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My Heart In His Hands—Ann Judson of Burma: A Life, with Selections from Her Memoir and Letters

by
Sharon James

Evangelical Press: Durham, England, 1998, 237 pgs.

The book is an account of the life of Ann Judson, wife of Adoniram Judson. Born Ann Hasseltine in 1789 in the New England town of Bradford, Ann was converted from nominal Christianity into a vital spirituality and a true faith in 1806 during the Second Great Awakening, and formally joined the Congregationalist church. She later accepted a proposal of marriage from Adoniram Judson, who was shortly to leave for Asia as one of America’s first overseas missionaries. They married in 1811, and in 1812 they sailed for India. Ann therefore became the first female to leave the “shores of America to spend her life among the heathen” (p. 37). This was an honor Ann shared with childhood friend Harriet Atwood, who was converted during the same revival, and who also married a missionary, Samuel Newell. The Newells sailed with the Judsons as partners in this new missionary venture. As the author says, “America was sending abroad the first of what was to become, to date, the mightiest missionary force in Christian history (p. 43). Unhappily, Harriet died before they reached their ultimate destination of Burma. As Ann wrote in her diary: “Harriet is dead. Harriet, my dear friend, my earliest associate in the Mission, is no more…she is gone, and I am left behind, still to endure the trials of a missionary life” (p. 59). Also before reaching their destination, the Judsons severed their links with their sending agency, the Congregationalist Church of America, due to a change in the Judsons’ convictions concerning infant baptism. This change resulted from intensive study on the subject during the voyage, and they both determined that only believers’ baptism could be supported by the Bible, and they became Baptists. This was a traumatic event as Ann recorded in her diary: “It is painfully mortifying to my natural feelings, to think seriously of renouncing a system which I have been taught from infancy to believe and respect, and embrace one which I have been taught to despise…(but) contrary to my prejudices and my wishes, am compelled to believe, that believers’ baptism alone is found in Scripture” (p. 55). Fortunately, they were able, after resigning from the Congregationalist Church, to obtain Baptist support for their mission.

At this point it should be noted that in this biography, “Ann is allowed to speak for herself. Sharon James has skillfully woven together extracts from her Memoir and other first-hand accounts with linking narrative in a way that brings Ann’s story alive for today” (quoted from cover notes ).

The scope of the story of the Judsons and their missionary service in Burma is difficult to summarize in a review. There is just so much to say, and so many memorable events that occurred in a relatively short period of time. The Judsons arrived in Burma in 1813, and Ann died in 1826, only 13 years later, at the young age of 37. But what transpired in those 13 years makes for an incredible story and a testimony to the love, grace, and faithfulness of God. Their labors were intensive, their trials painful, and their faith tested in the fires of persecutions. As Ann labored alongside her husband in both evangelism and translation work, she did not challenge traditional Bible teaching concerning male leadership, but saw her primary role as evangelizing and teaching women.

To begin with, they showed incredible patience as six years passed before they saw their first convert. Then they were trapped in the capital of Burma when war broke out in 1824 between Britain and Burma. Although they were Americans, not British, all English-speaking people were suspected of being spies. This resulted in Adoniram being arrested, tortured, and imprisoned in horrid conditions. Adoniram’s imprisonment began in June, 1824, when he and another missionary were thrown into the feared “Death Prison.” He would not know freedom until February, 1826. During this period, Ann gave birth to a daughter, faithfully carried on the mission work (even though she was ill herself much of the time), and tirelessly interceded with government officials to procure better conditions and treatment for her husband, as well as coming into the prison to care for him as often as she was allowed. Her faithful ministry continued even though her own life was in considerable danger. Without her intervention and care, Adoniram would almost surely have died. And Adoniram was not the only prisoner to owe his survival to Ann: “One of his fellow-prisoners, an Englishman, later described the ‘ministering angel,’ who supplied him and other prisoners with food and clothes, and who constantly interceded on their behalf” (p. 159). As the tide of war turned in Britain’s favor, Adoniram obtained a temporary release from prison, and when he rushed to their home, he found Ann in severe distress, having contracted cerebral spinal meningitis a month before. Upon seeing Ann’s emaciated, pale, shrunken form lying there, he later described it as follows: “There lay the devoted wife, who had followed him so unwearily from prison to prison, ever alleviating his distresses.” His final freedom a few months later was obtained when Britain made release of the Judsons one of the terms of peace. The Judsons recovered from their illnesses, and with peace established, turned their attention to evangelizing that portion of Burma which was under British rule. But, as the author said: “The cost of these years, however, was higher than Ann realized, and the mission was about to lose one of its most valuable resources.”

While Adoniram was away on a six-month negotiating trip to obtain freedom to evangelize the portion of Burma controlled by the Burmese government, Ann contracted a serious fever and died in October 1826. According to the doctor, the death while immediately due to the fever, was ultimately a result of the privations and long-protracted sufferings that she had long endured, especially during Adoniram’s imprisonment. Now Adoniram had only baby Maria as a link with the one he had loved ever since he set eyes on her back in Bradford, so many years before. But six months later, Maria also succumbed to illness at the age of 2 years, 3 months.

However, Adoniram did come through the crisis, and continued a vital ministry in Burma until his death in 1850. Eight years after Ann’s death, he married Sarah Boardman, the widow of another missionary. And after Sarah’s death, he would marry yet again. “But there was always the certainty that Ann, and then Sarah, had gone before to glory, and that one day there would be a reunion more glorious than could ever be imagined” (page 199). As he wrote to his third wife, Emily: “Heaven will be brighter to me for thy presence. Thou wilt be with Ann and Sarah. We shall all join in the same song of love and praise, and how happy shall we be in beholding each other’s faces aglow with heavenly rapture, as we drink in the life-giving, joy-inspiring smiles of Him whom we shall all love above all” (page 199).

This is a wonderful story. The Judsons were central figures in a crucial church-planting endeavor in its early years, and were founders of the Burmese church. Their careful translation of the Scriptures into Burmese is still the standard version in that land. Ann was the model of a missionary wife, and a passionate advocate of female education. Although none of her own children lived past the toddler stage, many of the Burmese converts regarded her as their spiritual mother. Due to the publication of Ann’s Memoir in 1829, she was the childhood heroine of both Adoniram’s second and third wives. Her writings demonstrate “an overwhelming awareness of the majesty of God and her own unworthiness. This emphasis on human sinfulness and the sovereignty of God was superseded later in the century when older Calvinist orthodoxies fell out of favor,” but to the Judsons, “what happened to them was of secondary importance. A sovereign God could use them as long as he wanted, and then raise up others in their place. Their religion was God-centered, not man-centered” (page 203).

Related Topics: Missions, Testimony & Biography