The passing of 200 years since Henry Martyn’s death has not dimmed the brightness of his star nor the beauty of a life lived for Christ.
As he began the last year of his life, he wrote, ‘To all appearance the present year will be more perilous than any I have seen, but if I live to complete the Persian New Testament, my life after that will be of less importance. But whether life or death be mine, may Christ be magnified in me. If he has work for me to do, I cannot die’.
He was born in Truro, Cornwall, on 18 February 1781. He was sent to the local grammar school and then when 15 to Oxford, with the hope of a scholarship at Corpus Christi, although without success.
However, in 1797, he gained entrance to St John’s College, Cambridge, where he excelled in mathematics and became Senior Wrangler of his year.
But more important things were happening in those early years. His sister Sally, who was a devout Christian, finally persuaded him to read his Bible, and slowly the Christ of Scripture became to Henry the living Lord and Saviour.
Holy Trinity, Cambridge
Zealous Christian undergraduates at Cambridge — all too few in those days — almost all worshipped at Holy Trinity where the minister, Charles Simeon, was a fearless contender for the evangelical faith.
Henry Martyn stayed on in Cambridge, but changed over from mathematics to Classics. Once again, he excelled and was offered a fellowship at St John’s. In 1803 he was ordained and became curate to Simeon at Holy Trinity.
There he worked hard and preached earnestly. There was about him a growing seriousness. ‘I resolved’, he wrote in his journal, ‘to live a life of far more self-denial than ever I had yet done . . . To climb the steep ascent, to run, to fight, to wrestle, was the desire of my heart’.
There is a quality about Martyn’s life that is rare and enormously challenging. He wrote on his birthday in 1803, ‘This is my birthday and I am ashamed to review the past. Lord Jesus, watch over me in the deceitful calm!
‘Let me beware of lethargy, lest I terminate in death. I desire this day to renew my vows to the Lord, and oh, that every succeeding year of my life may be more devoted to his glory than the last’.
There is also a love story entwined in these events. In one sense, his whole life and missionary service is nothing but a grand ‘love story’, since he could say with Paul ‘for the love of Christ constrains me’. But I refer here to the love between Henry Martyn and Lydia Grenfell.
Martyn loved her passionately. But such a union was not to be, as he felt increasingly the Lord’s call to serve as a missionary in India, whilst Lydia felt she could not leave her elderly mother.
As his call to missionary service grew, its direction to India and beyond became clearer. His reading of David Brainerd fired those desires. His extraordinary ability with languages was matched by a delight in them. His reward at the end of a tiring day was to absorb himself in Persian and Arabic grammars.
At this time he was introduced to the Clapham Sect and its leader, William Wilberforce. He also met the elderly John Newton.
For Martyn, events were moving on. He was ordained in the Church of England at 24. His plan was to obtain a chaplaincy with the East India Company, a powerful agency, but by no means favourable to missions. However, the Lord overruled and he was successful in his application.
He preached his last sermon to Simeon’s crowded congregation in Holy Trinity. As he left, the whole congregation stood — an unusual event and token of their affection and esteem for him.
It is hard for us to understand how traumatic it was for him to leave behind his house and friends, the fellowship at Holy Trinity, the woman he loved and indeed his whole world. Yet he knew his calling was ‘to leave all and follow Christ’.
Martyn was nine months at sea, war with France adding to the dangers. The East India fleet sailed in a convoy of 150 ships, with the Royal Navy to guard them. Conditions on board were almost unbearable.
He spent the first days of the voyage on deck ‘standing in the air in a sort of patient stupidity, very sick and cold’. He also spent his time seeking to do the variety of other passengers good. He read aloud to a small group from Pilgrim’s progress.
He didn’t have an arresting presence or the gifts of a street preacher, yet he saw even in that rough and rowdy crowd, a few who listened and turned to the Saviour. He thought of the words in Isaiah, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? … Here am I, send me’.
At last Ceylon appeared. Then, on 16 May 1806, the ship sailed into the Hooghly River, and on to Calcutta. The journey had taken nine months.
It was in Calcutta that Henry Martyn met the missionary and Oriental scholar William Carey. They had breakfast together ‘without the smell of the ship’. A close friendship developed between Martyn and David Brown, an East India Company chaplain who lived just outside Calcutta and who invited Martyn to stay with him.
His accommodation turned out to be an old pagoda, or forsaken pagan temple. Martyn comments: ‘Thither I returned at night and felt something like superstitious dread at being in a place once inhabited as it were by devils, yet felt disposed to be triumphantly joyful that this temple where they were once worshipped was become Christ’s oratory. I prayed aloud to my God, and the echoes returned from the vaulted roof’.
Five minutes’ walk along the river bank brought him to the settlement of Carey, Marshman and Ward, the immortal trio of Serampore missionaries.
David Brown, senior chaplain in Calcutta and now a close friend, urged Martyn, whose very considerable language skills were apparent, to undertake the translation of the New Testament into Hindustani (Urdu), and supervise translations into Persian and Arabic with the help of two other men.
So began his great work, culminating in the New Testament’s translation into Urdu, an enduring work of great value. Martyn was a meticulous translator and after his death the work was printed by the Serampore Press for the British and Foreign Bible Society.
It was his greatest single work, and remained the only translation of the Urdu New Testament until the 1970s. His other translation works were in Persian and Arabic. Arabic was the chief language of Islam and Martyn saw this as the key to reaching the Moslem world.
The years that followed saw Martyn on his final journey from Calcutta to Dinapore and Cawnpore, leaving his friends Daniel Corrie, David Brown and Mrs Sherwood behind him. His health was already deteriorating and the signs of tuberculosis present.
By ship he went on to Goa, where he stood on the tomb of Francis Xavier, whose life had inspired him when he first came to India. Then on to Shiraz, still almost a mediaeval city, where he spent a year working on translation and in intense debate with the Islamic doctors.
On at last to Tokat, now weak and sick. He died on 16 October 1812, not in some peaceful location but in the midst of the hubbub and clatter of that strange, far-off place. Perhaps he remembered that the Saviour was born in such a place. Surely the streets of heaven rang with praises as the Lord’s faithful servant came home.
When at last Henry Martyn’s portrait, painted in Calcutta, reached Charles Simeon in Cambridge, it was hung over the fireplace, and Simeon would say to his friends, ‘There! See that blessed man! No one looks at me as he does. He never takes his eyes off me and seems always to be saying, “Be serious, be earnest; don’t trifle, don’t trifle”.’
Then, smiling at the picture and gently bowing, Simeon would add, ‘And I won’t trifle, I won’t trifle’.
Two hundred years on, we can agree with this tribute to Martyn’s Christ-likeness. ‘Martyn never has been and never will be the hero of the multitude, but each generation holds some who are his spiritual kindred’.
Neil C. Richards
Quotations are from either Henry Martyn — confessor of the faith by Constance Padwick (IVF, 1953) or Life of the Rev. Henry Martyn by John Sargent (1862). There is much more material available, including Henry Martyn’s journals.