Desire, Opportunity, and Gifting in the Assignment of Adoniram Judson
Author’s note: A few weeks ago, I tried to answer the question: “What does it mean to be ‘called’ to missions?” Spurred on by the principles in that piece, we’re beginning a new series that will examine the lives of well-known missionaries in order to see how desire, opportunity, and gifting coalesce.
Born in 1788, Judson is one of the earliest American missionaries. He served in Burma (now Myanmar) from 1813 to 1850 and was responsible for translating the Bible into Burmese. When he arrived in Burma, it was a missionary wasteland—no enduring evangelistic presence, no healthy churches, and no native Christians from which to begin an indigenous missionary movement. When Judson died, Burma reportedly had over 100 churches and 8,000 Christians. Despite the evident fruit, the field proved hard for him. He married three times; two of his wives (Ann and Sarah) succumbed to illness. He was survived by his third wife, Emily.
That’s the capsule-version of Judson’s fruitful, faithful life. Of course more could be said. But for now, I want to focus on what drew him to the field in the first place. What did it mean for Adoniram Judson to feel “called” to be a missionary?
Judson wanted to achieve something great even in his early years. But he struggled to reconcile this desire with his faith. Early on, he desired academic greatness. But he remained acutely aware that such achievements would fade into nothingness on the last day. Judson knew that only what was done for the Lord would echo through eternity.
In September 1809, he read “The Star in the East,” a sermon in which Dr. Claudius Buchanan told the story of how the gospel was spreading throughout India. From this point on, Judson read everything he could get his hands on that concerned the situation in the East. Upon reading “An Account of an Embassy to the Kingdom of Ava,” a book by Michael Symes, Judson’s attention was fixated on Burma. But he didn’t yet share his thoughts with others because his mind had not been made up. Judson recalls a walk in February 1810 as the moment he resolved to obey the Lord by moving to Burma and preach the gospel.
Every sermon and every book stoked a flame in Judson’s heart for taking the gospel to those in Burma who currently had no access to it. In this way, his calling is unremarkable. Even today, the Lord uses reports from overseas, sermons, and books to stir the hearts of His children toward particular needs around the world. I love hearing stories of how our missionaries first felt burdened to serve a particular people group or nation. God continues to work through such resources—praise God they’re more readily available today than they were in 1810!
Judson wanted to take the gospel to Burma, but there was a problem: no one wanted to send him. He knew this had to change. It’s one thing for an individual to desire to go, but ultimately missionaries are “sent ones.” They don’t go only on their own volition. Paul and Barnabas were sent out from Antioch (Acts 13:3), and for centuries the church in Antioch has functioned as the model for how to send a missionary. In his era, the London Missionary Society had become the model of cooperative missions. However, he partnered with six other men who were burdened for global missions and lobbied their denomination to eventually establish The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Courtney Anderson describes this fascinating event in the history of American missions in To the Golden Shore: The Life of Adoniram Judson.
This fledgling new agency sent Judson to London to meet with the London Missionary Society to inquire about a potential partnership. Frustrated with the lack of funding and direction thus far, Adoniram attempted to persuade the London Missionary Society to take him on board. Upon his return to the States, he received a formal reprimand for this action.
Ultimately, the American Board sent Judson, his new wife Ann, and several others to the East. Their journey to Burma was fraught with unexpected events. Chief among them: Judson became a Baptist halfway to Burma. This complexified his cooperation with the Congregationalists, and eventually led to the formation of a second American missions society that would support individuals with baptistic theology.
From an early age, Judson’s intellect was evident. He confounded his primary-school classmates by solving difficult math problems; by the age of 10, he had developed a reputation for his aptitude in Greek and Latin. As a teenager, he showed keen interest in learning the skill of navigation.
But once he hit his twenties, Judson grappled with the state of his soul. He was admittedly not a Christian, and he wanted to make sense of the claims of Christianity. It’s not as though he wasn’t familiar with Christianity. After all, his father was a pastor. The elder Judson hoped his two friends could convince Adoniram of the truth of Christianity. Though they were initially unsuccessful, they walked away convinced that, if converted, he could be a preacher of the magnitude of Edwards and Whitfield. Then a strange thing happened: though he wasn’t a Christian, these men invited him to enroll at their new seminary. Judson turned the offer down. Later that year, he surrendered his life to the Lord.
So that’s his testimony-in-miniature. But what about his gifts? He clearly showed an aptitude for problem-solving. His childhood teachers confirmed this. He also possessed theological prowess; both academic and church leaders in the Congregational denomination affirmed this. There’s a lesson here for us: gifting is best ascertained in community. Our families and our teachers can identify natural gifting early in life. But the most important community to speak into one’s gifting is the local church. Consider Acts 13. We read that Barnabas, Simeon, Lucius, Manaen, and Paul were prophets and teachers in the church at Antioch. While worshiping and fasting, the Holy Spirit led the church to set aside Barnabas and Paul for the work of taking the gospel to those who hadn’t yet heard it. Barnabas and Paul were already serving according to their gifting. It would have been no surprise to the congregation at Antioch that they should use those gifts to reach the lost.
Desire, opportunity, and gifting. In the life of Adoniram Judson, we see the various components of his assignment come together. The Lord gave Judson a heart for Burma and stirred his affections for its people. The Congregationalists and subsequently the Baptists provided the formal mechanisms of support, including both financial support and ministry advocacy. The Lord opened the door for Adoniram to get to Burma in the face of both political opposition and a threatened expulsion from India before he even set sail. Judson’s gifting was evident to all—most importantly by the leaders to whom he submitted his desire to go.