Ann Hasseltine was not your average American woman in the early 1800s. She was strong-willed and intelligent, received a formal education during a time when most women did not, and worked as a school teacher. Unlike most single women of her day, she moved out of her father’s home on her own before she was married. She believed strongly in the education of women, and after her conversion she began studying theology, as though she were a seminary student. She desired to be useful to God and to serve others, and in the year 1812 her life took a dramatic turn that would pave the way for many women in missions for generations to come.
In 1812, a group of young men in New England, calling themselves the Brethren Society, were petitioning for the formation of the first American missions society. Among them were Samuel Mills, Adoniram Judson, and Samuel Newell. Judson and Newell volunteered to be the first missionaries sent from America to India. As the mission structure was forming, Adoniram Judson dined one evening in the Hasseltine home, where he met Ann. Tradition has it that he fell in love with Ann at once and knew she would be his wife. He wrote a letter of marriage proposal, making plain that marrying him also meant saying goodbye to her family and friends in America, trading a life of comfort for one of suffering. Two months of wrestling with her emotions and in prayer, Ann said yes. Adoniram and Ann were married on February 5, 1812. Two weeks later they boarded a ship for India along with Samuel and Harriet Newell.
The journey across the ocean was four months long and the beginning of many trials for the young team. Upon arriving in Calcutta, they met opposition right away. The British officials wanted no missionaries in India converting the people from their native beliefs in fear that it would cause a “race war” and interfere with trade. The Judsons and Newells had orders to return home immediately, but after surveying every option there seemed to be an open door to Burma (now called Myanmar), another unreached land. Before they reached Burma, the team experienced two great tragedies. The first was the death of Harriet Newell, and the second was the loss of Ann’s first child who died during labor.
Once the team landed in Rangoon, Adoniram and Ann began learning the native language, Burmese. Adoniram worked to translate the Bible and began teaching about Christ. He taught in a zayat, something like an open hut. This was the same way the indigenous Buddhist teachers spoke to men passing through who would stop and listen. Meanwhile, Ann ministered to the women and met with a small group of ladies who showed interest in the gospel. She also helped with the translation work, completing the books of Daniel and Jonah in Burmese. She also learned the Siamese language (known as Thai today) and translated the book of Matthew and gospel tracts for local Siamese people.
Ann became ill in 1822, and her health became so bad she returned home to America for restoration while Adoniram stayed in Burma. While she was home, Ann began writing out the stories of their missionary life. They were published and widely read by Americans, and the Judson’s became quite famous for their efforts to tell the Burmese about Christ. Her stories sparked a missions interest in churches across denominational lines that lived on for decades. Ann used the publicity to raise funds to buy some young Burmese girls out of slavery and educated them. Even in Burma, Ann advocated for the education of women, hoping others would also see its value.
When Ann returned to Burma, a war broke out between Britain and Burma. The Burmese put all English speaking men in jail, including Adoniram. The prison conditions were absolutely brutal, and Adoniram stayed for 17 months, barely surviving, in the death prison. During this time, Ann faithfully visited him daily, brought him clothes and food, and pleaded his case before the Burmese officials. She followed when he was transported from one prison to another, and all the while she was pregnant with their third child. The Judson’s had already lost their first two children when baby Maria arrived, and Ann became extremely ill as a result of her tireless efforts and deprived state. Her condition was so poor, that Adoniram was let out of prison twice a day to find a Burmese woman to nurse his newborn daughter.
Then finally, for a brief time, circumstances seemed brighter. Orders came for Adoniram’s release, and Ann’s health grew stronger. The Burmese government needed an interpreter in their dealings with the British, and Adoniram was the man for the job. They released him from prison and sent him to a nearby town to serve as their interpreter. While he was gone, Ann’s fever returned and she was too weak to overcome it. Ann died on October 24, 1826, much to the grief of her husband and the Burmese who knew and loved her. Baby Maria only survived her a few months, leaving Adoniram in despair.
The story doesn’t end there, as Adoniram carried on the work they had begun, and Ann’s legacy continues today. Adoniram went on to complete the translation of the Bible into Burmese and planted many churches that still exist. Ann’s hand in the translation work and ministry was no small thing, and she gave Adoniram the support he needed to stay alive in dark hours. Ann also paved the way for women in missions, providing an example of a female mission pioneer. Her faithful devotion to God and her sacrificial service inspires young women to this day.
Resources for further study:
"American Women in Mission" by Dana L. Robert
"My Heart in His Hands: Ann Judson of Burma" by Sharon L. James
"Lives of the Three Mrs. Judsons" by Arabella W. Stuart
"To the Golden Shore: The Life of Adoniram Judson" by Courtney Anderson
“Christian History & Biography" Issue 90, Spring 2006
“Judson the Pioneer" by J. Mervin Hull.