Henry Martyn:Iraq – lessons in a time of war

Nick Megoran
01 March, 2003 6 min read

Henry Martyn (1771-1812) is one of the best-known nineteenth-century Christian missionaries. Yet, while Evangelicals have rightly treasured his letters and journals for their inspirational and devotional value, their political importance has been overlooked.

Martyn lived during the Napoleonic Wars, a period of great international upheaval as the British empire clashed with its European rivals in a struggle from which it emerged as a world superpower.

Martyn was directly caught up in these events, and the experiences and observations he recorded in his diary provide insights that are invaluable as we consider how we should respond — as Christians — to the Iraq-USA crisis.

Burn out for God

Martyn went up to Cambridge in 1797 to embark on a dazzling academic career, becoming Senior Wrangler (the University’s top undergraduate mathematician) and also winning first prize for Latin composition.

For relaxation he studied comparative philology! Elected to the fellowship of St John’s college in 1802, he delighted in academic pursuits, confessing that ‘since I have known God in a saving manner, painting, poetry and music have had charms unknown to me before’.

Yet, after training for the ministry (as curate to Charles Simeon), Martyn abandoned this promising career to become the first Anglican graduate missionary to India.

He dedicated his life to founding schools, preaching to the native popu-lations, and making Hindi and Farsi translations of Scripture.

On hearing of the death of his sister from the hereditary tuberculosis from which he too suffered, he wrote in his diary: ‘now let me burn out for God’. That is indeed what he did, eventually dying in Turkey on his way home to marry his beloved Lydia.

His diaries and letters are infused with a dedication to the Lord Jesus Christ that has inspired generations since his death at the age of 31.

Age of empire

Martyn lived at a period when Britain was on the threshold of becoming the greatest power of the nineteenth century. The nation grew fabulously wealthy through a combination of force, trade, investment and imperial ideology.

Inspired by a classical education, Britons saw themselves as the heirs to the civilising legacy of ancient Rome — spreading education, trade, and good governance.

The belief that God had entrusted them with this task is reflected in Benson’s well-known words:

Wider still and wider, shall thy bounds be set;
God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet.

Many commentators today draw parallels between the Britain of the nineteenth century and the America of the twenty-first. With the demise of the Soviet Union, the USA stands as the sole superpower.

Like Britain before it, the idea of having a ‘manifest destiny’ to spread civilisation across the globe lies at the core of its founding beliefs. The USA now sees itself as the world’s moral policeman.

Because of this, and also for reasons of strategic self-interest, the USA is currently preparing for war against Iraq.

British and American churches have expressed unprecedented opposition to these plans, raising the thorny question that believers must face at the moment — how should Christians act as citizens of such superpowers?

Henry Martyn wrestled with the same question, and provides us with many valuable pointers.

Battle of Blaauwberg

Sailing out on an East India Company vessel to begin missionary work in India in 1806, Martyn became embroiled in the Battle of Blaauwberg off the Cape of Good Hope.

Cape Town had been founded on land seized by Holland from the native Hottentots in the eighteenth century. But in January 1806 a fleet of 61 British ships dropped anchor at Robben Island and landed 6,000 troops, who captured Cape Town in a short battle.

As Martyn’s biographer Richard France wrote: ‘It was his only taste of war, and it revolted him’.

Martyn — who attended to the dead and dying on the battlefield — recorded his vivid observations in his diary and in a long letter back to Simeon in Cambridge. Five principles of universal application can be gleaned from his response.

Ugly reality

Firstly, Martyn saw in warfare the ugly reality of sin and humanity’s need for the gospel. Touring a make-shift hospital and seeing some two hundred casualties, he recorded that ‘a more ghastly spectacle than that which presented itself here I could not have conceived’.

He did not hide himself from the realities of war, nor did he pretend it was glorious, but commented that ‘mournful as the scene was, I thanked God that he had brought me to see a specimen… of what men by nature are’.

He wrote that these scenes made him yearn for that day ‘when nation shall not lift up sword against nation’, and redouble his resolution to hasten its coming: ‘may the remembrance of this day ever excite me to pray and labour more for the propagation of the gospel of peace’.

Glory of the kingdom

Secondly, we learn from Martyn that Christians should be more anxious for the glory of the kingdom of heaven than of their earthly kingdoms. The capture of Cape Town was a significant stage in the consolidation of Britain’s empire, yet this afforded Martyn little pleasure.

On seeing the British flag flying over the Dutch fort, he wrote: ‘I felt considerable pain at the enemy’s being obliged to give up their fort and town … I hate the cruel pride and arrogance that makes men boast over a conquered foe’.

Martyn sought rather the glory of the kingdom of God. As Scripture teaches, even the cruellest and most ungodly empire builders (such as Cyrus or Nebu-chadnezzar) are God’s ‘servants’, instruments in his sovereign ordering of human affairs.

Knowing this, Martyn wrote to Simeon that he ‘prayed that the capture of the Cape might be ordered to the advancement of Christ’s kingdom’, and that England, ‘might show herself great indeed, by sending forth ministers of her church to diffuse the gospel of peace’.


Thirdly, Martyn observed that the methods of building the kingdom of God are very different to those used in building human empires.

On witnessing the casualties at Blaauwberg, he confessed: ‘I would rather be the trampled upon than the trampler’ — reflecting the spirit of Christ at Calvary, a spirit that the apostles used as a model for Christian responses to our enemies (1 Peter 3:21-23).

He later expressed in his journal the desire to ‘carry the war into the enemy’s territory’, but for Martyn, as for Paul, his weapons were ‘not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds’.

Thus he dedicated his life to the translation and preaching of God’s Word. This he did at a time when Cambridge graduates like himself could find glamorous and lucrative employment in the expanding empire.

Citizen of heaven

Fourthly, Martyn provides a valuable lesson in heeding that most difficult of our Lord’s commands: ‘render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s’.

Although Martyn was sickened at the suffering caused by the British use of force to build an empire, he maintained proper respect for those in authority, resisting the temptation to despise them.

Nor did he become ‘anti-British’. He missed his home enormously, and wrote in his diary that he enjoyed ‘many tender recollections’ of his beloved Cambridge.

Finally, Martyn’s sense of being a ‘citizen of heaven’ as well as a subject of the world’s greatest empire provides a model for us today.

Apart from his disgust at the British belligerence at Blaauwberg, he had endured four months of abuse and mockery from soldiers on the voyage from England, who scorned his attempts to preach and lead prayers.

Thus, in the aftermath of the battle, he immediately set about locating Johannes Vanderkemp, the famous Dutch doctor and pioneer missionary to South Africa.

Even though an ‘enemy’ by nationality, Vanderkemp was Martyn’s true countryman in the kingdom of God, and the two enjoyed many days of sweet fellowship together.

Iraq 2003

Our Lord warned us that, until the end of the age, ‘nation will rise against nation’. The current crisis over Iraq is proof of that. We must be careful to be guided by scriptural principles, not national prejudices.

Henry Martyn’s response to the British at the Battle of Blaauwberg provides a model that is just as relevant to us, as we respond to today’s superpower, prompting some searching questions.

Does warfare cause us to sorrow over sin and pray for Christ’s return?

Do we maintain the distinction between the kingdom of heaven and our earthly kingdoms?

Are we seeking the glory and interests of the former over the latter?

Do we identify with our fellow-citizens in the kingdom of God, even when they become the enemies of our earthly kingdoms?

Failure to answer ‘yes’ to these challenges risks causing unbelievers to confuse the church of Christ with an earthly political power, which can only harden their resistance to the gospel.

As an antidote to that tendency, Henry Martyn’s example is more valuable to us today than ever before.

The author is a Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge

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