Ann Judson: A Mission to Burma

6 Mar

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:

Joan Jacobs Brumberg, Mission for Life: The Story of the Family of Adoniram Judson

Dana Robert, American Women in Mission

8 Responses to “Ann Judson: A Mission to Burma”

  1. ep March 6, 2011 at 6:34 pm #

    Okay. I know this is not relevant, but I just woke up from a sunday nap, wherein I dreamed you had posted something. Lo and behold.

    The idealist in me cries out, yes, it can be done! Then again, I have never tried to do such a thing, so I don’t know what an account of this nature might look like. Writing history seems to require a good deal of honesty and charity. Just acknowledging the limited nature of all the subjects involved in the story would be both honest and charitable in this case, which is what you have begun to do. But that is probably only the beginning.

    These women’s stories must absolutely be told, even at the cost of their seeming provincial or at the cost of being criticized to pieces. In this case it would reveal the effects of colonialism on women as well as on the people being colonized. Religion makes it difficult to make an honest account sometimes, too, since when belief systems clash with scholarly perspectives the seriousness and sincerity of someone’s faith can be overlooked just as easily as truth-telling can be sacrificed for a coherent faith narrative. In the history of women, I think the more honest we can be in telling disturbing elements the more honest and charitable we might become in real life, both as scholars and as people. There are still colonialisms today in the lives of women, but that does not make their perspectives less important. Nor has time made the stories of women any easier to tell.

    • amanda5245 March 7, 2011 at 9:59 pm #

      EP – Your first statement made me laugh out loud. Perhaps it was your voice I was hearing when I heard one in my head saying, “Amanda, you haven’t posted in a while….” I wonder, though, might you have any lottery ticket numbers to give out? or perhaps a premonition about whether or not I’ll get a job at the end of this PhD thingie?🙂

      I too am an optimist and believe it can be done. One of the things that prompted this post, however, was a difficulty in finding books that actually did a great job of it. I think Allan Greer’s Mohawk Saint is a pretty good example, but it’s one of a few.

      • ep March 8, 2011 at 3:32 pm #

        Tee hee. That is so great. I will let you know if I have any further prognostications relating to your life (oh, and aside from prognosticating, I predict much success for you in academia).

  2. ladyelocutionist March 6, 2011 at 11:36 pm #

    So this is why I’m a historian — people’s lives are interesting. Their experiences, perspectives, strategies for making their way through the world. The messiness of complicity in deeply flawed racial and colonial politics notwithstanding, you can’t deconstruct away the fundamental interest that their lives continue to hold because of this complexity and complicity and all that. A feminist historical project demands telling their stories, with sensitivity and nuance, using all our lovely tools analysis to open up many of the reasons they felt and acted the way they did. But you don’t want to deconstruct away the richness of their lives. And you won’t because you’re a historian. The messiness and specificity of that story is what draws you in, after all.

  3. ladyelocutionist March 6, 2011 at 11:37 pm #

    And remember what we learned from Dena, right? Feminist historiography is a methodology, NOT a narrative teleology. ;D

  4. ladyelocutionist March 6, 2011 at 11:40 pm #

    And this is my last comment, I swear. The “Whose story” question is an important one, but sometimes the more important and strategic question (esp when we deal with limited sources) is of “HOW whose story” rather than simply “Whose story.” Another lesson from Dena.

    • ladyelocutionist March 6, 2011 at 11:44 pm #

      Actually wait I think it’s the other way around. Eh, tell the story you find interesting and then delete my last 2 comments!😀

      • amanda5245 March 7, 2011 at 10:08 pm #

        The messiness is indeed why being a historian is so exciting. I guess the problem that I have is I get so attached to my historical subjects. Louisa Barnes Pratt is one of my favorite people in the world. She was feisty — she demanded to know why no one had checked in on her to see whether she was having troubling preparing for the trek to Utah and once declared that she was going to find herself another husband if Brigham Young called hers on a mission yet another time. I hate it when I am forced to confront all the not so savory things that she thought and did. But, you’re right that’s what makes history interesting and good.

        On a side note, did you see that Dena is teaching that course again next fall. I kinda want to take it again, but I know I need to start and finish my research and then start writing a dissertation.

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