Ann Judson Dress Scandal, 1823

As the wife of one of the most prominent Baptist missionaries in the 1820s, Ann Judson was under constant scrutiny for her words, actions, and appearance during her travels in England and American while on furlough. In late summer 1823, during her stay in the Boston area, she was attacked by an unnamed individual in a local newspaper for wearing expensive and "gaudy" attire purchased at the expense of the poor natives in the country in which she and her husband laboured, diverting monies designed for the mission field to her own wardrobe. None of the accusations were true, and Ann Judson was duly exonerated by the Boston Baptist Association, but as the Circular below reveals, the public scrutiny of the lives of missionary women, such as Ann Judson, was pervasive, intrusive, and anything but fair, another instance of the power of feminine ideals in Western culture at that time.


Vindication of Mrs. Judson.

The Committee appointed by the Boston Baptist Association, at Salem, Sept. 18th, 1823, to take into consideration the reports which have been circulated concerning the extravagance of Mrs. Judson’s dress, and to publish the result of their inquiries, beg leave to make the following statements.

In a news-paper published in this city on the 25th of July last, the following communication appeared, and has been since transcribed into other papers:

“Mrs. Judson, the wife of A. Judson, a famous missionary in the East Indies, sailed from Boston a short time since, where she had been, to visit her friends, and collect money from the pious and charitable to aid her in distributing the bread of life to the poor heathen of Asia. A lady, who was in habits of familiar intercourse with Mrs. Judson, and to whom application was made for charity, in her behalf, informs us, that the visiting dress of this self-denying female missionary could not be valued at less than TWELVE HUNDRED DOLLARS!! The reader may be startled at the mention of such an enormous amount laid out in a single dress to decorate the person of one whose affections are professedly set on heavenly things, and despising the vain and gaudy allurements of the world; it appeared to us incredible, till we heard from the lady some of the details. The Cashmere Shawl was valued at $600; the Leghorn Flat $150: Lace trimming on the gown $150, &c.; jewelry would soon make up the sum, leaving necessary articles of clothing out of the question. We hope the next edition of the missionary arithmetic, will inform us how many infants were robbed of their innocent, if not necessary, playthings, how many widows had denied themselves the use of sugar in tea and butter on bread, how many poor debtors had robbed their creditors and laboured without stockings and shoes, to furnish out this modern representative of the mystical Babylon.”

The personal friends of Mrs. Judson read this communication with surprise and sorrow, mingled with feelings of just indignation. They knew that a difference of opinion existed as to the reasonableness and utility of Foreign Missions, but they did not expect, that the character of a female, who was labouring under the pressure of bodily disposition, would be unnecessarily assailed.

The account of her visiting dress was so far from being correct, that those who had been in her society most frequently, concluded, that no one friendly to the Missions would give credit to the representation. But in this they have been disappointed. Persons who never saw Mrs. Judson, and not finding this account contradicted, have supposed it was true. It was a knowledge of this fact which led to the appointment of the aforesaid Committee by the Boston Baptist Association.

Soon after the publication of the above statement, Mr. E. Lincoln waited on the Editor, and requested to be introduced to the lady who was “in habits of familiar intercourse with Mrs. Judson, and to whom application was made for charity in her behalf;” and who had informed him, that the visiting dress of this self-denying female Missionary could not be valued at less than twelve hundred dollars. This gentleman referred him to his Mother, as the lady alluded to in the above named news-paper. Mr. Lincoln therefore called on her, and was surprised to learn, that the lady, “in habits of familiar intercourse with Mrs. Judson,” had never seen her; that she had never been applied to for charity in her behalf; and had no personal knowledge respecting any item in the communication. She stated to Mr. Lincoln that she had received her information from another lady, whom she named. Mr. Lincoln then sought an interview with this person, who it was said had boarded in the same house with Mrs. Judson, and had seen her rich dresses. But she declared to him, that she had never boarded in the same house, and had never seen either Mrs. Judson, or her apparel; but had heard the statement from a lady, who had received it from another lady in Bradford; a small town about thirty miles from this city.

The Committee now state, that the articles of dress, of which so much has been said, were not purchased, either with the private property of Mrs. Judson, or with Missionary Money; but were presented to her by different individuals as tokens of personal affection and respect. The Cashmere Shawl, “valued at $600,” was given to her in England by the sister of a distinguished friend of Missions; and we are assured from very respectable authority that it cost twenty-five dollars. “The Leghorn flat valued at $150,” was purchased in Salem; and from the certain knowledge of two ladies concerned in the purchase, did not exceed in its cost, eight dollars and fifty cents. As to the Lace trimming on the gown, stated at $150, a very intimate friend, at whose house Mrs. Judson stayed, says, “she had not to my knowledge, one gown that had a particle of lace upon it. If she had I was ignorant of it, or it was so trifling, that it did not make an impression sufficient to be remembered.” We feel authorized to state, from the testimony of other ladies of unquestionable veracity, who visited with Mrs. Judson in different cities, and who saw the apparel in her possession, that this is a just representation.

Concerning what is said of jewelry, which, in order to make up the aforesaid sum of $1200, is estimated at $300, we scarcely know how to express ourselves. With the exception of a chain, and a small locket in which was the likeness of one of the family, and these were given her, it is believed that all her jewelry was not worth five dollars.

For the information of those who did not see Mrs. Judson while she was in this country, the Committee would remark, that a majority of them had the pleasure of receiving her into their families as a guest: And the impression left on their minds was, that she had a soul too elevated to be occupied in ornamenting her person. She was in fact distinguished for the plainness and cheapness of her dress. The same individuals met with her frequently in the cities of New-York and Washington: but in no instance did they see any thing in her deportment or apparel, which did not accord with that modesty, simplicity and plainness which becometh women professing godliness.

Having stated these facts, the Committee deem it unnecessary to offer any comment upon them, but would leave each reader to make his own reflections.

It may be proper to state, that the Committee are in possession of the names of all the parties concerned, but as the mention of them did not seem necessary for the defence of our highly esteemed friend, Mrs. Judson, they are from motives of delicacy suppressed.

Signed in behalf and by order of the Boston Baptist Association,

Thomas Baldwin,

Lucius Bolles,

Daniel Sharp,

George Keely,

Ensign Lincoln.

Boston, Oct. 1, 1823.

Text: Ann Judson Papers, RG no. 1108, American Baptist Historical Society Archives, Atlanta, GA.