America’s First Missionary Sacrifices

Sitting in a small cabin on board the ship Caravan were six young people. Two were the well known Ann and Adoniram Judson. Two were young men on board only to say goodbye to the others. The last two were Harriett and Samuel Newell. The former Harriett Atwood was the youngest of the group. Her father had died more than three years before, but her love for Samuel and for her Lord led her to pursue the difficult life of a missionary. The six spoke of their high hopes for a great work to be achieved in Christ’s name in the needy countries of the far East. They sang hymns from an old songbook long since forgotten, and they prayed in the “quietness and confidence” which was their daily strength. On the morning of February 19, 1812, a little after sunrise, the ship spread her sails to the wind. Harriet and Samuel Newell, along with the Judsons, set sail for the mission field.

Their arrival in India was unwelcomed. William Carey and his fellow missionaries opened their homes and hearts to the new missionaries, but the East India Company was far less accommodating. The new arrivals were soon told they could not remain in India and that they must prepare to return to America. There seemed to be but one way of escape – to seek some other heathen country, outside the jurisdiction of the East India Company. So, with sudden, desperate purpose they asked permission to embark for the Isle of France, five thousand miles southwest, near Madagascar. Their request was granted, and on August 4 Samuel and his frail wife sailed away from all their friends in a small ship bound for Port Louis, on the Isle of France. The vessel could accommodate only two passengers, and the Newells were chosen because Harriet’s health made a home an urgent necessity.

The ship was battered mercilessly by winds and waves, so that the voyage of a few weeks lengthened into three anxious months. Far out on the Indian Ocean a baby girl was born in the little cabin on the ship’s deck and given her mother’s name, Harriet Atwood Newell. For a few days joy and hope abounded in the hearts of the parents, but cold and rain fell upon the ill-fated ship, and the baby, unable to endure the exposure, died in her mother’s arms. After the child’s death Harriet showed the first signs of the fatal disease which rapidly consumed her life.

When the dreadful voyage was finally over and the ship came to port, a British surgeon and a Danish physician ministered to the sick wife, but to no avail. Gradually her strength waned until the last flicker of hope for her recovery vanished. Night and day Samuel Newell sat by the bedside of his beloved wife trying to catch every precious word she spoke. Her thoughts seemed to dwell with perfect peace upon Christ and heaven, although at times Harriet spoke of her mother across the seas in the Atwood homestead in Haverhill. “Tell my dear mother,” she said, “how much Harriet loved her. Tell her to look to God and keep near to him and he will support and comfort her in all her trials. Tell my brothers and sisters, from the lips of their dying sister, that there is nothing but religion worth living for. Tell them, and also my dear mother, that I have never regretted leaving my native land for the cause of Christ.”

On a November afternoon, death sealed Harriet’s brown eyes, and there, in a little mud-walled cottage, she quietly breathed her last. In a land of strangers, without one friend to weep with him, her husband followed the body of his wife to the graveyard of Port Louis, where, in the heathy ground, under an evergreen tree which suggested her New England home, was buried the young woman who was the first American to give her life for the cause of Christ in the non-Christian world.