Judson was born on August 9, 1788, in Malden, Middlesex County, Massachusetts. He was born to Adoniram Judson, Sr., a Congregational minister, and Abigail (née Brown). Judson entered the College of Rhode Island & Providence Plantations (now Brown University) when he was sixteen, and graduated as valedictorian of his class at the age of nineteen. While studying at college, he met a young man named Jacob Eames, a devout deist and skeptic. Judson and Eames developed a strong friendship, leading to Judson's abandonment of his childhood faith and parents' religious instruction. During this time, Judson embraced the writings of the French philosophes. After graduating from college, Judson opened a school and wrote an English grammar and mathematics textbook for girls.
At times mistakenly referred to as the first Protestant missionary to Burma, he was in fact preceded by James Chater and Richard Mardon (who both arrived in 1807) as well as by Felix Carey. However, since those predecessors did not remain long, and Judson also translated the Bible into Burmese, as well as established a number of Baptist churches in Burma, Judson is remembered as the first significant missionary in Burma, as well as one of the very first missionaries from America to travel overseas.
In 1810, Judson joined a group of mission-minded students who called themselves "the Brethren". The students inspired the establishment of America's first organized missionary society. Eager to serve abroad, Judson became convinced that "Asia with its idolatrous myriads, was the most important field in the world for missionary effort". He, and three other students from the seminary, appeared before the Congregationalists' General Association to appeal for support. In 1810, impressed by the four men's politeness and sincerity, the elders voted to form the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.
Both the local and British authorities did not want Americans evangelizing Hindus in the area, so the group of missionaries separated and sought other mission fields. They were ordered out of India by the British East India Company, to whom American missionaries were even less welcome than British (they were baptized in September, and already in June, the United States had declared war on England). The following year, on July 13, 1813, he moved to Burma, and en route his wife miscarried their first child aboard ship.
Judson offered to Baptists in the United States to serve as their missionary. Luther Rice, who had also converted, was in poor health and returned to America where his work and william Carey's urging resulted in the 1814 formation of the first national Baptist denomination in the United States for Foreign Missions (commonly called the Triennial Convention) and its offshoot the American Baptist Missionary Union.
A printing press had been sent from Serampore, and a missionary printer, George H. Hough, who arrived from America with his wife in 1817, produced the first printed materials in Burmese ever printed in Burma, which included 800 copies of Judson's translation of the Gospel of Matthew. The chronicler of the church, Maung Shwe Wa, concludes this part of the story, "So was born the church in Rangoon–logger and Fisherman, the poor and the rich, men and women. One traveled the whole path to Christ in three days; another took two years. But once they had decided for Christ they were his for all time."
He accommodated to some Burmese customs and built a zayat, the customary bamboo and thatch reception shelter, on the street near his home as a reception room and meeting place for Burmese men. Fifteen men came to his first public meeting in April 1819. He was encouraged but suspected they had come more out of curiosity than anything else. Their attention wandered, and they soon seemed uninterested. Two months later, he baptized his first Burmese convert, Maung Naw, a 35-year-old timber worker from the hill tribes.
In 1820, Judson and a fellow missionary named Colman attempted to petition the Emperor of Burma, King Bagyidaw, in the hope that he would grant freedom for the missionaries to preach and teach throughout the country, as well as remove the sentence of death that was given for those Burmese who changed religion.
By 1823, ten years after his arrival, membership of the little church had grown to 18, and Judson had finally finished the first draft of his translation of the entire text of the New Testament in Burmese.
Two irreconcilable hungers triggered the First Anglo-Burmese War of 1824: Burma's Desire for more territory, and Britain's Desire for more trade. Burma threatened Assam and Bengal; Britain responded by attacking and absorbing two Burmese provinces into her India holdings to broaden her trade routes to East Asia. The war was a rough interruption of the Baptists' missionary work. English-speaking Americans were too easily confused with the enemy and suspected of spying.
The collapse of Burma's armies brought Judson out of prison, but his release was not complete freedom. In 1826, several months after the surrender, Burma pressed Judson into Service as a translator for the peace negotiations. Some have used Judson's acceptance of a role in the treaty negotiations as evidence of complicity in imperialism, but it should be noted that he first acted on behalf of the defeated Burmese as translator, not for the Western victors.
The Karen people were a primitive, hunted minority group of ancient Tibeto-Burman ancestry scattered in the forests and jungles of the Salween River and in the hills along the southeast coast. Judson was the first missionary to make contact with them in 1827, when he ransomed and freed a debt-slave from one of his early converts. The freed slave, Ko Tha Byu, was an illiterate, surly man who spoke almost no Burmese and was reputed to be not only a thief, but also a murderer who admitted killing at least 30 men, but could not remember exactly how many more.
In 1828, the former Karen bandit, "whose rough, undisciplined genius, Energy and zeal for Christ" had caught the notice of the missionaries, was sent south with a new missionary couple, the Boardmans, into the territory of the strongly animistic, non-Buddhist Karen. Ko Tha Byu was no sooner baptized, when he set off into the jungle alone to preach to his fellow tribe members. Astonishingly, he found them prepared for his preaching. Their ancient oracle traditions, handed down for centuries, contained some startling echoes of the Old Testament that some scholars conjecture a linkage with Jewish communities (or possibly even Nestorians), before their migrations from western China into Burma perhaps as early as the 12th century.
Sarah Cummings and Jason Tuma arrived in 1832. Cummings proved her mettle at once, choosing to work alone with Karen Evangelists in the malaria-ridden Salween River valley north of Moulmein, but within two years she died of fever.
While the Boardmans and Ko Tha Byu were penetrating the jungles to the south, Judson shook off a paralyzing year-long siege of depression that overcame him after the death of his wife and set out alone on long canoe trips up the Salween River into the tiger-infested jungles to evangelize the northern Karen. Between trips, he worked unceasingly at his lifelong goal of translating the entire Bible into Burmese. When he finished it at last in 1834, he had been labouring on it for 24 years. It was printed and published in 1835.
In 1835, a second single woman, Eleanor Macomber, after five years of mission to the Ojibway Indians in Michigan, joined the mission in Burma. Alone, with the help of Karen evangelistic assistants, she planted a church in a remote Karen village and nurtured it to the point where it could be placed under the care of an ordinary missionary. She lived there five years and died of jungle fever.
In April of that same year, he married Sarah Hall Boardman, widow of fellow missionary George Boardman. They had eight children, five of whom survived to adulthood. Sarah's health began failing and Physicians recommended a return to America. Sarah died en route at St. Helena on September 1, 1845. He continued home, where he was greeted as a Celebrity and toured the eastern seaboard raising the profile of and money for missionary activity. Because he could barely speak above a whisper, due to pulmonary illness, his public addresses were made by speaking to an assistant, who would then address the audience.
On June 2, 1846, Judson married for the third time, to Writer Emily Chubbuck, who he had commissioned to write memoirs for Sarah Hall Boardman. They had a daughter born in 1847.
Judson developed a serious lung disease and doctors prescribed a sea voyage as a cure. On April 12, 1850, he died at age 61 onboard ship in the Bay of Bengal and was buried at sea, having spent 37 years in missionary Service abroad with only one trip back home to America. A memorial to Judson was built on Burial Hill in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
Each July, Baptist churches in Myanmar celebrate "Judson Day," commemorating his arrival as a missionary. Inside the campus of Yangon University is Judson Church, named in his honor, and in 1920 Judson College, named in his honor, merged into Rangoon College, which has since been renamed Yangon University. The American University named in his honor, Judson University was founded in Elgin, Illinois, in 1963, as the liberal arts Judson College was separated from the Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, which moved from Chicago to Lombard, Illinois. This American Judson College became Judson University in 2007 and now also has a campus in Rockford, Illinois.
Judson compiled the first ever Burmese-English dictionary; missionary E. A. Steven completed the English-Burmese half. Every dictionary and grammar written in Burma in the last two centuries has been based on ones originally created by Judson. Judson "became a symbol of the preeminence of Bible translation for" Protestant missionaries. In the 1950s, Burma's Buddhist prime minister U Nu told the Burma Christian Council "Oh no, a new translation is not necessary. Judson's captures the language and idiom of Burmese perfectly and is very clear and understandable." His translation remains the most popular version in Myanmar.
Judson's deist views were shaken when his friend Eames fell violently ill and died. Both had been sleeping in separate rooms at an inn, and Judson heard the death throes of the person next door, only to learn from the clerk the next morning that his anonymous neighbor had been Mr. Eames, who had indeed died. The shock of learning the dying neighbor's identity – and that Eames had led Judson away from the Christian faith into skepticism, but was now dead – returned Judson back to the faith of his youth, although he was already attending the Andover Theological Seminary. In 1808, Judson "made a solemn dedication of himself to God". During his final year at the school, Judson decided upon a missionary career.