In February 2014 I was privileged to minister in Yangon, Myanmar (formerly Burma). One of our teaching sessions focused on the life of Ann Judson, the first American woman overseas missionary.
Born in Bradford, Massachusetts in 1789, Ann Hasseltine was just 17 years old when she committed her life to Christ and dedicated herself to His service. She would later write:
“I began to discover a beauty in the way of salvation by Christ. He appeared to be just such a Saviour as I needed. I saw how God could be just, saving sinners through him. I committed my soul into his hands…”
By age 21 Ann held a deep desire to serve God on the mission field in a foreign country. However, when Adoniram Judson, an aspiring missionary, asked her to marry him, she did not immediately accept.
Ann needed God to confirm she was being called to the mission field not as a missionary’s wife, but as a missionary in her own right.
Marriage and Opposition
Ann must have been satisfied that God was indeed calling her because in early 1812 she married Adoniram and within days they set out on the four month journey to Calcutta, India. She faced serious opposition from Christian friends and family over her decision to serve God in foreign lands. This was a time when missionary work was considered to be the sole domain of men and many Christians were shocked that a woman would even consider herself called to the mission field.
Ann, however, believed she had heard from God and would not be persuaded to give up her calling. She wrote in her journal:
“I rejoice, that I am in his hands – that he is everywhere present, and can protect me in one place as well as in another. He has my heart in his hands, and when I am called to face danger, to pass through scenes of terror and distress, he can inspire me with fortitude, and enable me to trust in him. Jesus is faithful; his promises are precious. Were it not for these considerations, I should with my present prospects sink down in despair, especially as no female has, to my knowledge, ever left the shores of America, to spend her life among the heathen…”
After a year and a half in India it became clear the Indian authorities would not receive them, so the Judsons journeyed on by boat to Burma (now known as Myanmar). During the journey Ann gave birth to a still born child. When Ann arrived in Burma’s main city, Rangoon (now Yangon), most of the population had never laid eyes on a white woman. They crowded in around her, peeking beneath her hat, laughing and chatting in amusement at this strange white creature.
Early Years in Burma
The Judsons faced many difficulties in their new home. On top of the debilitating heat and unfamiliar culture, Burma was ruled by an oppressive king who governed the populace through fear. Mass executions, torture, and government corruption were commonplace. The Burmese royal family was overtly hostile to any religion apart from Buddhism, which taught that there is no eternal God. There were no words in the Burmese language to express the concept of a God with no beginning and no end.
Ann and Adoniram worked hard studying up to 12 hours a day for two years learning the difficult language. Eventually Adoniram produced a gospel tract in Burmese and commenced working on a Burmese translation of the New Testament. Ann authored a Burmese language catechism, translated the books of Daniel and Jonah into Burmese, and began to teach women’s Bible classes. She was also the first person to translate Bible passages into Siamese.
They preached the gospel and started a school, but it was six years before they saw their first Burmese disciple, a man named Mong Nau.
Women believers were also added but as so often is the case in history, their names were not preserved for us.
Soon more Burmese were discipled and baptised. During this time Ann also gave birth to a baby son, Roger, who sadly lived only eight months.
Ann labored steadily for several years until 1821, when, deteriorating health forced her return to the United States for much needed medical treatment and rest. The long journey, via India and England, kept her away for two years.
Hardship and Heartbreak
In 1824 Ann returned to Burma to find the political situation volatile. With war between England and Burma threatening, Adoniram and fellow missionaries were summoned to the king’s palace and detained within the then capital, Ava. Ann commenced a girl’s school, but soon their situation worsened when her husband was suddenly imprisoned on suspicion of being an English spy.
Adoniram was kept, heavily chained, with other foreign men in a disease ridden prison where torture and executions were a daily occurrence. Ann, stripped by the Burmese authorities of all furniture and belongings, was left to fend for herself in a small house, under guard. She would walk two miles to the prison each day praying and constantly petitioning the ruling authorities for the release of her husband and the other foreigners. Sometimes she was allowed to see Adoniram and at other times she was denied.
This period of extreme hardship lasted eighteen months. During this time she was also pregnant and gave birth to their daughter, Maria. She journaled:
“Sometimes for days and days together, I could not go into the prison, till after dark, when I had two miles to walk, in returning to the house. O how many, many times, have I returned from that dreary prison at nine o’clock at night, solitary and worn out with fatigue and anxiety . . . and endeavored to invent some new scheme for the release of the prisoners . . . the acme of my distress, consisted in the awful uncertainty of our final fate. My prevailing opinion was, that my husband would suffer violent death; and that I should, of course become a slave, and languish out a miserable though short existence in the tyrannic hands of some unfeeling monster.”
As the English advanced on Ava, Adoniram and the other missionaries were suddenly marched out of the city to Amarapoora, a remote place in the country, where it was rumored they were to be buried alive.
Ann immediately set out in pursuit, along with her three month old baby, a Burmese helper, and two young girls for whom she was caring.
Arriving in the remote village with no food or shelter they survived by staying in the two room hut of the jailer, where they slept on the floor for six months. During this time Ann became desperately ill and one of her young companions contracted small pox. She cared for the girl until she died, while continuing to visit the prison each day to care for Adoniram.
Adoniram was condemned to be executed, but God intervened. Instead of facing execution, Adoniram was unexpectedly summoned by royalty to mediate a peace agreement between the British and the Burmese, as he was one of the few people who could speak both the English and Burmese languages. Reunited, the couple spent a brief two weeks together before Adoniram was sent away by the authorities to help with peace negotiations elsewhere in the country.
Tragically, in October 1826 Adoniram returned to find Ann had died in his absence. Though only thirty seven years old, Ann’s physical health had been broken beyond repair. Sadly, their baby daughter Maria also died only a few months later.
At the time of her death Ann had no one beside her but a handful of loyal Burmese Christian women whom she had discipled.
She was buried under a majestic tree at Kyaikkami (formerly Amhurst) where she had first landed in Burma.
Not long after Ann’s death one of the women disciples fell ill. With death approaching she wrote to Adoniram about her joy at the thought of soon joining Ann, little Maria, and Christ Himself:
“First of all I shall hasten to where my Saviour sits, and fall down, and worship him for his great love in sending me the teachers to show me the way to heaven.”
Ann Judson was a deeply dedicated Christ-follower, as well as a gifted teacher, linguist, preacher and author. She was instrumental in establishing a Christian church in Burma which, though heavily persecuted, still thrives to this day. She championed the cause of female education, starting a Burmese girl’s school and tirelessly petitioning Christian sponsorship for her girls during her medical furlough in the United States.
It is generally agreed had it not been for Ann’s sacrificial efforts and representations to the governing authorities, Adoniram would not have survived his time in the death prison. It has been said of her: “She was a woman who loved intensely, loved her husband, loved her children, loved the people of Burma, but above all, she loved her God.”
As I stood, in early 2014, listening to the beautiful worship of Burmese Christians, I was intensely aware of Ann’s enduring legacy.
Today there is a Christian community in Myanmar because a woman heard the call of God and, against severe opposition, responded. Like a grain of wheat planted in Burmese soil, God has ensured a rich harvest from Ann’s short but extraordinary life (John 12:24).
Ann Hasseltine Judson, we salute you!
Further reading and viewing:
You Tube video of Burmese Christians in worship, February 2014: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xey7gTiikow
Ann Judson’s Letters: http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/bq/05-8_372.pdf
Resources referenced in this article:
My Heart in His Hands by Sharon L James
The Life and Significance of Ann Hasseltine Judson: http://www.sbts.edu/resources/journal-of-missions/sbjme-12-fall/the-life-and-significance-of-ann-hasseltine-judson-1789-1826/