Judson was born on 9 August 1788 in Malden, Massachusetts, son of a Congregational minister of the same name. He entered Providence College (now Brown University) at the age of sixteen, and graduated as valedictorian of his class at the age of nineteen. He then attended The Andover Theological Seminary, and graduated in 1810. Two years previous, he had "made a solemn dedication of himself to God." This was followed by a resolve to work as a missionary during the year of his graduation. He had joined an earnest group of mission-minded students at Andover who called themselves "the Brethren." It was the students there at Andover, not the organizational leadership of the church, who ignited the fire that gave America its first organized missionary society. Passionately eager to serve abroad, and convinced that "Asia with its idolatrous myriads, was the most important field in the world for missionary effort" and appeared before the Congregation Church's General Association to appeal for support to their missionary intentions. Impressed by the polite behavior of the four men and their sincerity, the elders in 1810 voted to form an "American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions."
On September 19, Judson was appointed by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions as a missionary to the East. Judson was also commissioned by the Congregational Church, and soon married Ann Hasseltine on February 5, 1812. He was ordained the next day at the Tabernacle Church in Salem, and on February 19 set sail aboard the brig "Caravan" with Luther Rice, Samuel Newell and Harriett Newell and his wife, Ann (known as "Nancy") Judson.
Judson offered to Baptists in the United States to serve as their missionary. Luther Rice who had also converted was in poor health and returned to America where his work and William Carey's urging; resulted in the formation of the first national Baptist denomination in the United States for Foreign Missions (commonly called the Triennial Convention'')in 1814.
First attempts by the Judsons to interest the natives of Rangoon with the Gospel of Jesus met with almost total indifference. Buddhist traditions and the Burmese world view at that time led many to disregard the pleadings of Adorniram and his wife to believe in one "living" and "all-powerful" God. To add to their discouragement, their second child, Roger William Judson, died at almost eight months of age. Judson completed translation of the "Grammatical Notices of the Burman Language" the following July and the Gospel of Matthew in 1817. Judson began public evangelism in 1818 sitting in a zayat by the roadside calling out "Ho! Everyone that thirsteth for knowledge!" His first convert was baptized in 1819, and there were 18 converts by 1822. In 1820, Judson and a fellow missionary named Colman attempted to petition the Emperor of Burma, King Bagyidaw, in the hope that he would grant freedom for the missionaries to preach and teach throughout the country as well as remove the sentence of death that was given for those Burmese who "changed religion." However, Bagyidaw disregarded their appeal and threw one of their Gospel tracts to the ground after reading a few lines. The missionaries returned to Rangoon and met with the fledgling church there to consider what to do next. The progress of Christianity would continue to be slow with much risk of endangerment and death in the Burmese Empire.
It took Judson twelve years to make eighteen converts. Nevertheless, there was much to encourage him. He had written a grammar of the language that is still in use today and had begun to translate the Bible. His remarkable wife, Ann, was even more fluent in the spoken language of the people than her more academically literate husband. She befriended the kind wife of the viceroy of Rangoon as quickly as she did illiterate workers and women. Moreover, a printing press had been sent from Serampore, and a missionary printer, George H. Hough, who arrived from America with his wife in 1817, produced the first printed materials in Burmese ever printed in Burma including 800 copies of Judson's translation of the Gospel of Matthew. The chronicler of the church, Maung Shwe Wa, concludes this part of the story: "So was born the church in Rangoon–logger and fisherman, the poor and the rich, men and women. One traveled the whole path to Christ in three days; another took two years. But once they had decided for Christ they were his for all time."
One of the early disciples was U Shwe Ngong, a teacher and leader of a group of intellectuals dissatisfied with Buddhism who were attracted to the new faith. He was a Deist skeptic to whose mind the preaching of Judson, once a college skeptic himself, was singularly challenging. After consideration, he assured Judson that he was ready to believe in God, Jesus Christ, and the atonement. Judson, instead of welcoming him to the faith, pressed him further asking if he believed what he had read in the gospel of Matthew that Jesus the son of God died on the cross. U Shwe Ngong shook his head and said, "Ah, you have caught me now. I believe that he suffered death, but I cannot believe he suffered the shameful death on the cross." Not long after, he came back to tell Judson, "I have been trusting in my own reason, not the word of God…. I now believe the crucifixion of Christ because it is contained in scripture."
The essence of Judson's preaching was a combination of conviction of the truth with the rationality of the Christian faith, a firm belief in the authority of the Bible, and a determination to make Christianity relevant to the Burmese mind without violating the integrity of Christian truth, or as he put it, "to preach the gospel, not anti-Buddhism." By 1823, ten years after his arrival, membership of the little church had grown to eighteen, and Judson had finally finished the first draft of his translation of the entire text of the New Testament in Burmese.
Adoniram Judson was imprisoned for 17 months during the war between England and Burma, first at Ava and then at Aung Pinle. Judson and Price were violently arrested. Officers led by an official executioner burst into the Judson home, threw Mr. Judson to the ground before the eyes of his wife, bound him with torture thongs, and dragged him off to the infamous, vermin-ridden "death prison" of Ava. Twelve agonizing months later he and Price, along with a small group of surviving Western prisoners, were marched overland, barefoot and sick, for six more months of misery in a primitive village near Mandalay. Of the sepoy British prisoners-of-war imprisoned with them, all but one died. The sufferings and brutalities of those twenty long months and days in prison, half-starved, iron-fettered, and sometimes trussed and suspended by his mangle feet with only head and shoulders touching the ground, is described in unexaggerated detail by his wife, Ann, shortly after his release. The heroic Ann was perhaps the greater model of supreme courage. Heedless of all threats against herself, left alone as the only Western woman in an absolute and anti-Christian monarchy at war with the West, beset with raging fevers and nursing a tiny baby her husband had not yet seen; she rushed from office to office in desperate attempts to keep her husband alive and win his freedom.
The end of the war should have been a time of rejoicing for the mission, As soon as her husband were released by the Burmese, Mrs. Judson wrote that one good result of the war could be that terms of the treaty which ceded Burmese provinces to the British might provide opportunity to expand the witness of the mission into hitherto unreached parts of the country.
But a few months later, Ann was dead, a victim of the long, dreadful months of disease, death, stress and loneliness that had been hers for 21 months. She died alone. In 24 October 1826, Ann died at Amherst (now Kyaikkami), Burma, and their third child died six months later. Her husband was already out exploring in one of the ceded provinces, Tenasserim. And it was in the wild hills of that newly British province of Tenasserim that the first signs of rapid growth in Protestant Christianity in Burma began. The statistics are startling. Within a few years of the end of the war, Baptist membership doubled on an average of every eight years for the thirty-two years between 1834 and 1866.
The collapse of Burma's armies brought Judson out of prison, but his release was not complete freedom. For several months in 1826 after the surrender, Burma pressed Judson into its service as a translator for the peace negotiations. Some have used Judson's acceptance of a role in the treaty negotiations as evidence of complicity in imperialism, but it should be noted that he first acted on behalf of the defeated Burmese as translator, not for the Western victors.
Three significant factors had a part, though not the only part, in the rise of the Burmese Baptist churches. Most of the growth was in British-ruled territory, not in the Burmese-ruled kingdom. It may also be significant that after an Anglo-Burmese war, the missionaries were American, not British. But probably the most telling factor was religion. Most of the growth came from animist tribes, not from the major population group, the Buddhist Burmese.
The nation was Burmese; its lost province was British; and the missionaries were American, but the "apostle" of that first numerically significant evangelistic breakthrough was neither British nor American nor Burman. He was a Karen, Ko Tha Byu, though credit is rightly due also to the three missionary pioneers to the Karen, George Boardman and his wife, Sarah, and Adoniram Judson.
The Karen people were a primitive, hunted minority group of ancient Burmo-Tibetan ancestry scattered in the forests and jungles of the Salween River and in the hills along the southeast coast. Judson was the first missionary to make contact with them about 1827 when he ransomed and freed a debt-slave from one of his early converts. The freed slave, Ko Tha Byu, was an illiterate, surly man who spoke almost no Burmese and was reputed to be not only a thief but also a murderer who admitted killing at least thirty men, but could not remember exactly how many more.
In 1828 the former Karen bandit, "whose rough, undisciplined genius, energy and zeal for Christ" had caught the notice of the missionaries, was sent south with a new missionary couple, the Boardmans, into the territory of the strongly animistic, non-Buddhist Karen. There, he was no sooner baptized then he set off into the jungle alone to preach to his fellow tribespeople. Astonishingly, he found them strangely prepared for his preaching. Their ancient oracle traditions, handed down for centuries, contained some startling echoes of the Old Testament that some scholars conjecture a linkage with Jewish communities (or possibly even Nestorians) before their migrations from western China into Burma perhaps as early as the twelfth century.
The core of what they called their "Tradition of the Elders" was a belief in an unchangeable, eternal, all-powerful God, creator of heaven and earth, of man, and of woman formed from a rib taken from the man. They believed in humanity's temptation by a devil, and its fall, and that some day a messiah would come to its rescue. They lived in expectation of a prophecy that white foreigners would bring them a sacred parchment roll.
While the Boardmans and Ko Tha Byu were penetrating the jungles to the south, Adoniram Judson shook off a paralyzing year-long siege of depression that overcame him after the death of his wife, Ann, and set out alone on long canoe trips up the Salween River into the tiger-infested jungles to evangelize the northern Karen. Between trips he worked untiringly at his lifelong goal of translating the whole Bible into the Burmese language. When he finished it at last in 1834, he had been labouring on it for twenty-four years. It was printed and published in 1835.
In April of that same year, he married Sarah Hall Boardman, widow of fellow missionary George Boardman. They had eight children, five of whom survived to adulthood. Sarah's health began failing and physicians recommended a return to America. Sarah died en route at St. Helena on 1 September 1845. He continued home, where he was greeted as a celebrity and toured the eastern seaboard raising the profile of and money for missionary activity. Because he could barely speak above a whisper due to pulmonary illness, his public addresses were made by speaking to an assistant, who would then address the audience. On 2 June 1846, Judson married for the third time, to writer Emily Chubbuck who he had commissioned to write memoirs for Sarah Hall Boardman. They had a daughter born in 1847.
Judson lived for fifteen more years of work in and for Burma. He lived to approve and welcome the first single women missionaries to Burma. A general rule of the mission had hitherto prevented such appointments. It was, said Judson, "probably a good" rule, "but our minds should not be closed" to making exceptions. The first two "exceptions" were extraordinarily exceptional. Miss Sarah Cummings arrived in 1832. Miss Cummings proved her mettle at once, choosing to work alone with Karen evangelists in the malaria-ridden Salween River valley north of Moulmein, but within two years she died of fever. A second single woman, Eleanor Macomber, after five years of mission to the Ojibway Indians in Michigan, joined the mission in faraway Nurma in 1835. Alone, with the help of Karen evangelistic assistants, she planted a church in a remote Karen village and nurtured it to the point where it could be placed under the care of an ordinary missionary. She lived five years and died of jungle fever.
Judson developed a serious lung disease and doctors prescribed a sea voyage as a cure. On 12 April 1850, Adoniram Judson died at age 61 on board ship in the Bay of Bengal and was buried at sea, having spent 37 years in missionary service abroad with only one home leave.
When Judson began his mission in Burma, he set a goal of translating the Bible and founding a church of 100 members before his death. When he died, he left the bible, 100 churches, and over 8,000 believers. In large part due to his influence, Myanmar has the third largest number of Baptists worldwide, behind the United States and India. The majority of adherents are Karen and Kachin. Each July, Baptist churches in Myanmar celebrate "Judson Day," commemorating his arrival as a missionary. Inside the campus of Yangon University is Judson Church, named in his honor, and in 1920 Judson College, named in his honor, merged into Rangoon College, which has since been renamed Yangon University.
Judson compiled the first ever Burmese-English dictionary. The English-Burmese half was interrupted by his death and completed by missionary E. A. Steven. Every dictionary and grammar written in Burma in the last two centuries has been based on ones originally created by Judson. Judson "became a symbol of the preeminence of Bible translation for" Protestant missionaries. In the 1950s, Burma's Buddhist prime minister U Nu told the Burma Christian Council "Oh no, a new translation is not necessary. Judson's captures the language and idiom of Burmese perfectly and is very clear and understandable. His translation remains the most popular version in Myanmar.
His change of persuasion to the validity of believer's baptism, and subsequent need of support, led to the founding of the first national Baptist organization in the United States and subsequently to all American Baptist associations, including the Southern Baptists that were the first to break off from the national organization. The printing of his wife Ann's letters about their mission inspired many Americans to become or support Christian missionaries. There are at least 36 Baptist churches in the United States named after him, Judson University in Illinois is named after him and Judson College in Alabama is named after his wife Ann.