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‘He is a Luther’: a sestercentennial (250 years) appreciation of the life and ministry of Joshua Marshman

April 2018 | by Michael Haykin

Joshua Marshman
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Stephen Neill, the well-known historian of missions, has observed that the partnership known to history as the Serampore Trio — that between William Carey (1761–1834), William Ward (1769–1823), and Joshua Marshman (1768–1837) — is one that has ‘few parallels in Christian history’.

Reading through the letters and journals of these three men, there is no hint of jealousy or attempt by any of them to lord it over the others. The quality of the friendship between them takes on added lustre when it is recognised that it flourished amidst various setbacks and challenges.

In the history of this community, however, it is chiefly Carey that has been remembered. There are no published book-length biographies devoted to either Ward or Marshman, but Carey has some 80, by my reckoning.

And yet, as A. Christopher Smith, who has written widely on the history of the Serampore Mission, has noted: ‘Very few people in Britain ever realised how dependent Carey was on his partners for insight and a wide range of initiatives’.

The following article which looks at Joshua Marshman in the sestercentennial (250th) year of his birth, is thus in part a needed corrective to the story many of us have learned about Carey’s mission.

Conversion and a hunger for reading

Born in 1768, Marshman grew up in Westbury Leigh, Wiltshire, where he eventually became a weaver like his father. From a very early age he had an irrepressible thirst for reading, devouring any book he could borrow or lay his hands on.

By his teens, this hunger for knowledge was such that he would often read while working a hand-loom in his father’s home. Different from many of the conversions he would read about, Marshman’s own conversion was neither sudden nor accompanied by a period of despair and ‘fearful exercises of mind’.

While he was regularly attending the Baptist meeting-house of Westbury Leigh with his parents, ‘gradually … the light of divine truth shone into his mind, and he was able to put his entire dependence for acceptance with God, and his hope of eternal salvation, on the all-meritorious atonement of Christ’.

After his conversion, which occurred in his late teens, his insatiable appetite for reading did not cease, but it did become more focused as he now read largely theological works. He read through the entirety of Martin Luther’s classic commentary on Galatians, as well as devouring the tomes of many of the leading Puritan writers of the previous century.

His son, John Clark Marshman (1794–1877), who became the first historian of the Serampore community, noted that ‘there was scarcely a treatise of that period [i.e. the 17th century] of any note, with the arguments and sentiments of which he did not become perfectly familiar’.

This easily overlooked fact is an important reminder that 18thcentury evangelicals like Marshman, though living in a different world than the Reformers and Puritans, were nonetheless one with these two bodies of believers in many areas of both doctrine and piety.

Hannah Marshman
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Marshman and Grant

In 1791 Marshman married Hannah Shepherd (1767–1847), who would prove to be an invaluable partner to him. Three years later, in 1794, he took a position as a schoolmaster in a school in Bristol that was supported by Broadmead Baptist church, the oldest Baptist congregation in the city.

That same year he was baptised by John Ryland, Jr. (1753–1825), who was the pastor of this church and a close friend of William Carey. For the next five years, alongside his responsibilities as schoolmaster, he also studied at Bristol Baptist Academy, over which Ryland was the principal, and which was linked to the Broadmead Church. He was especially good at languages, excelling in Greek, Hebrew, and even learned a little Syriac and Arabic.

In the late 1790s, Marshman met and shared his faith with William Grant (1774–1799), a young man who had been strongly shaped by the radical philosophical and religious currents of that day.

When Marshman met him, he was advocating Unitarian views of Socinianism. Having sought help from Marshman in learning Latin, the two men had various conversations in which Marshman was able to give a robust presentation of the Bible’s teaching on the penal, substitutionary nature of Christ’s death.

The end result was nothing less than the conversion of Grant, which has been described by the Australian historian Stuart Piggin as one of the most distinctly ‘intellectual’ conversions experienced by an evangelical missionary during the first 70 years of ‘the modern missionary movement’. Grant was subsequently baptised and became a member of the Broadmead church.

William Ward
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Going to India

Given Ryland’s friendship with Carey and deep involvement in the Baptist Missionary Society that had sent Carey to India in 1793, it is not surprising that Marshman heard numerous accounts of Carey’s missionary activity. But it was Grant’s determination to follow Carey to India as a missionary that turned Marshman’s mind and that of his wife Hannah to thoughts of missionary service.

Literally within a few weeks of deciding to be missionaries in 1799, the Marshmans and their son John were on board a ship taking them, along with Grant, his wife, as well as William Ward, to India.

After a ten-week voyage, they landed in Calcutta at the end of the year. Two weeks later Marshman was stunned by the death of his friend Grant. Christopher Smith well captures what must have been Marshman’s feelings at the time: ‘Quite probably he was acutely aware that he would not have left England in Christ’s service, but for his young friend. Yet that was how providence worked to bring the members of the future mission trio together’.

First impressions

Due to his need for funds, Carey had been managing an indigo factory in a town called Mudnabati in West Bengal. But when Marshman and Ward arrived, he linked up with them at a Danish colony on the west bank of the Hooghly River, 15 or so miles due north of Calcutta.

William Carey
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Carey was thrilled with having both men as colleagues. As Carey told his close friend and former pastor John Sutcliff (1752–1814) about Ward and Marshman: ‘They are of the right sort; and perhaps as striking a proof as ever was exhibited of the possibility of persons of different tempers and abilities being able to live in one family in the exercise of Christian love.

‘Probably there has seldom been a greater diversity in natural disposition and temper; yet this diversity serves for mutual correction. We really love one another’.

In particular, Carey informed Ryland that Marshman was ‘a man from whom I have great expectations’. He is ‘a prodigy of diligence and prudence’, Carey wrote to Andrew Fuller (1754–1815), the secretary of the Baptist Missionary Society and his close friend, ‘learning the language is mere play to him; he has already acquired as much as I did in double the time’.

These were Carey’s first impressions about Marshman (and Ward), but they proved to be accurate ones. As Carey got to know Marshman, he also realised his new colleague excelled in apologetics and the defence of the Christian faith. Marshman could talk for hours with Hindus and unbelieving Europeans living in India and never seem to tire.

As Carey once noted in a telling remark in an 1810 letter to Ryland, ‘In point of zeal he is a Luther and I am Erasmus’. Ward similarly noted with candour to Fuller: ‘Bro. Marshman is a most important acquisition and a good help to the mission … in his ardent zeal. But he is too volatile and has too much quicksilver in him’. But, as Christopher Smith has pointed out, unlike Erasmus and Luther, Carey and Marshman never fell out with one another. In fact, Carey said of Marshman in 1818, ‘a more excellent and holy man does not exist in the Mission’.

Defending the Trinity

A great example of Marshman’s tenacious advocacy of the gospel is his A defence of the deity and atonement of Jesus Christ, which he wrote against Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772–1833), an Indian scholar who had become a Unitarian and had attacked the Serampore Trio’s trinitarianism.

After arguing for the deity of the Lord Jesus, Marshman cited three Trinitarian texts — Isaiah 48:13, 16; Matthew 28:19 and 2 Corinthians 13:14 — and then stated: ‘Had the Lord Jesus been a creature, his grace, his free favour, sought for the churches by the apostles equally with the Father’s, could have been of no value to them.

‘Of what value to any one on earth is the grace or favour of anyone in heaven who is not omniscient and omnipresent? — the grace of Moses? of Abraham? or of the highest archangel? But how can we have fellowship … with one who is not omniscient and omnipresent?’

Marshman observed that Roy had abandoned his Hindu idolatry, but he asked, ‘has he found the religion of the Apostles and primitive believers?’ Marshman went on to describe the nature of the apostles’ faith: ‘Did they not trust in Christ, pray to him in all their sorrows, and through him continually seek access to the Father?

‘Did they not adore him as the Omniscient Searcher of hearts, and as their Intercessor, presenting their supplications to the Father united with his own all-prevalent intercession? And did not the consciousness of his being ever present with them, support them under every trial, and continually purify their hearts?

‘In like manner, the humble Christian at the present day, who has perhaps never heard a single argument formally advanced in support of his deity, lives almost intuitively on his Saviour as God over all, blessed for evermore.’

There is no evidence that Roy was won over by this argument, though it is a powerful defence of the truth about Jesus.

Serampore controversy

By the time that Marshman issued this defence of Christ’s deity, all of his friends in England, especially Fuller and Sutcliff, had gone to be with the Lord. Ward died the following year, and two years later, in 1825, Ryland died.

The loss of their friends in England led to a crisis for the Serampore missionaries. Those who now led the missionary society in England did not know Marshman or Carey as friends and began to treat them as if they were the employees of the society.

By 1827, a seemingly unbridgeable rift had developed between the Serampore missionaries and their home base in London. It would not be resolved till after Marshman’s death 10 years later. Many in England blamed Marshman and his pugnaciousness for the break. But the break had much more to do with the loss of the bonds of friendship between London and Serampore. Without friendship between the servants of God, there can be no great works attempted, let alone accomplished.

No armchair scholar

One of the most remarkable projects of the Serampore Press was Marshman’s translation of the Bible into Chinese, even though he never went to China, for he was eager to win all of Asia for Christ. And Marshman was also the co-founder with Carey of Serampore College (1818), which they hoped would train up Christian leaders. Marshman took responsibility for most of its administration and lectured in various theological subjects.

Simply put, without Marshman (and Ward) Carey’s remarkable ministry and translation work may well have been stillborn. And contrary to the view of many who criticised him, Marshman was, in the words of Christopher Smith, ‘no mere armchair scholar’, but one who ‘poured himself out in the cause of making an impact for Christ in the midst of volatile circumstances in British South Asia and beyond’.

©2018 Michael A. G. Haykin

Michael A. G. Haykin, FRHistS, is professor of church history and biblical spirituality, and director of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist studies (www.andrewfullercenter.org) at The Southern Baptist Theological