Adoniram Judson was born on August 9, 1788 to a Congregational minister, also named Adoniram, in Maiden, Massachusetts. The younger Adoniram was exceptionally bright (he learned to read at age 3) and certainly precocious.
The Searching Years
In 1804 Adoniram entered Rhode Island College—now Brown University—one year earlier than he was graded for. Adoniram was a great student in college and he graduated as the valedictorian of his class at the age of nineteen. Adoniram did all this in spite of the fact that for six weeks of his senior year he was absent, engaged in teaching school in Plymouth. He was ambitious to excel, and fellow classmates reported that they have no recollection of his ever failing or even hesitating in recitation of an assignment. When he received the highest appointment in the commencement exercises, his excitement knew no bounds. He hurried to his room and wrote,
Dear father, I have got it. Your affectionate son, A.J.”
It was during his time at Rhode Island college, that he met a young man in the class above him by the name of Jacob Eames. Jacob was popular, talented, witty, but he was also a confirmed deist – the belief that there is no personal God to interact with, only a cosmic force who created the raw tools of living and left the details of living to us. For a person to speak of a personal God who we needed to depend on would be the pinnacle of ignorance fueled by a weak mind according to a deist. To the deist, we must find our own way through life, we are responsible to blaze our own path. Jacob and Adoniram forged a strong friendship and soon Adoniram had completely rejected the faith of his father. After graduation, Adoniram began his career after college as many young “professionals” do – in aspiring to personal fame. As he considered his fame-filled future, the words he had heard his father say a thousand times flashed across his mind,
Not unto us, not unto us, but to Thy name be the glory.”
Adoniram brushed off the notion as a mere residue of weaker days.
The World is for the Taking
Soon Adoniram was considering how he would make his mark on the world. Perhaps through forging a law practice with Jacob or possibly making use of his passion for drama through writing plays that would put his name in lights on Broadway in New York City. The later option seemed the more exciting so Adoniram ventured into New York City. Adoniram wrote his brother:
I am in no danger. I am only seeing the world – the dark side of it, as well as the bright and I have too much self-respect to do anything mean or vicious.”
Soon, after Adoniram had seen the various sides of New York, he returned home – to Sheffield, Massachusetts, for his horse that he had left with his uncle, the Reverend Ephraim Judson. Adoniram needed transportation to continue his personal adventure westward. His uncle was not home but there was staying at his home a very godly young man who had a profound influence on Adoniram. He would later recount the conversation with this young man as being characterized by
a godly sincerity, a solemn but gentle earnestness which addressed itself to the heart.”
Adoniram, with the scent of New York City still clinging to his clothes, went away from this interaction being deeply impressed with the passion this young man had toward living a God-centered life. However, to Adoniram, religion was not for him… adventure in the west was on Adoniram’s mind.
The Long Night
The next night, as Adoniram pressed westward, he stopped at a country inn. The landlord mentioned, as he showed him around his room, that he had been obliged to place him next door to a young man who was very ill and probably would soon die. The landlord did not want Adoniram to be uneasy if he should decide to stay at the inn knowing that a person so close to death would be sleeping in the room next to his. Judson assured him that, beyond pity for the poor sick man, he would have no discomfort whatsoever. However, Adoniram experienced a very restless night. Sounds came from the sick man’s room — sounds of suffering and movements of people caring for the young man. He thought about what the landlord had said and wondered if the stranger was indeed dying. Adoniram began to consider if he was prepared to die as well? Alone, and in the dead of night, he felt a wave of shame wash over him for it showed the weakness to truly live his newly acquired deist philosophy. Adoniram even pondered what his close friend, Jacob Eames, would say to his weakness? A weakness that Adoniram was determined to shake off. Try as he might, the mind of Adoniram continued to wander… “is the young man religious?” “Did he have a belief that would steady him, bring him comfort and hope?” As the night went on, Adoniram continued to contemplate what the clear-minded, intellectual, and witty Jacob Eames would say to such questions. As the night pressed on, Adoniram was haunted by the possibility that if there were an eternal world yet to come, was the young man in the next room ready to meet it?
The Dawning of a New Day
Finally, morning came and as the flood of light poured into Adoniram’s room, he pushed away the musings of the night as merely being “superstitious illusions.” As Adoniram made his way to leave, he inquired as to the condition of the young man in the room next to his. The landlord replied: “He is dead.” The words stumbled out of Adoniram’s mouth, “Dead?” The landlord in seeking to comfort Adoniram in his shock, said, “Yes, he is gone — poor fellow! The doctor had said he would probably not survive the night.” Adoniram asked, “Do you know the name of the young man?” The landlord replied: “Oh, yes, it was a young man from Rhode Island College — a very fine fellow, his name was Jacob Eames.” Adoniram was utterly stunned. “Jacob Eames?” Adoniram went numb under the weight of the horrific thought that the young man who suffered terribly all night in the room next to his was his best friend… and now was gone into eternity. Seconds felt like hours, minutes felt like days and one single thought continued to occupy his mind – Jacob is dead! Lost! Lost! The sound of this truth on a life once so vibrant rang over and over like a bell in the mind of Adoniram. Adoniram would later recall his state of mind:
That hell should open in that country inn and snatch Jacob Eames, my dearest friend and guide, from the next bed – this could not, simply could not, be pure coincidence.”
In the days that followed, Adoniram would open His Bible to discover anew the God who is present in every moment of our lives along with the truth that he needs a Savior from his sins. The Lord brought Adoniram to his knees.
The Full Life
Adoniram gave his life completely to the will and work of Christ and would spend the rest of his days as a missionary to the Burmese people (1812-1850).
Today, Burma is known as Myanmar. Throughout the years he would spend as a missionary, Adoniram would encounter incredible difficulties and hardships that would continue to drive him back to a reliance on the faithful God of the Bible.
The outworking of Adoniram’s life was far reaching. The inspirational life-journey of Adoniram Judson influenced the formation of The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions – a society, representing the Congregationalists of America, that may rightly claim to be the mother of American foreign missionary bodies. By the year 1892, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions had grown successful missionary operations in Africa, Turkey, India, China, Japan, Micronesia, the Hawaiian Islands, Mexico, Spain, and Austria. Throughout these countries it was tallied that the work of missionaries contributed to the existence of 444 churches, 41,522 church members, along with 3,298 missionaries, native pastors and teachers.
Adoniram also influenced the formation of the American Baptist Missionary Union. In 1893, it was reported that the ABMU had established 1,531 churches, with over 169,000 church members as well as 22,070 ministers of the Gospel.
When Adoniram looked back over the work of his life, he said:
“I suppose they think me an old man, and imagine it is nothing for one like me to resign a life so full of trials. But I am not old—at least in that sense; you know I am not. Oh, no man ever left the world with more inviting prospects, with brighter hopes, or warmer feelings—warmer feelings.”