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THE CONVERSION OF ADONIRAM JUDSON –
THE FIRST MISSIONARY TO BURMA

by Dr. R. L. Hymers, Jr.

A sermon preached at the Baptist Tabernacle of Los Angeles
Lord’s Day Evening, January 29, 2012

“Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).


This will be a biographical sermon. I am going to give you the story of the conversion of Adoniram Judson (1788-1850). His conversion ought to be especially interesting to young people raised in church. He is a perfect illustration of a “church kid” who is converted after a long struggle.

Adoniram Judson went on to become a pioneer missionary, one of the first band of missionaries sent out from North America. On February 19, 1812 Adoniram and Ann Judson sailed from Cape Cod, Massachusetts for India. From there they took the Gospel to Burma (now Myanmar). The Judsons were to go through bitter hardships, imprisonment, and family tragedies as the first missionaries to a completely pagan land where no missionaries had gone before. Yet Judson never wavered in his commitment to win these heathen people to Christ, and to translate the Bible for the first time into the Burmese language. How did Adoniram Judson become such a strong Christian? In reading his life story, I became convinced that the foundation of his Christian life lay in the real conversion he experienced as a young person, before he ever went to the mission field. In this sermon I am relying heavily on Courtney Anderson’s book, To the Golden Shore: The Life of Adoniram Judson (Judson Press, 1987 edition).

His name was Adoniram Judson, Jr. His father, Adoniram Judson, Sr. was an old-fashioned Congregational minister. The person that young Adoniram feared most was his father. It was the sheer awesomeness of the man that caused his son to fear him. He was almost incapable of humor or laughter. He was as stern and strict as God Himself. In fact, in Adoniram’s young mind, God and his father took on nearly the same identity.

Adoniram learned to read at only three years old. This made his father feel that the boy would become a great man, and his father told him so over and over again. His father was only a poor pastor, but he wanted his son to be far greater than he was – a minister in a large New England church. He hoped that his son would achieve the fame and success that he had never known.

During his childhood Adoniram read everything he could get his hands on, from the books in his father’s library to the novels and plays that were popular at the time. Yet he was very active and energetic. By the time he was ten he was already an accomplished mathematician, and had learned the basics of Greek and Latin. His father told him, “You are a very [bright] boy, Adoniram, and I expect you to become a great man.” The words made a deep impression on him. “I expect you to become a great man.”

During this time his father’s congregation went through a terrible church split. Finally the family had to move to another town where his father became the pastor of another small church. Yet Adoniram had great respect for his father’s example: never compromise.

Adoniram felt that his destiny was to become an orator, a poet, or a statesman like John Adams – something connected with books and learning, something that would win him praise and fame, and make his name known down through the ages.

He had always wanted to be truly religious. Yet how could he be a real Christian and become a great man at the same time? While he was lying in bed sick, he seemed to hear a voice say in his mind, “Not unto us, not unto us, but to Thy name be the glory.” It would be the unknown country pastor whose fame would ring out through eternity, even though he was not heard of here. The world was wrong about its heroes. The world was wrong in its judgments. The fame of the unknown country pastor was really greater – so much greater that any other worldly accomplishment shrank into insignificance. This was the only fame that triumphed over the grave. “Not unto us, not unto us, but to Thy name be the glory” rang through his mind. He sat bolt upright in his sick bed, shocked by these strange thoughts.

He soon forced them out of his mind, however. But for that one brief moment the insight was so strong that he would remember it for the rest of his life.

By the age of sixteen Adoniram was ready to enter college. Though a graduate of Yale himself, Adoniram’s father did not send his son there, probably because it was too far from home. Although Harvard was only fifty miles away, he did not send his son there because it was already becoming liberal. Instead Rev. Judson sent his son to the Rhode Island College at Providence. Shortly after Adoniram entered the college it became known as “Brown University.” Rev. Judson knew that it was a sound, Bible-believing school. Rev. Judson felt that Adoniram would be safe at this college.

Since Adoniram already knew Latin, Greek, mathematics, astronomy, logic, public speaking and moral philosophy he entered the school as a sophomore rather than a freshman. His professors became aware of him right away. At the end of the school year the president of the college sent a letter to his father, calling Adoniram a “very amiable and promising son.” Rev. Judson’s heart swelled with pride as he read the letter.

The students at the school soon found out that, even though he was a minister’s son, Adoniram had very little interest in the two weekly prayer meetings. Instead he became very popular with the unconverted young men at the school.

Adoniram soon became friends with a young man named Jacob Eames, who was a year older than him. Eames was talented, witty and very popular – but he was a Deist, not a Christian. He and Adoniram became very close friends, and Adoniram was so influenced by him that he soon became as much of an unbeliever as Jacob Eames. If Adoniram’s father had known that he had become a Deist he would have taken him out of the university immediately. Rev. Judson despised liberalism, Unitarianism, and Universalism, but he felt that Deism was the worst of all. The Deists rejected the Bible completely. The Deists only believed that there was a God who was not involved with mankind at all. They rejected Christ as the Son of God, did not believe in Heaven or Hell, or the Blood atonement of Christ. But Rev. Judson did not know that Adoniram’s friend Jacob Eames had led his son into such error and unbelief.

Jacob Eames was the leader of the young men Adoniram hung out with. These boys studied together, attended parties with young ladies, talked together, and played together. These young men had no interest in Christianity. They talked about becoming great authors, playwrights, and actors. They would become the Shakespeares and Goldsmiths of the New World in America. The whole religion that Adoniram’s father had so carefully taught to his son vanished completely. Jacob Eames had “liberated” Adoniram from his father’s old beliefs, and had freed him to seek for fame and fortune.

Yet Adoniram had uneasy feelings of guilt. Rejecting his father’s God was the same as rejecting his father, whom he still admired deep in his heart. He dreaded his father’s disapproval, so he never mentioned his unbelief when he came home from college between semesters.

Adoniram became first in his class. He was chosen to be the valedictorian, and give the main speech at his graduation. As soon as he learned that he had won this honor he ran to his room and wrote, “Dear Father, I have got it. Your affectionate son, A.J.” At the end of commencement, in the position of highest honor, Adoniram gave the valedictorian speech, with his proud father and mother in the audience.

Thus, at nineteen, Adoniram was ready to begin his life work. But he had no idea what it would be! He came home and went to church with his father and mother every Sunday. His parents did not know that he was now an unbeliever. He felt like a hypocrite every time he joined his father and mother in family prayers.

Every week he grew more restless. He kept thinking about the ambitions he had shared with Jacob Eames. That summer he finally decided to leave home and go to New York. He would meet people connected with the theater. He would learn to write plays for the stage. He knew that his father and mother thought that New York was the most sinful city in America, a modern Sodom. He knew that they thought the theater was a hell-hole of depravity and sin. But he thought that his parents were too narrow minded.

Soon he was ready to leave for New York. His parents reacted as if he had told them he was making a trip to the moon! They did not realize that he had come to the point of throwing off their rule, to act and think for himself as an adult. At this point his father asked him to study to become a minister. When Adoniram heard that, he furiously told his parents the truth. Their God was not his God. He no longer believed the Bible. He did not believe that Jesus was the Son of God.

His father tried to reason with him, but failed. His mother wept and wailed as she followed him from room to room. “How can you do this to your mother?” she cried. Her beloved Adoniram had chosen the Devil and rejected God. He could hear her sobbing and praying for him whenever he went into the house.

Adoniram put up with this for six days. Then he got on his horse and rode toward New York. But when he got there he discovered that it was not the paradise he had dreamed of. There was no welcome for him and no employment. He only stayed for a few weeks before leaving, disgusted and heartsick.

As the sun was going down he came to a small village. He found an inn, put his horse in the stable, and asked the innkeeper for a room. The inn was nearly full. There was only one room left. The landlord told him that the room was next to that of a young man who was extremely sick, perhaps dying. He might be disturbed in the night. “No,” said Adoniram, he would not let a few noises next door stop him from having a good night’s rest. After giving him something to eat, the landlord took Adoniram to his room and left him there. Adoniram got into bed, and waited for sleep to come.

But he could not sleep. He could hear soft sounds coming from the next room, footsteps coming and going, a board creaking, low voices, groans and gasps. These sounds did not disturb him too much – not even the thought that the man might be dying. Death was common in Adoniram’s New England. It might happen to anyone, at any age.

What disturbed him was the thought that the man in the next room might not be prepared for death. Was he, himself, prepared for it? These thoughts went through his mind as he lay there half dreaming, half awake. He wondered how he himself would face death. His father would welcome death as a door opening to eternal glory. But to Adoniram, the unbeliever, death was the door to an empty pit, to darkness, at best to extinction, at worst to – what? His flesh crawled as he thought of the grave, the slow decay of the dead body, the weight of the soil on the buried coffin. Was this all, through the endless centuries?

But another part of him laughed at these midnight thoughts. What would his friends at college think of these terrors of the night? Above all, what would his friend Jacob Eames think? He imagined Eames laughing at him, and he felt ashamed.

When he woke the sun was shining through the window. His fears had vanished with the darkness. He could hardly believe that he had been so weak and fearful the night before. He dressed himself and went downstairs to have breakfast. He found the innkeeper and paid his bill. Then he asked if the young man in the next room was better. The man answered, “He is dead.” Then Adoniram asked, “Do you know who he was?” The innkeeper replied, “Oh, yes. He was a young man from Brown University. His name was Eames, Jacob Eames.” It was his best friend, the unbelieving Jacob Eames, who had died in the next room the night before.

Adoniram was never able to remember how he got through the next few hours. All he remembered was that he did not leave the inn for some time. Finally he left, riding his horse away in a daze. One word kept going through his mind – “lost!” In death, his friend Jacob Eames was lost – utterly lost. Lost in death. Lost to his friends, to the world, to the future. Lost as a puff of smoke is lost in the air. If Eames’ own views were true, neither his life nor his death had any meaning.

But what if Eames had been wrong? What if the Bible was literally true and a personal God was real? Then Jacob Eames was eternally lost. And already, that moment, Eames knew he had been wrong. But now it was too late for Eames to repent. Knowing his error, Eames was already experiencing the unimaginable torments of the flames of Hell. All chance of being saved was lost, eternally lost. These thoughts went through Adoniram’s shocked mind. Adoniram thought that his best friend dying in the next room could not be a coincidence. He thought that his father’s God had arranged these events by providence, that it was not by chance at all.

Suddenly Adoniram felt that the God of the Bible was the real God. He turned his horse around and started home. His journey had lasted only about five weeks, but in that five weeks what had begun as the throwing off of the control of his parents had turned into a soul-shaking inner convulsion. He was now in a deep turmoil, in mortal fear for his own soul. He returned home an awakened sinner.

At this time two ministers came to his father’s house. They suggested that Adoniram enroll in a new seminary that had just opened its doors. He entered Andover Theological Seminary in October. He had not yet been converted, so he was enrolled as a special student, not as a candidate for the ministry. As a student there he began to read the Bible in the original languages of Hebrew and Greek. By November his doubts began to leave, and he was able to write that he “began to entertain a hope of having received the regenerating influences of the Holy Spirit.” On the second day of December – a day he never forgot – he was converted and dedicated his whole life to God. From that time on he was literally a new man. He turned away forever from his dreams of worldly success, and simply asked himself, “How can I best please God?”

This was an extremely important conversion, because it led Adoniram to become the first foreign missionary to Burma. Arriving on the mission field, Adoniram Judson became a Baptist, through a study of the Greek word “baptizo.” He would go to Burma at a time when no missionary had come to that heathen land. Through bitter hardships, imprisonments and family tragedies, including the death of two wives and several children, Adoniram Judson never wavered in his commitment to win lost souls to Christ, and to translate the entire Bible into the Burmese language. How we pray that some young person in our church would experience a real conversion, as Adoniram Judson did, and go on to serve Christ for a lifetime. Dr. John R. Rice (1895-1980) wrote a song that perfectly describes Adoniram’s conversion.

I walked the path of pleasure, I toiled for earthly treasure,
   But peace beyond all measure, I found in only Jesus...

My boasted goodness failed me, No cure for sin that ailed me,
   God’s Spirit then prevailed me To leave my sins on Jesus...

God’s Word I long resisted, His spirit called, insisted,
   Repenting I enlisted, With Jesus, precious Jesus.
My sins are all forgiven, The chains of sin are riven,
   And all my heart is given, To Jesus, only Jesus.

Oh Christ, for love unceasing, For blessings e’er increasing,
   For all my fears releasing, I praise and love my Jesus.
My sins are all forgiven, The chains of sin are riven,
   And all my heart is given, To Jesus, only Jesus.
(“Jesus, Only Jesus” by Dr. John R. Rice, 1895-1980).

Please stand and sing number 5 on your song sheet, “Almost Persuaded.”

“Almost persuaded” now to believe; “Almost persuaded” Christ to receive;
Seems now some soul to say, “Go, Spirit, go Thy way,
Some more convenient day On Thee I’ll call.”

“Almost persuaded,” harvest is past! “Almost persuaded,” doom comes at last!
“Almost” cannot avail; “Almost” is but to fail!
Sad, sad, that bitter wail – “Almost,” but lost.
    (“Almost Persuaded” by Philip P. Bliss, 1838-1876).

(END OF SERMON)
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Prayer Before the Sermon by Dr. Kreighton L. Chan.
Solo Sung Before the Sermon by Mr. Benjamin Kincaid Griffith:
(“Speak, Lord, in the Stillness” by E. May Grimes, 1868-1927;
altered by the Pastor).