Justus Vinton was a missionary and humanitarian dedicated to spreading the Baptist religion around the world. Traveling throughout much of the mid-1800s, Justus and his wife not only set about preaching to the Karen people of Burma and providing them with a Western education, they also worked to relieve their poverty and suffering during turbulent times in that country’s history.
Justus was born in Willington, Connecticut, on February 17, 1806. He began devoting his life to Christianity by the age of 10 and enrolled in the Hamilton Institute in New York at age 20. While studying the language of the Karen people of Burma he met Calista Holman, a fellow student, and the two married in 1834.
In the summer of that year, Justus and Calista sailed for Burma (a country known better today as Myanmar) with a group of missionaries. They arrived at Maulman in December and immediately began sharing their religion with the Karen people. The Vintons soon discovered that working independently of one another enabled them to spread their message faster, and the two set off on rigorous campaigns to reach a variety of isolated settlements. Many of the Karens at first feared the Vintons, afraid Justus or Calista might be arriving to steal their children and sell them into slavery, much as the Burmese sometimes did. While the Baptists succeeded in gaining converts, some viewed Christianity as an intrusion on traditional animist beliefs. Others, particularly adherents of Buddhism, associated missionary work with the imperial aims of neighboring British-ruled India.
When war broke out between the British and the Burmese, the Karen people sided with the British in the hopes of throwing off years of oppressive Burmese rule. The Burmese retaliated by burning Karen villages, driving off their cattle, and destroying their food supplies. With the violence particularly devastating near Rangoon, the Vintons left Maulman for Rangoon to assist in administering aid. They helped establish two hospitals in Rangoon and Justus even sought out rice merchants to negotiate the acquisition of desperately needed supplies of food.
In 1848 the Vintons sailed for America, in part, to help Calista regain her failing health, but returned to Burma just 3 years later. In 1854 they played a vital role in helping the Karens of the Rangoon district establish the Karen Home Mission Society, the first such society ever in Burma’s history. Four years later, after returning from a wide-ranging preaching tour, Justus came down with jungle fever and died on March 31, 1858. Calista carried on the couple’s missionary efforts, sailing for the United States in 1862 where she gave lectures all over the country before returning to Burma one last time and passing away there in 1864.