America’s First Foreign Missionary Casualty (2)

Mark Minnick

This is part two of two. Part One is here.

In Part One we were introduced to Harriett Newell and her Christian testimony as she travelled from America to India in 1812.

In the absence of all other friends, the bond to Samuel was especially strengthened. “In one bosom friend I find the endearing qualities of a parent, a brother, and a husband all united,” she wrote. “This sympathy alleviates every sorrow — his prayers diffuse joy and consolation through my heart, and while he lessens my earthly griefs, he points me to that world where the weary are at rest.”

Upon arriving in Calcutta, the sea-battered volunteers contacted William Carey, who graciously offered them hospitality at Serampore, where he and his Baptist colleagues had established a remarkable Indian mission station. Harriett was particularly thankful for both the respite and the companionship of other women. She was four months pregnant.

The sights and smells and sounds of the new land were exciting. “The smell of the land is reviving. We hear the birds singing sweetly in the bushes. The people were particularly fascinating. After passing hundreds of the Hindoo cottages, which resemble haystacks in their form and color, in the midst of cocoanut, banana and date trees, a large English house will appear to vary the scenes. Here will be seen a large white Pagoda through the trees, the place where the idol gods are worshipped. … Some Hindoos were seen bathing in the waters of the Ganges; others fishing; others sitting at their ease on its banks; others driving home their cattle, which are very numerous; and others, walking with fruit and umbrellas in their hands, with the little tawny children around them.”

Harriet was deeply moved over the prospects of reaching these people. “O that their hearts might be opened to receive the blessings of the Gospel. O my mother, my heart is pained within me at what I have already seen of these wretched Pagans. Here we are, surrounded by hundreds of them, whose only object is to get their rice, eat, drink and sleep. … O the superstition that prevails through this country! I am sure, if we gain admittance, I shall plead harder with American Christians to send missionaries to these Bengal heathen, than ever a missionary did before.”

Her impressions of the need seemed to intensify with every new experience. A week after arriving she related, “I have just returned from a scene calculated to awaken every compassionate feeling. At nine in the morning we took a boat, and went three or four miles up the river to see the worship. … The god of wood was taken from his pagoda, and bathed in the sacred waters of the Ganges. The assembled worshippers followed the example, and thousands flocked to the river, where with prayers and many superstitious rites, they bathed! Miserable wretches! O that American Christians could but form an adequate idea of the gross darkness which covers this people.”

But the American party was soon to be deeply disappointed in their hopes of breaking new ground for the gospel in India. Harriet had written to her mother the very day of their arrival there that “the English East India Company are violently opposed to missions.” It turned out to be no exaggeration.

Within two weeks Judson and Newell were summoned to the police station for an order to return to America at once. Days of desperate appeals and negotiations followed. Finally, the young missionaries were granted permission to sail to the Isle of France, a tiny little speck of an island off the east coast of Madagascar. But the first ship making port of call there could give passage to only two of the party. It was decided that the Newells, now within three months of the birth of their first baby, should go immediately.

Once aboard Harriet was almost immediately confined to bed by high fever. Just a few weeks after recovering she was again stricken, this time with severe stomach pain. The ship itself made little progress due to contrary winds that drove it aimlessly about the Bay of Bengal and eventually sprung its timbers so that it took on dangerous amounts of water. It was almost too much to bear. “My wicked heart,” Harriet wrote, “is inclined to think it hard, that I should suffer such fatigue and hardship. I sinfully envy those whose lot it is to live in tranquility on land. Happy people! Ye know not the toils and trials of voyagers across the rough and stormy deep. O for a little Indian hut on land — But hush my warring passions; it is for Jesus, who sacrificed the joys of His Father’s kingdom, and expired on a cross to redeem a fallen world, that thus I wander from place to place and feel no where at home. How reviving the thought! How great the consolation it yields to my sinking heart!”

Two days before her nineteenth birthday and with no one to aid her but Samuel, Harriet gave birth to a little girl on the ship’s cabin floor. Almost immediately she and the baby were drenched in a violent tropical storm. The baby contracted pneumonia and died just five days after birth. The broken parents committed the little form to the great ocean depths. Harriet penned a few lines to her mother. “Heart-rending stroke. … Mine almost bled with deep anguish.” Samuel wrote in his journal, “It was painful, inexpressibly painful, especially to the mother to part with her. … with many tears we committed her to a watery grave.” And then, with heart bursting, he pled, “May God sanctify this bereavement to us, and O may he spare my dear wife.”

But it was not to be. Exhausted, grieving, and deathly ill, Harriet wasted away. Though the ship eventually reached the Isle of France and the collapsed sufferer was carried on land to be carefully attended by the chief surgeon of the occupying British army, about four o’clock on the afternoon of November thirtieth her eyesight entirely failed, and within the hour she died. All that night, with no one near but his Negro manservant, Samuel sat forlorn beside the gloomy coffin holding his dear wife’s remains. The next day, though nearly prostrated with grief but forced by the climate to do something with the body immediately, he mustered the strength to have his teenage wife buried under an evergreen tree in a quiet corner of a local cemetery.

A short while later the Judsons’ ship, too, dropped anchor at Port Louis. Nancy made a lonely trip to the grave. The visit revived many painful, solemn feelings. “But a little while ago, she was with us on board ship, and joined us daily in prayer and praise. Now her body is crumbling to dust, in a land of strangers.”

Samuel testified, in a pathetic letter to Harriet’s mother, “During the whole of her sickness she talked in the most familiar manner, and with great delight of death, and the glory that was to follow. When Dr. B. one day told her, those were gloomy thoughts, she had better get rid of them, she replied, that on the contrary they were to her cheering and joyful beyond what she could express. When I attempted to persuade her that she would recover, (which I fondly hoped,) it seemed to strike her like a disappointment. She would say, ‘You ought rather to pray that I may depart, that I may be perfectly free from sin, and be where God is.’”

Later he recalled, “Within a day or two of her death, such conversation as the following passed between us: ‘Should you not be willing to recover, and live a while longer here?’” he had asked. “On some accounts it would be desirable,” she responded. “I wish to do something for God before I die,” she continued. “But the experience I have had of the deceitfulness of my heart leads me to expect, that if I should recover, my future life would be much the same as my past has been, and I long to be perfectly free from sin.”

Regarding the opportunity for service that would be lost by her passing, Harriet had consoled herself Scripturally. “God has called me away before we have entered upon the work of the mission, but the case of David affords me comfort. I have had it in my heart to do what I can for the heathen, and I hope God will accept me.”

Of course, the hardest part was the thought of parting from her young husband. “What shall I do when you are gone?” Samuel had asked one day after it was apparent to them both that she would not recover. “How can I bear the separation?” “Jesus will be your best friend,” Harriet had comforted him. “Our separation will be short. We shall soon, very soon, meet in a better world; if I thought we should not, it would be painful indeed to part with you.”

At the time of their parting, Samuel and Harriet Newell had been married just ten short months. Samuel was left, apart from the Judsons, entirely without a friend to so much as console him. He often sat beside his young wife’s grave. “O Harriet, Harriet, my heart bleeds afresh at the sound of thy name; and yet I love to repeat it, and to dwell upon the sound.” “She enjoys, I doubt not,” he wrote to her mother a year later, “what she often spoke of on earth, ‘the light of Immanuel’s countenance,’ and the friendship and converse of angels and saints.”

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.)