The Missionary Icon Who Had Nothing Better to Say

If you’ve been around The Crossing long, you’ve probably heard the phrase, “As Christians, we can never get past the gospel.” Adoniram Judson, the first missionary ever sent out from North America in 1812, understood and illustrated this truth.

Here was a man who, for the sake of Christ, gave up almost everything. His biography, To the Golden Shore, by Courtney Anderson tells of his harrowing, and at times terribly sad, tales of imprisonment, persecution, sickness, living in the midst of foreign war, and the death of numerous children and wives. It also tells about how he preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ to thousands and thousands of people in Burma who had never heard it before. In fact, his life work of translating the entire Bible into Burmese has probably meant that millions of people have heard the gospel for generations to come.

That’s why when Judson returned to the U.S. decades after setting sail for Burma, throngs of people swamped him. Anderson writes of the visit to his homeland:

The country was full of men and women who had been hearing all their lives about the great missionary….But although the Judson legend had been growing for 33 years, few now living had ever seen the man himself. This was their chance. Scarcely any celebrity, any public figure, any hero, could hope to rival the interest aroused by the visit of Adoniram Judson to the United States.

It’s hard for us to imagine this scene in our culture, but the missionary couldn’t get away from adoring fans everywhere he went. And, Adoniram hated it. He hated that people idolized him and seemed to forget that he was a flawed, sinful man himself.

At one of his stops, he reluctantly agreed to preach to a small congregation. The church was packed with people who had learned he would have something to say. His wife, Emily, later wrote that his 15 minute sermon captured the love of the Savior and “what he has done for us, and what we owe him…with singular simplicity, and…touching pathos.” The rest of the crowd, however, were clearly disappointed that day. Afterwards, several of the people asked Emily why Judson had not talked of something else or told a story.

On his way home from the meeting, she mentioned this to the missionary. Quite an instructive conversation ensued:

“Why, what did they want?” he inquired; “I presented the most interesting subject in the world, to the best of my ability.”

“But they wanted something different—a story.”

“Well, I am sure I gave them a story—the most thrilling one that can be conceived of.”

“But they had heard it before. They wanted something new of a man who had just come from the antipodes.”

“Then I am glad they have it to say, that a man coming from the antipodes had nothing better to tell than the wondrous story of Jesus’ dying love.”

Adoniram Judson got it. Do we? Or, are we mistakenly looking for a more exciting, “new” story and missing out on the greatest one ever told?

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