In the mid-1800s, Adoniram Judson, the first American Christian foreign missionary, was recognized as the “greatest ecclesiastical character now living.” His translation of the Bible into Burmese (a 20-year task) and his English-Burmese grammars are still used and admired today. The beauty and accuracy of his translation of the Bible continue to enhance Adoniram’s reputation for brilliance and cultural sensitivity. Today’s more than 4 million Burmese believers are the Judsons’ most important legacy.
Amazingly, Adoniram married three women in succession who were his equal in brilliance and influence. All paid a high physical price for their dedication to a country in the tropics during a time when medicines and doctors were unavailable and living conditions were primitive.
Ann, the wife of Judson’s youth, was described by historian James Hill as the “woman of the century” even though she died at age 36. Sarah, Judson’s second wife, also died from tropical diseases at age 41. She was described by colleagues as “the most finished and faultless specimen of an American women that they had ever known.” Sarah was also gifted at linguistics and was a prodigious and brilliant translator. Sarah’s translation of Pilgrim’s Progress is still in use. She also learned Siamese and translated some of the gospels into that language, too. Emily, the third wife, was a well-known (some said famous) fiction writer whom Judson met when he interviewed her to write a biography of Sarah Judson. Emily’s accounts of Adoniram’s work, as well as her thorough reports about Ann and Sarah’s work, contributed to their reputations and made people of that era recognize the contributions of the lesser-known Sarah.
The four million believers in Burma (now Myanmar) attest to the effectiveness of Judson and his three wives’ dedication in evangelizing that nation and discipling the early converts. The impact of the Judsons can be seen by tracing the lives of just a few of the early converts. Two of them began what became an exceptionally influential publishing business and raised 14 children — one was a builder of churches, schools and hospitals, another became a surgeon, two others became pastors, another a school headmaster, and another became president of Burma’s Baptist convention. Another early convert became an influential author. Another’s son was the first Burman to earn a Ph.D. abroad and later had an outstanding academic career. Another was the first Burman to receive a medical degree in the United States. A descendant of one of the early converts is currently a senior member of the Burmese delegation to the United Nations.
An outstanding new book by Rosalie Hall Hunt recounts the Judsons’ story and those early years of missionary work in an awe-inspiring account that includes glimpses into their legacy without scrimping on the details that recount the sacrifice, suffering and tragedy that turned Adoniram into a mythic figure and real world hero for Christianity. Hunt’s biography also does not stint in covering the role of Judson’s three wives — each of whom left an indelible impact of her own; the details confirm that all were full-fledged partners with their own contributions to Judson’s legendary missionary endeavors.
Ann was a gifted linguist whose catechism is still used and still considered excellent work. In actions not typical of that era, Ann laid the foundation for women’s education that has provided opportunities for women in Burma for over 200 years. Tragically, one of Adoniram’s and Ann’s children was stillborn and the other two died of tropical diseases before age two. Ann’s spunk is legendary. At one point, Adoniram was imprisoned for two years in filthy, dank, inhumane conditions — he bore deep scars on his ankles and wrists for the rest of his life from being shackled and hung upside down for days on end — and would have died had not Ann bartered everything they owned to bring him food and bribe guards to give him some respite occasionally to come up out of the prison pits for fresh air and sunshine. Judson suffered inconsolable grief at Ann’s death at age 36 from “disease and malnutrition;” a mere six months later, their frail little baby girl “ceased to breathe” and was laid to rest beside her mother.
Four years after Ann’s death, Judson married Sarah, who was the widow of one of Judson’s missionary colleagues and someone whose courage and commitment Adoniram had admired for years. She impressed him with her continuing ministry in Burma even after her previous husband’s death from tuberculosis. Sarah’s son by her first husband was sent to live with relatives in the United States at age six so that he could avoid the deadly climate and conditions that claimed the lives of so many children in that era; the mother and son never saw each other again. While working alongside Adoniram, Sarah bore him eight children in eleven years (one was stillborn and two died around two years of age). Sarah was quiet and preferred to “work in the shadows;” she was, according to some of her biographers, a perfect representative of the demure women of that era. From her earliest days in Burma, Sarah suffered from repeated bouts of dysentery and other tropical diseases; she finally succumbed to the ravages of those attacks and died at age 41.
Because Sarah preferred to stay in the background, Adoniram was eager to have her excellent work recognized. After her death, he interviewed authors to write her biography. Though Adoniram was dismayed by Emily’s “frivolous” novels and would have preferred that she write more “serious” work, he recognized the quality and creativity of her writing. And, though Adoniram was twice her age, they fell in love and were happily married until Judson died four years later. Since both were gifted writers, the collection of their love letters became a family treasure and they remain extant in a museum. Their son was stillborn, but their daughter was the only one of Judson’s children to continue the family line.
Rosalie Hunt’s biography of Adoniram Judson and his three wives provides a gripping story of what God accomplished through four 19th Century heroes who were unconditionally committed to bringing the light of Jesus Christ to a nation that had never heard the gospel. A great-grandson, Dr. Stanley Hanna, worked with Hunt, providing more than 700 original family letters and recounting family stories as well as traveling with the author to Burma to track the Judson legacy.
How refreshing to see a realistic portrayal of the sacrifices and accomplishments of pioneer missionaries. Especially since today we hear so much unfounded criticism about early missionaries. Hunt’s biography is important because it includes the stories of the three women and their pivotal role in a ministry that has inspired Americans across two centuries. All three Mrs. Judsons died early deaths — Ann and Emily were both 36 and Sarah, 41 — and they lived when women were generally in the background — but their extraordinary accomplishments would be remarkable for persons who lived a full lifetime in any era.
All three women worked alongside Adoniram as an equal in ministry and all three marriages were marriages based on romantic love — none was a marriage of convenience. Ann and Sarah were equal partners in translation; Adoniram owed his life to Ann and with her assertiveness, constancy and determination, they built a foundation for ministry. That ministry reached its full potential during Sarah’s era. Though quiet and insecure, Sarah was extraordinarily sensitive with language and had phenomenal energy and passion for the work. She “excelled in everything she did,” wrote “elegant” poetry and was a “powerful” translator. Through Emily’s “talent, grace, elegance and genius” and her “descriptive skills” in writing reports back home, future generations were able to see the unique gifts of each of the other three.
It is remarkable that in the 19th Century, an exceptionally strong man married three strong, gifted women of extraordinary talent, ability and accomplishment. Though very different in their personalities, all four of these Christians exemplified superior giftedness and were full partners in a ministry that affected the future of Burma and continues to inspire people throughout the world.
Dr. Janice Shaw Crouse read the Judson biography while on vacation last week and recommends this inspiring account of pioneer Christian missionary life and influence.