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Book Review - Bless God and Take Courage: The Judson History and Legacy

Hunt, Rosalie Hall. Bless God and Take Courage : The Judson History and Legacy. Valley Forge: Judson Press, 2005. 404 pp. $21.00.


    As a convert to Jesus at the age of nineteen, there are many well known stories in the heritage and history of the Christian church to which I am a late arriver.  But as the proverbial wisdom goes, I am thankful to come late, than to never arrive at all.  Such is the case of my recent interaction with the life and witness of the Judson family, the first world missionaries from the United States.  In reading the book Bless God and Take Courage – The Judson History and Legacy, I have been humbled to the dust by the magnitude of commitment, sacrifice, suffering as well as the theological and missional vision of the Judson’s and their partners in the gospel.  This current work on the Judsons is the result of the research and labor of Rosalie Hunt, herself a daughter of missionaries, who studied the history of the Judson family for a period of six years in both the United States and Myanmar (formerly known as Burma).  The goal of the work is stated well in the acknowledgements section, with the book being written to provide “a ‘new millennium’ account of the Judson legacy.”(XI)  In this review I will summarize the content of the book, offer some analysis of the work with application to contemporary missions, and then close with some concluding thoughts about both the Judsons and their impact on my own life.


    Following the book’s title, the work is sectioned into two major parts.  The first section, which makes up the bulk of the volume, is simply entitled The History and focuses on the biography of Adoniram, his family, and their mission to the Burmese Empire.  The second section is entitled The Legacy and traces the impact of the Judsons on US Baptist missions, the people of Burma as well as accounts of each of the surviving Judson children.   I will summarize each of these sections in turn.

The History  

    As one would guess this section is a very detailed biography of Adoniram Judson, his three wives, his family and the journey in mission to the Burmese empire which began in 1812.  The biography is quite substantial covering twenty two chapters and two hundred and forty pages.  It is a full biographical examination of the Judsons which spans from the birth of Adoniram to the death of Emily, his third and final wife {1} (239).   The biography progresses at a good pace yet still includes detailed accounts, contains excellent documentation and a balanced number of primary source quotations.  The author goes to good lengths to show the humanity of the Judsons and their struggles to take the gospel to lands where Christ was not known.  The story of the Judsons is fascinating in and of itself but the author did a good job of not romanticizing the people while still telling the story in a sympathetic light.  Additionally, this volume does a great job with not just focusing on the one man, Adoniram, but also upon his wives.  The women of faith in this story are not presented as mere accessories to a man’s mission, but true partners in the gospel, dedicated servants who gave their talents, passion, and their very lives in the mission of Jesus.   

The Legacy

    The second part of the book works to go beyond mere biographical accounting by looking at the impact and legacy left by the Judsons.  The world in which the Judsons planted the seeds of the gospel, reaped a harvest, planted churches continues today long after their life and labors.   The results of their lives on the United States, the Baptists, the country of Myanmar/Burma, the children which lived on after the parents departed for an eternal golden shore is the subject of this section.  The section is actually portioned into several identifiable “legacies” with the first three chapters in Burman.  These chapters trace the steps of the story in modern day Myanmar from the landing in Rangoon, to the journey up river to Ava, to the sites where Adoniram spent time in prison, to the outposts at the British centers of Amherst and Moulmein.  The author traveled to these places looking for artifacts, monuments, and stories directly connected to the events which took place almost two hundred years ago.  Next, the attention was focused on the cultural impact along the New England trail.  The significance of the Judson and Hasseltine {2} homes and places of education were presented as Ebenezer’s in the annals of missions history (270).  The surviving children of the Judson family (from Sarah the 2nd wife and Emily the 3rd) are all investigated with their vocations, contributions, and continuing family heritage was all discussed.   An interesting fact was brought forth about the family.  Only six of the thirteen Judson children survived childhood; only four married, with only two Edward and Emily Frances having children. (302). Seeing the mixed outcome, some good some bad, in the lives of the children was an interesting read, though very scanty in content.  The spiritual descendents which trace their line back to the gospel ministry of the Judsons are also highlighted towards the end of the book.   Finally, one of the strengths of the book is the chapters dedicated specifically to the impact and legacy of each of the three Judson women: Ann, Sarah, and Emily.  One quote stood out particularly:

Missions history has no parallel to the extraordinary trio who graced the title of Mrs. Adoniram Judson.  God uniquely touched the life of each, and made an unequivocal response—a commitment to “mission for life.
The matchless Mrs. Judsons had much in common.  None lived long, but each was memorable.  Ann died at thirty-six; Sarah forty-one and Emily, thirty-six.  Not one of the unions was a marriage of convenience.  Each woman had a unique place in Adoniram’s heart and each loved him with a singular devotion. (336)

In quoting James Langdon Hill, the author continued, “Ann, Sarah, and Emily shared in his, labors, rose to his height, and deserve to shine beside him.” (337)  The final chapter of the book reflects upon the most important question of the entire work.  Its aim is to look at who this man was and why his influence was so great.  The lessons discussed in this final chapter are alone worth the price of the book.   After this brief summary, we will now turn our attention to an analysis of the unique contributions that this work holds in missions history.

Critical Analysis

    The goal of the work as previously stated is to provide “a ‘new millennium’ account of the Judson legacy.”(XI)  After finishing the book I would say for the most part this purpose has been accomplished.  To look at this in detail, I will focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the two sections, reflecting on both the History and the on the Legacy.  I will then close by commenting on missiological principles learned from the successes and the shortcomings of the Judson family.

The History

    The biography paints an excellent picture of life and work in early the world of the early nineteenth century.  A romantic, glossed over view of adventures in far away lands is distant from this volume.  There is adventure, yes.  There is faith, there is glory, yes.   Yet all of these are set in the midst of a world of squalor, disease, depression, and the realities of missionary life in the mid 1800s.  Achieving balance in writing about looming historical figures is a difficult task with some falling on the side of making men out to be supermen, while others take a cynical tone, highly critical of flaws from another era.  Roalie Hunt appears to have avoided both extremes in this biography.  Emerging from her pages are real men and women of their times, in their place, serving our God faithfully and gloriously in the midst of immense suffering, through the victories and setbacks of the Missio Dei.   The biography was in no way a quick and abbreviated part of the book; the author invested copious research into painting a full picture before evaluating the legacy.  The language is contemporary and accessible to the modern reader, which fulfills the goal of making the Judson story accessible to a new generation.  I also enjoyed the use of various literary quotations at the beginning of each chapter to connect the author with the mood and tone of the part of the story about to be told.   Most importantly the biography brings forward a view of God which is neither sugar coated piety nor pessimism in the face of difficult providence.  The cause of the Judsons was presented as noble and godly and therefore the suffering and choices made were placed in a favorable light.  Perhaps the one question which is left lingering the modern reader is one forever lost to history and a lack of source material.  I would have enjoyed being able to hear more from the Burmese converts, their thoughts and perspectives as the mission unfolded.  However, their actions and faithful service do exhibit that they too had learned from their teachers that the gospel brings both joy and suffering with a long road of ministry in difficult soil.  Overall, I feel the biographical section is strong, with the emphasis on the Judson wives and family contexts a primary strength.

The Legacy

    Perhaps the unique contribution of this volume is not that it includes an excellent biography, but that this is paired with a look at the legacy the Judsons left on both lands and peoples.  The legacy of the Judson comes through powerfully when one looks at a protestant church birthed and continuing in great number today in Myanmar.  The Christians are by no means a cultural majority, but today there are close to four million (347) Burmese Christians where there were none in 1812.  Additionally, close to two million of these are Baptists (347) who trace their lineage directly back to a small zayat {3} built in Rangoon almost two hundred years ago.  

    The book focused on legacies in Myanmar/Burma, New England, in the lives of the Judson children, left by each of the Judson women, as well as an overall effect seen on world missions.  The trek through Myanmar looking for the sites where the story took place was very interesting and even had the feel of a small adventure.  The New England accounting was positive focusing mainly on the landmarks where believers find a testimony to faithful missionaries long and gone.  The section on New England could have mentioned the spiritual decline in the lands of the North East, the theological declension of the educational institutions like Brown and Andover Seminary, but the book did not investigate these issues.   This down turn in the gospel seems to be a move of providence and is in no way reflective on the Judsons, but it might have been discussed for the times were shifting under the soils of New England even as the missionary effort increased.   The seeds of universalism and modernism were well underway in Judson’s time, many sprouted while he labored for a believing church to be birthed by the gospel in lands far away.   

    After focusing on the lands, the chapters on the people were interesting if not always as thorough.  The lives of each surviving child were covered though this was perhaps an interesting effort, it was also the most tedious part of the book.  It seems that the author was repetitively recounting “there is not much information on this person” making these chapters read a bit slow.  I think the information could have been organized around the kids who struggled and the kids who prospered perhaps alleviating the necessity of having additional chapters which were less compelling.  Overall, I did enjoy looking at the children, specifically Abigail, who along with the times seemed to leave the faith for less orthodox, even heretical alternatives.  Perhaps more than anything about the book, I enjoyed the focus on the wives; the legacy section including great chapters given to each of these fascinating women.  

Effects Upon Missions

    In many ways the Judsons were well ahead of their times in the history of missions.  Many of their intuitive practices were to become missiological principles which evolved over the course of time.  Particular examples were the focus on contextualization, indigenous church leadership, and utilizing single women in the missionary effort.  One would assume that learning the difficult Burmese language and script would be part of ministering in foreign lands, but the Judsons brought the gospel into Burma in both language and culture.  The examples of contextualization are many.  Adoniram Judson taught from a zayat, taught while seated in the eastern style, not standing in the western fashion.   Ann Judson took on typical Burmese dress during her time in Ava working to save her imprisoned husband’s life.  It was said of Judson that he understood the Burmese people and culture as well as any person in the world.  Additionally, the Judsons did not hesitate to raise up indigenous Christians who understood it was their task to evangelize their people, with some of their converts immediately understanding.   He taught the Burmese leaders and took them on jungle preaching tours to give them first hand experience. (343) Finally, his employment and commendation of single women in the ministry was groundbreaking at the time and was utilized later by others as well. (343)


    Many things can be said about this new book on the life of the Judson missionary family.   Perhaps the lasting legacy is presenting this story fresh before the minds of a new generation.  In our modern, pluralistic culture, the Judsons are a bit of an oddity, but one that needs to be seen.  They did not hesitate to see a land full of Buddhists as a catastrophic disaster in great need of the gospel.  They understood Jesus to be the only way for people to be forgiven and left all and gave all so that others would hear and heed the gospel call.  In many ways Judson and his family represent people simply believing and then acting upon the word of God, the commands of their Lord.   GK Chesterton once rightly remarked that Christianity had not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and left untried.  Depending upon prayer, captured by a vision of God and the urgency of the gospel mission, Adoniram Judson and his family were extraordinary because they obeyed their Lord in spite of personal cost and temporal security.   Christians long for this primarily because they are unwilling to do anything of the sort in their own lives.  But in his grace God uses the stories of the faithful: Old Testment and New Testament saints, people from church history, the continuing great cloud of witnesses to shake people loose and inspire others to the mission of God.  May this work be read widely and used by the Lord to move many into the mission both locally and globally so that many more might echo the mantra which the Judsons so often held to and by which Hunt closes this book: “How many times did the Judsons ‘bless God and take courage’?  Their theme is our challenge.” (348)  Amen, indeed it is.

Hunt, Rosalie Hall. Bless God and Take Courage : The Judson History and Legacy. Valley Forge: Judson Press, 2005. 404 pp. $21.00.


1 Judson had three wives over the course of his life with the first two dying in the mission field due to the effects of various diseases and debilitating conditions.

2 Ann Hasseltine was Judson’s first wife and a looming figure in her own right upon the landscape of evangelical missions in America.

3 A zayat is a small teaching shack on stilts where eastern teachers would instruct their students.  Judson, using a fine illustration of contextualized ministry, taught an preached the gospel in a zayat on the highly traveled roads near a great Buddhist shrine in Rangoon.