Adoniram Judson and Baptism

Adoniram and Ann Judson along with the Newells sailed from Salem, Massachusetts, on the 19th of February, 1812. Judson spent part of the journey in a study of the question of infant baptism. He understood the baptism of new converts to be the plain command of Scripture. “But how,” thought he, “am I to treat the unconverted children and servants of such converts? If I adopt the Abrahamic covenant, and put baptism in the place of circumcision, I must consider not only the children but the servants of the family entitled to baptism.” Along with this issue, he also began to examine the mode of baptism. He knew he would be spending time with the Baptist missionaries at Serampore, India, although he was not aware that William Carey and the other missionaries made it a rule never to introduce their opinions to their guests of other persuasions.

Judson’s son, Edward, indicated that Judson’s plan was to start a Congregational church in the neighborhood of the Baptists, and thus he would have to explain to the natives the differences between Congregational baptism and Baptist baptism. He realized that he needed to thoroughly study these differences so that he could successfully maintain his Pedobaptist position. Edward declared that Judson, during the long sea voyage, had plenty of time for thought and study on this important subject, and came to the conclusion that he was wrong and the Baptists were right.

Winfred Hervey indicates that Judson began his study of baptism while at sea, but did not come to a conclusion until after he had arrived in India. The two families arrived at Calcutta on the 17th of June. From Calcutta, the new missionaries traveled a few miles to Serampore to meet with the English missionaries. At Serampore nothing was said about baptism, and Judson put the topic aside. Problems with the English authorities, however, sent the Americans back to Calcutta, where they were detained for two months. There the Judsons found several books on both sides of the subject of baptism. Adoniram read everything in the small library at Calcutta. Ann told him she was afraid he would become a Baptist and warned him of the unhappy consequences. She also told him if he became a Baptist, she would not! Soon, however, she began to read the works as well, and eventually both concluded that they were wrong and the Baptists were right.

Edward Judson stated of his father, “Can I not cherish them in secret, and still remain identified with the religious body that I so much love and honor? No; because if individual faith is the prerequisite of baptism, what scriptural authority would we have for baptizing the unconscious infant? If baptism is a symbol, then of course the form is all important. If faith must precede baptism, and if immersion is essential to baptism, then he himself had never been baptized at all. He knew that baptism had been expressly commanded by our blessed Lord, and that alone was sufficient to necessitate obedience. Prompt and straightforward obedience to Christ was the keynote of his life. His was too positive a character to try to effect a compromise between conviction and action. He had one of those great natures that cannot afford to move along with the crowd.”

They were baptized on September 6, 1812, in the Baptist chapel at Calcutta. The renunciation of their former position caused them both more spiritual and personal pain than anything else in their lives. A short time later, Judson preached a message on baptism, discussing why he came to his conclusion. This is available at Google books; click here to read his sermon.

Luther Rice, who soon joined the Judsons, adopted the same views and followed the example of the Judsons. This change in position concerning baptism forced Judson and Rice to sever their connections with the Congregational American Board of Missions, which had sent them to the mission field. (See Brian Trainer, “Adoniram Judson: Father of Modern Missions” for information on the effect on the Congregationalists of America.)