Setbacks and Advances in the Rangoon Mission
Matters were about to take a severe downturn. In 1817, Adoniram decided that he needed the assistance of some non-Western Christians to convince the Burmese that his faith was not merely a religion for white men, and so he set off on a voyage to recruit a few from faraway Chittagong. His ship ran into resistant winds on the Bay of Bengal, and he nearly died of fever before landing far from his intended destination. He turned around and returned to Rangoon empty-handed. Meanwhile, the governmental administration in Rangoon had changed, and the viceroy with whom they had begun to establish a friendship was ordered back to the capital at Ava, to be replaced by a far more violent and imposing character. This new governor immediately ordered the interrogation of all foreign priests. This, together with a breakout of cholera, convinced the Houghs to abandon the mission. Adoniram returned to find their work severely set back, the small amount of goodwill they had built up in Rangoon now gone, and he and Ann alone once again.
They were soon joined by four young missionary recruits from the United States, the Wheelocks and the Colmans, but the Wheelocks did not last long in the endeavor, and the Colmans were so far behind the Judsons in linguistic ability that they could not contribute much to the work of the mission. So Adoniram embarked on his next project: the construction of a zayat, a sort of bamboo pavilion in which travelers could rest and hear teaching from religious sages. Adoniram built his zayat alongside many others that lined the way to the great golden pagoda in Rangoon, so that it faced the traffic of innumerable religious pilgrims. There he would call out to passersby, engage in discussions, and lead simple Christian services for anyone curious enough to attend. This effort attracted a good deal more interest from the local populace than his tract had, and it resulted, in the summer of 1819 (after six years of missionary labor there), in the conversion of the very first Burmese Protestant Christian, Maung Nau. His conversion resulted in a handful of further seekers, two of which shortly followed him in the waters of baptism: Maung Thahlah and Maung Byaay.
Petitioning the Burmese King
Change was in the wind, however. A new king had arisen in Ava, had brutally massacred all rivals to the throne, and had begun a campaign of building new pagodas and encouraging the Buddhist clergy throughout the land. The Judsons and their colleagues knew that their mission, particularly their zayat outreach, had attracted negative attention among the local Buddhist leaders, and they felt that harassment and persecution would probably soon follow. In this situation, Adoniram felt that the wisest course of action would be to present his mission work directly to the new king in Ava, in the hope that his fluency in the language, his respect of Burman culture, and his assurances that he was not doing anything politically subversive would convince the king to quell the rising tide of religious antagonism.
It was perhaps the only choice left to the mission at that point, but it turned out poorly. The king was unimpressed, and rejected their petition to propagate the Christian faith within the Burman empire. Adoniram recalled it as “a most egregious blunder.” According to the laws of Burma, they were now restricted to proclaiming their faith only to fellow outsiders who might happen to enter Rangoon. Judson and his team were about to abandon the mission when the fervency of their handful of converts convinced them to stay, and shortly thereafter, they were able to baptize a prominent teacher in the community, Maung Shway-gnong. But further evangelization at the zayat was now out of the question, so Adoniram spent much of his time continuing his translation of the Burmese New Testament.
In December of 1821, they had the good fortune of welcoming new members to their mission team: Dr. and Mrs. Jonathan Price. This was a remarkable boost for the prospects of the mission, because having a doctor trained in the medical practices of the West was an immense asset. Despite the king’s earlier rejection of their work, Dr. Price’s presence brought them to his attention again, and this time in a positive light. Adoniram and Dr. Price were invited to Ava, and were even allotted properties near the city so that the mission could maintain a resident presence there, where the king would have access to Dr. Price’s medical expertise.
By July of 1823, after a decade’s worth of work in language-learning and translation, Adoniram Judson completed his rendering of the New Testament into Burmese. Ann had been absent during much of 1822 and 1823, having been forced to return to America for reasons of health. But she returned in December of 1823, bringing two new missionaries with her, the Wades, after having spent many months speaking and writing letters across America in an unprecedented literary campaign to bring greater awareness of the Burmese mission.
Ava and Arrest
Now, with a mission team composed of four couples (the Judsons, the Prices, the Wades, and the Houghs once again; the Colmans having left to plant a sister mission in Chittagong), Adoniram proposed that his family and the Prices take up residence in Ava, leaving the other two couples to carry on the mission work in Rangoon. Unfortunately, this trip to Ava happened to coincide with a major period of crisis in the Burman empire. The Burmans had carried out raids into the territories of the British East India Company, and Britain, after a long period of toleration, had finally seen their patience end. Just as the Judsons and Dr. Price were landing in Ava, they received word that a British army had seized Rangoon. Immediately, all foreigners fell into disfavor in Ava. On June 8, 1824, Adoniram and Dr. Price were arrested and dragged away, leaving Ann alone in the Ava mission house.
Adoniram and Dr. Price were kept in a Burmese death-prison for more than a year, shackled, malnourished, held side-by-side with fellow prisoners suffering from smallpox and leprosy, occasionally tortured, and subject to the blinding heat of the Burmese summer without reprieve. They were kept in a constant state of anticipation for their own executions, with the guards setting up elaborate ploys to make them think they were about to be disemboweled, burned, or fed to lions. Ann spent her days bringing food to the prison and offering petitions and gifts to any government officials who would listen to her pleas. It was during this time that she also realized she was pregnant, with the baby due early the following year.
It was also during this time that Adoniram’s manuscript for the Burmese New Testament was miraculously preserved. It had been in the Ava mission house, but Ann knew it could not be kept there, because the house was subject to daily searches by guards looking for evidence of espionage. She had buried it in the garden, but keeping it there would eventually damage the manuscript. So Ann made plans to deliver the manuscript to Adoniram, so that he could watch over it in his incarceration. She hid it inside the stiffest pillow she could find, hoping that would prevent any guards from wanting to keep it for themselves. Thus the only full copy of the Burmese New Testament rested under the head of the only man in the world at that time who could have written it, but the fates of both were still unclear. Eventually, Adoniram and the other prisoners were moved to a different facility, but allowed to bring nothing with them. One of the prison guards snatched away the old pillow, and no one knew what had become of it. A few days later, a servant of the Judsons happened to be wandering through the grounds of the old prison and noticed the pillow in a discarded pile. He retrieved it and delivered it back to Ann. The Burmese New Testament was still there inside it, untouched.
Matters continued to grow worse after Adoniram’s move to another prison. Ann spent many days simply trying to find him, to discern whether he was dead or alive. Even when she was able to re-establish contact, there was still no hope for release. In the meantime, their baby had been born—Maria Judson, in late January of 1825. During the first few months of her life, though, she was hit by a smallpox infection and barely survived, after which Ann became seriously ill herself, and could not produce enough milk to feed the infant. The jailers showed enough mercy to release Adoniram for a period of time each day, under guard, to take his starving infant around the nearby villages to beg for milk from any nursing mothers.
Finally, in November of 1825, Adoniram was released, to find that both Maria and Ann had survived their time of starvation and disease. For the next few months, Adoniram was engaged in negotiations between the Burmese and the English. It wasn’t until March of 1826, more than two years since leaving Rangoon, that they returned to their old mission house to find it in ruins. The Houghs and Wades had been forced to flee during the war, and most of their handful of converts had either died or fled away as well. There was almost nothing left of their decade of work at Rangoon, save the New Testament that Adoniram carried with him.