Adoniram Judson: Father of American Missions

by Brian Trainer

Adoniram Judson is commonly called the “Father of American Missions.” This title is proper. Judson was the first minister of the gospel to depart from American shores in order to dedicate himself to the proclamation of Jesus Christ to the heathen abroad. Several aspects of Judson’s ministry earn him the position of “Father” or originator. First, Judson was a vocational minister.  In other words, his financial support was raised entirely from his gospel ministry. Second, he departed from the boundaries of America. David Brainard and others were home missionaries within the known territory of the United States, but God directed Judson to leave the country. Third, Judson’s entire financial support was derived from local churches in the United States. By faith, churches chose to support a man who would represent them abroad. Fourth, Judson was the first American to accept this task of world evangelization. Though others went with him, Judson was the acknowledged leader and the one whose foreign ministry extended the longest time span. These four elements combined earn Judson the title as “Father of American Missions.” As such, Judson’s life and ministry is a pattern upon which other missionaries, from his contemporaries until the present, can look for instruction and encouragement.


Judson’s life and ministry cannot be covered adequately in this short article. When surveying Judson’s life and ministry, multiple joys, discouragements, and turning points are easily noted. One of these turning points occurred after Judson left America and prior to his arrival in Burma, which would be his home for thirty-eight years. He decided to reject pedobaptism and become a post-conversion immersionist, a resolution that shook the ecclesiastical world of his day. This decision proved to be not only a personal turning point for Judson, but it consequently compelled American Baptists as a whole to join the efforts of world evangelization. Our purpose in this article is to briefly survey Judson’s life prior to his foreign service, his decision to become an immersionist, and the eventual response to his decision.

Judson’s Conversion

Adoniram Judson was born on August 9, 1788, in Malden, Massachusetts. He was the eldest son of Adoniram Judson Sr, a Congregational minister. At an early age, Adoniram’s parents recognized his intellectual prowess. In fact, by age three he could read an entire chapter of the Bible. By age ten, Judson had a reputation for his proficiency in both arithmetic and Greek. In 1804, at the young age of sixteen, he entered Providence College, subsequently called Brown University. Three years later, Judson graduated as the valedictorian. This was followed by a brief stint as a teacher in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where he authored “Elements of English Grammar” and “The Young Lady’s Arithmetic,” both secondary level textbooks.

Judson’s excellence in the realm of academics was not accompanied by a pursuit of his parents’ God. To be sure, Judson was acquainted with the piety of his parents and had an intellectual knowledge of the Scriptures, but he personally rejected God. Influenced by a college friend, Jacob Eames, Adoniram espoused the theology of Deism and proclaimed himself a “free thinker.” His newfound belief led to open debate with his stern, Congregational father. Unable to reason with his father and longing for the world’s pleasures, Judson traveled to New York City to seek a life of independence from his parents’ spiritual pressure.  The brief visit was discouraging as his company of friends turned to petty theft and crime to make ends meet. Judson had no place to go, but back home.

On his journey home, he had occasion to stay at an inn. The events of this evening changed the course of his life, as his son Edward later recounts:

The next night he stopped at a country inn. The landlord mentioned, as he lighted him to his room, that he had been obliged to place him next door to a young man who was exceedingly ill, probably in a dying state; but he hoped that it would occasion him no uneasiness. Judson assured him that, beyond pity for the poor sick man, he should have no feeling whatever, and that now, having heard of the circumstance, his pity would not of course be increased by the nearness of the object. But it was, nevertheless, a very restless night. Sounds came from the sick-chamber—sometimes the movements of the watchers, sometimes the groans of the sufferer; but it was not these which disturbed him. He thought of what the landlord had said—the stranger was probably in a dying state; and was he prepared? Alone, and the dead of night, he felt a blush of shame steal over him at the question, for it proved the shallowness of his philosophy. What would his late companions say to his weakness? The clear-minded, intellectual, witty E—, what would he say to such consummate boyishness? But still his thoughts would revert to the sick man. Was he a Christian, calm and strong in the hope of a glorious immortality? Or was he shuddering upon the brink of a dark, unknown future? Perhaps he was a ‘freethinker,’ educated by Christian parents, and prayed over by a Christian mother. The landlord had described him as a young man; and in imagination he was forced to place himself upon the dying bed, though he strove with all his might against it. At last morning came, and the bright flood of light which it poured into his chamber dispelled all his ‘superstitious illusions.’ As soon as he had risen, he went in search of the landlord, and inquired for his fellow-lodger. ‘He is dead,’ was the reply. ‘Dead!’ ‘Yes, he is gone, poor fellow! The doctor said he would probably not survive the night.’ ‘Do you know who he was?’ ‘O, yes; it was a young man from Providence College—a very fine fellow; his name was E—’ Judson was completely stunned. After hours had passed, he knew not how, he attempted to pursue his journey. But one single thought occupied his mind, and the words, Dead! lost! lost! were continually ringing in his ears. He knew the religion of the Bible to be true; he felt its truth; and he was in despair. In this state of mind he resolved to abandon his scheme of travelling, and at once turned his horse’s head toward Plymouth.

Throughout the remainder of Adoniram Judson’s life, he credited the events of this evening for altering the direction of his life.

On October 12, 1808, Judson was accepted as a “special student” at Andover Seminary—“special” in that he had not made a profession of faith. On December 2, 1808, that changed when Judson made a solemn dedication of himself to God. In September 1809, just one year shy of his conversion, Judson was giving serious contemplation to world missions. In February 1810, he resolved to be a missionary to the heathen abroad.

The Call to Service

The events that followed are landmarks for the American missions movement. Several men from Andover College—Samuel Mills, James Richards, Luther Rice, Samuel Nott, Gordon Hall, Samuel Newell, and Adoniram Judson—formed a missionary fraternity with the goal to represent Christ and the Congregational churches on the foreign mission field. These men prompted the general Association of Congregational Churches to form the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions on June 28, 1810. The first meeting of that board was held on September 5, 1810. Dr. Samuel Worcester was appointed corresponding secretary.

The first action taken by the board was to determine whether there would be a relationship between the American mission board and that of the London Missionary Society. The London Missionary Society had already sent Mr. William Carey as its first missionary abroad, and it was enlisting others to join Carey in India or to extend the mission endeavor to other nations. The American Board hoped to elicit cooperation and financial support from their brethren in England, and consequently selected Judson to travel to London to accomplish this task of communication. Judson’s mission to London met with limited success. While the London Society was not willing to offer assistance to the American Board, it was willing to enlist four men—Judson, Newell, Nott, and Gordon—into the work of the London Society.

This arrangement was not acceptable to the American Board, and on September 18, 1811, the Board voted to advise the four men in question “not to place themselves at present under the direction of the London Missionary Society, but to wait the further intimations of Providence relative to our means of furnishing them with the requisite support in the proposed foreign mission.” This appeal subsequently charted the direction for the American missions movement: American missionaries were to be supported by American churches. As a result, the American Board ordained Newell, Judson, Nott, Hall, and Rice for the gospel ministry as missionaries to Asia on Thursday, February 6, 1812. On February 19, 1812, Adoniram and Ann Judson and Samuel and Harriet Newell embarked from Plymouth in the brig Caravan bound for Calcutta. The Notts, Halls, and Luther Rice embarked at a later date from Philadelphia on the Harmony. The Caravan arrived in Calcutta on June 17, 1812, and the Harmony arrived on July 8, 1812. The American foreign missionary movement had begun.


Adoniram Judson left the shores of America as an educated, ordained, and commissioned Congregationalist missionary. At no time in his early writings is there a question of doubt regarding his position on baptism. As a Congregationalist, he practiced pedobaptism. Yet doubt’s shadow began to darken his mind as he studied the issue in passage from Plymouth to Calcutta. Within a period of four months, Judson’s doubt rose to such heights that his convictions on the issue shifted from the position of pedobaptism to post-conversion immersion. In doing so, Judson isolated himself from his co-workers, his mission board, his home church, and his family. Judson records this theological journey in two significant historical documents. The first is a letter to his home church, in which he communicates the personal and doctrinal struggles he endured while making this decision. The second document is a “sermon,” perhaps better called a treatise today, on the topic of baptism.

The Occasion for Study of the Topic of Baptism

Three events prompted Judson’s study of the issue of baptism while on board the Caravan. First, while he was in Andover he had been working on a translation of the Greek New Testament. This naturally led him to investigate the proper translation for the word bapti,zw (baptizo). Second, Judson carried with him letters from Dr. Worcester to Dr. William Carey asking for assistance from the English Baptist missionaries. Judson, knowing that the issue of baptism would arise, wanted to be able to give a just defense of his position of pedobaptism. Third and foremost, although Judson was an educated and ordained minister, he personally had no ministerial experience. Thus, Judson for the first time needed to affirm what he was going to practice in the ministry. In the opening lines of his letter home he writes:

You will readily believe me, when I say, that on leaving my country, I little imagined, that I should ever become a Baptist. I had not indeed candidly examined the subject of baptism; but I had strong prejudices against the sect, that is every where spoken against.

It was on board the vessel, in prospect of my future life among the heathen, that I was led to investigate this important subject. I was going forth to proclaim the glad news of salvation through Jesus Christ. I hoped, that my ministrations would be blessed to the conversion of souls. In that case, I felt that I should have no hesitation concerning my duty to the converts, it being plainly commanded in scripture, that such are to be baptized, and received into church fellowship. But how, thought I, am I to treat the unconverted children and domestics of the converts? Are they to be considered members of the church of Christ, by virtue of the conversion of the head of their family, or not? If they are, ought I not to treat them as such? After they are baptized, can I consistently set them aside, as aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, until they are readmitted? If they are not to be considered members of the church, can I consistently administer to them the initiating ordinance of the church?

These questions troubled Judson’s mind. He knew he had to arrive at biblical answers prior to beginning his ministry abroad. Practice based upon tradition or upbringing was not sufficient. Biblical truth must be the foundation on which Judson stood.

Searching the Scriptures: The Mode of Baptism

As Judson searched the Scriptures for answers to his questions, his study proceeded upon two tracks: the meaning of the word “baptism” and the significance of the ordinance in Scriptures. Regarding the first line of study, Judson made the following conclusions:

The primitive word ba,ptw (bapto) from which the word denoting baptism, is derived, signifies immersion. This, with the general consent of the Pedobaptists themselves, is as much the appropriate meaning of the Greek word, as of the English word, dip or immerse.

The word denoting baptism (bapti,zw)(baptizo) is derived from the verbal of this primitive word (baptoz) (baptoz) by a change in the termination, which, according to an established principle in the Greek language, never affects the primary idea; but when made on words, expressing a quality or attribute, merely conveys the additional idea of causing or making.

The word which denotes the act of baptizing, according to the usage of Greek writers, uniformly signifies or implies immersion.

That immersion is the exclusive signification of the word, appears from the following testimonies of eminent Pedobaptist authors, whose concessions on this subject could not have been affected by Baptist partialities, but must have resulted from a conviction of truth alone.

There are no instances, in the New Testament which require us to depart from the etymological and established interpretation of the word.

The places chosen for the administration of the ordinance, and the circumstances attending those instances, in which the act of baptizing as particularly described, in the New Testament, plainly indicate immersion.

The idea of immersion is the only one, which will suit all the various connections, in which the word is used in the New Testament.

Under each point made, Judson argued extensively the various New Testament passages that supported his assertions. He was convinced that the word “baptism” must mean immersion. He notes:

But throughout the whole New Testament, I could find nothing that looked like sprinkling, in connection with the ordinance of baptism. It appeared to me, that a plain person should, without any previous information on the subject, read through the New Testament, he would never get the idea, that baptism consisted in sprinkling.

Judson’s mode of baptism was scripturally settled. He would be an immersionist. One question still lingered, however: who should be baptized?

Searching the Scriptures: The Subjects of Baptism

Judson received his theological education under the interpretative hermeneutic of covenant theology, which concludes that the relationship between Abraham, Israel, and the church is without substantial distinction. As Judson approached the practice of baptism, he was forced to reinvestigate the relationship between these three entities. Were they analogous? Were the covenantal rites of circumcision and baptism identical? Judson’s conclusions to these arguments provided him with the answer to the question that had been troubling him: who are the rightful participants in Christian baptism? He wrote to his home church regarding his discoveries:

When I proceeded to consider certain passages, which are thought to favor the Pedobaptist system, (1 Cor. 7:14; Acts 2:39; Matt. 19:14, 18:3; Acts 16:34; 1 Cor. 1:16) I found nothing satisfactory.

In a word, I could not find a single intimation, in the New Testament, that the children and domestics of believers were members of the church, or entitled to any church ordinance, in consequence of the profession of the head of their family. Everything discountenanced this idea. When baptism was spoken of, it was always in connection with believing. None but believers were commanded to be baptized; and it did not appear to my mind that any others were baptized.

Here, then, appeared a striking difference between the Abrahamic and the Christian systems. The one recognized the membership of children, domestics, and remote descendants of professors, and also tended directly to the establishment of a national religion. The other appeared to be a selective system, acknowledging none as members of the church, but such as gave credible evidence of believing in Christ.

This led me to suspect, that these two systems, so evidently different, could not be one and the same. And now the light began to dawn. The more I read, and the more I meditated on the subject, the more clearly it appeared to me, that all my errors and difficulties had originated, in confounding these two systems.

I cannot describe to you, dear brethren, the light and satisfaction, which I obtained, in taking this view of the matter, in considering the two churches distinct, and in classing my ideas of each in their proper place. I became possessed of a key, that unlocked many a difficulty, which had long perplexed me. And the more I read the Bible, the more clearly I saw, that this was the true system therein revealed.

But on the other hand, if you adopt and practice the Abrahamic system, you will inevitably confound the church and the world; you will receive into the church multitudes who are destitute of those qualifications, which are represented, in the New Testament, as requisite to constitute a member of the kingdom which Christ set up; you will ultimately establish a national religion; and this will be as contrary to the system laid down in the New Testament.

These excerpts from Judson’s letter reflect the major interpretative shift in his hermeneutic. It also indicates the reason Judson became not only an immersionist, but a post-conversion immersionist. Because post-conversion immersion is the primary distinction of the Baptist church, in a word Adoniram Judson became a Baptist.

The Personal Cost

Judson’s decision to become a Baptist was not made without a great deal of personal thought and grief. Judson described his position as “being in the grip of a Gordian knot.” He reflected on the cost of his decision in his letter home:

But while I obtained light and satisfaction on one side, I was plunged in difficulty and distress on the other. If, thought I, this system is the true one, if the Christian church is not a continuation of the Jewish, if the covenant of circumcision is not precisely the covenant in which Christians now stand, the whole foundation of Pedobaptism is gone; there is no remaining ground for the administration of any church ordinance, to the children and domestics of professors; and it follows inevitably, that I, who was christened in infancy, on the faith of my parents, have never yet received Christian baptism. Must I, then, forsake my parents, the church with which I stand connected, the society under whose patronage I have come out, the companions of my missionary undertaking? Must I forfeit the good opinion of all my friends in my native land, occasioning grief to some, and provoking others to anger, and be regarded henceforth, by all my former dear acquaintance, as a weak, despicable Baptist, who has not sense enough to comprehend the connection between the Abrahamic and the Christian systems? All this was mortifying; it was hard to flesh and blood. But I thought again — It is better to be guided by the opinion of Christ, who is the truth, than by the opinion of men, however good, whom I know to be in an error.

I saw, that, in a double sense, I was unbaptized, and I felt the command of Christ pressing my conscience. Now if I quieted my conscience in regard to my own personal baptism, and concluded, that on account of my peculiar circumstances, it was best to consult my own convenience, rather than the command of Christ, still the question would return, with redoubled force, —How am I to treat the children and domestics of converted heathen? This was the beginning of all my difficulties, and this, on Pedobaptist principles, I could not resolve, by the Bible, or by any books that I consulted.

I have been sensible, that my change of sentiment would give much pain to many whom I loved and respected, to the members of the church I am now addressing, and to my honored father, your pastor. This reflection was the greatest trial attending my baptism. It was natural for me, therefore, to be desirous of showing you clearly the extremity to which I was reduced, and the potency of those arguments which constrained me to become a Baptist; hoping that you would, by that means, be led to sympathize with me, in the exercises of mind that I have experienced, and be willing to admit, that my conduct has not been the result of momentary caprice, or the still more reprehensible effect of interested and sinister motives. I solemnly profess to have done this thing from a single regard to truth and duty. I have not altered my sentiments on any point of doctrine, or Christian experience. My heart tells me, dear brethren, that I am still on with you, though we differ on the subject of baptism.

To become a “weak, despicable Baptist” was not simply a personal issue. His wife, Ann, was intimately involved in the theological journey, and in each debate she chose the side of pedobaptism.She listened attentively to his argumentation and studied the Scriptures personally, and though she saw the reasoning, she was hesitant. She wrote these words to her parents: “I tried to have him give it up, and rest satisfied in his old sentiments, and frequently told him, if he became a Baptist, I would not.” Upon arriving in Calcutta, Ann studied the subject once again “with all my prejudices on the Pedobaptist side.” Eventually she capitulated, not based upon marital pressure, but because she found “that the truth appeared to lie on the Baptist’s side.”

The emotional cost to Ann was significant. Consider her reflections on this subject in a letter to her parents, then in a letter to a friend:

It was extremely trying to reflect on the consequences of our becoming Baptists. We knew it would wound and grieve our dear Christian friends in America—that we should lose their approbation and esteem. We thought it probable the commis­sioners would refuse to support us; and, what was more distressing than anything, we knew we must be separated from our missionary associates, and go alone to some heathen land. These things were very trying to us, and caused our hearts to bleed for anguish. We felt we had no home in this world, and no friend but each other.

She wrote in a similar fashion to a dear friend:

Can you, my dear Nancy, still love me, still desire to hear from me, when I tell you I have become a Baptist? If I judge from my own feelings, I answer you will, and that my differing from you in those things which do not affect our salvation will not diminish your affection for me, or make you unconcerned for my welfare. . . . Thus, my dear Nancy, we are confirmed Baptists, not because we wish to be, but because truth compelled us to be. We have endeavored to count the cost, and be prepared for the many severe trials resulting from this change of sentiment. We anticipate the loss of reputation, and of the affection and esteem of many of our American friends. But the most trying circumstance attending this change, and that which has caused most pain, is the separation which must take place between us and our dear missionary associates. Although we are attached to each other, and should doubtless live very happily together, yet the brethren do not think it best we should unite in one mission. These things, my dear Nancy, have caused us to weep and pour out our hearts in prayer to Him whose directions we so much wish and need. We feel that we are alone in the world, with no real friend but each other, no one on whom we can depend but God.”

The Final Decision

After Adoniram and Ann made the decision together to become Baptists, they sent the following letter to the leaders of the Baptist mission agency in Serampore.

Calcutta, August 27, 1812


As you have been ignorant of the late exercises of my mind on the subject of baptism, the communication which I am about to make may occasion you some surprise.

It is now about four months since I took the subject into serious and prayerful consideration. My inquiries, commenced during my passage from America, and after much laborious research and painful trial, which I shall not now detail, have issued in entire conviction, that the immersion of a professing believer is the only Christian baptism.

In these exercises I have not been alone. Mrs. Judson has been engaged in a similar examination, and has come to the same conclusion. Feeling, therefore, that we are in an unbaptised state, we wish to profess our faith in Christ by being baptised in obedience to his sacred commands.

Adoniram Judson, Jun.

Consequently, on September 6, 1812, in the Lal Bazar Chapel in Calcutta, Dr. Ward of the London Missionary Society baptized Adoniram and Ann. Both had studied the Scriptures together and separately. Both were aware of the great cost of their decision. Both recognized that to become a Baptist would mean the loss of friends, support, family, and perhaps even their missionary endeavor. Both knew they were obligated to share their change in conviction with the newly formed American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. This was done by way of letter on September 1, 1812. Judson wrote his dear friend and supporter, Dr. Worcester, and informed him of his change in position.

Rev. and Dear Sir,  —

My change of sentiments on the subject of baptism is considered by my missionary brethren as incompatible with my continuing their fellow-labourer in the mission which they contemplate on the Island of Madagascar; and it will, I presume, be considered by the board of Commissioners as equally incompatible with my continuing their missionary. The Board will, undoubtedly, feel as unwilling to support a Baptist missionary as I feel to comply with their instructions, which particularly direct us to baptise ‘credible believers with their households.’

The dissolution of my connection with the Board of Commissioners, and a separation from my dear missionary brethren, I considered most distressing consequences of my late change of sentiments, and, indeed, the most distressing events which have ever befallen me. I have now the prospect before me of going alone to some distant island, unconnected with any society at present existing, from which I might be furnished with assistant labourers or pecuniary support. Whether the Baptist churches in America will compassionate my situation, I know not. I hope, therefore, that while my friends condemn what they deem a departure from the truth, they will at least pity me and pray for me.

With the same sentiments of

affection and respect as ever,

I am, sir, your friend and servant

Adoniram Judson, Jun.

Just as they had anticipated and feared, the Judsons were left at that time without friends. Their American missionary brethren, supporting churches, and home mission board were of a different doctrinal persuasion and thus could no longer work with them.  Due to political and commercial pressures, the East Indian Trading Company controlled by the English was demanding that all Americans leave India immediately. The only personal bright spot for the Judsons was their friendship with Luther Rice. He, too, had changed his position on baptism and was willing to stay with the Judsons and work. The only hope they had of staying on the mission field was the prospect of a positive response to the following letter sent to Dr. Bolles, a Baptist pastor in New England.

Calcutta, September 1, 1812

Rev. Sir, —I  recollect that, during a short interview I had with you in Salem, I suggested the formation of a society among the Baptists in America for the support of foreign missions, in imitation of the exertions of your English brethren. Little did I then expect to be personally concerned in such an attempt.

Within a few months I have experienced an entire change of sentiments on the subject of baptism. My doubts concerning the correctness of my former system of belief commenced during my passage from America to this country; and after many painful trials, which none can know but those who are taught to relinquish a system in which they had been educated, I settled down in the full persuasion that the immersion of a professing believer in Christ is the only Christian baptism.

Mrs. Judson is united with me in this persuasion. We have signified our views and wishes to the Baptist missionaries at Serampore, and expect to be baptised in this city next Lord’s day.

A separation from my missionary brethren, and a dissolution of my connection with the board of commissioners, seem to be necessary conse­quences. The missionaries at Serampore are exerted to the utmost of their ability in managing and supporting their extensive and complicated mission.

Under these circumstances I look to you. Alone, in this foreign heathen land, I make my appeal to those whom, with their permission, I will call my Baptist brethren in the United States.

With the advice of the brethren at Serampore, I am contemplating a mission on one of the eastern islands. They have lately sent their brother Chater to Ceylon, and their brother Robinson to Java. At present, Amblyna seems to present the most favourable opening. Fifty thousand souls are there perishing without the means of life; and the situation of the island is such that a mission there established might, with the blessing of God, be extended to the neighbouring islands in those seas.

But should I go thither, it is a most painful reflection that I must go alone, and also uncertain of the means of support. But I will trust in God. He has frequently enabled me to praise his divine goodness, and will never forsake those who put their trust in him.

I am, dear sir,

Yours, in the Lord Jesus,

Adoniram Judson, Jun

The Judsons could only wait, hope, and pray that their short missionary career would continue. Their decision to change was marked by both a serious study of the Word of God and great personal pain. It certainly was not the prudent choice based upon the wisdom of men. It cost them everything they had at that time. It was, however, the necessary choice based upon the divine dictates of their conscience. As Luther of old said, “Here they stood, they could do no other.”


The Negative Response

The results of Judson’s decision in the broadest sense are evidenced by the entirety of the American Baptist missionary movement from 1812 to the present. In the narrower historic sense, Judson’s decision prompted both a negative and positive response. The negative response was voiced by the Reverend Enoch Pond, a Congregational pastor in Ward, Massachusetts. He published a book entitled, A Treatise on the Mode and Subjects of Christian Baptism — Designed as a reply to the Statements and Reasonings of the Rev. Adoniram Judson, which was a response to the sermon that Judson had preached in India. This sermon was published in the United States and subsequently received great attention. Pond begins the book by stating his reason for writing.

But is the present revival of this controversy properly chargeable to the writer? When Mr. Judson wrote and published his Sermon, with the avowed design of transmitting it to America, he well knew that he was treading on controversial ground; and he had every reason to expect, unless he supposed it would force universal conviction, that someone in his native country would attempt a reply.

Pond’s reply, though, was not merely theological in context. He questioned Judson’s motivations for his change in position.

Pedobaptists would gladly indulge the hope, that these pretensions are sincere—that Mr. Judson was influenced in this matter by a sense of duty and the fear of God. They cannot, however, repress the opinion, after a deliberate investigation of concomitant circumstances, that his change is to say the least, a very mysterious event.

He then continued with directly calling Judson’s character into question.

Mr. Judson is a person whom, for several years, I have been accustomed to respect. It is with pain I find myself under obligations to controvert what he has advanced. It is particularly painful, that I am to become the instrument of communicating facts which seriously implicate his moral character. His particular friends may rest assured that I have no pleasure in detraction, and that it would afford me the highest happiness, could the mysteries of his conduct be fully developed, and the charge which in the ensuing pages lies against him be fairly removed.

Pond’s accusations are several. He began by suggesting that Judson’s change was not based upon lines of biblical reasoning, but upon the possibility for financial gain.

The reasonings he has employed have been employed before. And in the course of his theological education, it would seem he must have known this. The arguments he has now advanced and pronounced conclusive, he must have previously considered, and pronounced incorrect.

It is somewhat remarkable in the case of Mr. Judson, that he should be changed to precisely such a point. Having begun to waver, why did he waver just so far, and no farther? Without communicating his “exercises to any of the Baptist denomination,” why did he at length fasten on those very topics, which constitute the peculiarities of the Baptist faith? At a period when his own circumstances were greatly perplexed, and when liable to imagine that some new expedient might improve them; how came he to coincide so exactly with those Missionaries among whom Providence had thrown him, who were now prosperously established, and engaged in their benevolent work?

Second, Pond suggests that Judson was not honest and open with his co-workers and not loyal to his home church.

Another remarkable circumstance respecting Mr. Judson’s change, is the concealment of his views from his missionary brethren. He certainly could not have renounced Pedobaptist principles without a struggle. He could not have been honestly brought to decide, that those ministers with whom he had ever associated were not regular ministers of Christ; that those churches with which he was connected, on which he was dependent, and to which he was under solemn obligations, were not regularly constituted churches of Christ; that his reverend father and most intimate Christian friends had never been baptized in the name of the Trinity, or rightly professed the Christian faith; yea, that he himself had constantly fostered that, which (pursued to what he deems its direct consequences) is “the most pernicious practice which ever infested and laid waste the vineyard of the Lord” — he could not possibly have been brought to such a decision, without a deep inward conflict. How strange, then, that the conflict never became visible! That it was neither observed by, nor revealed to, his missionary companions! Here is a band of brothers, going forth with the gospel to a land of idols, not only under peculiar obligations, but, it should seem, peculiarly disposed, to maintain an intercourse the most frank and open; and yet one of them passes through a scene of the utmost mental trouble; dissents from the church order of his ancestors, supporters, and associates; and is at length on the point of a complete separation from them, and has never made to them the slightest intimations of what had passed, and was passing in his mind!!

Third, Pond accused Judson of harboring resentment regarding a past reprimand he received from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions regarding Judson’s interaction with the London Missionary Society.  The accusation was that Adoniram had overstepped his bounds as he negotiated for a partnership between the two parties. Initially, Judson had denied that a formal admonition was given, (though later in life he notes that mistakes were made for which he was sorry).  Pond seized on this discrepancy and accused Judson of both bitterness and dishonesty.

It will be recollected by many, that soon after the intelligence of Mr. Judson’s change had reached America, it was hinted in certain circles, that this had been induced by resentment. He had received, previously to his leaving the country, a solemn reprimand or admonition from the Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions; and the affront occasioned by it had induced him to desert them. Rumours like these at length found their way into the East, and reached the ears of Mr. Judson.

To substantiate his accusation, Pond quoted Dr. Samuel Worcester, the corresponding secretary of the American Board. Worcester was responding to the question concerning whether Judson actually received a formal reprimand from the Board.

In the beginning of the year 1811, Mr. Judson was sent by the Prudential Committee to England, for purposes distinctly specified in his instructions. In that mission, what he was instructed not to do, he did; and what he was instructed to do, he neglected. On his return, in July of the same year, he kept himself aloof from the Prudential committee, made no regular report of his doings, and assumed the management of matters in his own way.

Great dissatisfaction was expressed by every member present; and it became a very serious question whether Mr. Judson should not be dismissed. After deliberation, however, it was resolved, that he should be in a formal and solemn manner admonished. THE ADMONITION WAS ACCORDINGLY ADMINISTERED IN PRESENCE OF THE BOARD.

In the February following, his deportment was such, that it again became a serious and most trying question with the Prudential committee, whether he should be permitted to go. And it was not without great heaviness of heart, many fears, and particular but tender cautions, not to him only, but to the other Missionaries respecting him, that he was finally sent out.

The ultimate issue is with Him, to whose sovereign wisdom, and power, and goodness it belongs, to overrule the wayward dispositions and actions of men for the advancement of his own glory and kingdom.

Pond then called for Judson to repent of his lying, to admit his wrongdoing, and to humble himself.

To deny the smallest particular, would be to contradict a body of men, which yields to none in America in point of respectability and worth. To quibble and equivocate on the meaning of certain words, would discover the opposite of an honest, humble spirit; and, instead of exonerating him, would in the estimation of the candid confirm his guilt. To pretend forgetfulness of the fact which he has denied would be perfectly unaccountable, and excite the suspicion of an attempt to impose upon the publik [sic].  In short, we see but one course which Mr. J. can dutifully pursue.  He must retrace his steps. The credit of congregationalism does not require that he should return to his former sentiments; but the credit of religion does imperiously require, that he humble himself, and be willing to confess the truth.

Pond continues to question Judson’s character by suggesting that “Mr. J. possesses naturally a proud, unstable, aspiring temper; and none need be informed, that mortified pride and cramped ambition are powerful stimulants of revenge.”

Fourth, Pond accused Judson of plagiarism regarding his sermon on baptism. Judson had referenced the work of a Mr. Booth throughout his treatise.

In short, what part of the work is to be accredited to Mr. Judson, and what to Mr. Booth? There ought to be no foundation for questions like these. The very face of the Discourse should completely preclude them. There evidently is in this Sermon a great (not to say needless) parade of learning. We hope it was not Mr. Judson’s design to be accredited with all this learning himself; but we are sure a great proportion of his readers are in danger of mistaking the truth. If he is a modest man, he will wish therefore it should be stated, that nearly all his quotations and references, unless it be those of a very modern date, are transcribed, verbatim et literatim, from Mr. Booth and others; and that a great proportion of the learning displayed in the work is not originally his own.

We had the curiosity to spend an hour or two in comparing Mr. Judson’s Sermon with “Pedobaptism Examined.” We directly discovered between sixty and seventy quotations with their references, and nearly forty references where there were no quotations, which were manifestly transcribed from this learned work! These quotations and references must have cost Mr. Booth more labour than to write a folio. All the credit he has for them, is crowded into less than three indefinitely and equivocally constructed lines!!!

Finally, Pond stated that Judson was missing the entire point concerning the baptism controversy.

The question at issue in this part of the subject is not whether immersion is a valid mode of baptism: this we may admit. Nor is it whether this mode is preferable to all others; for we are willing that those who prefer immersion, even in our own churches, should be indulged. Nor is it whether immersion was frequently practised in the early ages of Christianity; this we have no necessity or disposition to deny. We do not say that neither of these points is questionable; but neither of them is the precise question in dispute. The point at issue is in few words this — Is immersion essential? Mr. Judson contends, that the idea of immersion enters into the very “nature of baptism; that the terms baptism and immersion are equivalent and interchangeable.” He evidently supposes immersion essential to the ordinance. This, then, is the point to which his reasonings ought to tend. Let him prove, what we deny, that immersion is essential to baptism, and the controversy is at an end.

Pond’s attack on Judson was to be expected on all fronts. His book was distributed throughout Congregational and Baptist churches. No doubt it impacted Judson’s friends and family members alike. Because of this, the severity of the cost for the Judsons was extremely high. As they anticipated, it cost them more than financial support; it also called into question their personal integrity. No price can be greater for a minister of the gospel.

Positive Results

As stated earlier, the positive results of Judson’s decision have been evidenced throughout the history of more than 175 years of American Baptist foreign missions outreach. Within the historic context, there were three positive results. First, Luther Rice, due to declining health, returned to America and became a spokesman for Baptist missions. His labor and love for the mission field stirred the hearts of American Baptists throughout the growing country of America. Second, Judson’s letter to Dr. Bolles met with a positive response. The American Baptist churches, through no initiatory action of their own, already had two missionaries on the field. They received this as the hand of God and began a Baptist Association for Foreign Missions. The letter below communicates this decision to Judson.

DEAR BROTHER—by the arrival of the Tartar, in January last, we received the intelligence of your change of views on the subject of Christian baptism, and also intimations of your readiness to embark in a mission under our patronage, should a society be formed among the Baptists in America for that purpose.

Your letters excited peculiar emotions. We considered it as the voice of God calling us to the formation of a missionary society. That we might not, however, be charged with acting prematurely, or be considered as interfering with the Board of commissioners, we ascertained whether they intended to continue you in their service before we formally decided to engage you in ours.

Satisfied on inquiry what was our path of duty, we formed ourselves into a society for propagating the gospel in India and other foreign parts. At a meeting of the trustees, we unanimously agreed to employ you as our missionary, and to stand prepared to support you with all the pecuniary aid we can command.

By the arrival of another vessel, we have heard that the Rev. Mr. Rice entertains the same sentiments as yourself on the subject of baptism. This event gives us joy, because it must add much to your comfort in a foreign land to have a fellow-labourer in the gospel. The board have not met since Mr. Rice’s letter was received, but I am confident that he will be taken under their care. We have not had time to mature our thoughts so as to say with decision whether it would be best for you to be connected with, or independent of, our brethren at Serampore.

At present it appears to us that a connexion with them would most subserve the interests of the Redeemer’s kingdom in India, and be most productive of happiness to yourselves. All the benefits which can be derived from union with men of integrity, disinterested benevolence, and a knowledge of the country, growing out of a twenty years’ experience would accrue to you from a relation with them. These considerations induced us in March last to write to Mr. Fuller, of Kettering, on the subject, expressing our wishes that you might be considered as belonging to the mission family at Serampore. Should it appear, from future events, more desirable that you should act alone, or as American missionaries, separately from the English brethren, then, no doubt, we shall be pleased to have it so; but our present sentiments are, that you had better act with and by their advice.

In behalf of the Society,

Yours affectionately,

Daniel Sharp


Finally, it should be noted that Judson’s relationship with the Congregationalist Board was not permanently severed. In a tender exchange of letters dated twenty-seven years after the separation, Judson wrote to Dr. Anderson, the director of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. His occasion for writing was to ask for a subscription of their newsletter, The Herald, but within the letter he writes:

I am aware that it is not regular to trouble you with this business; but, to tell the truth, I have rather caught at it as giving me an occasion to drop you a line, and perhaps get one in return. Though I have been (as some may think) a wayward son of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, I have always retained the warmest filial affection for that body, under whose auspices I first came out.

I was also afraid that, attempting to change the mode of conveyance, I should, by some accident, lose my Herald altogether, unless I wrote you, and begged you to secure me from such a misfortune.

There are not many, perhaps, now living, who can say, as I can, that they have read every number of the Herald, from the time it first commenced its existence, in the form of the Panoplist and Massachusetts Missionary Magazine, to the present time; and I hope to enjoy the privilege as long as I live. The Herald, in my view, contains more interesting missionary information, and a development of sounder missionary principles, than any other publication in the world.

I remain, reverend and dear sir,

Yours, most sincerely,

A. Judson

Dr. Anderson’s tender reply reads as follows:

REV. ADONIRAM JUDSON, Maulmain, India.

REV. AND DEAR SIR,—A few days since I had the great pleasure of receiving your favour of January 21. If anything was wanted, in addition to your long, devoted, and successful missionary life, to perfect the impression made by your letter to Mr. Evarts, dated June 13, 1880 (and which I replied to February 25, 1831), it was such a letter as lies now before me. But I should not have said, nor am I aware, that anything was necessary to give you a stronger hold upon our hearts than any other one of the brethren of your society can possibly have. We rejoice in the good, the very great good, which has grown out of your change of relation. We see the good hand of our God in this. We would not, therefore, have it otherwise. The old asperities of feeling have perished in the grave, or have been softened down by time and the grace of God. We love to think of you as intimately related to us—having — a common missionary parentage. Hence we send you the Herald, and on this account we mean to send it to you as long as you continue a missionary of our Lord and Master.


Adoniram Judson is the Father of American Foreign Missions. He earned this title not simply by years of service, but by the quality of his life and service. A man of God is forged by his response to turning points. The baptism controversy of 1812 was a memorable turning point in the life of Judson. His fidelity to the Word of God cost him dearly. Yet, the price he paid has reaped rewards for 200 years.