On Jason G. Duesing’s “Bicentennial Appreciation” of Adoniram Judson.
Encountering the striking power of Christ’s work through one of his great missionary voices.
At the time of its publication (2012), Adoniram Judson: A Bicentennial Appreciation of the Pioneer American Missionary emerged from the editorial desk of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) professor Dr. Jason G. Duesing, whose merits as an evangelical historian, particularly in the realm of Baptist studies, are of the highest caliber. Now serving as the academic Provost and Professor of Historical Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (MBTS), Dr. Duesing continues to capture the minds of seminarians with the rich history afforded to them in the “large cloud of witnesses” that surround them (Heb. 12:1).
Accordingly, Adoniram Judson: A Bicentennial Appreciation of the Pioneer American Missionary is a biographical perusal of the life and legacy of one of the premier missionaries in the history of the world, that is, Adoniram Judson. It might as well be a beleaguered task for one to attempt to account for all the ways in which Adoniram has impacted not only the modern missions movement but also the broader evangelical spectrum as well. His ascendancy as an exemplary model for modern missions remains an unassailable insignia to the effectual working of God’s Spirit and Word in the soul of man. As Dr. Duesing recalls in the introduction in correspondence with a colleague, “The mighty significance of the Judson Spirit is not the fact that when a missionary is left alone with his Bible he becomes a Baptist, but the significant thing is that when a Baptist is left alone with his Bible he becomes a missionary” (xix). Indeed, the church today owes a great deal to the inheritance of faith and devotion left behind by Adoniram Judson.
This “bicentennial appreciation” of Adoniram aims to remind contemporary evangelicals of the remarkable effect of the gospel on persons surrendered to its direction. It is a work that is comprised of eight resounding essays from an assortment of articulate Southern Baptist minds. The four sections of the book adequately describe the movements of Adoniram’s life, from the biographical to the ministerial. Two chapters are spent on the historical context that led to Adoniram’s eventual commission to the foreign field by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). A trio of essays follow, each of which deals with Adoniram’s personal history, including an intriguing entry from SWBTS professor Candi Finch, on the gracious heirloom found in the lives of Adoniram’s three wives, Ann, Sarah, and Emily, each of whom succeeded the other through unfortunate deaths. The prevailing concern of the third and fourth sections is the missiological and theological vantage point from which Adoniram ministered. Of particular note is Dr. Gregory A. Wills’s admirable essay recounting the infamous story of Adoniram’s conversion from a Congregationalist to a Baptist while at sea to the commissioned destination, which found Adoniram and his new bride, Ann, stepping foot in a new land under the auspices of denominational distinctives they both no longer upheld. This moment represents one of the most seminal times in all of Baptist history, as the Judsons not only proceeded to establish what is now known as the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society (ABFMS), but they also typified the devoutly ecclesiological pedigree which courses through Baptists even to this day.
Evident throughout Adoniram’s life is a dependency on the grace of God to work in and through the lives of those to whom he was called to minister. “The instrument on which he relied for success was the preaching of the gospel,” comments Francis Wayland in a memoir of Adoniram’s life (157). Indeed, Adoniram’s success as a missionary in Burma was due in large part to the Holy Spirit’s homiletical gifting imparted upon him. He was resolved to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to bear in the hearts and lives of the Burmese people through the proclamation of the Word. Such is what led to his inviolable work of translating the Scriptures into the Burmese tongue. Nevertheless, perhaps the only reproof of this book remains its lack of depth when it concerns Adoniram’s merits as a preacher. There is only one chapter in the section earmarked for examining his “homiletical interpretation,” and even then, the lone article by Daniel L. Akin is barely an inquiry into homiletical style as opposed to being a missive on evangelical application. This is not meant to reduce the missiological and ministerial enthusiasm rightly derived from Akin’s contribution. But it is worth noting that this volume could have benefited from more scholarship on Adoniram’s eminence as a preacher.
Be that as it may, the inherent value of a work such as this is found in one’s willingness to “dig.” This clever metaphor employed by Dr. Duesing manifests in the conclusion and serves to inspire every reader whose eyes happen upon these pages to answer the call that resounds from Adoniram’s life and legacy — that call being, namely, one of self-surrender and the relinquishment of personal ambition for the sake of a cause much more compelling than any private enterprise. Francis Wayland remarks:
Mr. Judson believed himself to be a disciple of Christ, saved from condemnation through the merits of the atonement; he acknowledged his personal obligation to obey this last command of his ascended Redeemer; nay, more, he was satisfied that he had been called to devote his life to this service. Holding such a belief and acknowledging such obligations, he consecrated his whole being to the work, and with this consecration he allowed nothing else whatever to interfere. (156)
In a letter dated May 28, 1818, Adoniram himself confesses:
The low state to which I was at length reduced occasioned a partial return of the disorder of my head and eyes, to which I was subject two years ago. This, with other circumstances united, left me no other source of consolation but resignation to the will of God, and an unreserved surrender of all to his care; and praised be his name, I found more consolation and happiness in communion with God, and in the enjoyments of religion, than I had ever found in more prosperous circumstances. (Wayland, 194)
Consequently, through the course of reading the papers collected in this volume, one will surely find themselves standing agape at the yawning cavern of Adoniram’s testimony wondering how such faith and devotion could ever be exhibited by a fellow human being. But such is the sublime bounty of “digging” into Adoniram’s life, wherein one encounters the striking power of Christ’s work in the life of a sinner. One is, then, encouraged to live in faithful fear of the Lord, knowing the strength and sovereignty of his hands to fashion a life and legacy according to his purposes and not one’s own plans (Josh. 4:24). This volume offers an array of experiences and anecdotes from Adoniram Judson’s life in which one’s own faith is enriched and encouraged.
Jason G. Duesing, editor, Adoniram Judson: A Bicentennial Appreciation of the Pioneer American Missionary (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2012).
Francis Wayland, A Memoir of the Life and Labors of the Rev. Adoniram Judson, Vol. 1 (Boston: Phillips, Sampson, & Co., 1853).