Just like the church spires of New England," Ann Judson thought as she gazed over a Burmese landscape dotted with bell-shaped, golden pagodas. And just as the churches of her native Massachusetts announced Christianity's dominion, so the pagodas and temples that seemed to be everywhere underscored Buddhism's centrality in Burmese life.

No pagoda, however, spoke of Buddhism's importance quite like the monumental, gold-plated Shwedagon Pagoda that towered over Rangoon. In an 1817 letter home Ann tried to convey a visitor's experience: "After having ascended a flight of steps, a large gate opens, when a wild, fairy scene is abruptly presented to view. It resembles more the descriptions we sometimes have in novels, of enchanted castles, or ancient abbeys in ruins, than anything we ever meet in real life. … Here and there are large open buildings, containing huge images of Gaudama; some in a sitting, some in a sleeping position, surrounded by images of priests and attendants, in the act of worship, or listening to his instructions. Before the image of Gaudama, are erected small altars, on which offerings of fruit, flowers, &c. are laid. Large images of elephants, lions, angels, and demons, together with a number of indescribable objects, all assist in filling the picturesque scene."

Located on a rise of land near the city's center, the Shwedagon offered a commanding view of what Ann described as "one of the most beautiful landscapes in nature." From the hilltop, "the polished spires of the pagodas, glistening among the trees at a distance, appear like the steeples of meeting-houses in our American seaports. The verdant appearance of the country, the hills and valleys, ponds and rivers, the banks of which are covered with cattle, and fields of rice; each, in their turn, attract the eye, and cause the beholder to exclaim, 'Was this delightful country made to be the residence of idolaters? Are those glittering spires, which, in consequence of association of ideas, recall to mind so many animating sensations, but the monument of idolatry?'"

"Our religion is different from theirs"

When the Judsons landed in Rangoon in 1813, a particularly conservative, orthodox strain of Buddhism had been the country's official religion since King Anawrahta founded the first Burman Empire in the 11th century. Called Theravada or Hinayana, meaning "the lesser vehicle" to distinguish it from Mahayana or "the greater vehicle" Buddhism dominant in much of East Asia, the religious practices coexisted with widespread animism or belief in spirits. An assumption that to be Burman is to be Buddhist contributed to the missionaries' difficulties in making converts, and continues to make Burma one of the world's most Buddhist countries today.

Even as she marveled at such sacred sites as the Shwedagon, Ann had come to Burma out of zeal to convert those she considered backward and "heathen." In 1815, she wrote of exasperation in trying to communicate: "Sometimes when I have been conversing with some of the women, they have replied, 'Your religion is good for you, ours for us. You will be rewarded for your good deeds in your way—we in our way.'" But, Ann continued, "We confidently believe that God in his own time will make his truth effectual unto salvation. We are endeavouring to convince the Burmans by our conduct, that our religion is different from theirs."

Despite her assumptions of Western superiority, Ann would find herself "surprised at the multitude of people, with which the streets and bazaars are filled. Their countenances are intelligent; and they appear to be capable, under the influence of the Gospel, of becoming a valuable and respectable people."

"I should have no society at all"

With the First Anglo-Burman War of 1824, the British would wrest control of territory along Burma's coast, and after the second war in 1852 they would dominate the lower portion of the country. During the Judsons' early years, however, the Burman King Bodawpaya's reign stretched across a territory almost four times the size of New England, from the border with British-controlled Bengal on the west into what is now northern Thailand on the east, and from the Indian Ocean to the Himalayas. Population estimates were vague. Before arriving in Burma, Ann assumed 17 million people were living within the empire; others put the figure much lower, but at least at several million. In any case, anything associated with the king who ruled these millions was considered "golden": When Judson traveled to the capital city of Ava in January of 1820, it was to beg "leave to behold the golden face" and to "approach the golden feet."

The power of the king within the empire had been just one of the Judsons' worries as, forced to leave India, their original goal, they contemplated Burma as an alternate mission field. Although the East India Company was not sympathetic to missionaries, India at least offered an established society of Europeans. In Burma, non-Burmese were few, and Ann was correct in predicting that "I should have no society at all, except for Mr. J. for there is not an English female in all Rangoon."

Suffering and splendor

While "a very extensive field for usefulness," Burma would also be a stark change in living style for the Americans. "Our privations and dangers would be great," Ann wrote. "There, are no bread, potatoes, butter, and very little animal food. The natives live principally on rice and fish." Although a prosperous country with natural resources that included vast forests of teak, Burma could shock one with its instances of poverty: "We behold some of them laboring hard for a scanty subsistence, oppressed by an avaricious government, which is ever ready to seize what industry has hardly earned. We behold others sick and diseased, daily begging their few grains of rice, which, when obtained, are scarcely sufficient to protect their wretched existence, and with no other habitation to cover them from the burning sun or chilly rains, than that which a small piece of cloth raised on four bamboos, under the shade of a tree, can afford."

But the country could also amaze with scenes of grandeur, as when Rangoon's royal governor, or Viceroy, processed to a high festival at the Shwedagon "in all the pomp and splendor possible, dressed and ornamented with all his insignia of office, attended by the members of government and the common people."

Despite her determination to give herself up to "the hardships and sufferings of a missionary life," Ann found the world to which she had come daunting but also rich with new experiences. Over the course of the next dozen years, until her death in 1826, much that was so strange would become familiar. The woman who felt "very gloomy and dejected the first night we arrived, in view of our prospects," would die so acculturated that her last words were reportedly in Burmese.

James Homer Thrall is a Mellon lecturing fellow in the University Writing Program at Duke University in Durham, NC.