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Chapter V. - Life in Rangoon. 1813-1819

Mr. and Mrs. Judson, as has already been stated, arrived in Rangoon, June 13, 1813. For almost a year and a half after leaving their native land, they had been seeking a home on heathen shores. Having reached Calcutta, they had been forced by the oppressive policy of the East India Company to take refuge upon the Isle of France. They returned again to India and landed at Madras. But they were compelled to flee a second time, and having reluctantly relinquished the strong protection of the British flag, had at last settled down in Rangoon, the chief seaport of the Burman empire. Their own desires and hopes had pointed elsewhere; and it was "with wandering steps and slow" that they had come to this destination. God had drawn around them the relentless toils of his providence, and had hemmed them into this one opening. But subsequent history has proved that the hand which led them so strangely and sternly, was the hand that never errs. American Christians, in their assault upon Asiatic heathenism, could never have chosen a more strategic position than Rangoon. It is situated near the mouth of the great Irawadi River, which is thus described by an English officer:

"After draining the great plain of upper Burma, it enters a narrow valley lying between the spurs of the Arracan and Pegu ranges, and extending below the city of Prome. Thus the mighty stream rolls on through the widening bay, until about ninety miles from the sea, it bifurcates; one branch flows to the westward and forms the Bassein River, while the main channel of the lower part of the Delta subdivides and finally enters the sea by ten mouths. It is navigable for river steamers for eight hundred and forty miles from the sea, but it is during the rainy season (Monsoon) that it is seen in its full grandeur. The stream then rises forty feet above its summer level, and flooding the banks presents in some places, as far as the eye can reach, a boundless expanse of turbid waters, the main channel of which rushes along with a velocity of five miles an hour."

The two natural outlets for the commerce of Western China are this great river, and the Yang-tse-kiang, which takes its rise in Thibet, and following an easterly course of nearly three thousand miles, empties itself into the Yellow Sea. Along this channel a vast tide of commerce has followed from time immemorial, and placing upon the river banks its rich deposits of wealth and population, has occasioned the growth of Shanghai, Nanking, and other enormous cities. But the merchandise of Western and Central China would find a shorter and easier and cheaper path to the sea through the valley of the Irawadi, and would long ago have pursued that course, had it not been impeded and endangered by rude mountain tribes which the governments of Burma and of China have not as yet been vigorous enough to reduce to harmlessness. As civilization advances, a much larger part of the trade of Central Asia will be sure to find its way to the sea through the valley of the Irawadi. Christianity always enters the heart of a nation along the lines of trade; so that Rangoon, near the mouth of the Irawadi, where Mr. and Mrs. Judson landed, and Bhamo, situated at the head of navigation, eight hundred and forty miles up the river, where the American Baptists have planted a mission, are two of the most important strategical points for the conquest of all Asia.

Rangoon is described by an American traveler who passed through it about the time of the arrival of the Judsons as: "A miserable, dirty town, containing eight thousand or ten thousand inhabitants, the houses being built with bamboo and teak planks, with thatched roofs -- almost without drainage, and intersected by muddy creeks, through which the tide flowed at high water. It had altogether a mean, uninviting appearance, but it was the city of government of an extensive province ruled over by a viceroy, a woongee of the empire, in high favor at the court."

It may be well to consider for a moment the task which the young missionary had set before him in landing in this heathen land. What did they propose to do, this man of twenty-five and his young wife, standing amid the level rice fields on the coast of Lower Burma, with their faces turned landward toward towns and cities swarming with idolaters, the hill-tops crowned with heathen temples and pagodas? Their purpose was to undermine an ancient religion, deeply fixed in the hearts and habits of four hundred millions of human beings. They did not propose to bring to bear influences by which Christianity was to be introduced as a State religion and reluctant knees be forced to bow to the Christ. This would have been indeed an audacious undertaking. But they sought to work out a more searching revolution, nothing less than a change of belief and of heart in each individual. The millions of Burma were to be taken one by one -- their affections subdued, and their characters transfigured by the religion of Christ. They felt sure that in the mass of people about them there was here and there a man who had been so schooled by the providences of God, and so matured by the Divine Spirit, that if the story of the cross could once be gotten to him he would immediately accept it and say, "That is just what I want." As the sod of moss, brought from the woods into the house, often contains within its bosom hidden germs, and after a season in the warmth of the parlor sends forth sweet, unexpected spring flowers, so out of the unattractive sod of heathenism, under the genial rays of the Holy Spirit, might emerge disciples of Christ, and these disciples, organized by baptism into churches, would, by the same process of reaching individual souls, little by little leaven the whole of the empire.

But what means did Mr. Judson use in his endeavor to bring about this great moral and spiritual revolution? Simply the gospel of Christ. The sole weapons of his warfare were the old-fashioned truths, the existence of a personal and beneficent God, the fatal sinfulness of man, and salvation by faith in the Son of God, who came to "seek and to save that which was lost." No system of truth could be devised more diametrically opposed to Buddhism, which teaches that there is no God to save, no soul to be saved, and no sin to be saved from. He felt sure that if he could only plant the seeds of Christian truth in the soil of the Burman's heart, then under the mellowing influence of the Holy Spirit they would germinate and bring forth the fruit of meek and pure behavior. As in flushing a drain a large body of pure water is poured through the whole length of it, washing out every impurity, so the gospel of Christ is a cleansing tide, which as it courses through the individual heart, or through human society, sweeps away before it all the stagnant and loathsome accumulations of sin.

Mr. Judson did not believe that Christianity must needs follow in the wake of civilization. He did not propose to spend his time in teaching the arts and sciences of the Western world, in imparting more correct astronomical, geographical, and geological conceptions, in order, little by little, to prepare the mind of the Burman to accept his religions ideas. He had implicit confidence in the promise of his Master, "Lo, I am with you alway." He believed that Christ was with him in the heart of the heathen, unlocking the door from the inside.

Again, he did not say to himself, "It is a hopeless task to attempt the conversion of the hoary heads. I will try to gather the little children together and establish schools, and thus purify the fountains of national life." He had his schools, indeed, but they were quite subordinate to the work of preaching the gospel to the adult mind. He reached the children through the parents, and not the parents through the children. He believed that the grown-up Burmans, rather than their children, should bear the brunt of persecution involved in embracing a new religion. He followed the method of the Acts of the Apostles. A preacher of the gospel, he did not allow himself to shrivel into a mere school teacher or a school-book maker.

There were only two channels through which the truths of the gospel could be conveyed to the conscience of the Burman -- the eyes and the ears. The natives were emphatically a reading people. They had their ancient scriptures embodying the teachings of Gautama, and the first question asked of the propagator of a new religion would be, "Where are your sacred books?" So that one way in which Mr. Judson communicated the gospel was by the translation of tracts -- either succinct and concrete statements of Christian truth, or portions of the Bible. These were not scattered about like autumn leaves, but were given discriminatingly to individuals, the gift often being accompanied by a solemn injunction to read, followed by a fervent prayer.

But far more important than the work of translating and distributing tracts, catechisms, and portions of the Scripture, was the oral preaching of the gospel. For this Mr. Judson had rare aptitude, and in it he won his most signal triumphs. While engaged in the necessary work of translation, he was always pining for the opportunity of imparting the message of salvation with the living voice. In a letter to Dr. Bolles he says: "I long to see the whole New Testament complete, for I will then be able to devote all my time to preaching the gospel from day to day; and often now the latter appears to be the more pressing duty. May the Spirit of the Lord be poured out!" When eye meets eye, and the mind of an objector is confronted by a living, loving personality, he receives a deeper impression of religious truth than he can ever get even from the leisurely perusal of a printed book. The press can never supplant the pulpit. The truth which, when pressed home by the earnest voice of the speaker carries with it conviction and arouses the conscience and kindles the affections, is often weak and thin when presented on the printed page.

But Mr. Judson's preaching was unlike that of the orator about whom a great throng gathers. After the little chapel, or zayat, was built, public worship indeed was held, the audience consisting of perhaps a hundred persons. But most of the preaching at first was to the individual. It was a process of spiritual buttonholing. A single person would enter into a discussion with the missionary, while a few others would draw near to witness the encounter. It was in these hand-to-hand frays that Mr. Judson often extorted exclamations of admiration from the bystanders, as with his keen logic he hewed his opponent to pieces as Samuel did Agag.

His preaching was concrete. He did not deal in vague abstractions. Truth assumed in his mind statuesque forms. His conversation abounded in images and illustrations; and in this respect he resembled the great Teacher, whom Tennyson thus described:

For wisdom dealt with mortal powers,
Where truth in closest words shall fail,
When truth embodied in a tale
Shall enter in at lowly doors.

Behind his words when he preached lay the magnet of a great character. He was a man of tender sensibilities aud of strong affections. There was no mistaking his motives. He had come a long distance and endured great hardships because he loved the Burmans -- because he loved all men. Little by little they found this out; and the power of a preacher is in direct ratio with his capacity for inspiring confidence and affection.

Difficulties, of course, at once presented themselves. The ardent temperament of the young missionary flung itself against the hard barriers of Burman conservatism. Oriental slowness to accept a new idea proved a strong obstacle at the outset. Another great difficulty at the beginning was learning the language without grammar, or dictionary, or an English-speaking teacher.

But the chief hindrance to preaching the gospel to the Burmans was the danger of persecution. Mr. Judson found himself in the dominions of a monarch upon whose slightest nod depended the life of each subject. Every convert knew that in adopting this new religion he was encountering the risk of confiscation of property, imprisonment, torture, or death in its most shocking form.

But in spite of these great difficulties, and even in the face of the fact that many of his brethren and sisters in his own distant native land regarded the undertaking as hopeless, and looked upon him as an obstinate and chimerical fanatic, he never for a moment lost hope. He felt as sure that Burma would be converted to Christ as that it existed. He was buoyed up by the same faith that caused him to answer many years after, when he was asked whether he thought the prospects bright for the speedy conversion of the heathen, "As bright as the promises of God." And in the darkest period of the history of our missions, he sounded the bugle call which will inspire the heart of the Christian missionary until that day when "The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ."

"If any ask what success I meet with among the natives, tell them to look at Otaheite, where the missionaries labored nearly twenty years and, not meeting with the slightest success, began to be neglected by all the Christian world, and the very name of Otaheite began to be a shame to the cause of missions; and now the blessing begins to come. Tell them to look at Bengal also, where Dr. Thomas had been laboring seventeen years (that is, from 1783 to 1800,) before the first convert, Krishna, was baptized. When a few converts are once made, things move on; but it requires a much longer time than I have been here to make a first impression on a heathen people. If they ask again, what prospect of ultimate success is there? tell them, as much as that there is an almighty and faithful God, who will perform his promises, and no more. If this does not satisfy them, beg them to let me stay and try it, and to let you come, and to give us our bread; or, if they are unwilling to risk their bread on such a forlorn hope as has nothing but the word of God to sustain it, beg of them, at least, not to prevent others from giving us bread; and, if we live some twenty or thirty years, they may hear from us again."

After a few months Mr. and Mrs. Judson removed from the English Baptist mission house into the city proper. The mission house which they had been occupying was situated half a mile from Rangoon, near the place of public execution, where the refuse of the city streets was thrown, and not far from the place where the dead were buried. While outside the city walls, the missionaries were exposed to robbers and to wild beasts. It was thought best, therefore, to move into the city itself, especially as in this way they would be brought into closer contact with the people.

After they had been in Rangoon about a year and a half, Mrs. Judson's health began to break down under the effects of the climate. They had no physician to consult, and her symptoms proving dangerous, she was obliged to sail to Madras to secure both medical advice and the recuperation of a sea voyage. She set sail on January 25, 1815, and after an absence of nearly three months, returned with her health much improved.

This painful separation occasioned by Mrs. Judson's illness was closely followed by domestic bereavement. A little son, born September 11, 1815, and named Roger Williams, died on the fourth of the following May, at the age of seven months and twenty-three days.

Following this, Mr. Judson himself was taken ill, after almost three years of the closest application to study. But even the hours of his illness he improved by formulating in a grammar the knowledge he had acquired of the language. Fearing that his own life might soon come to a close, he determined to blaze the trees through this hitherto untrodden wilderness of the Burmese language, by putting in permanent form the results of his own studies. On July 13, 1816, exactly three years to a day after his arrival, he completed a work with the modest title, "Grammatical Notices of the Burman Language," which proved of great value.

Partially recovering from his illness, Mr. Judson completed on July 30, 1816, his first tract, entitled, "A View of the Christian Religion, in three parts, Historic, Didactic, and Preceptive." The next step was to multiply this tract and speed it on its way among the Burmans. A press and Burman types had already arrived -- a valuable present from the English Baptist brethren of Serampore. A missionary printer, the Rev. Geo. H. Hough, and his wife, were already on their way from America. Mr. Rice was still arousing the Baptists in the United States to send on reinforcements of men and money.

The reinforcements at last arrived. On October 15, 1816, the Rev. Mr. Hough with his family landed at Rangoon, and upon his arrival he immediately put the printing press into operation. One thousand copies of the tract above mentioned, and three thousand copies of a catechism which had just been completed by Mrs. Judson, were struck off and put into circulation. This strange new religion could not fail of at least catching the attention of the inquisitive Burmans. As the fishermen attach many hooks to a long line stretched across a river, hoping that at least a few of the many fish swimming past may be taken, so our missionaries with much care and toil adjusted their trawl of tracts in the midst of the dense Burmese population, and anxiously, prayerfully awaited the result.

On May 20, 1817, Mr. Judson completed the translation of the Gospel of Matthew. This marks the first stage in the monumental task of translating the whole Bible into Burmese. Two days later he began to compile a Burman dictionary. But close application for more than four years to the study of the Burman language, to the translation of tracts and Scriptures, and to the compilation of a grammar and dictionary, was breaking down his health. A sea voyage was needed to restore his vigor. But need of rest alone would not have caused him to take even a few weeks' vacation from his toils and cares. He was impatient to begin holding public services in the Burman tongue. But although he understood the structure of the language, and could read, write, and speak in Burman, yet for conducting public worship he felt the need of a native Christian helper.

Burma is flanked on the western side by the mountains of Arracan; between these and the bay of Bengal lies the flat coast district of Chittagong. It had been ceded to the English. The inhabitants of this district spoke Burmese. A few years before, the English Baptists had begun a mission in Chittagong. Several converts had been baptized, when the mission was abandoned. Mr. Judson conceived the plan of visiting Chittagong, in order to gather together the scattered converts, instruct them anew, and perhaps bring one or two of them to help him in Rangoon. This would furnish him employment during the needed vacation. Besides, the rare opportunity was afforded of going and returning in the same ship, so that he would have to be absent for only three months. This pet project of his was painfully frustrated, and the three months were stretched out into almost two-thirds of a year. The voyage was attended by peculiar horrors.

They had sailed for Chittagong, a passage which should have been made in ten or twelve days at the longest. He had, therefore, prepared himself for only a few weeks' absence from home. When the vessel put in at Cheduba, the nervous affection of his head and eyes, occasioned at first by low diet, had so much increased by exhaustion and lack of food that he was unable to go on shore. When they approached the Coromandel coast, and again encountered contrary winds, they were reduced to almost the last extremity, and the constitution of Mr. Judson sank under these accumulated hardships. The mouldy, broken rice, which they picked up from native vessels, and this in small quantities, with a limited supply of water, was their sole sustenance for three or four weeks. Here he was alone, in a state of passive, monotonous suffering, with no one to share his privations, and nothing to arouse his energies. His scanty wardrobe, prepared for a trip of ten or twelve days, had been long since exhausted, and what with starvation, filth, pain, and discouragement, he became unable to leave his berth. At last he was attacked by a slow fever, and turning in disgust from his little mess of dirty rice, he begged continually for water! water! water! without ever obtaining enough to quench, even for a moment, his devouring thirst. At length the little vessel came to anchor in the mud of Masulipatam, some two or three miles from the low, uninviting beach, and the captain came to inquire if he would be taken on shore. The fact that they were near land seemed to him an incredible thing, a kind of dreamy illusion too fanciful to interest him. After some urging, however, he became sufficiently roused to pencil a note, which he addressed to "any English resident of Masulipatam," begging only for a place on shore to die. After a little while, one of the men came below to tell him that a boat was approaching from the shore. He now succeeded in crawling to the window of his cabin, from which he plainly distinguished in the rapidly moving boat, both the red coat of the military and the white jacket of the civilian. In the first thrill of joyful surprise, the sudden awakening of hope and pleasure, he threw himself on his knees and wept. Before his new friends were fairly on board, he had succeeded in gaining some little self-control. He used to say afterward, "The white face of an Englishman never looked to me so beautiful, so like my conception of what angel faces are, as when these strangers entered my cabin."

They were very much shocked at his visible wretchedness: he was haggard, unshaven, dirty, and so weak that he could with difficulty support his own weight. Their earnest cordiality was peculiarly grateful to him. One of the officers took him to his own house, supplied him from his own wardrobe, procured a nurse, whom, however, he had occasion to employ but a short time, and displayed throughout a generous hospitality which Dr. Judson never forgot.

But his anxieties and sufferings during this voyage were fully paralleled by those of the heroic woman whom he had left behind him at Rangoon. From Christmas Day, 1817, until July 16, of the following year, no word whatever came to Mrs. Judson from her husband, from whom she had expected to be parted only for a few weeks. She occupied part of her time teaching about thirty Burman women whom she had gathered together. A succession of disasters had swept over the little mission. She alone faltered not. We catch a gleam at Rangoon of that same fidelity and courage that afterward burned so long and so steadily at Ava and Oung-pen-la. The mission was harassed by government persecution. It was rumored that the foreigners were to be banished. The viceroy, who had been their steady friend, was recalled to Ava, and the new viceroy was a stranger to them. A menacing order summoned Mr. Hough to the court house, with the message that "If he did not tell all the truth relative to his situation in the country, they would write with his heart's blood." Mrs. Judson interceded in person, and by her own knowledge of the language and her matchless womanly tact, conciliated the viceroy. Asiatic cholera raged in Rangoon and the death gong sounded all the day long. Rumors of war between England and Burma filled the air. The English ships one by one hastily weighed anchor and slipped out of the harbor; only a single vessel remained -- the only way of escape. Her missionary associates, the Houghs, determined to seize this last opportunity, and fly from the country before it was too late. Against her will they urged her on board; but her great nature rose in its strength, and she insisted on going ashore. She tore herself away and went back to the mission premises alone. Her husband, if still alive, should not return and find his mission station deserted, and himself in Burma without a companion.

After this gloomy episode the prospects of the mission began to brighten. Mr. Hough, indeed, had gone to Calcutta, taking the printing press with him, so that for some time all the press-work of the mission had to be done there. But on September 19, l818, Messrs. Colman and Wheelock, with their wives, arrived in Rangoon and joined the mission, to which meanwhile Mr. Judson had safely returned.

The time had now come when his long-cherished desire to hold public worship among the Burmans in their own tongue was to be gratified. The little chapel or zayat had been built. It was not simply a church, but a religious schoolhouse as well. It also afforded a convenient place of rendezvous where Mr. Judson could sit all the day long, attracting the attention of those who passed by, and often engaging them in religious conversation.

On April 4, 1819, even before the zayat was completed, the first public service was held. Mr. Judson was thirty-one years old, and had been in Rangoon nearly six years before he ventured to preach to a Burman audience in their own tongue. This marks an era in the history of the Burman mission; for it is a noteworthy fact that the institution of public worship was soon followed by the first of a series of conversions.

It was on June 27, 1819, about seven years and four months after Mr. Judson left America, and about six years after his arrival in Rangoon, that he was permitted to baptize the first Burman convert, Moung Nau. The secret of that sublime faith which enabled him to endure without a misgiving so many long weary years, sowing without the joy of seeing a single blade of grain, may be learned from the following lines, which he wrote in pencil on the inner cover of a book which he was using in the compilation of the Burman dictionary:

In joy or sorrow, health or pain,
Our course be onward still;
We sow on Burma's barren plain,
We reap on Zion's hill.

These words suggest the difficulties and sufferings that attended the commencement of public worship among the Burmans, and the progress of that religious movement which culminated in the beginning of Christianity in Burma -- the baptism of the first three converts, Moung Nau, Moung Byaa, and Moung Thahlah; as well as the conversion of the humble fisherman, Moung Ing, and the learned philosopher, Moung Shwa-gnong. Just at this most interesting period, when three Burmans had been baptized and many others were inquiring into the new religion, a black cloud of persecution gathered over the heads of these young converts and their Christian teachers. The viceroy of Rangoon regarded with an unfavorable eye this attempt to introduce a new religion. When informed that a prominent Burman teacher was about to renounce the religion of the empire, he uttered the ominous sentence: "Inquire further." These words scattered the group of inquirers that had gathered about Mr. Judson as quickly as the lifted hand disperses a school of fish. The new converts, indeed, stood firm even under the peril of the confiscation of their goods, and the risk of torture and death; but the work came to a standstill. The inhabitants of Rangoon did not even dare to visit the foreign teacher. In these circumstances the boldest measure seemed to Mr. Judson the wisest. He determined to beard the lion in his lair. He resolved to go directly to Ava, the capital of Burma, and lay the whole matter at the feet of the emperor. If he could gain from the Burman monarch permission to propagate the Christian religion among his subjects, then he would be at once exempt from the annoyance and persecution inflicted by provincial underlings. If, on the other hand, he should fail, matters could not be made any worse, as news of this religious movement would soon get to the ears of the king.

Before Mr. Judson and Mr. Colman set out for Ava, the little group of missionaries was thinned by the departure of the Wheelocks. Only seven days after Mr. Wheelock arrived in Rangoon, while engaged in family worship, he had a hemorrhage, and on August 7, 1819, set sail for Bengal. After being thirteen days at sea, during a period of temporary delirium, he threw himself into the ocean. While Mrs. Wheelock was engaged in writing, and he apparently lying asleep, she heard the cabin door close. She looked around, saw that he was gone, sprang to the door, opened it, and discovered that he had vanished forever from her sight. The ship was sailing with such speed that no effort could be made to rescue him. The death of this young man was a great loss to the infant mission. His fervent piety, his sweet and uncomplaining spirit, and his devotion to the work of saving the heathen, had endeared him to his missionary associates. After mentioning in one of his letters that he and Mr. Colman had only one room each, he adds: "We prefer one room in Rangoon to six in Boston. We feel that we are highly blessed."

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