Most people would have written Ko Than Byu off as hopeless — but not Adoniram Judson.
Few of his Karen neighbors in the jungles of Myanmar (then Burma) would have been surprised to hear that the wild young man who left home at 15 had become a robber who claimed to have killed at least 30 people.
Byu eventually found himself in trouble and up for sale to pay a debt. The Burmese Christian who bought Byu as a servant found his temper so volatile that he was glad to hand the man over to Judson for the price of the debt.
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Something about this pioneer American missionary touched Byu in a way nothing else had. When Byu turned his life over to the Jesus that Judson taught, he was finally able to channel the boundless energy that had caused so much trouble into good.
Ko Than Byu would return to the mountains with missionaries George and Sarah Boardman and spend the rest of his life evangelizing his fellow Karen people, who today count many Christians among their numbers.
Byu was just one of many influenced by Judson, the man many consider the father of American missions because of the way he inspired his fellow Christians to look beyond their borders and carry the light of the Gospel to other nations.
Judson’s life had a more promising start than Ko, but it hardly felt that way to his devout parents when he told them he no longer believed in the God his father, a rigid Congregationalist minister, preached. Almost as bad, Judson was heading for New York to write for the theater. Neither his father’s reasoning nor his mother’s tears and prayers could deter him.
But God could plant second thoughts.
A night that changed his life
In an inn along the way, Judson was placed in the room next to a dying man. During the night, hearing sounds from the next room, he found himself wondering whether the man was prepared to die — and whether he himself was prepared to face the prospect of bleak nothingness.
Paying his bill the next morning, Judson was told the man had died during the night. When Judson asked who he was, the answer shook him to the core. The man was Jacob Eames, the university friend who had influenced him to reject all revealed religion.
That night set Judson on a fresh quest for truth, one that led him to embrace Christ and join with other young men to offer themselves as America’s first global missionaries, starting a movement that still challenges us today.
On Feb. 19, 1812, Judson and his new bride, Ann “Nancy” Hasseltine Judson, along with fellow Congregationalist missionaries Samuel and Harriet Newell, sailed for Calcutta, knowing many dangers lay ahead. They also knew they would meet pioneer English Baptist missionary William Carey. On board, the Judsons studied Scriptures to refute Carey’s stand on baptism. Instead, they concluded he was right and asked for baptism by immersion a few months after landing in India, knowing it meant cutting ties to the group supporting them.
But Carey and others urged Baptists in America to support the Judsons and other missionary work. The result was the Triennial Convention, which appointed the Judsons their first missionaries and later gave birth to the American Baptist and Southern Baptist Conventions.
Setting sail for Myanmar
In spite of warnings that they would not be well received, the Judsons sailed from India to Myanmar, the country God had laid on Judson’s heart as he began to ponder missions. Both would spend their lives serving God in that country.
Judson would wait six tough years, preaching in a roadside “zayat,” a meeting place similar to those used by Buddhists, before seeing his first convert. But by the time he died, Judson would know of 74 churches in Myanmar, partly because of his evangelism.
Early morning risers perform exercise on a boat dock at sunrise on the Irrawaddy River in Yangon, Myanmar.
A gifted linguist, he would complete a translation of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Burmese that was so accurate it is still used today. Also gifted in languages, Nancy would translate Scripture and tracts into Burmese and Thai and teach women and children.
Judson would endure two years of imprisonment and torture, he and a colleague kept alive by Nancy’s heroic efforts. But he would soon lose Nancy to smallpox and then their young daughter, sending him into years of a depression.
Except for one trip home, Judson would spend almost 37 of his 61 years in Myanmar before he died aboard ship on April 12, 1850, and was buried in the Indian Ocean. He would suffer the loss of seven of his 13 children and two of his three wives, all accomplished women as dedicated to missions as Judson.
But reports of his heroic efforts would reach the United States. Far more than other pioneer American missionaries, he and Nancy inspired others —and still inspire Christians today — to carry the Gospel across cultures.
Today that includes men like Saw Aung,* a Karen believer like Ko Than Byu, but one who was shocked when God called him to evangelize not his fellow Karen, but their enemies, the country’s majority Burmese.
When the Lord first called, “I had no interest in the Burmese people,” said Aung. “We don’t make friends with them. We stay separate from them and we neglect them wherever they are.”
Since 1949, the Karen guerilla army has fought for their province’s independence from predominantly Burmese Myanmar. The ethnic lines had been drawn and Aung had no desire to cross them.
Yet, in a move that illustrates a trend throughout the Myanmar Church, God overcame prejudice to put passion in Aung.
“When the Holy Spirit touched my heart, … I wanted to evangelize (the Burmese) to know Jesus,” he said. “When they know Jesus, there is a joy in their life, and they know that they will not go to Hell now.”
But perhaps dearest to Judson’s heart might be Burmese Christian Tun Kyaw,* who continues the translation work that was a passion for Judson.
A monk and other commuters deboard a river ferry at a dock on the Irrawaddy River in Yangon, Myanmar.
After 21 years as a high school and university teacher, Kyaw quit his job in 2002 and dedicated the rest of his life to serving the Lord. He began traveling with other Christians, witnessing in villages.
Yet, Kyaw knew he, like Judson, had a gift for languages and could pick up regional tongues such as Wa, Akha and Shan merely by associating with members from each people group. He had an ability that could help spread the Gospel.
Kyaw has used his gift to prepare training materials and produce translations for evangelical cassette tapes and books. Most significantly, he worked with a committee to update the Bible in a minority language.
Kyaw also continued to evangelize in villages and even, like Judson, spent time in prison. Yet, his language work affected people across Myanmar, and like Judson’s Bible, it will last for years.
Although 200 years have passed since Adoniram and Ann Judson sailed for Asia, their lives challenge us as they did Christians then. Of the world’s 11,424 people groups, 3,257 are less than 2 percent evangelical Christian and have no Adoniram Judson or Ko Than Byu to bring them the Gospel light. Could you be the modern-day Judson to go to them?
Shiloh Lane contributed to this article