By Evan D. Burns
Adoniram Judson (1788-1850), the first American missionary, was a man marked by inimitable missionary devotion and theological grit. Many biographies, indeed some hagiographies, have retold his remarkable story over and over again. Though many biographies exclusively portray him as a martyr-like hero, he was no island. He had friends, companions, and co-laborers who died as hard as he did, whose biographies only the historians of heaven have written. Moreover, there was an anonymous man in his life who never went with him to Burma and never knew him personally, whose name history has left unrecorded, and yet, God used this unknown man to impress God-centered piety upon Judson’s soul.
After going to school in Providence, Judson set out, surging with wanderlust, to explore the Northern States in pursuit of adventure and inspiration. He had wished to go write for the theater in New York and to also brave the untamed wilderness. His worldly aspirations broke his pious parents’ hearts. He went to visit his uncle Ephraim in the wilderness, but God appointed another man to meet him there instead. Judson’s biographer, Francis Wayland, records:
Before setting out upon his tour he had unfolded his infidel sentiments to his father, and had been treated with the severity natural to a masculine mind that has never doubted, and to a parent, who, after having made innumerable sacrifices for the son of his pride and love, sees him rush recklessly on his own destruction. His mother also, was no less distressed, and she wept, and prayed, and expostulated. He knew his superiority to his father in argument; but he had nothing to oppose to his mother’s tears and warnings, and they followed him now wherever he went. He knew he was on the verge of such a life as he despised. For the world he would not see a young brother in his perilous position; but “I,” he thought, “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 any thing mean or vicious.” After seeing what he wished of New York, he returned to Sheffield for his horse, intending to pursue his journey westward. His uncle, Rev. Ephraim Judson, was absent, and a very pious young man occupied his place. His conversation was characterized by godly sincerity, a solemn but gentle earnestness, which addressed itself to the heart, and Judson went away deeply impressed.
Not long after meeting this pious man, Judson surrendered his life to his Lord. How many well-known men in history have been impressed by the warm-hearted piety of unknown saints? Let us never underestimate the historical impact we could have in a conversation “characterized by godly sincerity, a solemn but gentle earnestness,” that addresses the heart and leaves an indelible impression. May God be pleased to “deeply impress” future missionaries through our God-enamored piety, even in the most inadvertent conversations.
Francis Wayland, A Memoir of the Life and Labors of the Rev. Adoniram Judson, D.D. (Boston: Philips, Sampson, and Company, 1853), 1:23-24.
Evan D. Burns (Ph.D. Candidate, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is on faculty at Asia Biblical Theological Seminary, and he lives in Thailand with his wife and twin sons. They are missionaries with Training Leaders International.