Adoniram Judson was the first American missionary sent to a foreign field in 1808. He was instrumental in seeing the gospel brought to the completely unreached people of Burma. Judson was baptized as an infant and was sent out as a missionary by the Congregationalists of New England. But even as he embarked on the long sea voyage, Judson was in turmoil regarding this whole issue of baptism. While in India, before ever arriving in Burma, he interacted with Baptist missionaries and became convinced of believer’s baptism. There in Calcutta, he gave public profession of his faith and was baptized as a believer.
Judson’s shift of convictions caused a great deal of controversy back in American and among his Congregationalist missionary colleagues. His father was a Congregationalist minister, his training was in a Congregationalist seminary, his wife had been raised in a Congregationalist church, and he had been commissioned by a Congregationalist mission agency. What could be so important as to cause him to break these ties?
The practice of baptizing infants was based on the Old Testament pattern of circumcision among the people of Israel. A person was marked as part of ethnic Israel by the outward act of circumcision. But God had inaugurated a new type of community in the church. A person wasn’t included in the church based on ethnicity or outward rites. In his studies, Judson noted that membership in the church was restricted to the individuals who gave credible evidence of being disciples of Christ. Baptism was always mentioned in connection with believing.
Judson realized that the purity of the church was at stake. And he determined to establish a pure church in Burma – a church that was genuinely devoted to obeying the commands of Jesus. Baptism is important because it marks a distinctive shift and a formal and visible identification with the people of God.
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