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 Issues | Church History | Henry Martyn


Great Churchmen (No. 9)

Henry Martyn (1781-1812)

by A. G. Pouncy, M. A.

(Editorial and Prayer Secretary, Bible Churchmen's Missionary Society)

The First Modern Apostle to the Mohammedan

Published by Church Book Room Press


The Missionary: His Labours in India

In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and painfulness, in watching often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. . . .Who is weak, and I am not weak ? . . .

He said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for My strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”—2 Corinthians 11. 26, 27, 29 and 12. 19.

Each age is apt to think that the difficulties which beset it are greater than those experienced in days gone by, but the telescope of history often brings “the good old days” into startlingly close proximity and shatters the illusion. As many another in later days, Henry Martyn sailed for India in convoy, whilst England’s shores prepared to resist imminent invasion.

It was in August, 1805, not long before the victory at Trafalgar changed the nation’s fear to rejoicing, that the great convoy comprising East Indiamen, fifty transports and several protecting warships, set sail from Cork Harbour. Henry Martyn, as the sole Chaplain, was faced with a stupendous task quite apart from the opposition he met as he sought to do his duty. Already the voyage had taken two months since the ships left Portsmouth, and conditions on board were none of the best. Besides the merchants and troops, there was a ship bound for notorious Botany Bay with female convicts aboard.

The voyage lasted another eight-and-a-half months, including a stay in Brazilian waters, and a military expedition against the Dutch settlement at Cape Town. The latter led to the annexation of Cape Colony by the British. Human history records the fleet’s greeting to the British flag as it was raised above the Dutch fort. Dr. George Smith, Martyn’s biographer, records a greater conquest—the young Chaplain brooding over the battlefield, “on his knees, taking possession of the land, and of all lands, for Christ.”

Towards the end of April, 1806, the fleet reached Madras, and Martyn lost no time in going ashore, visiting the poorer quarters of the town and seeking to speak of Christ to any who would listen. He preached in the Church at Fort St. George with earnestness and pointedness, and for the first time in India (but not the last) the indifferent and careless either trembled or were angered by the faithfulness of Martyn’s preaching.

After a fortnight’s stay the ship moved on to Calcutta which was reached on May 16 in the height of the hot season. Here the long voyage ended, and though outward results may have been but few, eternity will doubtless reveal the glory of that journey, with the refined and sensitive scholar going down into the bowels of the ship with its foul air and congested quarters, visiting the unwelcoming sick, speaking with the bigoted Moslem lascars, and distributing the Bibles and books supplied by his faithful and life-long friend Simeon.

                                                    *  *  *  *

No sooner had Martyn landed than he sought out William Carey, and for several months had fellowship with the Serampore Brethren. Though of different churchmanship Carey’s true catholicity showed itself by his comment that where Martyn went no other missionary would be needed, and by his suggestion—which took Henry’s fancy—“that there should be an annual meeting, at the Cape of Good Hope, of all the missionaries in the world”! Thus did the great Carey, with his ecumenical vision (if impracticable as then), leap once more ahead of the years. It is worth recording that Martyn refused a pressing invitation to become the minister of the famous Old Mission Church in Calcutta, at which he preached.

In October Martyn was posted to Dinapore, near Patna, which he reached in six weeks. The long slow journey (the distance as the crow flies is 300 miles) was occupied with prayer and the Scriptures, and with studies in Hindustani and Sanskrit. It is a striking commentary on his abilities as a linguist that he, whose sense of scholarship would have restrained him even had his humility not been sufficient, felt so soon able to send Ward of Serampore “a list of errata which he found in a tract in the Persian character.”

Dinapore was the British military station for the great province of Bihar, and here Martyn found more than enough opportunity for his consecrated zeal. Not content with discharging his prime responsibility towards the 1,800 members of two Regiments stationed there, he gathered together the native women (so long ignored as of no account) for teaching, started schools for children, and engaged in translating the Scriptures into Hindustani. Lest we should underestimate the amount of the sacrifice involved we should read his Journal’s entry for December 22: “Thinking far too much of dear Lydia all day.” Nothing would turn him from his duty, neither the scorn with which his unorthodox care for the natives was witnessed by their overlords, nor the effects of the Indian heat upon his frail constitution, nor the cravings which caused him to see across the two-mile broad
Ganges the cliffs of Cornwall and the longed-for house at Marazion.

It is probable that rarely had the hardened troops (“A more wicked set of men were, I suppose, never seen. The general and their own colonel all acknowledge it”) had the cure of their souls entrusted to such a fearless and conscientious man. Officers and men alike were rebuked for whoredom and drunkenness, and Martyn’s plain preaching met with furious opposition.

But because of the very darkness the light shone the more brightly, and a tiny group of believers used to gather in his room for Bible reading and prayer. Here and there one and another was led to turn to Christ. Martyn was encouraged by finding “fifty sick at the hospital, who heard The Pilgrim’s Progress with great delight”; and as he left the station he was able to write of thirty who attended a meeting each night, and of “six young men, who will, I hope, prove to be true soldiers of Christ.”

All the time Martyn was preparing himself for active work amongst the natives, studying the Koran that he might meet the fantasies of Moslem objectors, and translating the New Testament into Hindustani, Arabic, and Persian. With reference to this latter task his great friend, David Brown, wrote to Simeon: “Dear Martyn is married already to three wives, whom, I believe, he would not forsake for all the princesses in the earth.” In addition, he turned the services of the Book of Common Prayer into Hindustani as a means of native evangelism. Thus did he pay tribute to the English Prayer Book not only as a true interpreter of Scripture and a faithful setter-forth of Christ, but also as a profitable means of teaching the natives. The value of this book has often been vindicated since in different parts of the mission-field, and it would be well if the remarkable world- wide scope of its appeal were remembered by the many faint-hearted evangelical sons and daughters of the Church of England-so ready to flee at the least denominational skirmish. At the same time Martyn was reading the Koran and preparing himself for those amazing Persian battles to come which left him always master of the field of controversy.

The strain imposed on Martyn’s frail constitution by the heat was growing serious. “Through great mercy my health and strength are supported as by a daily miracle,” he wrote on May 18, 1807. In July, 1808, he despaired even of life; yet in the following April, obedient to duty, he set off in the hot season for Cawnpore, to which he had been transferred. “While there is work which we must do, we shall live”—so he expressed his conviction.

                                                      *   *   *   *

The journey was more than 380 miles, the last 130 of which took two days and two nights of continuous travel in a palanquin. His arrival at Cawnpore is graphically described by Mrs. Sherwood, wife of the Paymaster of the King’s 53rd Regiment of Foot: “It was in the morning . . . the desert winds blowing like fire without, when we suddenly heard the quick step of many bearers. Mr. Sherwood ran out to the leeward of the house, and exclaimed, ‘Mr. Martyn!’ The next moment I saw him leading in that excellent man, and saw our visitor, a moment afterwards, fall down in a fainting fit . . . quite exhausted, and actually under the influence of fever.” Martyn’s own account was that “I transported myself with such rapidity to this place that I had nearly transported myself out of the world.”

To the friendship formed with the Sherwoods we are indebted for an unprejudiced impression of Henry Martyn at the age of twenty-eight. “I perfectly remember the figure of that simple-hearted and holy young man . . . dressed in white . . . very pale. . . . His hair, a light brown, was raised from his forehead, which was a remarkably fine one. His features were not regular, but the expression was so luminous, so intellectual, so affectionate, so beaming with Divine charity, that no one could have looked at his features, and thought of their shape or form—the out-beaming of his soul would absorb the attention of every observer. . . . He was one of the humblest of men.”

Here Martyn’s work was of much the same kind as at Dinapore, though instead of preaching to the native women he gathered before his bungalow a great congregation of beggars and ascetics, of all religions, of all degrees of sickness of body, mind and spirit. Surely a stranger audience had never before been addressed by the Chaplain of Cawnpore! Many came to mock and to curse, many came to hinder, but nothing succeeded in preventing that calm musical voice from pleading with men to be reconciled to God. And fruit there was. A Moslem zealot came to scoff, but stayed to help in the preparation of the Persian New Testament for the press. He read it, and found Christ. He became an earnest witness, led others to the Saviour, and was later ordained in Calcutta Cathedral by Bishop Heber.

The reading of Martyn’s Hindustani New Testament also led to blessing, and it is recorded that his work at Cawnpore, followed up by his great friend Corrie, resulted in the baptism and firm continuance of more than fifty Hindus and Moslems, most of them adults, and several of whom became missionaries. Continually crying out at the evil he felt in his own heart, and the hardness which he bewailed in the hearts of others, he nevertheless sowed faithfully, and God, according to His binding pledge, gave the increase.

All the time ominous entries were appearing in his Journal. “1810, April 9. From the labours of yesterday. . . . I was quite exhausted, and my chest in pain. . . . April 10. My lungs still so disordered that I could not meet my men at night. . . . April 16. Talked a great deal; the pain in the chest in consequence returned.” Four weeks later he was thrown violently from his horse whilst at full gallop.

His grief at the news of his sister’s death was tempered by receiving a letter from Lydia Grenfell, who felt that she should reopen their correspondence and so try to take the place of the one now passed on. Though Martyn no longer cherished any real hope of ever gaining Lydia, her image continued to fill his thoughts. “I am able neither to live with thee nor without thee,” he wrote. And still he went on importunately pleading with sinners.

At last the authorities could blind themselves no longer to the physical condition of the Chaplain, and Martyn was ordered away for six months’ rest. But on the Sunday before he left he had the joy of preaching the first sermon in the first centre of public worship ever set up in that dark place. It had been through his own untiring efforts and insistence that the building had been erected, and it remained the military church for almost fifty years, until it was destroyed during the Mutiny, and its place taken later by a Memorial Church.


>> Chapter 3 - His Labours in Persia








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