Over the past couple of months, I have been reading a lot about the wives of Adoniram Judson, an American missionary who served in Burma. Their lives were not easy. Beset with fever, his first wife Ann was forced to appear daily before the Burmese government to petition for the release of her husband when he was imprisoned during the Anglo-Burmese War. She was nursing a small infant at the time, and the trips undermined her already fragile health. It was only after he was released that she agreed to return to Amherst, Massachusetts, to attempt to recover her failing health. Her planned convalescence was not enough, and she died in Amherst, thousands of miles away from her husband. The lives of his second and third wives would be no easier. The second, whom he married after Ann’s death, would have eight children. Those who survived infancy would be sent to the United States to be educated. His third wife, whom he married after his second died on her way to St. Helena, would only be married for four years before her husband succumbed to illness.
Reading their memoirs and autobiographies, it is easy to feel admiration for such women. They spent years isolated from the friends and families who had given them succor during their childhood and endured many hardships as missionaries. In spite of all of this, their letters stressed the fact that they felt blessed and that God had blessed their missions. On the other hand, postcolonialism and postmodernism have changed the way that we view the mission of these women. It no longer seems to desirable to seek to change the cultures of people living in Asia, Africa, or the South Pacific. Their writings can seem shortsighted and myopic. Ann Judson believed that it was her duty to educate the people of Burma and teach them to be civilized. This was no less a part of her mission than preaching the gospel.
As feminists, how do we deal with the writings of such women? Their histories are as much a part of women’s history as those of Emmeline Pankhurst or Susan B. Anthony, and yet, to focus their experiences uncritically would seem to minimize the voice of the men and women who Judson tried to evangelize. Is it possible to write a history that is sympathetic towards women like Ann Judson and yet takes seriously the narrowness of their vision?
For more information about Ann Judson, see: