Ann Judson: A Missionary Life for Burma

Written by Sharon James Reviewed By Sydney Dixon

In 1812, Ann Hasseltine Judson left the shores of North America as one of the first female American missionaries and became a catalyst for subsequent missionary endeavors during her generation and for generations to come. Ann’s influence flowed beyond the shores of America to Britain, spurring on the missionary movement in both countries through her book, An Account of the American Baptist Mission to the Burman Empire (1823). The story of Ann’s short life serves as an inspirational commitment to Jesus, to her husband, and to bring the gospel to people who had not yet heard of Jesus.

Ann Judson: A Missionary Life for Burma is the new edition to Sharon James’s My Heart in Her Hands (1998). Trained as a historian at Cambridge, James has written nine books, three of which recount six biographical accounts of historical Christian women. Among the noteworthy lives she has investigated, Ann Judson’s story stands out for James (p. 9). In an effort to re-popularize Judson’s story, James’s book includes significant portions of a memoir initially published in 1829, which also features portions of Judson’s diaries along with the writings of Emily Judson, a later wife of Ann’s widowed husband (p. 12).

James’s book traces Ann’s life from her 1789 birth in Bradford, Massachusetts, to her marriage to Adoniram Judson at the age of twenty-three, in 1812. Within two weeks, the couple set sail as part of the first American Protestant missionaries to the East. James writes of their ordination service on February 6, 1812, “The historic significance of this service cannot be overestimated: America was sending abroad the first of what was to become, to date, the mightiest missionary force in Christian history” (p. 47).

While much of the action of the Judsons’ ministry took place on the field, James demonstrates that the Judsons’ journey to Burma was formative in their subsequent ministry. While traveling to their field, they became baptistic in their theological convictions, separated from their co-missionaries, endured the threat of multiple deportations from India, and suffered the deaths of a fellow missionary-companion and their own stillborn child.

Having delivered the Judsons finally to their field of service, James turns attention to the thirteen years of Ann’s ministry in Burma leading up to her early death at the age of thirty-seven. Although immense difficulty and tragedy accompanied the whole of Ann and Adoniram Judson’s life together, their final two years captured the imaginations of Christians and inspired others to give their all for Christ. When the Judsons arrived in 1813, there were no known Christians among the Burmese people. However, at the time of Adoniram’s death (1850), a Bible, dictionary, tracts, and catechism existed in Burmese, and a church was established among the Karen people (p. 274).

The fact that James has reintroduced a new generation to Ann Judson, especially reviving Ann’s journals and letters, is a considerable strength of this volume. Likewise, by recounting Ann’s example, the book issues a reminder of the difficulties—and the incredible reward—of sowing initial gospel seeds in an unengaged, unreached culture. James includes a glimpse of the current state of Christianity among the Burmese that is both encouraging (with many in the minority population claiming Christ) and compelling (with only 8.9 percent of the population professing Christianity) (p. 274).

Because of the extraordinary circumstances the Judsons endured, Ann seems almost super-human. This may actually be the one major weakness of this biography: the lack of commentary that would caution against hero worship or believing Ann’s commitment to surpass that of average Christians. Indeed, the kind of veracious devotion Ann exhibited was extraordinary. But it is only possible through the power of the Holy Spirit. And Ann would want us to see the equipping power of the God she served more than seeing her as a heroine of her own making.

Overall, James writes in an easy-to-read format that is accessible to the general reader. James delivers a tragic yet joyful, complicated yet singularly focused story. It is the story of one Christian lady who has inspired generations on multiple continents to count and pay the considerable costs of following the Lord to difficult places so that all may know of Jesus and have the opportunity to follow him.

This book benefits missionaries, pastors, anyone in ministry, and Jesus-lovers alike. Ann’s life reminds us of our calling to share in the Lord’s suffering (1 Pet 4:12–19) and the importance of counting the cost (Luke 14:27–28) of following Jesus. Both Ann and Adoniram’s commitment to the Lord, to one another, to fellow Christians nearby, and to the Christian obligation to take the gospel to the lost (Matt 28:18–20; Rom 1:14–15) is not unique to those specially called to take the gospel to the unreached. The practical outworking of each Christian’s commitment to Jesus’s commission of gospel proclamation may vary, but a commitment to the cause is shared. James declares her intent for the newest edition of Ann’s biography to “stir up concern for the people of Burma” and “inspire concern for the many people groups” who have yet to hear the gospel of Jesus (p. 9). Her success in this aim encourages me to pray that it enjoys wide readership and stirs up many more Judsons today.

Sydney Dixon

Sydney Dixon
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Wake Forest, North Carolina, US

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