Monday, January 23, 2012

Two Hundred Years of American Missions

February 6th is a big day in North American mission history.  It was on that day 200 years ago that the first American foreign missionaries were commissioned, most notable being Adoniram Judson and Luther Rice.  Sent out by the Congregationalists and knowing they would be interacting with the English Baptist missionary William Carey on their entrance to Calcutta, on their four month trip by sea to India Adoniram and his wife Ann studied the Scriptures on the subject of baptism.   Their study convinced them that the Baptist’s were right on mode and method and, so on their arrival to the sub-continent, the Judson’s were baptized by Carey.  Rice arrived in India sometime later and was distressed to learn of the Judson’s theological conversion.  However, after studying the subject Rice also became a Baptist. 

The British East Indian Company had little tolerance for missionaries by the time Judson and Rice arrived in Calcutta.  Carey was well established in India and the ruling colonialists could do little to expel him from the country, but they did refuse to grant the new batch of missionaries’ permanent resident status.  Blocked to remain in India, Judson and Rice resolved to go to Burma.

However, due to switching denominations, both Judson and Rice thought it proper to resign from the Congregationalist.  Rice was in poor health and it was decided he would return to the U.S. while the Judson’s continued their ministry in Burma. The Congregationalists accepted Judson and Rice’s resignation, with the provision that both missionaries return money invested in them.  

Not only did Rice have to raise money to return to the Congregationalists, he also had to seek support for the Judson’s and himself.  The issue of raising money for ministry work put Rice on a life long pursuit of funds, though for many years he thought it was a temporary necessity until he could return to Burma.  Rice is known for attempting to bring northern and southern Baptists together, but more than anything, raising money for colleges and seminaries.  Rice died with not much more that his horse and buggy, never married and never returning to the mission field. (read a more detailed account of Rice at this website).

Judson’s story is one of triumph and tragedy.  In the 38 years he served in Burma he translated the scriptures and shared the Gospel. It was six years before Judson saw his first convert and after twelve years there was only eighteen followers.  Humanly speaking, Judson paid a great price for his service overseas.  He was in prison for nearly two years and under a death sentence for being a British spy.  Two of his wives  as well as several of his children died in Burma.  Judson passed away at the age of 61 of a lung disease and was buried at sea (read more).

As I reflect on this historical event of 200 years ago I am in the southern part of India teaching.  In my class are three students from Burma.  One of the issues that always comes up in my class is should supporting churches and missionaries invest time, energy and resources in areas that are most receptive and/or is it a waste to go to fields that are resistant.  Soon after Judson’s death it was estimated that over 210,000 Burmese were followers of Christ.  Today, with a population of nearly 50 million people in Myanmar, it estimated that 6% are Christian, 3% are Baptists.  I am sure that every believer in Burma today, who are direct spiritual descendants of Adoniram Judson would say that, even today as Christians are not only a minority religion but also a persecuted group, that the investment in their country with the Gospel was worth it.

Two hundred years after that first batch of missionaries went out from America, the cause of missions is stronger than ever.  Though we do not have as many career people going out and certainly not many going to the hard places that Judson was committed to, the American missionary still has a vital role in global outreach.  Happy 200th birthday to us.