraging report, days later Ann gave birth to Roger Williams Judson, with Adoniram serving as her sole doctor and nurse.6

Yet this season of joy proved short-lived, as fever took Roger Judson after just eight months. Adoniram wrote in a letter home, “Our little Roger died last Saturday morning. . . . This is the fourth day, and we just begin to think, What can we do for the heathen? . . . O may we not suffer in vain! May this bereavement be sanctified to our souls!”7

Preaching the Promises

Despite another tragedy, the Judsons’ work continued. By July, Adoniram completed his Burmese grammar, followed by a brief tract that served as the first presentation of Christian doctrine in Burmese. In it, one can see a picture of the Judsons’ foundation of faith — the promises and Promiser on which they were resting.

Beginning with a description of God as triune, eternal, omnipresent, and all-powerful, the Creator of all, Adoniram explained the fall of man and the need for God the Father to send God the Son to “deliver all his disciples from the punishment of hell” by his atoning sacrifice. The resurrected Jesus Christ then commissioned his disciples to go into all the earth to “proclaim the glad news to all men.”

Adoniram explained that this glad news spread to the west and now to the east, to Burma, where “a teacher of religion, from the country of America, has arrived, and is beginning to proclaim the glad news.” Adoniram’s view of the end times led him to proclaim that within two hundred years all the false religions would disappear and “the religion of Christ will pervade the whole world.”8 While one may differ with his eschatology, one cannot doubt the fortitude of his conviction that one day Christ would stay true to his promise and return to reign with his people.

Though making progress in translation and persevering in trying circumstances, the Judsons still felt pressure from supporters in the States to defend the lack of conversions. Writing to Rice, Adoniram conceded that even though Burma was a hard and resistant place, he trusted in God’s sovereignty, sharing his confidence that “there is an Almighty and faithful God who will perform his promises.”9

“Judson wanted only those who had forsaken the world and rested alone on the promises of God.”

These hardships of life and ministry in Burma refined Adoniram’s thoughts on what kind of people should serve as missionaries. Writing again to Rice, who was active in recruiting new missionaries, Judson counseled him to find “humble, quiet, persevering men . . . willing to take the lowest place . . . who live near to God and are willing to suffer all things for Christ’s sake.”10 Judson wanted only those who had forsaken the world and rested alone on the promises of God.

Start of the Harvest

Since the death of Roger Judson, Adoniram suffered from severe head and eye pain to the degree that it hurt to hear Ann read to him. He nevertheless persevered and completed a translation of the Gospel of Matthew into Burmese, as well as a Burmese dictionary, in May 1817. Yet the pain persisted, and he determined he needed medical attention. In December, he set off for Bengal by boat. This journey would take several detours and incur delays, such that it was eight months before he returned.

In that time, Ann’s trials continued, though she was aided by a new couple who had come to join their work. Under the threat of cholera and potential war with England, Ann faced several challenges, including uncertainty as to Adoniram’s whereabouts and whether she should stay. Just as she was close to leaving the country and their work, Adoniram returned and, in the months ahead, another couple arrived to lend aid.11

In April 1819, the Judsons finally saw signs of spiritual growth. During this season, Adoniram started public worship in Burmese and set up a booth, known as a zayat, located in a well-traveled venue near the Shway Dagon Pagoda. There he labored openly as a missionary, distributed his tract, and preached. These efforts welcomed the Judsons’ first convert, Moung Nau, who “drank in the truths of the gospel, and gave his heart, we trust, to the Lord Jesus.”12 After six years of hard sowing, God’s faithfulness to his promises allowed the Judsons to see the start of a harvest.

Three Lessons for Missionaries

How did the Judsons survive these challenging years? What exactly did it mean for them to rest on the promises of God? In 1832, Adoniram responded to an inquiry from the States to give advice to those considering missionary service. His remarks show some practical ways he maintained his hope.

First, don’t be surprised by initial discouragements. Adoniram cautioned that “you will be met with disappointments and discouragements . . . which will lead you, at first, almost to regret that you have embarked in the cause. . . . Beware, therefore, of the reaction you will experience from a combination of all these causes, lest you become disheartened at commencing your work.”13

Second, don’t let fatigue lead you into temptation. Adoniram warned of a pull toward ease “after you have acquired the language and become fatigued and worn out with preaching the gospel to a disobedient and gainsaying people.”14 He explained that fatigue often causes the missionary to want to seek another, more comfortable, pursuit, and Satan will likely comply to tempt with such an opportunity.

Third, don’t let secret pride take root. Evan Burns shares that Adoniram grew fond of jumping rope as the “best kind of exercise” and saw maintaining physical health as vital to ensure he could maximize each day for spiritual tasks.15 Yet Judson knew that survival on the mission field did not solely come by means of physical health. He admonished future missionaries to guard their spiritual health and to “beware of pride; not the pride of proud men, but the pride of humble men — the secret pride which is apt to grow out of the consciousness that we are esteemed by the great and good.”16

In the early twentieth century, a missions professor remarked that Adoniram Judson’s life had the effect “not only in drawing men into service, but rather more, perhaps, in sustaining men in service.”17 The lives of Adoniram and Ann Judson still serve as a living testimony to God’s faithfulness, continuing to sustain and prompt many to rest on the promises of God.

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