Henry Martyn (1781-1812)


Today is the 240th anniversary of the birth of pioneer missionary Henry Martyn, born February 18, 1781 in Truro, England.

As a young man Martyn excelled in classical and mathematical studies. The tender concern of a believing sister, the pain of his father’s death, and the godly counsel of a Cambridge mathematic’s instructor compelled him to read the New Testament. During his personal study of the scriptures, Martyn came to a living faith in Jesus Christ and was soundly converted.

While at St. John’s College in Cambridge, Martyn sat under the preaching of Charles Simeon, vicar of holy Trinity Church. Modern evangelicals, regrettably, have largely forgotten Simeon. Yet, his influence on evangelical history is incalculable. During his 54-year ministry at Trinity Church (1782-1836), a revival of biblical Christianity took place in Cambridge. Over 1100 future ministers of the Anglican Church sat under his ministry and would eventually assume pulpits throughout England. Gospel missionaries from Cambridge went around the world. A more fruitful ministry is scarcely imaginable.

A deep friendship developed between the two men, and Simeon invited Martyn to become his assistant. Through the influence of Simeon and the reading of the diary of missionary David Brainerd, Martyn became burdened for the souls of men and women in foreign lands who were without the light of the gospel. He chose to go to India, becoming a chaplain for the East India Company. Martyn arrived in Calcutta in April 1806. He would die in Turkey less than seven years later at the age of 31.

A few short years of service, but what productivity! He was an indefatigable teacher and evangelist. He ministered the gospel regularly to both English citizens living in India and to the indigenous population in their own language. Hospitals were visited and often-neglected members of Indian society were cared for. Under his leadership schools for Indian children were established. When possible, Martyn presented and defended the gospel before Islamic and Hindu teachers and political authorities. Hindustani and Persian New Testaments were completed and translation projects started in several other languages.

A few of my favorite passages from Martyn’s diary and letters:

On Christian service: “The soul that has truly experienced the love of God will not stay meanly inquiring how much he shall do, and thus limit his service, but will earnestly seek more and more to know the will of our heavenly Father, that he may be enabled to do it.”

On the encouragement of pastor and hymn-writer John Newton: “On my saying that perhaps I should never live to see much fruit [from missionary labors], he answered, ‘I should have a bird’s-eye view of it, which would be better.’ When I spoke of the opposition that I should be likely to meet with he said, he supposed Satan would not love me for what I was about to do. The old man prayed afterwards with sweet simplicity.”

On the danger of romanticizing missionary work: “Oh my dear friends in England, when we spoke with exultation of the mission to the heathen, whilst in the midst of health and joy and hope, what an imperfect idea did we form of the sufferings by which it must be accomplished.”

On adversity: “I found great satisfaction in reflecting that my hourly wisdom was not to repine or to look for a change, but to consider what is my duty in existing circumstances, and then to do it, in dependence upon grace.”

On the pursuit of holiness: “If am weary of anything, it is of my life of sinfulness. I want a life of more devotion and holiness; and yet am so vain as to be expecting the end without the means.” “Let me learn from this, that to follow the direct injunctions of God, as to my own soul, is more my duty than to be engaged in other works, under pretence of doing him service.”

On the carnage and suffering he witnessed after a military battle: “Mournful as the scene was, I yet thanked God that he had brought me to see a specimen, though a terrible one, of what men by nature are. May the remembrance of this day ever excite me to pray and labour more for the propagation of the gospel of peace. Then men shall love one another: ‘Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’”

On dependence upon God’s sovereign power in evangelism: “All my clear arguments are good for nothing; unless the Lord stretch out his hand, I speak to stones.”

On a particularly blessed time of prayer: “I found my heaven upon earth. No work so sweet as that of praying, and living wholly to the service of God.”

On humility and love: “Truly love is better than knowledge. Much as I long to know what I seek after, I would rather have the smallest portion of humility and love than the knowledge of an archangel.”

On his personal example: “Even if I never should see a native converted, God may design, by my patience and continuance in the work, to encourage future missionaries.”

I seriously doubt Henry Martyn would be accepted for service by many modern missionary organizations. He was shy by nature, and found testifying to the truths of Christianity a most intimidating task. He was chronically ill and weary. Public speaking was physically painful, leaving him exhausted. He was acutely conscious of his own sin and weakness. Yet, throughout his diary I met a man who turned to his Savior for grace and strength. Before the Lord in prayer he learned to trust the Savior who said, “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:12).

Henry Martyn commissioned a portrait of himself prior to leaving Calcutta for Persia. It was sent to his beloved friend, Charles Simeon, who placed it above the fireplace in his study at King’s College, Cambridge. Simeon would show it to his friends and say, “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, ‘The years are short. Be serious. Be in earnest. Don’t trifle, don’t trifle.’” Then Simeon would add, “And I won’t trifle; I won’t trifle.”

Don’t trifle with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Be serious about living under its power. With the earnestness of a Henry Martyn strive to make Christ known.

Source: John Sargent, The Life and Letters of Henry Martyn. Banner of Truth: 1985.

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