Just over 200 years ago in February 1812, Adoniram Judson, his wife Ann, and a few others set sail for the Far East from their American homeland, marking the official start of the American missionary enterprise. In the following interview I am joined by Daniel L. Akin, Nathan A. Finn, Paige Patterson, and Gregory A. Wills to discuss our book Adoniram Judson: A Bicentennial Appreciation of the Pioneer American Missionary published in 2012 by B&H Academic.
Who was Adoniram Judson, and why should he be important to American evangelicals in general and Baptists in particular?
Nathan A. Finn: Adoniram Judson and his first wife, Ann, were the first two commissioned international missionaries in American history. Adoniram served nearly forty years as an evangelist, pastor, and Bible translator in Burma (modern-day Myanmar). His life has inspired countless foreign missionaries to follow in his footsteps in taking the gospel to the ends of the earth.
Though Judson was raised a Congregationalist, while he was on board a ship in route to India he came to Baptist convictions. He and Ann were subsequently baptized by one of William Carey’s associates. With the help of their friend Luther Rice, the Judsons convinced American Baptists to cooperate for the sake of the Great Commission. In many ways, Baptist denominationalism—which has always been primarily about supporting missions—was birthed in the water where the Judsons were baptized.
Judson continues to be a role model for contemporary Baptists and other evangelicals. In addition to his being an inspiration for all missions-minded believers, we learn at least two lessons from his life. First, we learn the importance of perseverance. It took Judson seven years to baptize his first convert, yet he pressed on faithfully in proclaiming Christ. Second, we learn the value of sound contextualization. Judson adapted his evangelistic strategies to suit Burmese culture, but never wavered one inch from clear proclamation of the gospel.
What impact has Judson’s ministry had on you personally?
Paige Patterson: As a young teen I read To the Golden Shore, the biography of Judson. Judson’s faith, fortitude, and confidence in the overriding providence of God were riveted into the heart and mind of a young preacher. His determination to do what God placed in his heart to accomplish and his love for the lost challenged me never to allow hardship, misunderstanding, or misrepresentation to hinder a pursuit of the imitation of Christ. Judson’s commitment to labor, if God so willed, in anonymity, spurred me to seek the glory of the Lord rather than the acclaim of men.
Judson’s devotion to his family, even though subject to great hardship, inspired me to honor God in my marriage and in my role as father to my children. Because of Judson’s attention to the translation of the Bible into the language of Burma, I found the Bible more precious than ever and saw clearly that a man could be and should be a great missionary and a competent scholar. His example of doing missions in a highly politically charged environment provided lessons in missionary statesmanship that have proved helpful repeatedly.
As my study of Judson expanded, I learned that he was not a perfect man. But my appreciation for the life of this missionary was only enhanced by this discovery. Recognizing that he accomplished a variety of tasks and left an indelible mark on the face of Burma in weakness and some failure encouraged me to give myself in weakness and frequent failure to the work of the Savior with renewed vigor. Today, I honor the monumental contribution of this exemplary missionary.
How is the book organized, and who are the contributors?
Jason G. Duesing: Adoniram Judson seeks both to interpret Judson’s life and mission and retell his story for new generations during 2012-2013, the bicentennial anniversary of his departure from America for Burma.
Tom Elliff, president of the International Mission Board (2011-2014), was kind to provide a foreword for the volume that notes Judson’s contemporary significance and Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote an introduction that captures the impact of Judson on Patterson’s own life and ministry.
Michael A. G. Haykin, a world renowned church historian, joins Robert Caldwell, a Jonathan Edwards scholar, in providing two chapters in a historical foundation section. Haykin writes, as only he can, on the beginnings of the modern missions movement with William Carey with a link to Judson, and Caldwell provides a wonderfully crafted depiction of the theological and historical setting in which Judson was reared.
In a biographical section, Nathan Finn, now of Union University, and I are joined by Candi Finch, of Southwestern Seminary, in telling the Judson life story. Where Finn and I enjoyed the honor and privilege of covering Judson’s entire lifespan, Finch lends a truly unique contribution with her examination of Judson, a widower twice over, from the perspective of his three wives.
Keith Eitel, seminary dean and influential missiologist, takes the reader further in an analysis of Judson the missionary, and Gregory A. Wills, a leading Southern Baptist historian, presents Judson’s theology of baptism.
Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Seminary, concludes the volume with a homiletical interpretation of Judson’s life in a sermon on Romans 8:28-39. This chapter helpfully ties together the entire volume with a call to follow not only Judson, but also the God who sustained him.
How can Christians today be both encouraged and challenged by the missionary work of Adoniram and Ann Judson?
Daniel L. Akin: The life and ministry of Adoniram and Ann Judson is one of both personal pain and sorrow, as well as providence and perseverance. Because they saw the hand of God in every aspect of life, even in the smallest details, they were able to “run with endurance the race that was set before them” (Heb. 12:1). They began well, ran well, and finished well even though the course laid out for them by our Lord was far more difficult and trying than most of us will ever experience. I believe there are several valuable lessons we can learn from this inspiring couple that can encourage us to keep on “looking unto Jesus, the author and perfector of faith” (Heb 12:2).
First, if you are graced to be born into a Christian Family, continually give thanks to God, for it could have been otherwise. Both Adoniram and Ann were blessed with Christian parents. Adoniram’s father was a minister. Each gives evidence of the influence of their godly heritage, and though Adoniram strayed for a season, he returned to the faith of his fathers.
Second, follow the Scriptures where they lead, even if it results in personal cost. Adoniram and Ann Judson left America as convinced Congregationalists. They arrived in India as convictional Baptists. This was not what they thought would happen or wanted to happen when they began to investigate baptism in the New Testament. It is, however, where the inerrant Word led them.
Third, persevere in doing good and preaching the gospel even when you are seeing little or no fruit. The Judsons would labor for seven years before seeing their first convert. After ten years of labor, they could count only 18 total converts. Today, it is estimated there are over 600,000 Baptists in Burma (modern Myanmar)! God promises to bless His Word! The Judson’s are an eloquent testimony that He keeps His promises.
Why did Judson become a Baptist?
Gregory A. Wills: When Adoniram Judson began to examine the Bible’s teachings on baptism during the four-month voyage to India, he had no intention of becoming a Baptist. He in fact held “strong prejudices” against them as a “sect that is everywhere spoken against.”
He had begun translating the New Testament from the Greek, which raised a question in his mind concerning the meaning of the Greek words for baptism and baptize. And since they would be consulting with William Carey and the other Baptist missionaries in India, he wanted to be prepared to answer objections that they might raise against infant baptism. He reflected moreover upon his duty to baptize not only converts, but their entire households with them, since the mission board instructed him to baptize “credible believers and their households.”
After several months of careful study he concluded that the Greek words for baptism meant immersion. “When Christ commanded his disciples to be baptized, he commanded them to be immersed.” Baptism was by definition an immersion.
He considered also that the baptism of believers was the unvarying expectation of the New Testament. Jesus commanded that believers should be baptized. Every baptism recorded in the Bible was the baptism of a professing believer. And the apostles spoke of baptism as an act undertaken by those who had believed.
Pedobaptist theologians taught that baptism had been substituted for circumcision in the new covenant. But why didn’t the New Testament state this? The New Testament stated explicitly that circumcision was abolished, but many in the early church thought that circumcision was still binding upon Christians. If Christ had substituted baptism in the place of circumcision, Judson reflected, then the apostles surely would have made this point in response to the Judaizers who insisted on circumcision.
Such arguments finally convinced Adoniram and his wife Ann to become Baptists. It was a costly decision in many ways. Once they became fully convinced of Baptist views, however, their only course was submission. “We are confirmed Baptists,” Ann told a friend, “not because we wished to be, but because truth compelled us to be.”
This interview first appeared on the B&H Academic blog on December 5, 2012.