Chapter I - Early Years. 1788-1809
The traveler who visits Maiden, Massachusetts, one of the picturesque suburban towns of Boston, may find in the Baptist meeting-house a marble tablet, bearing the following inscription:
REV. ADONIRAM JUDSON
BORN AUG. 9, 1788
DIED APRIL 12, 1850
MALDEN, HIS BIRTHPLACE.
THE OCEAN, HIS SEPULCHRE.
CONVERTED BURMANS, AND
THE BURMAN BIBLE
HIS RECORD IS ON HIGH.
The old wooden house embosomed among the trees is still pointed out as the birthplace of Adoniram Judson. His father, also named Adoniram, was a Congregational minister, born in Woodbury, Connecticut, in June, 1752. He was married November 23, 1786, to Abigail Brown, who was born at Tiverton, Rhode Island, December 15, 1759. Soon after his marriage he settled in Maiden, Massachusetts, and here his eldest son, Adoniram, was born.
The boy was precocious and learned to read when he was only three years old. While his father was absent on a journey, his mother conceived the idea of teaching her child, in order that she might give her husband an agreeable surprise on his return. She succeeded so well that when his father came home he saluted him by reading a whole chapter in the Bible.
His affection for his father must have been deeply tinged with awe; for the elder Adoniram was a stern man, and very strict in his domestic administration. He was a man of decidedly imposing appearance, his stature being rather above the average. His white hair, erect position, grave utterance, and somewhat taciturn manner, together with the position he naturally took in society, left one somewhat at a loss whether to class him with a patriarch of the Hebrews or a censor of the Romans. He was through life esteemed a man of inflexible integrity and uniform consistency of Christian character. To the influence of such a father perhaps were due the stately courtesy that characterized Mr. Judson's social intercourse throughout his whole life, and the dignity of style which pervaded even his most familiar letters.
The family lived in Malden until Adoniram was about four-and-a-half years old. During that time his sister, Abigail Brown Judson, was born, to become the companion of his childhood and his life-long confidante. She recently died in Plymouth, Massachusetts, at the age of ninety-five. She remembered hearing her parents relate that when her brother was only four years old, he used to gather together the children of the neighborhood to play church, he officiating as minister; and that even then his favorite hymn was the one beginning, "Go preach my gospel, saith the Lord."
In January, 1793, the family removed to Wenham, Massachusetts, a village about twenty miles northeast of Boston, where Adoniram lived until he was twelve years old. Here his brother Elnathan, who became a surgeon in the United States Navy, was born May 28, 1794. Here too, when Adoniram was eight years old, his sister Mary was born, only to die six months later. This first contact with death must have marked an epoch in his boyish life.
Adoniram was about seven years old, when, having been duly instructed that the earth is a spherical body and that it revolves around the sun, it became a serious question in his mind whether or not the sun moved at all. He might have settled the point by asking his father or mother; but that would have spoiled all his pleasant speculations, and probably would have been the very last thing to occur to him. His little sister, whom alone he consulted, said the sun did move, for she could see it; but he had learned already in this matter to distrust the evidence of his senses, and he talked so wisely about positive proof, that she was astonished and silenced. Soon after this he was one day missed about midday; and as he had not been seen for several hours, his father became uneasy and went in search of him. He was found in a field, at some distance from the house, stretched on his back, his hat with a circular hole cut in the crown laid over his face, and his swollen eyes almost blinded with the intense light and heat. He only told his father that he was looking at the sun; but he assured his sister that he had solved the problem with regard to the sun's moving, though she never could comprehend the process by which he arrived at the result.
He was noted among his companions for uncommon acuteness in the solution of charades and enigmas, and retained a great store of them in his memory for the purpose of puzzling his schoolfellows. On one occasion he found in a newspaper an enigma rather boastfully set forth, and accompanied by a challenge for a solution. He felt very sure that he had "guessed riddles as hard as that," and gave himself no rest until he had discovered a satisfactory answer. This he copied out in as fair a hand as possible, addressed it to the editor, and confiding in no one but his sister, conveyed it to the post-office. But the postmaster supposed it to be some mischievous prank of the minister's son, and he accordingly placed the letter in the hands of the father. The poor boy's surprise and discomfiture may be imagined when he saw it paraded on the table after tea.
"Is that yours, Adoniram?" "Yes, sir."
"How came you to write it?" Silence.
"What is it about?"
Falteringly, "Please read it, father."
"I do not read other people's letters. Break the seal and read it yourself."
Adoniram broke the seal and mumbled over the contents, then placed the letter in his father's hands. He read it, called for the newspaper which had suggested it, and after reading and re-reading both, laid them on the table, crossed his hands on his knees, and looked intently into the fire. Meanwhile Adoniram stood silently watching his countenance, speculating on the chances of his being treated as a culprit, or praised for his acuteness. But the father awoke from his reverie, the subject of conversation was changed, and the letter never heard of afterward. The next morning Adoniram's father gravely informed him that he had purchased for his use a book of riddles, a very common one, but as soon as he had solved all that it contained, he should have more difficult books.
"You are a very acute boy, Adoniram," he added, patting him on the head with unusual affection; "and I expect you to become a great man."
Adoniram seized upon the book of riddles joyfully, and was a good deal surprised and disappointed to find it the veritable arithmetic which the larger boys in Master Dodge's school were studying. But then his father had praised him, and if there was anything puzzling in the arithmetic, he was sure he should like it; and so he prepared to enter upon the study with alacrity. Before reaching his tenth year, he had gained quite a reputation for good scholarship, especially in arithmetic.
A gentleman residing in the neighboring town of Beverly sent him a problem, with the offer of a dollar for the solution. Adoniram immediately shut himself in his chamber. The reward was tempting; but more important still, his reputation was at stake. On the morning of the second day he was called from his seclusion to amuse his little brother, who was ill. He went reluctantly, but without murmuring, for the government of his parents was of a nature that no child would think of resisting. His task was to build a cob house. He laid an unusually strong foundation, with unaccountable slowness and hesitation, and was very deliberately proceeding with the superstructure, when suddenly he exclaimed:
"That's it! I've got it!" and sending the materials for the half-built house rolling about the room, he hurried off to his chamber to record the result. The problem was solved, the dollar was won, and the boy's reputation established.
At the age of ten he was sent to one Captain Morton, of whom he took lessons in navigation, in which he is said to have made decided progress. In the grammar school he was noted for his proficiency in the Greek language. His schoolmates nicknamed him "Virgil," or in allusion to the peculiar style of the hat which he wore, as well as to his studious habits, "old Virgil dug up." As a boy he was spirited, self-confident, and exceedingly enthusiastic, very active and energetic, but fonder of his books than of play. His sister has a vivid recollection of his affectionate tenderness toward her, and of his great kindness to the inferior animals. He was very fond of desultory reading; and as there were no books for children at that period, he alternated between the books of theology found in his father's library, and the novels of Richardson and Fielding, or the plays of Ben Jonson, which he was able to borrow in the neighborhood. It is not probable that his father encouraged this latter class of reading, but the habits of self dependence which he had thought proper to cultivate in his son, left his hours of leisure mostly untrammeled; and seeing the greediness with which the boy occasionally devoured books of the gravest character, it very likely had not occurred to him that he could feel the least possible interest in any work of the imagination.
Before Adoniram was twelve years of age, he had heard visitors at his father's talk a great deal of a new exposition of the Apocalypse, which they pronounced a work of rare interest. Now the Revelation was the book that, of all others in the Bible, he delighted most to read, and he had searched the few commentators his father possessed without getting much light upon its mysteries. The new exposition was owned by a very awe-inspiring gentleman in the neighborhood; but Adoniram felt that he must have it, and after contending a long time with his bashfulness, he at last determined on begging the loan of it. He presented himself in the great man's library, and was coldly and sternly refused. For once his grief and mortification were so great that he could not conceal the affair from his father. He received more sympathy than he anticipated. "Not lend it to you!" said the good man, indignantly; "I wish he could understand it half as well. You shall have books, Adoniram just as many as you can read, and I'll go to Boston myself for them." He performed his promise, but the desired work on the Apocalypse, perhaps for judicious reasons, was not obtained.
In the year 1800, the family removed to Braintree, Mass., and two years later, when Adoniram was fourteen years old, took up their abode in the old historic town of Plymouth. In 1804 he entered Rhode Island College -- now Brown University -- one year in advance. During his college course he was a hard student; and in 1807, at the age of nineteen, was graduated the valedictorian of his class, in spite of the fact that for six weeks of the senior year he was absent, engaged in teaching school in Plymouth. He was ambitious to excel, and a classmate says of him, he has no recollection of his ever failing, or even hesitating, in recitation. He had a powerful rival in his friend Bailey (the late Hon. John Bailey, member of Congress from Massachusetts), and this probably added zest to his ambition. When he received the highest appointment in the commencement exercises, his delight knew no bounds. He hurried to his room, and wrote, "Dear father, I have got it. Your affectionate son, A. J." He then took a circuitous route to the post-office, that he might quiet the violent throbbing of his heart, and appear with propriety before his classmates, and especially before his rival friend.
In the autumn of 1807, young Judson opened in Plymouth a private academy, which he taught for nearly a year. During this time he also published two text-books, "The Elements of English Grammar," and "The Young Lady's Arithmetic." But the most important event of this period of his life was his conversion.
When about fourteen years of age, his studies were interrupted by a serious illness, by which he was reduced to a state of extreme weakness, and for a long time his recovery was doubtful. It was more than a year before he was able to resume his customary occupations. Previous to this he had been too actively engaged to devote much time to thought; but as soon as the violence of the disease subsided, he spent many long days and nights in reflecting on his future course. His plans were of the most extravagantly ambitious character. Now he was an orator, now a poet, now a statesman; but whatever his character or profession, he was sure in his castle building to attain the highest eminence. After a time, one thought crept into his mind and embittered all his musings. Suppose he should attain the very highest pinnacle of which human nature is capable; what then? Could he hold his honors forever? His favorites of other ages had long since turned to dust, and what was it to them that the world still praised them? What would it be to him, when a hundred years had gone by, that America had never known his equal? He did not wonder that Alexander wept when at the summit of his ambition; he felt very sure that he should have wept too. Then he would become alarmed at the extent of his own wicked soarings, and try to comfort himself with the idea that it was all the result of the fever in his brain.
One day his mind reverted to religious pursuits. Yes, an eminent divine was very well, though he should of course prefer something more brilliant. Gradually, and without his being aware of his own train of thought, his mind instituted a comparison between the great worldly divine, toiling for the same perishable objects as his other favorites, and the humble minister of the gospel, laboring only to please God and benefit his fellow-men. There was (so he thought) a sort of sublimity about that, after all. Surely the world was all wrong, or such a self-abjuring man would be its hero. Ah, but the good man had a reputation more enduring! Yes, yes, his fame was sounded before him as he entered the other world; and that was the only fame worthy of the possession, because the only one that triumphed over the grave. Suddenly, in the midst of his self-gratulation, the words flashed across his mind, "Not unto us, not unto us, but to Thy name be the glory." He was confounded. Not that he had actually made himself the representative of this last kind of greatness -- it was not sufficiently to his taste for that; but he had ventured on dangerous ground, and he was startled by a flood of feelings that had till now remained dormant. He had always said and thought, so far as he had thought anything about it, that he wished to become truly religious; but now religion seemed so entirely opposed to all his ambitious plans that he was afraid to look into his heart lest he should discover what he did not like to confess, even to himself -- that he did not want to become a Christian. He was fully awake to the vanity of worldly pursuits, and was, on the whole, prepared to yield the palm of excellence to religious ones; but his father had often said he would one day be a great man, and a great man he had resolved to be.
It was at this period that French infidelity was sweeping over the land like a flood, and free inquiry in matters of religion was supposed to constitute part of the education of every man of spirit. Young Judson did not escape the contamination. In the class above him was a young man by the name of E--- who was amiable, talented, witty, exceedingly agreeable in person and manners, but who was a confirmed deist. A very strong friendship sprang up between the two young men, founded on similar tastes and sympathies, and Judson soon became, at least professedly, as great an unbeliever as his friend. The subject of a profession was often discussed between them. At one time they proposed entering the law, because it afforded so wide a scope for political ambition; and at another they discussed their own dramatic powers, with a view to writing plays.
Immediately on closing the school at Plymouth, Judson set out on a tour through the Northern States. After visiting some of the New England States, he left the horse with which his father had furnished him with an uncle in Sheffield, Conn., and proceeded to Albany to see the wonder of the world, the newly invented Robert Fulton steamer. She was about proceeding on her second trip to New York, and he gladly took passage in her. The magnificent scenery of the Hudson had then excited comparatively little attention, and its novelty and sublimity could not fail to make a deep and lasting impression on one of Judson's ardent and adventurous spirit. Indeed, during his last illness, he described it with all the enthusiasm that might have characterized his youth. His name was frequently mistaken for that of Johnson; and it occurred to him that, in the novel scenes before him, he might as well use this convenient disguise, in order to see as deeply into the world as possible. He therefore, without actually giving out the name with distinctness or ever writing it down, became Mr. Johnson. He had not been long in New York before he contrived to attach himself to a theatrical company, not with the design of entering upon the stage, but partly for the purpose of familiarizing himself with its regulations in case he should enter upon his literary projects, and partly from curiosity and love of adventure.
Before setting out upon his tour he had unfolded his infidel sentiments to his father, and had been treated with the severity natural to a masculine mind that has never doubted, and to a parent who, after having made innumerable sacrifices for the son of his pride and love, sees him rush recklessly on to his own destruction. His mother was none the less distressed, and she wept, and prayed, and expostulated. He knew his superiority to his father in argument; but he had nothing to oppose to his mother's tears and warnings, and they followed him now wherever he went. He knew that he was on the verge of a life he despised. On no consideration would he see a young brother in his position; but "I," he thought, "am in no danger -- I am only seeing the world -- the dark side of it, as well as the bright; and I have too much self-respect to do anything mean or vicious."
After seeing what he wished of New York, he returned to Sheffield for his horse, intending to pursue his journey westward. His uncle, Rev. Ephraim Judson, was absent, and a very pious young man occupied his place. His conversation was characterized by a godly sincerity, a solemn but gentle earnestness which addressed itself to the heart, and Judson went away deeply impressed.
The next night he stopped at a country inn. The landlord mentioned, as he lighted him to his room, that he had been obliged to place him next door to a young man who was exceedingly ill, probably in a dying state; but he hoped that it would occasion him no uneasiness. Judson assured him that, beyond pity for the poor sick man, he should have no feeling whatever, and that now, having heard of the circumstance, his pity would not of course be increased by the nearness of the object. But it was nevertheless a very restless night. Sounds came from the sick chamber -- sometimes the movements of the watchers, sometimes the groans of the sufferer; but it was not these which disturbed him. He thought of what the landlord had said -- the stranger was probably in a dying state; and was he prepared? Alone, and in the dead of night, he felt a flush of shame steal over him at the question, for it proved the shallowness of his philosophy. What would his late companions say to his weakness? The clear-minded, intellectual, witty E---, what would he say to such consummate boyishness? But still his thoughts would revert to the sick man. Was he a Christian, calm and strong in the hope of a glorious immortality, or was he shuddering upon the brink of a dark, unknown future? Perhaps he was a "freethinker," educated by Christian parents, and prayed over by a Christian mother. The landlord had described him as a young man; and in imagination he was forced to place himself upon the dying bed, though he strove with all his might against it. At last morning came, and the bright flood of light which it poured into his chamber dispelled all his "superstitious illusions." As soon as he had risen, he went in search of the landlord, and inquired for his fellow-lodger.
"He is dead," was the reply.
"Yes; he is gone -- poor fellow! The doctor said he would probably not survive the night."
"Do you know who he was?"
"Oh, yes; it was a young man from Rhode Island College -- a very fine fellow; his name was E----." Judson was completely stunned. After hours had passed, he knew not how, he attempted to pursue his journey. But one single thought occupied his mind, and the words, dead! lost! lost! were continually ringing in his ears. He knew the religion of the Bible to be true; he felt its truth; and he was in despair. In this state of mind he resolved to abandon his scheme of traveling, and at once turned his horse's head toward Plymouth.
He arrived at Plymouth, September 22, 1808, and in October of the same year entered the Theological Institution at Andover, one year in advance. As he was neither a professor of religion nor a candidate for the ministry, he was admitted only by special favor. On the 2d of December, 1808, he made a solemn dedication of himself to God, and on the 28th of May, 1809 at the age of twenty-one, he joined the Third Congregational Church in Plymouth. His conversion involved in itself a consecration to the Christian ministry.
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