Adoniram Judson was one of America’s first foreign missionaries. In 1812, at the age of 22, he left America for India, (eventually ending up in Burma, or modern day Myanmar), burning in his heart to obey his Master’s command to make disciples of all the nations (Mt 28:20). For a wonderful and riveting summary and application of his life, listen John Piper’s biological sermon for the 2003 Pastor’s Conference here. My intent is to highlight passages from Courtney Anderson’s biography of Adoniram — To the Golden Shore. May the Lord use it to encourage and send His workers into the harvest. The following tells the story of Adoniram's journey to Ava, the location of the king's royal palace. It is a faint reminder of the last years of the apostle Paul, in which he stood before the Jewish Council, the Roman governor Felix, the Roman governor Porcius Festus, King Agrippa, and other prominent men (Acts 22-28). And it forcefully declares that God mission will be fulfilled His way, and not by the clever plans (no matter how well-intentioned) of men. Even when all man does may fail, the Lord God never will. May the true King and Lord fully establish His kingdom His way — and soon.
No one knew how the new king [of Burma], Bagyidaw, would take the news that some of his slaves were deserting Gautama of Christ, but there were ominous signs. In that fall of 1819, following his accession to the throne, new pagodas began to be built in increasing numbers. There were rumors that Bagyidaw, unlike his predecessor, was encouraging the Buddhist priests. If so, Christians might soon expect persecution for heresy — or even, since Christianity was identified with alien countries, for subversion, espionage or treason. (234-235)
[Soon, converts and potential converts became increasingly hesitant. Two men refused to be baptized publicly, for fear of persecution for their faith. Burmese officials began to tire of Adoniram's religious tracts. One man, who in the past had demonstrated intense interest, became almost antagonistic to Christianity out of fear for his life. Meetings at the zayat, a public building for worship, ceased, for curious folk had stopped being curious and no more inquirers came to ask questions. Then, the government began making laws that specifically targeted and harassed Adoniram and his wife. In short, the mission was beginning to fall apart.]
There was only one way to stop it:
Our business must be fairly laid before the emperor. If he frown upon us, all missionary attempts within his dominion will be out of the question. If he favor us, none of our enemies, during the continuance of his favor, can touch a hair of our heads.
A trip to Ava [where the emperor's palace was] was no light undertaking. [From Rangoon] The city was three hundred and fifty miles up the Irrawaddy, in the interior of the country. Only a handful of foreigners had ever been there. For most of the way the river was infested with pirates, the shores with dacoits — a class of robbers in Indian and Burma who plundered in armed bands. There were other dangers, for the Golden Presence was the source of arbitrary power itself, wrapped in layer of intrigue and hence perilous even to approach. (238-239)
[But they did arrive, with a few incidents but still intact. In Ava, Adoniram immediately went to his old friend, Mya-day-men, Rangoon's former viceroy, whom he and Nancy had befriended. He tactfully asked Mya-day-men to help him to speak to the Golden Face and obtain favor.]
Mya-day-men was more than willing. He immediately told Maung Yo, one of his favorite officials, to arrange with the Atwinwun Maung Zah, one of the emperor's four privy councillors, for the interview. With so exalted a sponsor as Mya-day-men, Adoniram found his request was fulfilled sooner than he expected…they would be conducted into the Golden Presence the very next day.
… [The next day they approached the palace.] After a long delay at the gate while official after official satisfied himself that their permits were in order, they were ushered — after removing their shoes and leaving a present — into the Atwinwun Maung Zah's columned reception chambers in the palace courtyard.
Though Maung Zah's huge audience hall, thronged with hundreds of retainers and supplicants, was really only a sort of anteroom to the royal quarters, to Adoniram and Colman [another missionary] it looked impressive enough for an emperor in its own right. …Affably Maung Zah asked them what they wanted. Adoniram explained their purpose: they were, as the Burmese expressed it, propagators of religion who wished to present to the emperor their sacred books and a certain petition. The petition he handed to Maung Zah, who took it, read about half, and then, mildly interested, asked a few questions about their religion which Adoniram answered as clearly, but as diplomatically, as he could.
Suddenly there was a stir in the audience hall. An official entered hurriedly and announced that the Golden Foot was about to advance. The interview ended abruptly. Maung Zah scrambled to his feet and began to don the robes of state held for him but attendants, hastily explaining to Adoniram and Colman as he did so that if he were to present them to the emperor it would have to be now.
For a while the Atwinwun forgot them as he busied himself with his robes … A courtier took advantage of the interval to speak to Adoniram. Today was an unfortunate day for their purpose, he told them, with the melancholy satisfaction of one who enjoys bringing bad tidings. This day was the celebration of the Burman victory over the Cassays. The Golden Feet were advancing with the intention that the Golden Eyes might look upon a military display. An interruption in order to hear a petition concerning a foreign religion might not be viewed with favor by those Eyes.
Adoniram and Colman were digesting this news when Maung Zah completed arraying himself, and said to them, "How can you propagate religion in this empire? But come along," and hurried out of the room. With sinking hearts they followed him and Maung Yo through what seemed like miles of splendid walks and corridors until they passed up a flight of stairs into a magnificent hall, so long as to seem nearly endless, every inch of surface covered with gold, its lofty dome supported by hundreds of tall pillars.
Here they were led to an alcove or corner at one side and told to sit down. …Now there was nothing to do but await the advance of the Golden Foot. …They sat facing in the direction from which the emperor would appear. ...[They] were almost lost in the nearly empty room, which was so long that it seemed all but endless; yet every square inch of visible surface was completely covered with gold leaf. Adoniram began to appreciate his presumption in petitioning a monarch who used such a room as a mere corridor. His fear grew as he realized how insignificant his gold-covered Bible would seem to a ruler who saw nothing but gold wherever he turned his eyes. But it was too late for retreat now.
…Then, without warning, every Burman in the room flung himself flat on the floor. From that position Maung Yo whispered to Adoniram that the Golden Feet had entered the room. The two missionaries did not prostrate themselves, but they did kneel, and, with their hands folded respectfully, waited to catch the sight of the emperor.
The man who strode unattended toward them with "the proud gait and majesty of an Eastern monarch," although he had a "high aspect and commanding eye," was impressive on account of his rank rather than for stature or costume. He was about twenty-eight years old, short, just a little over five feet tall, and extremely bandy-legged. His expression was pleasant and good-humored but the appearance of his face was marred by a forehead which slanted sharply backwards — an inherited peculiarity of the descendants of the emperor Alompra.
Around his legs and waist he wore a skirtlike checked silk cloth, the patso, of the bright scarlet reserved for royalty. His light jacket, the engyee, was of white muslin. Around his head he had knotted a handkerchief, turban-fashion, to hold his long hair. Although the attire was rich, the only thing about him that indicated royalty to Adoniram was the gold-sheathed sword he carried instead of a scepter.
As he drew near he caught sight of the two kneeling missionaries, the only people in the room who dared look at him and were not stretched flat on the floor. He stopped and turned partly toward Adoniram and Colman.
"Who are these?" he said.
Adoniram undertook to answer for himself. "The teachers, Great King," he replied in Burmese.
The king was surprised. "What, you speak Burman? …"
The king was interested. He sat down on an elevated seat, his hand resting on the hilt of his sword, his eyes studying the two men in a not unfriendly way.
"Are you teachers of religion?" he inquired. When Adoniram assented he asked a dozen or so other questions: Were they like the Portuguese priests? Were they married? Why did they dress as they did? Adoniram replied briefly and respectfully each time until the king appeared satisfied.
All this time Maung Zah and the other high officials had been lying with their faces pressed to the floor. Now, when the king seemed to have no more questions to ask, Maung Zah raised his head high enough to read the missionaries petition.
The American teachers present themselves to receive the favor of the excellent king, the sovereign of land and sea… Hearing that, on account of the greatness of the royal power, the royal country was in a quiet and prosperous state, we arrived in the town of Rangoon, within the royal dominions, and having obtained leave from the governor of that town, to come up and behold the Golden Face, we have ascended, and reached the bottom of the Golden Feet.
In the great country of America … we sustain the character of teachers and explainers of the contents of the sacred Scriptures of our religion. And since it is contained in those Scriptures, that, if we pass to other countries, and preach and propagate religion, great good will result, and both those who teach and those who receive the religion will be freed from future punishment, and enjoy, without decay or death, the eternal felicity of heaven — that royal permission be given, that we, taking refuge in the royal power, may preach our religion in these dominions, and that those who are pleased with our preaching, and wish to listen to and be guided by it, whether foreigners or Burmans, may be exempt from Government molestation, they present themselves to receive the favor of the excellent king, the sovereign of land and sea.
The king listened quietly. Then he stretched out his hand. Maung Zah crawled forward and presented the petition. His Majesty took it and deliberately read it through, from top to bottom. Meanwhile Adoniram passed to Maung Zah a carefully abridged and edited copy of the tract which Adnoiram had written four years before. When the king had finished the petition he silently returned it to Maung Zah, who now handed him the tract. Watching the king take the tract, Adoniram prayed inwardly with all the fervor of his heart, "Oh, have mercy on Burma! Have mercy on her king!"
But King Bagyidaw merely read the opening sentences: "There is one Being who exists eternally; who is exempt from sickness, old age, and death; who is, and was, and will be, without beginning and without end. Besides this, the true God, there is no other God …." Then He opened his hand with indifference and let the paper fall to the floor. Maung Zah picked it up and returned it to Adoniram.
There was a moment of deathly silence. Maung Yo, with some courage for a courtier, made an attempt to save the situation by opening one of the volumes of the Bible and showing it to the king, but the monarch took no notice.
The missionaries' petition had been rejected.
…They were hurried unceremoniously out of the audience hall and led back to the house of Mya-day-men. The king had been cold with their mission. No one in the palace wanted to have anything more to do with them. (246-251)
[For the next few days, they tried to speak to everyone they could to find a way to persuade the emperor to change his mind. Instead, they found that "even petitioning for religious toleration for the Burmans had been an almost unpardonable offense" (252). Indeed, there was no conclusion to be reached except one: "there is not the least possibility of obtaining the object stated in this paper, should they ever wait so long" (252).]
With heavy hearts, they decided to depart.
First however, they paid a call to Mr. Rodgers [an unbelieving English merchant whom they had befriended] …he gave them one piece of information which told them why their effort had failed, and why, in all probability, any future effort would fail.
Adoniram had heard … of the one Burman who had become a Christian some fifteen years before and had been tortured for his belief. Rodgers, it now turned out, had witnessed the whole affair. The man, a teacher at Ava of important family and outstanding ability, had been converted by the Roman Catholics and sent to Rome to study. On his return his nephew, then a Thau-dau-sen, a secretary of the Atwinwuns, had denounced him for forswearing his country's religion. With the emperor's approval, the nephew had thrown his uncle into prison and had him tortured. When he would not recant, he was beaten by an iron maul inch by inch from the feet to the breast. Rodgers had been present at this beating and had paid the executioners to strike as gently as possible.
But the man would not recant. To save him, some of the people close to the emperor told him the man was insane, and he was released. The Portuguese priests took him secretly out of the country and sent him to Bengal, where he ended his days. Since then, the priests had never tried to convert Burmans, but had confined their labors to their own congregations of descendants of the Portuguese mercenaries of old, who were permitted to be Christians by custom and law.
Up to this point little in the story told by Rodgers was new to Adoniram. He had learned it from U Aung Min [his first Burmese teacher] long ago, and its lesson had not deterred him from trying to convert Burmans. But one thing Rogers told him was new: The nephew, the Thau-dau-sen who had accused and tortured his uncle, was now an Atwinwun himself, one of the four privy councillors to the king, and not only an Atwinwun, but the first, ahead of even Maung Zah, who had introduced the two Americans into the emperor's presence. With such a man having the imperial ear, Maung Zah could accomplish nothing for them even if he wished.
Worse still, went on Rodgers, the chief queen, the first of His Majesty's wives, was a fanatical Buddhist and had acquired such power over the king that he was practically under her thumb. She and been daughter of a jailer, a member of the most degraded class in Burma. She was older than the king. Somehow, with incredible cunning and ruthlessness she had raised her status from mere concubine to first wife. Her suspiciousness and vindictiveness were well known in court circles. People whispered that she was a sorceress. How else could a woman of such origin rise to ascendancy over the ruler? But sorceress or not, said Rodgers, Adoniram and Colman must see the hopelessness of their mission.
…Only the day after the king had rejected their petition, he had given a great feast in the palace for all the Buddhist priests in the surrounding village. At the same time he had created a hundred new priests …The intent of the new ruler was plain. Against it Christian missionaries stood no chance at all, Adoniram and Colman agreed. …
Gibson [another Englishman whom they had befriended] had even dared mention them again to the emperor, but the emperor had merely laughed and replied, "What, they have come presuming to convert us to their religion! Let them leave our capital. We have no desire to receive their instructions. Perhaps they may find some of their countrymen in Rangoon who may be willing to listen to them." The king's open contempt worried Gibson.
He warned Adoniram and Colson that they had better secure a royal order protecting them against personal molestation. "Otherwise," he said, "as it will be notorious that you have solicited royal patronage and been refused, you will lie at the mercy of every ill-disposed person."But an order like the on Gibson advised would cost several hundred ticals and they could not afford it. They would have to put their trust in the Lord.
No one could have been more discouraged than Adoniram …They had spent much time and none, only to fail. Worse, they had staked all their future prospects on this one attempt to gain royal favor. In losing, they had not only failed to help their own cause, they had hurt it. They news would follow them — perhaps even precede them — down the river and it was not hard to imagine the effete it would have in Rangoon.
I could moralize half an hour on the apt resemblance, the beautiful congruity between the desolate state of our feelings and the sandy barren surface of this miserable beach. But " 'tis idle all." Let the beach and our sorrow go tougher. Something better will turn up tomorrow. (253-255)
Anderson, Courtney. To the Golden Shore. Copyright by Courtney Anderson, 1987. Published by Judson Press, 1987.