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A Narrative of Surprising Baptisms

Adoniram Judson
First American Foreign Missionary
[He studied the Baptismal Question
on the ship to the Mission Field]

      . . . Meanwhile Adoniram had involved himself in a theological inquiry which was showing unexpected results.

      In Andover he had begun a translation of the New Testament from the Greek, which he continued on board ship. Along toward April he became interested in the Greek word which is usually translated as "baptism." Adoniram had been baptized as an infant in the Congregational way, by the sprinkling of a few drops of water on his head. But as he conned the New Testament he could find no indication that anyone mentioned there had ever been baptized by sprinkling. In every case in which it was described, baptism had been performed in a river, and the people baptized actually went down into the water. Studying the word itself, he could not find that it was ever used to mean anything but immersion.

      More than once he spoke to Nancy of his discovery. Of course, he was a staunch orthodox Congregationalist, but he admitted to

her with some chagrin that in this case, at least, it looked as if the Baptists were right and the Congregationalists wrong. No matter how he stretched the sense, he could not see how any impartial person could ever make that Greek word mean "sprinkling."

      As a missionary, he was disturbed, because his instructions from the American Board told him to baptize "credible believers and their households." Naturally, only the "credible believers" were to be admitted into church membership, but their "households" could and must be baptized. In New England this would hare meant their infant children. In the Orient, it would also mean adult sons and daughters and probably servants as well, since the believers would probably never have heard of Christ until Adoniram told them. This was much different from baptizing newborn children of church members, one by one as they came along, New-England fashion. What would the thirty-year-old still-pagan son of a newly admitted church member think of being baptized? Would he consent? If he did, what good would baptism do if he remained an unbeliever?

      Adoniram had another reason for concern. He carried with him a letter from Dr. Worcester to Dr. Carey and the missionaries at Serampore, outside Calcutta, asking them to give the Americans their advice and aid. The Serampore missionaries were Baptists, and as such baptized only believers, not their children and servants. With them, the ceremony was inseparable from personal conversion; in Adoniram's words, "the initiating ordinance of the church."

      The Baptists and orthodox Congregationalists of New England had always been on friendly terms. In fact, Adoniram had met Dr. Lucius Bolles, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Salem, before the departure of the Caravan, and had urged that American Baptists follow the example of British Baptists in forming a missionary organization. But Adoniram was not so sure about his relation with the Serampore Baptists. If they attacked the Congregational position on baptism, how could he defend it? He feared much more, however, the dilemma in which he would find himself if natives asked him to explain the difference! They might even conclude there were two competing religions, each calling itself Christian - and thus find it easier to resist conversion.

      With his usual vigor Adoniram plunged into a study of the matter.

Finally he came to the conclusion that baptism of infants and unconverted members of a household, as Congregationalists performed it, grew out of the way church membership was acquired in the Old Testament, as illustrated by the case of Abraham. Abraham's male descendants and servants were automatically members of the church from birth. They did not have to join it by an act of individual choice, because the church consisted of the whole people. They left it only by being "cut off from the people." But in the New Testament, the basis of Christianity, so far as he could see, the membership of a church was restricted to the individuals "who gave credible evidence of being disciples of Christ." Baptism was mentioned "always in connection with believing."

      But this was the Baptist position! It worried him. He began saying to Nancy, "I am afraid the Baptists may be in the right."

      It worried Nancy even more. She did not feel the point was vital, but she was afraid that if he kept on this way her uncompromising Adoniram might come to believe that the Baptists were right in other things. Then where would they be? But although she never hesitated to argue with him, she must have learned by now that she was wasting her breath. He continued to worry the subject and it continued to worry him.

* * * *

      . . . Within a few more days Adoniram's merits crystallized. He must be baptized and become a Baptist. Nancy, after a little longer struggle, decided that she agreed with him. At the end of August he wrote a letter for both of them to Serampore, stating their conviction "that the immersion of a professing believer is the only Christian baptism. In these exercises I have been alone. Mrs. Judson has been engaged in a similar examination and has come to the same conclusion. Feeling, therefore, that are in an unbaptized state, we wish to profess our faith in Christ being baptized in obedience to his sacred commands."

      Adoniram's letter came as a complete surprise to the Serampore missionaries. In one way the situation it created was not altogether to their liking. American Congregationalists might feel that they had seduced the Americans to Baptist ideas. But any momentary feelings of embarrassment were soon forgotten in the realization of the opportunity thus unexpectedly presented to American Baptists. As Marshman wrote to the Reverend Dr. Baldwin, pastor of the Second Baptist Church in Boston, whose writings had played a large part

in Adoniram's conversion, it seemed "as though Providence itself were raising up this young man, that you might at least partake of the zeal of our Congregational missionary brethren around you. I would wish, then, that you should share in the glorious work, by supporting him. . . . After God has given you a missionary of your own nation, faith, and order without the help or knowledge of man, let me entreat you, and Dr. Messer, and brethren Bolles and Moriarty, humbly to accept the gift."

      Adoniram, too, wrote to Dr. Baldwin and to Dr. Bolles, pastor of Salem's First Baptist Church, whom he had met before sailing. Now he reminded him that, at that time, "I suggested the formation of a society among the Baptists in America for the support of foreign missions. . . . Little did I then expect to be personally concerned in such an attempt."

      Writing letters was all Adoniram could do for the present. What with the war, it would be months before the Congregationalists could know that their first American foreign missionary was now a Baptist, or the Baptists that they had a foreign missionary without their choice or expectation. Funds, location of a mission, support, organization - all these hung in air. But Adoniram had never concerned himself over such matters. He was satisfied that Baptism was the only correct creed. He had a burning determination to convert the heathen himself. For the rest, let others worry.

      Adoniram and Nancy were baptized by immersion on September 6, 1812. The ceremony was performed by [William] Ward in the Lal Bazar Chapel in Calcutta.


[From To the Golden Shore: The Life of Adoniram Judson, Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1956, pp. 127-129, 145-146. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]


A Narrative of Surprising Baptisms
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