Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

6 May 2015

Adoniram Judson and the Question of Baptism

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At the beginning of the nineteenth century the country of Burma was almost 100% Buddhist, but such is no longer the case. According to the 2010 edition of Operation World, Burma (now called Myanmar) currently contains a sizeable minority of Christians including about 1.7 million Baptists, making Baptists the largest Protestant denomination in the country. The reason for this significant pocket of Baptists is in part due to a voyage that took place in 1812 and the doubts that began forming in the mind of a young missionary as he translated the Scriptures.

In August of 1788, Adoniram Judson was born in Malden, MA to a Congregational minister and his wife. As an infant he was sprinkled, and he grew up assuming that infant baptism was the NT pattern. Upon reaching early adulthood, Judson was determined to become a missionary to the East, and in 1812 Judson and his wife, Ann, set sail on the Caravan headed for India just a week after their wedding.

Salem_Harbor_CaravanDuring the four months’ voyage, Judson translated parts of the NT, and as he did so, he began to suspect that immersion was the correct mode of baptism. He had been sent by the (Congregational) Board of Commissioners, and he would soon be interacting with William Carey and other Baptist missionaries in India so he knew this was an issue he needed to resolve in his own mind.

Upon arriving in Calcutta, Judson continued his study of the subject. He read books both for and against infant baptism, and his wife joined him in studying what the Scriptures say about the subject. Within a short time they both became convinced that the Baptists were correct about both the mode and the proper recipients of baptism. As Judson put it,

In a word, I could not find a single intimation in the New Testament, that the children and domestics of believers were members of the church, or entitled to any church ordinance, in consequence of the profession of the head of their family. Everything discountenanced this idea. When baptism was spoken of, it was always in connection with believing. None but believers were commanded to be baptized; and it did not appear to my mind that any others were baptized (Letter to Third Church, Plymouth, MA, 20 August 1817).

Shortly after concluding this, Judson and his wife declared their belief that scriptural baptism is the immersion of a believer in water, and they requested baptism from the Baptist missionaries serving in India. Before continuing on to Burma, Judson preached a message on baptism that Carey described as the best exposition of the subject he had ever heard, and, in fact, Carey encouraged Judson to have it published. That sermon together with a letter to the Third Church of Plymouth and an additional address on the mode of baptism were eventually published as a book titled Christian Baptism (Kindle). This little volume remains an interesting account of how an early American missionary changed his mind about the question of baptism.

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