Singular Obedience to the Truth as a Foundation for Denominational Unity

In a very real sense, the story of the last 200 years of Christian missions can be summarized as the result of punctilious obedience to biblical truth and a radically disinterested submission to divine sovereignty on the part of a young lady of high society from Bradford, Massachusetts. Her conversion, call to missionary life, and submission to the Bible’s teaching on baptism began a revolution in American Baptist life that has added a distinctive luster to Baptist identity.

Ann Hasseltine1 was born December 22, 1789 at Bradford, Massachusetts, into a family esteemed for its social importance, morally upright but, according to Ann’s testimony, “ignorant of the nature of true religion.” Her early education took place in the academy at Bradford. In her adolescence, peers sought her out for her intriguing conversation, carefree spirit, and social gaiety. She was surrounded with the socially elite who were as “wild and volatile” as she, and in this company she considered herself “one of the happiest creatures on earth.”2 She encountered some seriousness of thought through contact with Hannah More’s Strictures on Female Education and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The first result of these literary encounters was to engender in Ann a legalistic spirit in which she felt that a series of resolutions would put her on the fair way to heaven. She resolved never again to attend a party or engage in frivolous activities. This resolution soon vanished under the strength of two invitations which resulted in her “religious plans” being forgotten. She vowed to make no more resolutions since it was clear that she could not keep them. Her life in the next months, from December 1805 until April 1806 fell into succeeding periods of “vanity and trifling” in which she far exceeded her friends in “gaiety and mirth.” A revival of religion in Bradford brought a series of meetings (“religious conferences”). In this context, though she maintained an exterior of detachment, she felt that “the Spirit of God was now evidently operating on my mind.” She lost relish for amusements, felt dejected and “the solemn truth, that I must obtain a new heart, or perish forever, lay with weight on my mind.”3

Her disturbance increased. She asked advice from several people whom she perceived to be truly pious and denied her self “every innocent gratification; such as eating fruit and other things not absolutely necessary to support life.” She spent her time in reading and crying for mercy. Her narrative then records the dark night of the soul in her convictions that led to a special working of the Spirit of God. Having seen “very little of the awful wickedness of my heart” she wrote, “I thought myself very penitent, and almost prepared, by voluntary abstinence, to receive the divine favor.” Soon, however, her heart “began to rise in rebellion against God.” She considered Him unjust not to notice her prayers, and “could not endure the thought, that he was a sovereign God, and had a right to call one and leave another to perish.” This did not seem merciful, but cruel to send “to send any of his creatures to hell for their disobedience.” His perfect holiness and purity distressed her even more and her heart “was filled with aversion and hatred towards a holy God; and I felt that if admitted into heaven, with the feelings I then had, I should be as miserable as I could be in hell.” In such a state of turmoil, she longed for annihilation and if she could have destroyed the existence of her as easily as that of her body, she would “quickly have done it.” In the midst of this tortuous struggled, however, she soon “began to discover a beauty in the way of salvation by Christ.” She wrote, “He appeared to be just such a Saviour as I needed. I saw how God could be just, in saving sinners through him. I committed my soul into his hands, and besought him to do with me what seemed good in his sight.”

Unaware as to whether this was the new birth, she nevertheless, “felt happy in contemplating the character of Christ, and particularly that disposition, which led him to suffer so much, for the sake of doing the will and promoting the glory of his heavenly Father.” Further reading led her to consider that God’s justice, “displayed in condemning the finally impenitent,” before viewed as cruel, “now appeared to be an expression of hatred to sin, and regard to the good of beings in general. A view of his purity and holiness filled my soul with wonder and admiration.” She felt a disposition to commit herself “unreservedly into his hands, and leave it with him to save me or cast me off: Now she knew that she “could not be unhappy, while allowed the privilege of contemplating and loving so glorious a Being.”4

Miss Hasseltine underwent the transforming power of a work of the Spirit of God. She became aware of a remarkable change in attitude toward herself, others, and God. Later she would mention July 6 as the day “I entertained a hope in Christ.”.5

O how different were my views of myself and of God, from what they were, when I first began to inquire what I should do to be saved. I felt myself to be a poor lost sinner, destitute of everything to recommend myself to the divine favor: that I was, by nature, inclined to every evil way; and that it had been the mere sovereign, restraining mercy of God, not my own goodness, which had kept me from committing the most flagrant crimes. This view of myself humbled me in the dust, melted me into sorrow and contrition for my sins, induced me to lay my soul at the feet of Christ, and plead his merits alone, as the ground of my acceptance. I felt that if Christ had not died, to make an atonement for sin, I could not ask God to dishonor his holy government, so far as to save so polluted a creature, and that should he even now condemn me to suffer eternal punishment, it would be so just that my mouth would be stopped, and all holy beings in the universe would acquiesce in the sentence, and praise him as a just and righteous God. My chief happiness now consisted in contemplating the moral perfections of the glorious God. I longed to have all intelligent creatures love him; and felt, that even fallen spirits could never be released from their obligations to love a Being possessed of such glorious perfections.6

From that time on, Ann viewed her life as the peculiar property of God and pursued her studies in school as a special stewardship. She found greatest pleasure in meditating on the perfections of God and the wonders of His providence and redemption. The closing paragraph of her account of God’s dealings with her soul shows her reliance on grace that suffused itself in her thoughts until her death.

While thus recounting the mercies of God to my soul, I am particularly affected by two considerations; the richness of that grace, which called and stopped me in my dangerous course, and the ungrateful returns I make for so distinguished a blessing. I am prone to forget the voice which called me out of darkness into light, and the hand which drew me from the horrible pit and the miry clay. When I first discerned my Deliverer, my grateful heart offered him the services of a whole life, and resolved to acknowledge no other master. But such is the force of my native depravity, that I find myself prone to forsake him, grieve away his influence from my heart, and walk in the dark and dreary path of the backslider. I despair of making great attainments in the divine life, and look forward to death only, to free me from my sins and corruptions. Till that blessed period, that hour of my emancipation, I am resolved, through the grace and strength of my Redeemer, to maintain a constant warfare with my inbred sins, and endeavor to perform the duties incumbent on me, in whatever situation I may be placed.7

Ann continued in her spiritual growth and her meditations built on reading the most profoundly evangelical theological literature she could find, such as Thomas Scott on biblical study and Jonathan Edwards on redemption as well as Bellamy on True Religion Delineated. Typical of the intensity and depth of her theological devotion are the following entrances in her diary.

Aug 6. … In thy strength, O God, I resign myself into thy hands, and resolve to live devoted to thee. I desire conformity to thy will, more than any thing beside. I desire to have the Spirit of Christ, to be adorned with all the Christian graces, to be more engaged in the cause of Christ, and feel more concerned for the salvation of precious souls.

Sept 2. I have discovered new beauties in the way of salvation by Christ. The righteousness which he has wrought out is complete, and he is able to save the chief of sinners. But above all, his wondrous dying love and glorious resurrection, astonish my soul. How can I ever sin against this Saviour again? O keep me from sinning against thee, dear Redeemer, and enable me to live to the promotion of thy glory.

Nov. 6. I daily make some new discoveries of the vileness and evil of my heart. I sometimes fear, that it is impossible for a spark of grace to exist in a heart so full of sin. Nothing but the power of God can keep me from returning to the world, and becoming as vain as ever. But still I see a beauty in the character of Christ, that makes me ardently desire to be like him. All the commands of God appear perfectly right and reasonable, and sin appears so odious as to deserve eternal punishment. O how deplorable would be my situation, thus covered with sin, was it not for the atonement Christ has made. But he is my Mediator with the Father. He has magnified the law and made it honourable. He can save sinners, consistently with the divine glory. God can now be just, and the justifier of those who believe in his Son.8

On her birthday, December 22, 1806, she recounted the events since her last birthday. Her calm assurance, built on biblical categories, gives a sound challenge to any who would desire to have a healthy, informed, and humble confidence before God in the day of judgment.

Dec. 22. I am this day seventeen years old. What an important year has the past been to me. Either I have been made, through the mercy of God, a partaker of divine grace, or I have been fatally deceiving myself, and building on a sandy foundation. Either I have in sincerity and truth, renounced the vanities of this world, and entered the narrow path which leads to life, or I have been refraining from them for a time only, to turn again and relish them more than ever. God grant that the latter may never be my unhappy case. Though I feel myself to be full of sin and destitute of all strength to persevere, yet if I know any thing, I do desire to live a life of strict religion, to enjoy the presence of God, and honor the cause to which I have professedly devoted myself, I do not desire my portion in this world. I find more real enjoyment in contrition for sin, excited by a view of the adorable moral perfections of God, than in all earthly joys. I find more solid happiness in one evening meeting, when divine truths are impressed on my heart by the powerful influences of the Holy Spirit, than I ever enjoyed in all the balls and assemblies I have attended during the seventeen years of my life. Thus when I compare my present views of divine things, with what they were, at this time last year, I cannot but hope I am a new creature, and have begun to live a new life.9

In 1810 she met Adoniram Judson. Judson, born in 1788, had been remarkably converted from deistic infidelity and was part of the Andover group that prompted the Congregationalists to sponsor an effort to propagate the Gospel among the nations. Judson soon loved her and wanted her to marry him and accompany him to a “heathen land.” His hopes for their marriage did not flatter her with the prospect of a long and materially embellished life. It was filled, however, with the sort of urgency that had already captured her heart and caused serious contemplations about her own motivation in considering his proposal under these circumstances. Her faith was tried by “dark and gloomy prospects” to test her willingness “through divine grace, to gain as ascendancy over my selfish and rebellious spirit, and prefer the will of God to my own.” As she considered the possibility being the “means of converting a single soul,” and of “attempting to persuade them to receive the Gospel,” and of this truly being a call from God, she felt she could “relinquish every earthly object.” Great fluctuations of feeling and alternate consternation and exhilaration finally succumbed to the steady confidence of a satisfaction that she loved Christ “on account of his own glorious perfections,” that He was “the fountain of all grace,” and “that difficulties and trials are more conducive, than ease and prosperity, to promote my growth in grace, and cherish an habitual sense of dependence on God.”10

On New Years Day, 1811, he wrote her:

It is with the utmost sincerity, and with my whole heart, that I wish you, my love, a happy new year. May it be a year in which your walk will be close with God; your frame calm and serene; and the road that leads you to the lamb marked with purer light. May it be a year in which you will have more largely the spirit of Christ, be raised above sublunary things, and be willing to be disposed of in this world just as God shall please. As every moment of the year will bring you nearer the end of your pilgrimage, may it bring you nearer to God, and find you more prepared to hail the messenger of death as a deliverer and a friend. And now, since I have begun to wish, I will go on. May this be the year in which you will change your name; in which you will take a final leave of your relatives and native land; in which you will cross the wide ocean, and dwell on the other side of the world, among a heathen people. What a great change will this year probably effect in our lives! How very different will be our situation and employment! If our lives are preserved and our attempt prospered, we shall next new year’s day be in India, and perhaps wish each other a happy new year in the uncouth dialect of Hindostan or Burmah. We shall no more see our kind friends around us, or enjoy the conveniences of civilized life, or go to the house of God with those that keep holy day; but swarthy countenances will every where meet our eye, the jargon of an unknown tongue will assail our ears, and we shall witness the assembling of the heathen to celebrate the worship of idol gods. We shall be weary of the world, and wish for wings like a dove, that we may fly away and be at rest. We shall probably experience seasons when we shall be “exceeding sorrowful even unto death.” We shall see many dreary, disconsolate hours, and feel a sinking of spirits, anguish of mind, of which now we can form little conception. O, we shall wish to lie down and die. And that time may soon come. One of us may be unable to sustain the heat of the climate and the change of habits; and the other may say with literal truth, over the grave –

“By foreign hands thy dying eyes were closed;
By foreign hands thy decent limbs composed
By foreign hands thy humble grave adorned;”
But whether we shall be honored and mourned by strangers, God only knows. At least, either of us will be certain of one mourner. In view of such scenes shall we not pray with earnestness, “O for an overcoming faith.”11

In 1812, Ann and Adoniram Judson sailed for India. They were to meet the Baptist missionaries from England there. In preparation for what they anticipated as a discussion of their instructions to baptize credible believers and their households, they restudied the issue of baptism with a view to defending infant baptism. Ann tells the struggle and the results in her diary and in several pieces of correspondence that she wrote on this issue. After relating the growing difficulties that her husband found with this issue, she tells of her own pilgrimage. On August 23, she wrote, “Mr. J. feels convinced from Scripture, that he has never been baptized, and that he cannot conscientiously administer baptism to infants.” Then the following:

I do not feel myself satisfied on the subject of baptism, having never given it a thorough examination. But I see many difficulties in the Pedobaptist theory, and must acknowledge that the face of Scripture does favor the Baptist sentiments. I intend to persevere in examining the subject, and hope that I shall be disposed to embrace the truth, whatever it may be. It is painfully mortifying to my natural feelings, to think seriously of renouncing a system which I have been taught from infancy to believe and respect. O that the Spirit of God may enlighten and direct my mind—may prevent my retaining an old error, or embracing a new one!

Sept. 1. I have been examining the subject of baptism for some time past, and contrary to my prejudices and my wishes, am compelled to believe, that believers’ baptism alone is found in Scripture. If ever I sought to know the truth; if ever I looked up to the Father of lights; if ever I gave up myself to the inspired word, I have done so during this investigation. And the result is, that, laying aside my former prejudices and systems, and fairly appealing to the Scriptures, I feel convinced that nothing really can be said in favor of infant baptism or sprinkling. We expect soon to be baptized. O may our hearts be prepared for that holy ordinance! And as we are baptized into a profession of Christ, may we put on Christ, and walk worthy of the high vocation wherewith we are called. But in consequence of our performance of this duty, we must make some very painful sacrifices. We must be separated from our dear missionary associates, and labor alone in some isolated spot. We must expect to be treated with contempt, and cast off by many of our American friends … O, our heavenly Father, wilt thou be our friend. Wilt thou protect us, enable us to live to thy glory, and make us useful in some retired part of this eastern world, in leading a few precious souls to embrace that Saviour whom we love and desire to serve.12

In letters to family and friends Ann summarized the events recorded with such pathos in her journal. This letter was written from the Isle of France on February 14, 1813, some five months after their baptism.

I will now, my dear parents and sisters, give you some account of our change of sentiment, relative to the subject of Baptism. Mr. Judson’s doubts commenced while on our passage from America. While translating the New Testament, in which he was engaged, he used frequently to say, that the Baptists were right in their mode of administering the ordinance. Knowing he should meet the Baptists at Serampore, he felt it important to attend to it more closely, to be able to defend his sentiments. After our arrival at Serampore, his mind for two or three weeks was so much taken up with missionary inquiries, and our difficulties with government, as to prevent his attending to the subject of baptism. But as we were waiting the arrival of our brethren, and having nothing in particular to attend to, he again took up the subject. I tried to have him give it up, and rest satisfied in his old sentiments, and frequently told him if he became a Baptist, I would not. He, however, said he felt it his duty to examine closely a subject on which he had so many doubts. After we removed to Calcutta, he found in the library in our chamber, many books on both sides, which he determined to read candidly and prayerfully, and to hold fast, or embrace the truth, however, mortifying, however, great the sacrifice. I now commenced reading on the subject, with all my prejudices on the Pedobaptist side. We had with us Dr. Worcester’s, Dr. Austin’s, Peter Edwards’, and other Pedobaptist writings. But after closely examining the subject for several weeks, we were constrained to acknowledge that the truth appeared to lie on the Baptists’ side. It was extremely trying to reflect on the consequences of our becoming Baptists. We knew it would wound and grieve our dear Christian friends in America—that we should lose their approbation and esteem. We thought it probable that Commissioners would refuse to support us; and what was more distressing than anything, we knew we must be separated from our missionary associates, and go alone to some heathen land. These things were very trying to us, and caused our hearts to bleed for anguish. We felt we had no home in this world, and no friend but each other. Our friends at Serampore were extremely surprised when we wrote them a letter requesting baptism, as they had known nothing of our having had any doubts on the subject. We were baptized on the 6th of September, in the Baptist chapel in Calcutta. Mr. J. preached a sermon at Calcutta on this subject soon after we were baptized, which, in compliance with the request of a number who heard it, he has been preparing for the press. Brother Rice was baptized several weeks after we were. It was a very great relief to our minds to have him join us, as we expected to be entirely alone in a mission.13

On September 7, 1812, the day after her baptism, Ann wrote to a friend, Nancy, and to her parents giving the same basic events but with a few details and perspectives not in the other accounts. The freshness of the experience and the sobering reality of the connections just severed flood abundantly through the lines she writes. To her friend Nancy she begins the letter, “Can you, my dear Nancy, still love me, still desire to hear from me, when I tell you I have become a Baptist?’ She recounted the entire odyssey to Nancy interspersing her remarks with the overflow of emotion she felt in reliving these traumatic months. The affair was “maturely, candidly, and … prayerfully examined for months” she assured her friend, after which she was “compelled from a conviction of truth,” to embrace the Baptist view. They earnestly sought to “count the cost” and prepare for the “severe trials” of such an action, and they anticipated the “loss of reputation” as well as the “affection and esteem” of American friends. More than those considerations, however, the separation from their missionary associates they anticipated as “the most trying circumstance” and that which “has caused most pain.” This progression of events urged on the by truth, conscience, and providence caused the young Judson couple so recently married and removed from their native country to “weep and pour out our hearts in prayer to Him whose directions we so much wish and need.”14

The letter for her parents contained virtually the same narrative of events that she included to Nancy. Doubtless she wrote with an intent and hope that they could more easily resolve themselves to the reality that their lovely, intelligent, socially celebrated, personally engaging, and spiritually fervent daughter had become a Baptist, a member of a dissenting sect outside the esteem of the standing order of the established Congregational church.

Mr. J. resolved to examine it candidly and prayerfully, let the result be what it would. No one in the mission family knew the state of his mind, as they never conversed with any of us on this subject. I was very fearful he would become a Baptist, and frequently suggested the unhappy consequences if he should. He always answered, that his duty compelled him to examine the subject, and he hoped he should have a disposition to embrace the truth, though he paid dear for it. I always took the Pedobaptists’ side in reasoning with him, although I was as doubtful of the truth of their system as he. After we came to Calcutta, he devoted his whole time to reading on this subject, having obtained the best possible authors on both sides. After having examined and re-examined the subject, in every way possible, and comparing the sentiments of both Baptists and Pedobaptists with the Scriptures, he was compelled, from a conviction of the truth, to embrace those of the former. I confined my attention almost entirely to the Scriptures, comparing the Old with the New Testament, and tried to find something to favor infant baptism, but was convinced it had no foundation there. I examined the covenant of circumcision, and could see no reason for concluding that baptism was to be administered to children, because circumcision was. Thus, my dear parents and sisters, we are both confirmed Baptists, not because we wished to be, but because truth compelled us to be.15

Thus in these providential circumstances, the foreign mission movement among Baptists in America received its first missionaries. Knowing that a renunciation of infant baptism would offend friends at home and incur a loss of reputation, they nevertheless plowed forward. This event caused a flurry of letters and explanations to both Congregational and Baptist bodies. Luther Rice who also had embraced Baptist views returned to America via Brazil, from which he wrote to a Baptist pastor in Boston, probably Thomas Baldwin, with the aggressive confession of his duty “to cast ourselves into your hands, and the hands of the Baptist churches in America.” He suggested that “as the Lord had manifested peculiar mercy in leading us to adopt more apostolic views than we had formerly entertained in relation to the ordinances of his house; he would also incline our brethren to extend to us that patronage which might enable us to prosecute those missionary purposes and labours, to which we have, I trust, sincerely and sacredly devoted our lives.” As the English Baptists had been bold and courageous, had labored with a deep sense of purpose and stewardship, and had continued to give sacrificially even in times of national war, Rice contended, “Nor could we do otherwise than assure ourselves that our brethren in the United States have equal love for the Lord Jesus; and certainly not less zeal for diffusing the savour of his precious name among those who must, otherwise, perish for lack of vision.” When Rice arrived in the United States, he met with many of the Baptist leaders, began a tour through the New England states, into the middle colonies and the Philadelphia Baptist Association, and into the South to Richmond and Charleston and Savannah in promotion of a national body to support foreign Missions. He suggested Philadelphia as the most central place for meeting. Thomas Baldwin, gave the support of the Massachusetts Baptist Missionary Magazine to the fulfill this vision contending, “Our success, under God, in providing funds for the foreign mission, depends on union among ourselves.” The Savannah Baptist Society for Foreign Missions met in December 1813 and, under the leadership of W. B. Johnson and William T. Brantley, sent a letter of exhortation to its constituency containing this paragraph.

Since the secession of our dear brethren Rice, Judson and Lady, … several Missionary Societies have been formed by the Baptists in America. These societies have for their object the establishment and support of foreign missions; and it is contemplated that delegates from them all, will convene in some central situation in the Unites States, for the purpose of organizing an efficient and practicable plan, on which the energies of the whole Baptist denomination throughout America, may be elicited, combined and directed in one sacred effort, for sending the word of life to idolatrous lands. What a sublime spectacle will this convention present! A numerous body of the Lord’s people, embracing in their connexion between 1 and 200,000 souls, all rising in obedience to their Lord, and meeting, by delegation, in one august assembly; solemnly to engage in one sacred effort for effectuating the great command, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature.”

It came to pass, therefore, that in May 1814, in Philadelphia, thirty-three delegates met and formed the General Missionary of the Baptist Denomination of the United States of America. Though this assembly did not quite match the grandiose description anticipated in the Savannah Society’s vision, the vote to create the organization has defined Baptist denominational life for the two centuries following that momentous gathering.”

1 This article is a revision of a chapter on Ann Judson in Why I am A Baptist (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2001).
2 James D. Knowles, Memoir of Mrs. Ann H. Judson (Boston, MA: Lincoln & Edmands, 1829), 13.
3 Ibid., 15.
4 Ibid., 17, 18.
5 Ibid., 30.
6 Ibid., 18.
7 Ibid., 19.
8 Ibid., 23.
9 Ibid., 24.
10 Ibid., 37, 38.
11 Francis Wayland, A Memoir of the Life and Labors of the Rev. Adoniram Judson, D. D. 2 vols. (Boston, MA: Phillips, Sampson, and Company, 1853) 1: 34, 35.
12 Knowles, Memoir, 63, 64.
13 Ibid., 61, 62.
14 Wayland, A Memoir, 1:105–106.
15 Knowles, Memoir, 62, 63.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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