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Celebrating 200 Years of American Baptist International Missions

by Brian Kaylor

The future of God’s work among Baptists might lie in understanding a journey to Burma 200 years ago. Next year marks the 200th anniversary of the organizing of the modern missionary movement from America, and Dr. Jerry Cain hopes Baptists will take time to remember the work of Adoniram Judson. Through live talks about Judson and through promoting an informational DVD about Judson, Cain hopes to lead Baptist churches across the country to reflect on our rich missional heritage.

“I want us to celebrate,” Cain said in an interview.

As senior adults gather at Windermere Baptist Conference Center next week, they will hear from Cain, a Judson expert and enthusiast. Serving as president of Judson University in Illinois for 14 years (before retiring last year), Cain read everything he could by and about Adoniram Judson. During his travels as president to talk in church services, he would often volunteer to lead a session during the Sunday School hour about the man who helped organized the modern missionary movement among Baptists in the United States.

Judson’s missionary tale reads like an action-packed adventure novel as he labored through war, long voyages, persecution, and the death of two wives and seven children. Yet, Judson also saw remarkable success as he translated the Bible into Burmese, started churches, and baptized many new believers.

Judson and his first wife arrived in India in 1812 with Luther Rice and others. There they were baptized and switched to the Baptist denomination. The following year, after being forced out of India by the British East India Company, Judson moved to Burma. Rice returned to the U.S. to organize U.S. Baptists to support the Judsons as Baptist missionaries. That effort, known as the Triennial Convention, started in 1814 and became the first Baptist denomination in the U.S. (and its successor organization is today known as American Baptist Churches, USA).

“Baptists are the ones who started [the modern missions movement from America],” Cain explained. “That’s our great contribution to Christian history in America – missions.”

During the senior adult retreat next week, Cain will spend the morning sessions covering the birth of the modern missionary movement from America. He will talk about the people involved, influences, significance, impact, and the context from which the movement emerged. He plans to cover topics ranging from slavery to colonialism to bloodsports to theological debates about Calvinism so he can “set the scene and then have Adoniram Judson born into the scene.”

“My goal is to make our attendees feel proud of the work of our missionaries,” Cain added. “I hope [the sessions] will be engaging and inspiring.”

In the evenings, Cain will preach on topics related to the theme of the retreat, which comes from a quotation by Judson: “The Future is Bright as the Promises of God.”

Cain hopes that Baptists will take time in churches and other gatherings to reflect on the legacy of Judson. Since the birth of the modern missionary movement from America spanned from the Judsons and others leaving in 1812 to the creation of the Triennial Convention in 1814, Cain believes this time of the 200th anniversary deserves reflection.

“I think all Baptist churches – regardless of the adjective – should be proud of that moment in history when we changed our status from being a cultic, sectarian group of people to changing the world with our focus on missions,” Cain explained.

Earlier this year, American Baptist International Ministries released a DVD series featuring Cain that includes six teaching sessions about Judson, his life, and his ministry. Called Adoniram Judson: The Man and the Mission, the series is designed for Sunday School classes or small group Bible studies with a study guide to direct the discussion following each video session. Session videos range from 18-32 minutes long, and the DVD contains two shorter preview videos. The six sessions cover: 1. Setting the Scene 200 Years Past; 2. The Birth of the Mission (1809-1812); 3. Beginning the Mission (1813-1821); 4. Bad Times for the Man and the Mission (1821-1830); 5. Better Days for the Man and the Mission (1828-1847); 6. Summation of Adoniram Judson: The Man and the Mission.

In the DVD, Cain is joined by a classroom of Judson University students as he offers short, engaging lectures about Adoniram Judson. The presentations include paintings and other visuals to add interest and aid comprehension. Cain hopes Baptist churches will use the DVD series to learn about Judson and missions.

“It’s renewing our history and showing us … what we have to be proud of,” Cain stated. “We’ve been good at missions.”