In 1834, the American missionary Adoniram Judson became the first person to translate the Bible into Burmese. Judson’s Burmese translation was finally published in 1835—a major accomplishment for a man who arrived in Burma in 1813 not knowing a single word of the Burmese language. This event is recorded on the Bible Timeline Chart with World History during that time.
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Adoniram Judson, the man who translated the Bible to Burmese, was born in 1788 in Malden, Massachusetts. He was the son of Adoniram Judson Sr., a Congregational minister, by his wife Abigail Brown. He taught for a year at a school in Plymouth after graduating from Brown University. In 1808, Judson entered the Andover Theological Seminary to study divinity.
Judson decided to become a missionary in 1810 after reading “A Star of the East,” Reverend Edward Norman Harris’s account as a missionary to the Karen people of Burma. He received a license to preach and also met his future wife, Ann Hasseltine, in 1810.
He married Ann on February 5, 1812, and he was ordained as a minister one day later. The couple and their fellow missionaries boarded a ship bound for Calcutta on the 19th of February, 1812. They arrived in Calcutta in the middle of June, but he and his wife transferred to the Baptist denomination two and a half months later. Preaching the gospel to Hindus was illegal, so the couple was forced to flee to Mauritius in 1813 for fear that they would be arrested.
The couple soon returned to India but decided to continue to Burma instead. They arrived in Rangoon in 1813 and joined the Baptist missionary Felix Carey and his family. The Careys left Burma, so the Judsons took over their mission. Judson and his wife started to learn Burmese, but it took them four more years before they could hold a proper church service. What began as a struggle became a lifelong love affair with the Burmese language. Adoniram started to write the “Grammatical Notices of the Burman Language” and finished it in 1816. He completed the Burmese translation of the Gospel of Matthew and also started the difficult task of compiling a dictionary of Burmese words.
Life as a missionary in Rangoon was difficult and tiring with little reward. Buddhism was deeply embedded in the culture, and their resistance made his job more difficult. The king also forbade his people from converting from Buddhism to other religions, so Judson only had eighteen converts by 1822. Judson and a fellow missionary appealed to the Burmese King Bagyidaw to let them preach the gospel all over the kingdom, but the request was denied. Despite these challenges, Judson was able to finish his Burmese translation of the New Testament in 1823.
Judson was arrested and spent 20 months in prison during the Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826). Ann sought to free him from prison, but he was only freed when the British army defeated the Burmese. He worked for the Burmese government as a translator, but tragedy struck again when his wife and youngest child died.
In 1827, Judson set off to evangelize in the areas where the animist Karen people lived. To his surprise, he found them more receptive to the gospel than their Buddhist counterparts. He continued his Burmese translation of the Bible while working with this repressed minority. He finally finished the translation in 1834 and published it in the following year.
Picture by: George Peter Alexander Healy – http://library.brown.edu/cds/portraits/display.php?idno=268, Public Domain, Link
Middleditch, Robert Thomas. Burmah’s Great Missionary: Records of the Life, Character, and Achievements of Adoniram Judson. New York: Edward H. Fletcher, 1854.
Thorne, C.G., Jr. The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by J.D. Douglas and Earle E. Cairns. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996.
Warburton, Stacy Reuben. Eastward! The Story of Adoniram Judson. New York: Round Table Press, Inc., 1937.
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