FORT WORTH, Texas (SWBTS) – Two centuries removed from his historic departure from American shores to the people of Burma, Adoniram Judson’s life and missionary work continue to inspire and inform Baptist missions endeavors. Judson’s impact was discussed by a panel of professors at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Nov. 2, each of whom contributed to the recent book Adoniram Judson: A Bicentennial Appreciation of the Pioneer American Missionary.
The book, edited by Southwestern Seminary historical theology professor and vice president Jason G. Duesing, features a foreword by IMB President Tom Elliff and an introduction by Southwestern Seminary President Paige Patterson. Additionally, seven other Southern Baptist professors contributed chapters to the work—Candi Finch, Robert Caldwell, and mission school dean Keith E. Eitel from Southwestern; Gregory A. Wills and Michael A.G. Haykin from Southern; and Nathan A. Finn and President Daniel L. Akin from Southeastern.
The panel discussion at Southwestern featured Patterson, Duesing, Finch, Caldwell and Eitel. Panelists gave explanations of their chapters and shared insights they gained from their research before answering questions from students.
“The conception of the book, the whole design of the book, serves multiple purposes,” Duesing said. “There is the academic contribution, to be sure, but as one historian noted, the life and mission and work of Judson and all of his contributions is a story that’s been told for 200 years.”
Duesing noted that the historical accounts of Judson over the years have served to call people into missionary service as well as sustain them in the work.
“On the anniversary of his bicentennial,” Duesing said, “what we collectively wanted to do was produce something that might be used in the same way—both to call people or stir people into thinking about some level of commitment to missionary service and also to write an encouragement, a sustenance for those who are on the field in service.”
Patterson spoke of his own personal introduction to Judson’s mission work and its impact on him as a young man. Patterson’s father gave him the book To the Golden Shore, an historical account written by Courtney Anderson, when he was a teenager. Patterson recalled his amazement at Judson’s intense commitment to the Gospel regardless of the difficulties and opposition, which years later gave strength to Patterson during the Conservative Resurgence. The book also planted missions deep into his heart.
“(Judson) had no retirement except what his investment was in heaven,” Patterson said. “All he had was the call of God to these people, so to me, he sets the standard for what Baptist missions ought to be.”
As for missiological implications, Eitel said that during his research, he discovered a modern application of the subject of contextualization from Judson.
“What I discovered,” Eitel said, “is that we are, in our modern period, fascinated with the similarities between cultures and religions, and we want to create bridging into those religious ideas, so much so that we will create what I have termed “compatible bridges,” where we walk with, let’s say in this case, Burmese Buddhists down their worldview and look for points of contact to convey the Gospel only to get them to the other side of the bridge and basically let them know that we’re really meaning something so entirely different.
“But what Judson did was intriguing. … He never mentions Buddhism or Buddha in any negative way, but he just begins by the affirmation of a contrary premise, never pointing out that it is a contrary premise. But the structure of how he aligns from the premise (God) … he’s speaking Christian doctrine as the counter proclamation to what he had lined up as the key points of Buddhist thought. … What he’s done here is a ‘contrastive bridge,’ not a ‘compatible bridge.’”
Eitel also mentioned the need for biographies to be written of Burmese believers impacted by the Judsons.
“We think that missions history is only our history,” Eitel said, “but there is a receptor audience that God has mushroomed around the world whose histories are equally exciting particularly in some of the persecuted areas of the world.”
Caldwell’s research revealed evidence that Judson grew up in the theological tradition known as the “New Divinity,” a form of New England congregationalism dedicated to carrying on Jonathan Edwards’ legacy of revivalism and evangelism. Not only did he grow up in a home that was heavily influenced by this group, but he also attended Andover Seminary, the first New Divinity seminary founded in America. Though the evidence is mostly circumstantial, Caldwell says it is weighty enough to assume a strong influence on Judson’s theology and practice.
Finch’s chapter surveyed Judson’s three marriages. Two of his wives preceded him in death, but all three were integral in the mission work and in supporting Judson. Finch said they serve as godly examples for minister wives and female missionaries.
Judson’s first wife, Ann, was the first female American missionary, and she faithfully worked alongside her husband until her death. Finch explained how Ann was a gifted linguist who aided Judson in translating the Bible into Burmese in addition to conducting weekly prayer meetings for women and meeting with women individually. She took care of Judson while he was sick and imprisoned and wrote a book about their mission work, which became popular in America.
Sarah Judson originally came to Burma with her first husband, who died a few years after they arrived. She subsequently met and married Adoniram Judson and bore eight children to him, only five of whom survived to adulthood. Yet, she still made time to work among the people and even translated “Pilgrim’s Progress” into Burmese. Finch said Christians can learn a great deal from her example as a mother on the mission field.
Judson’s third wife, Emily, was a writer, and Judson actually employed her to write a biography of Sarah Judson. Later, the two married, and Emily was a faithful companion alongside Judson up through his own death.
Duesing noted that Finch’s section is outstanding and worth the price of the book itself.
“That’s what’s enjoyable about this book; the sections almost in some ways stand alone, and then of course, they come together as a whole.”
To listen to audio of the panel discussion, visit www.swbts.edu/mediaresources under “Student Forums.”
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