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"A Goodly Heritage" (5): Henry Martyn 1781-1812

R W Cargill, St Monans

Some of God's servants have been granted many years to fill with service for Him, others only a few. Henry Martyn was one of these others, along with David Brainerd before him (1718-1747), missionary to the American Indians, and Murray McCheyne of Dundee after him (1813-1843). The labours and the influence of such men have lived far beyond their brief lifespans. Ours is the goodly heritage they left.

Martyn served the Lord in India from 1806 to 1810. His was an unpopular and difficult task as we shall see. He had an effective ministry among native Indians though often despised and threatened with violence. But his more lasting legacy was his translation of the Scriptures, furthering the spread of the gospel in that region for decades to come. His love and passion for the Word of God drove him to study it deeply and so to translate it into Hindustani (Urdu) and Persian. This latter language was probably the most widely used in the east at that time, from north India to Persia itself, even used officially in the judicial courts of the British government in Hindustan.

Early Background

Henry Martyn was born twenty years after William Carey, in Truro, Cornwall, on 18th February, 1781, and ten years before John Wesley died. His father was an early Methodist who had heard Wesley preaching. Henry had a strict upbringing and lived a morally upright life. But as a brilliant young man he pursued academic excellence to the exclusion of a meaningful spiritual life. From Truro Grammar School he went up to St. John's College, Cambridge in 1797, studied maths, law and the classics, and in 1801 was "Senior Wrangler" in mathematics - he was the brightest and the best student in his year.

In 1800 his father died. Recognising now his parents' influence and heeding his sister's pleadings he was converted. His life took on a complete change of emphasis. He wrote, "The whole current of my desires is altered, I am walking quite another way". He read the Bible with a new interest, and continued to study languages. He already had a firm grasp of Hebrew, Greek and Latin, and now he was learning Hindustani, Bengali, Persian and Arabic. From Cambridge he had intended to follow the legal profession, but now he began preparing for the ministry of the Church of England. He came under the influence of Charles Simeon, a man deeply committed to the relatively new missionary ideas in the established church. One area where Simeon actively sought to pursue this was in the powerful East India Company where so far missionaries had been unwelcome in case they upset their good trading prospects. Martyn was chosen to go to India as a chaplain to the British community in Calcutta, but wider ideas were burning in his heart and soul.

Into India

He set sail for India in 1805, the year of the Battle of Trafalgar. The ship detoured via San Salvador in Central America and the voyage took twice as long. First he was badly seasick, and also lonely and love sick at leaving his sweetheart Lydia Grenfell whom he had hoped to marry. But the nine months at sea gave him time to influence ungodly sailors, to minister to other passengers, and to study his languages and his books. Calling at Cape Town in January, and seeing the bloodshed of the British conquest of the Cape Colony, his prayer became that "England whilst she sent the thunder of her arms to distant regions of the globe, might…show herself great indeed, by sending forth the ministers of her church to diffuse the gospel of peace". At last, in May, 1806, they landed in Calcutta, and he exclaimed, "Now let me burn out for God!"

He spent his first five months in Serampore and benefited greatly from time with William Carey who developed a high regard for him. His ministry among the British was not much wanted, however. His sermons were too forthright, applying the gospel call to repentance to all his hearers without distinction. Also his free association with natives of every caste was frowned upon.

He moved out to Dinapore and then Cawnpore to pursue his greater vision of reaching others. He was deeply distressed by what he saw of the destructive influence of Hindu and Muslim religions, and he energetically preached Christ crucified and risen again. Daily he repeated his message of repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ until he was often hoarse. He started schools for local children, using as textbooks his newly translated parables from the Gospels in Hindustani or Arabic. He often visited hospitals and read Pilgrim's Progress to the sick folk. Enthusiastic though he was for this kind of work, he wrote one day, "Without the work of translation I should fear my presence in India were useless".

Translation Work

While in this eastern region of India he had translated the New Testament and the Book of Common Prayer into Hindustani, a spoken language which he was able to put on a firm written foundation for the first time. But he sensed that Persian was a language which would reach many more peoples in the region, and to execute properly that translation he would have to travel to Persia (Iran) itself. This would be a major undertaking.

A six weeks' voyage took him back round the tip of India to Bombay. On 25th March, 1811 he got out of Bombay on the Benares, an East India Company ship, by acting as chaplain for the voyage, and arrived in Muscat (Masqat) on the Arabian side of the Gulf of Oman on 21st April. At last he landed at Bushire (Bushehr) on the Persian side on 21st May. It was then nine days on horseback to Shiraz, some 200 miles into the mountains where was welcomed by Sir Gore Ousley, the British Ambassador.

Shiraz was full of Muslim theologians, clerics and scholars who came to debate with this young foreigner who was always ready to receive them. His wisdom and sincerity endeared him to many, but the deity of Jesus Christ was unacceptable to them. Martyn wrote a series of courteous tracts on this fundamental subject and saw some of them converted, while he pursued his great objective of completing the Persian New Testament and also translating the Psalms.

On 24th February, 1812, the work was finished, ready to be presented to the Shah of Persia. With two specially printed copies he travelled to Tabriz where he hoped the British Ambassador would arrange a personal audience with the Shah. But instead he had a hostile reception from the Shah's Vizier who challenged him to say, "God is God and Mohammed is his Prophet". There was a silence, then Henry Martyn replied, "God is God, and Jesus is the Son of God". In the uproar that followed, mercifully he was just able to get away uninjured with his precious Testament safe. Later, however, the British Ambassador was able to present the Persian New Testament to the Shah who actually commended it to his people.

By September, Martyn's health was deteriorating badly while the Ambassador and his wife in Tabriz nursed him devotedly. He would have to return to England, first overland to Constantinople, 1,200 miles away, to seek passage home via Malta. On the way he suffered much, even those he had trusted taking advantage of his growing weakness. As he passed by Mt Ararat in the distance he thought on Noah, and wrote, "Here the blessed saint landed in a new world; so may I, safe in Christ, outride the storms of life and land at last on one of the everlasting hills".

The last entry in his journal was made on 6th October, 1812. "No horses being to be had, I had an unexpected repose. I sat in the orchard and thought with sweet comfort and peace of my God; in solitude my Company, my Friend, and Comforter. When shall appear that new heaven and new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness? There, there, none of that wickedness which has made men worse than wild beasts, none of those corruptions which add still more to the miseries of mortality, shall be seen or heard of any more."

Ten days later Henry Martyn died. He was buried in Tokat by members of the Armenian Church. His tombstone tells us –




To be continued.

Grateful acknowledgement to C P Hallihan, Quarterly Record, 562, 563; Trinitarian Bible Society, 2003, for information used in this article.


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