Ann Judson’s Missionary Work

Ann Judson’s Missionary Work

Ann Judson, one of the first two women to be sent as American foreign missionaries, is a familiar name for most Christians. She is particularly remembered as the sacrificial wife who hid her husband’s Bible translation inside a pillow and took it to the jail where he had been confined, bribing the jailers in order to get in.

            This is just one of the memorable stories that were repeated in countless accounts during the nineteenth century, when she was held up as a role model for other missionary wives. But most of these accounts leave out much information about Ann’s own work as a missionary and educator.

“Beauty in the Way of Salvation”

            Ann “Nancy” Hasseltine was born in Bradford, Massachusetts, December 22, 1789. The youngest of five children, she was lively, cheerful, and intelligent. By her early teens, she was already popular and in demand for parties and other social events. A special dance hall her father built next to their house became the center of social life for the young people of Bradford.

            Aware of her intelligence, her parents enrolled Ann at Bradford Academy where she left a mark with her lively spirit. Rufus Anderson, who became a renowned strategist of missions, remembered how, during his studies at the same college, Ann used to playfully chase him “about the Academy grounds with a stick.”[1]

            Like most families in the town, the Hasseltines attended the local Congregational Church. Ann remembered learning from her mother a list of sins to avoid if she wanted to escape the torments of hell. But serious thoughts on the subject were soon brushed off by the attraction of a life of “gaiety and mirth.”[2]

            By the spring of 1806 a revival swept through the Academy. Ann was affected by the sermons she heard but put off by the heavy emphasis on hell and by the idea that God would choose who was destined there. “So far from being merciful in calling some, I thought it cruel in him to send any of his creatures to hell for their disobedience.”[3]

            This resentment brought her to the conclusion that she wouldn’t be happy in heaven, even if she made it there. “In this state, I longed for annihilation,” she wrote; “and if I could have destroyed the existence of my soul, with as much ease as that of my body, I should quickly have done it.”[4]

            She credited God for coming to her rescue. “But that glorious Being, who is kinder to his creatures than they are to themselves, did not leave me to remain long in this distressing state. 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, in saving sinners through him.”[5]

            A few days later, she found confirmation of her discovery in Joseph Bellamy’s True Religion. “I obtained a new view of the character of God. His justice, displayed in condemning the finally impenitent, which I had before viewed as cruel, now appeared to be an expression of hatred to sin, and regard to the good of beings in general.”[6]

            Bellamy was a disciple of Jonathan Edward and one of the architects of the so-called New Divinity, a movement born out of the First American Awakening. Ann began to avidly read other similar authors, such as Edwards and Samuel Hopkins. New Divinity authors emphasized missionary work, and Ann became increasingly interested in missionary accounts.

            She also began to teach young children. Her diary shows how she was inspired in this venture by a popular book of her day, Hannah More’s Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education. Resisting the decorative nature of female education in her day, when women were taught only what could serve to entertain their hosts, More believed that education should lead to a life of usefulness. And Ann, motivated by her renewed love for Christ, wanted to be useful.

“For the Sake of Perishing Immortal Souls”

            Ann met Adoniram Judson when he stopped at her father’s house during a missionary conference. Struck by her beauty and intelligence, he wondered if the Lord had answered his prayer for a wife who could also be a partner in his upcoming mission to India. He proposed to her by letter.

            Ann didn’t answer immediately. In fact, she struggled for two months to make the right choice. Many called the idea of joining a missionary team a “wild, romantic undertaking.” This was not surprising. Missionaries were still viewed with suspicion, as motivated either by false ambition or by a desire for adventure. Of all people, women seemed the least suitable for such ventures. In America, Ann didn’t have a predecessor to emulate. Eventually, however, she decided to accept Adoniram’s proposal.

            As customary, Adoniram also asked for her father’s permission. The missionary was blunt in his request:

            “I have now to ask, whether you can consent to part with your daughter early next spring, to see her no more in this world; whether you can consent to her departure for a heathen land, and her subjection to the hardships and sufferings of a missionary life; whether you can consent to her exposure to the dangers of the ocean; to the fatal influence of the southern climate of India; to every kind of want and distress; to degradation, insult, persecution, and perhaps a violent death. Can you consent to all this, for the sake of him who left his heavenly home and died for her and for you; for the sake of perishing immortal souls; for the sake of Zion, and the glory of God.”[7]

            Her parents consented.

            Ann told the news to her friend Harriet Atwood, also a student at Bradford Academy. The unexpected news inspired Harriet to accept the marriage proposal she had received six months earlier from another prospective missionary to India, Samuel Newell. Ann was twenty-one, Harriet eighteen.

            There is no record of the conversation between the two women, but their diaries show how they shared the same motivation: “Should I refuse to make this sacrifice, refuse to lend my little aid in the promulgation of the gospel amongst the heathen, how could I ever expect to enjoy the blessing of God, and peace of conscience, though surrounded with every temporal mercy?” wrote Harriet.

            Like other missionary women after her, Harriet was distressed by the thought of leaving friends and family forever. “But no!” she continued, “I must relinquish their society, and follow God to a land of strangers, where millions of my fellow sinners are perishing for lack of vision.”[8]

            Both marriages took place on February 5, 1812. The same day, Jonathan Allen, pastor of the First Church in Bradford, delivered a farewell sermon for the two women. It was meant as a separate charge from that given to their husbands, which took place the following day. Allen’s sermon was a historical event, as it clearly defined the responsibilities of Ann and Harriet – the first American women on the mission field – particularly “to teach these women to whom your husbands can have but little, or no access. Go then, and do all in your power to enlighten their minds and bring them to the knowledge of the truth.”[9]

            The missionaries left for India on March 14, 1812. But changes in the political situation in India forced them to find new destinations. But Harriet died soon after leaving India, shortly after giving birth to a son who lived only five days.

            The Judsons moved on to Burma (today’s Myanmar). By then, Adoniram had famously become convinced of the validity of believers’ baptism (as opposed to infant baptism) and had felt constrained to change denominations and, consequently, missionary agencies. For Ann, the decision was not as simple because she had not come to the same conclusions. Eventually, however, Adoniram persuaded her of his convictions.

            This came at the cost of much loneliness and financial struggle. After resigning from the Congregationalist American Board, the Judsons found themselves in a foreign land with no home base of support.

Evangelist and Translator

            Ann’s intervention in Adoniram’s favor after Burmese guards arrested him in 1823 as a suspected spy is well known. She followed him, through her pregnancy and childbirth, wherever he was placed, and appealed to the government every day. Still, it was only in 1826, after the British victory in the Anglo-Burmese war that Adoniram was released from prison.

            By that time, Ann’s body was so taxed by the hardships that she died the same year. Her last words were in Burmese. Their daughter Maria followed her a few months later.

            In North America, Ann is remembered as role model for generations of missionary women. While her sacrificial life has rightly been emphasized, she should also be remembered for her importance in the evangelization of both Burma and Thailand. In Burma, she learned to speak the language so well that she could share the gospel with other women on a daily basis. What’s more, she learned the unique Burmese writing system, which allowed her to write a Burmese catechism and translate several tracts, as well as the books of Jonah and Daniel (while her husband translated other portions of the Bible).

            In 1816, when a community of Thai prisoners of war arrived in Rangoon, she devoted herself to their care and learned to speak and write their language (with new characters) so well that three years later she was able to translate the Book of Matthew into Thai, send it to the press, and distribute it in Rangoon.  This was the first portion of Scriptures ever translated into Thai.

            Adoniram remarried twice, and both of his new wives - Sarah Boardman and Emily Chubbuck - continued Ann’s work of evangelization and translation, reinforcing and enriching the model of missionary woman she had set for future generations.

[1] Stacy R. Warburton, Eastward! The Story of Adoniram Judson, New York: Round Table Press, 1937, 87.

[2] James D. Knowles, Memoir of Mrs. Ann H. Judson: wife of the Rev. Adoniram Judson, missionary to Burmah, including a history of the American Baptist mission in the Burman empire, London: Wishtman and Cramp, 1829, 15

[3] Knowles, Memoir, 17

[4] Knowles, Memoir, 17

[5] Knowles, Memoir, 17

[6] Knowles, Memoir, 17-18

[7] Edward Judson, The Life of Adoniram Judson, Vol. 3, New York: Anson D. F. Randolf & Co., 1883, 20

[8] Harriet Newell, Memoirs of Mrs. Harriet Newell, London: Booth & Co., 1815, 69

[9] Jonathan Allen, "Sermon, delivered at Haverhill, February 5, 1812, on the occasion of two young ladies being about to embark as the wives of Rev. Messieurs Judson and Newell, going missionaries to India," V. B. & H. G. Allen, 1812, 19


Simonetta Carr