The Judson Legacy
From Massachusetts to Myanmar
Perhaps no other foreigner has had a greater impact on the land that became Myanmar than Malden, Massachusetts-born Adoniram Judson (1788 -1850). While Judson’s message remains embodied in congregations across the country—and stories of his faith, loves and travails might fill volumes—it is in Moulmein (Mawlamyine) where the evangelist made his most significant contribution to the establishment and enduring legacy of the Baptist church in Burma.
Twenty-three years old and newly married to Ann Hasseltine, Judson set sail from Salem, Massachusetts in February 1812. Born into a Congregational Church family and backed by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, Judson no doubt stunned his backers in the United States, with whom he became obliged to sever ties, having come to the conclusion that the sprinkling of water on his forehead as a child in lieu of full immersion as a professing adult Christian meant that to this day he himself—the first U.S. missionary to take his work overseas had never been baptized. This situation was rectified in Calcutta when Mr. and Mrs. Judson were both baptized.
With the sub-continent under the control of the British East India Company and the United States and Britain now at war, India in 1812 was not a welcoming place for Americans. The Judsons soon made their way to Yangon, Myanmar (known by the British as Rangoon, Burma) at that time still part of the Burmese Empire. Having already mastered the western classical languages of Hebrew, Latin, and Greek, Judson now began gaining a command of exotic Burmese and Pali. Despite acquiring communication skills, it was tough going in strongly Buddhist Yangon; the evangelist took six years to attract his first Baptist convert, U Naw. It took Judson another six to make eighteen converts.
A Mission in Mawlamyine
Seeking converts, relocating their efforts to the Burmese imperial capital of Innwa proved less than ideal timing; Judson was detained in nearby Amarapura, as a suspected British spy by the mere fact that he spoke English. Judson suffered poor conditions during his incarceration for most of the first Anglo-Burmese war (1824-1826). To earn his freedom Judson served as an intermediary between the British and the Burmese royalty in their negotiations for the Treaty of Yandabo, which concluded the conflict. With the coastal provinces of Rakhine (Arakan) and Tanintharyi (Tennaserim) ceded to the British, Judson was enlisted to voyage south to assist in the selection of a new capital, and Kyaik Kha Me was renamed Amherst, honoring the then British Governor General of India. In Amherst, Judson’s wife Ann died in 1826.
The British soon established a more permanent presence thirty miles up the coast in the more strategic location of Mawlamyine. Renowned for its tropical fruits and cuisine, the former Mon fishing village would develop into an important entrepôt, with rice trade, and soon saw mills and a major shipbuilding industry based on its proximity to once-plentiful teak forests. The thriving commerce of Mawlamyine was a magnet for workers from many other parts of then-British India and indeed the world.
Despite the death of his first wife, it is under this colonial umbrella that Judson’s work of ministry and translation blossomed. Judson gave his first baptism in Mawlamyine in a brook running through the Baptists’ original British-gifted compound where he built his bamboo church, a traditional Myanmar-style ‘zayat’ or rest house. The same place where he built his print shop, the handmade brick foundations of the Mission Press printing house that produced Judson’s first translation of the Bible into Burmese in 1834 can still be seen. Judson’s prowess would also result in a benchmark, his 1842 Burmese-English dictionary still widely in use today. A few years later the original building was replaced by an open-sided masonry building, a merger of a traditional Myanmar rest house with colonial church architecture. It featured an English-influenced bell tower.
The third church structure started in 1907, when there was need to separate the religious uses from the growing educational activities at the second church building and adjoining school. This structure still stands today. Work continued on the current building until 1924, and included not just the building, but also its unique furnishings, many which also still survive. The structure is the focus of World Monuments Fund’s work in Mawlamyine.
Jump to the present. As a documentary photographer and writer working with heritage, it’s unusual to receive a brief, where the importance of a structure could be perceived as secondary to its function as the home of a longstanding community. That while the stabilization of a neo-Gothic building replete with exemplary local materials and craftsmanship is significant and central to any documentation, the historic threads hosted within going straight back to Judson might be considered even more precious. As part of my World Monuments Fund assignments, I have begun to learn something of the people that this building serves.
Thwe Thwe Aung, a member of the congregation, explains that she first came to this church a decade ago as a high school student. Her devotion to this congregation is beautifully expressed: each Sunday for the past six years, the language teacher spends up to three hours gathering and arranging flowers and foliage from half past six in the morning to be ready for services at ten o’clock.
Four elderly ladies seated together exude an understanding that only time can forge. Daw Nant Su Su gently laughs that she is the most recent addition to the quartet, having only made friends when her husband arrived here as pastor in the mid-1970s. Daw Aye Kyi, Daw Than Sein and Daw Htar Yin, who have known each other since childhood, spent their working lives teaching together at the former missionary school across the road, a Judson-legacy building nationalized into the state system in the 1960s as party of a larger government takeover of missionary properties.
Following a special service commemorating both a birthday and a passing away, May Hnin Phyu serves an abundance of food before taking on dozens of dirty dishes. While some in her family worship elsewhere, May is at home here, a member of the choir amongst friends. During the week she staffs the pharmacy of the Mawlamyine Christian Leprosy Hospital, another part of the Judson legacy, the one and only mission hospital in Myanmar, which provides health care without charge.
Although merely scratching the surface, a religious basis for health and education—healing and teaching—now occurs to me. Among many dozen Buddhist pagodas, Islamic mosques, Hindu temples, and Christian churches, this congregation is considered by many to be the ‘mother church’ of Mawlamyine. This church and its physical premises are also a reminder of longstanding connections between the United States and Myanmar, and a salient example of the impact that one individual can have. Judson’s journey speaks not only of endurance but perhaps even triumph, exemplifying fidelity in the courage of one’s convictions.
Photography on this page: Tim Webster, 2016.