America’s First Foreign Missionary Casualty (1)

Mark Minnick

I wish that all believers could experience the immensely enriching benefit that some of us obtain from reading Christian biography. So much of what Hollywood and secular historians portray as the past is just pathetic fabrication. It simply didn’t happen that way.

But factual Christian biography that is reverently written opens a pleasurable and profitable window into the real world of living, breathing, suffering, and embattled saints who, in many cases, are only a few lifetimes removed from us. No descriptions are adequate for the seasons of refreshing many of us experience from being carried back into those times by good books.

Several years ago my attention was called to the life of a young missionary wife whose moving story has become largely lost. But in early nineteenth-century America it was retold again and again. I went searching and finally turned up a volume of the young woman’s memoirs and letters. This copy was published just thirty- one years after her death, but was already the ninth edition of what was being eagerly read in Christian households all over New England at the time. Perhaps you too might be blessed by the story of America’s first foreign missionary casualty.

Adoniram Judson is often called “America’s first foreign missionary.” Actually, however, when Judson sailed from Salem, Massachusetts, in February of 1812, he was accompanied by three other gospel pioneers: his wife, Nancy, and the newly married Samuel and Harriet Newell. Harriet, slender, frail, and susceptible to toothaches and tuberculosis, was one of nine children and only eighteen years old.

From the time of her conversion six years earlier Harriet’s will had been gladly offered to her Lord. To a friend she wrote that she was “willing to leave everything to God; willing to be called by any name, which tongue can utter, and to undergo any sufferings, if it would but make me humble and be for His glory. I care not for myself. Though He lay ever so much upon me, I would be content.” Astonishing sentiments for a twelve-year-old girl, even two hundred years ago when raw life often compelled even the youngest children to mature both socially and spiritually in a regretful hurry.

Harriet was no childish romantic. Almost a year before the missionaries’ departure she’d mused, “Destined to a far distant land, my affectionate friends, my pleasant home, my much loved country, I must leave forever. … Instead of being enlivened by the cheering voice of a believing friend, I shall behold thousands prostrating themselves before dumb idols, while the air will ring with the horrid sounds of idol music. No churches will be found for the refreshment of weary pilgrims; no joyful assemblies, where saints can resort to unite in the reviving exercises of social worship. All will be dark, everything will be dreary, and not a hope of worldly happiness will be for a moment indulged. The prime of life will be spent in an unhealthy country, a burning region, amongst a people of strange language, at a returnless distance from my native land, where I shall never more behold the friends of my youth. Amid these discouragements, I often find my sinking heart desponding.”

But higher interests constrained her to disregard such feelings. One motivation was a sense of duty. “If … I refuse to make this sacrifice, refuse to lend my little aid in the promulgation of the Gospel amongst the heathen,” she asked a skeptical friend, “how could I ever expect to enjoy the blessing of God, and peace of conscience, though surrounded with every temporal mercy?” Her mother, though widowed and with a house full of younger children to feed, reinforced this profound sense of responsibility. With brimming eyes she responded to her daughter’s request for permission to leave: “If a conviction of duty, and love to the souls of the perishing heathen, lead you to India, as much as I love you, Harriet, I can only say, Go.”

“Love to the souls of the perishing heathen.” Harriet thought often of that too.

“Those who have never felt the worth of their own souls, account it superstition and hypocritic zeal, for Christians to sacrifice their earthly pleasures, for the sake of telling the heathen world of a Saviour,” she observed. “But the dear heathen,” she reflected, “are destitute of Bible, Sabbaths, and churches.”

“Have we any benevolence?” she asked. “Are we susceptible of feeling for the distresses of our fellow creatures? As we value the salvation which the Saviour offers; as we value His tears, His labors, and His death, let us now seriously ask what we shall do for the salvation of the benighted heathen?” Her own resolve was to let “the destitute millions of Asia and Africa know, there is compassion in the hearts of Christians.” She longed to “tell them of the love of Jesus, and the road to bliss on high.”

Sometimes she staggered at the sacrifices before her. “Surely nothing but the sovereign power of God could have led me to contemplate, with serenity and composure, the painful scenes of a missionary life. … O, how can I think of that hour!” Yet the possibility of being used in the life of even one person overrode all her troubled thoughts. “O, could I become the instrument of bringing one degraded female to Jesus, how should I be repaid for every pain!”

Then, stretching away far beyond the few years she might spend in dutiful sacrifice to reach those desperate souls, was the prospect of a swift entrance into rest. Her letters leading up to the voyage make frequent reference to it. “Our pilgrimage will shortly be ended, and all the trials of life will be over” (April 29, 1811). “The wintry storms of life will soon be over; and if I have committed my immortal interest into the hands of God, I shall shortly find a sweet release from every woe” (May, 1811). “This is indeed a wretched world. How few the joys! How many and various the sorrows of life! … O for a dismission from this clay tabernacle — O for an entrance into those lovely mansions! My soul pants for the full enjoyment of God. I cannot bear this little spirituality” (August 14, 1811). “Soon will my mortal state be ended … pleasure, without the least alloy, will be found in heaven” (September 20, 1811). “Trials will wean us from this alluring world, and prepare us for that rest which is reserved for the righteous. And how sweet will that rest be, after a life of toil and suffering. O how does the anticipation of future bliss sweeten the bitter cup of life” (November 10, 1811).

Most of all was deep concern for God’s glory. “This evening has been in contemplating the probable scenes of my future life, and in praying for the mission. I hope I have been enabled to say, ‘Here am I, Lord, send me’ to distant Indian shores, if it may be for thy glory.” To a girlfriend in Boston she confided her conviction: “If I am actuated by love to the Saviour and His cause, nothing on earth or hell can hurt me.”

The voyage to India proved to be harrowing indeed. Harriet was wretchedly seasick for the first week. Then the vessel sprang a leak. “We were in the greatest danger of sinking during the night,” she wrote her mother. And the trip was slow, even at best. “The wind is favorable,” she recorded. “We go nearly seven miles an hour.” Once they reached the equator temperatures soared. “It is excessively warm today. We are now in the torrid Zone. … I am sitting with the window and door opened, covered with sweat. … We all feel the want of more thin clothes.”

Despite the challenges, the missionaries used their time profitably. Harriet sewed, drank coffee and tea (“though I cannot yet drink [it] without milk”), wrote letters, walked the deck three times a day for exercise, and delighted in the sight of fish the sailors caught, especially sharks. “Frightful appearance … far exceeded the description I have often heard given of them.” Most of all, she enjoyed their little band’s daily times of prayer and Bible study and the opportunity for reading afforded by the long, quiet days rocked rhythmically away by the ship’s gentle roll.

It was 114 difficult days from the group’s last sight of the New England coast to their first of a shoreline in the Bay of Bengal. Six weeks into the voyage Harriet divulged to her mother how difficult it was to be parted from her. “I have at times the most ardent desire to see you, and my other dear friends. These desires for a moment, are almost insupportable.” But in the monotony and loneliness she prospered spiritually. She reflected on her childhood and wrote, “My mother, my dear mother, can you, will you forgive me for causing you so much pain, as I surely have done in the course of my life, and for making you so few returns for the unwearied care and kindness you have ever shown me?”

Her perspective on earthly things gradually matured as well. In her journal she testified, “My attachment to the world has greatly lessened since I left my country, and with it all the honors, pleasures and riches of life. … I feel this morning like a pilgrim and a traveller in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is. Heaven is my home — there I trust my weary soul will sweetly rest, after a tempestuous voyage across the ocean of life. I love to think of what I shall shortly be when I have finished my Heavenly Father’s work on earth.”

To be continued next week…

Dr. Mark Minnick is the pastor of Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and serves as adjunct professor of preaching and exposition at Bob Jones Seminary.

(Originally published in FrontLine • July / August 2004. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)