In 1803, in a house overlooking Plymouth harbor, a 14-year-old boy lay dangerously ill. Before this time, he'd never given much time to serious thought about the course his life would take. But during his year-long convalescence, he began to reflect on the possibility of future fame. Would he be a statesman, an orator, or a poet? An eminent minister of a large, wealthy church? Where did true greatness lie? He was shocked out of his reverie—and very nearly out of his bed—by a mysterious voice that uttered the words "Not unto us, not unto us, but to Thy name be the glory."

Adoniram Judson would remember that startling revelation for the rest of his life. With his strong academic training, keen intellect, and linguistic abilities, he might well have become a prominent theologian, scholar, or politician in 19th-century America. But his profound desire to do the will of God led him down a very different path.

Prodigal son

Born on August 9, 1788, in Malden, Massachusetts, Judson was a precocious youth. He learned to read at the age of 3, did especially well in reading and mathematics in the schools he attended, and even mastered Latin and Greek. His father, Adoniram Judson, Sr., whose theological strictness had led to a series of unsuccessful pastorates before he finally ended up at a conservative congregation in Plymouth, believed that his promising son would be safer at a nominally Baptist school than at liberal Harvard. So he sent young Adoniram to Rhode Island College (newly renamed Brown University) in 1804. The plan backfired: Adoniram graduated as class valedictorian three years later, but during his college years he had become a deist who no longer believed in the existence of a personal God or a Savior. After college Adoniram ...

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