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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 Man: His Challenge

“. . . he being dead yet speaketh.”—Hebrews II. 4.

CLOSE beside the west end of Simeon’s old church of Holy Trinity, at Cambridge, is to be found a rather gloomy passage leading, by a flight of noisy stone steps, to a lofty upper room. Around the walls of this hall are to be seen, inscribed in gold, the names of scores of Cambridge men who have gone out into the dark places of the earth bearing the light of the Gospel. It is a quietening and a challenging experience for a Freshman to sit in this room, listening to the preaching of the Word, and to feel upon him the eyes of this gold-lettered cloud of many witnesses, wondering what his response will be.

For dozens of years the Henry Martyn Hall has been the official head-quarters of that “narrow” and unique fellowship, the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union, graciously and wonderfully owned of God. It is a place sanctified for many beyond the power of any pen to describe. Here men have met with God, and made mighty covenants. Not a day of Full Term passes but prayer—crude and refined, brief and tortuous, but always fervent and effective—is offered in this place.

Though perhaps few of those who gather here with such needed enthusiasm know much of the life of Henry Martyn, through the blessing of God many have had their own needs met that they might follow his steps in meeting the needs of others. The work that goes on through the years in this Hall that bears his name is a living memorial to his honour, worthier far than the stone monument that marks his grave in Tokat.

*   *   *   *

When God would reach man in all his need, and remake him, He did it through Man. When God to-day deals with men He does so invariably through other men. And of all the human instruments in the hands of God few have such effect as the biographies of men of like passions with ourselves who, nevertheless, have fought a good fight, have finished their course, and have kept the Faith.

Provided the tale be told with honesty, there is blessing in every frailty as in every strength, in every fall as in every triumph. The former teach us never to despair of a true sainthood, for these men of God are found to be very human clay—their greatness lay simply in the fact that they gave over the moulding of their lives to God; the latter teach us ever to aspire, to believe in God as the rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.

God touched Henry Martyn with human fingers. “October 19, 1803 . . . . For two or three days I have been reading some of St. Augustine’s Meditations, and was delighted with the hope of enjoying such communion with God as this holy man. . . . November 13. . . . I thought of David Brainerd, and ardently desired his devotedness to God and holy breathings of soul.” In 1824 John Wilson wrote of his special pleasure in reading the Memoirs of Henry Martyn. In 1878 Ion Keith-Falconer, the apostle to Arabia, wrote that he was trying “to get hold of the Life of John Wilson, the great Scotch missionary of India.” If more would let the lives of God’s saints speak deeply to their souls, more of the saints would live and live again.

But Christian biography must be read, as well as written, honestly. It can be read as a story of adventure, or consulted as a chronicle of dates, or remembered as a storehouse of anecdotes; but as such only, it profiteth nothing. It can be read with a prayer for grace to follow victoriously—a following which can be made anywhere and at any time.

If it is true that Henry Martyn, though long dead, yet speaketh, it is because God is in need of his voice to make men hear to-day.

*   *   *   *

It has been the custom in certain circles to think that God puts a premium on ignorance, and that ability, refinement and learning are, if anything, handicaps to the richest spiritual life and most fruitful service. But that God is no respecter of persons augurs as well for the wise, the mighty and the noble, as it does for the foolish, the weak, the base, and the despised. Religious history can always match its Whitefield with its Wesley, its Billy Bray with its William Haslam, its Carey with its Martyn. Indeed, one of the most challenging factors in Henry Martyn’s life, is that of the quality of the equipment for which God looks in a soldier of the Cross.

It is still a largely believed, though hesitatingly expressed, opinion that “almost anything will do for the mission field.” There can be no doubt that God chose Henry Martyn. Then evidently God considers that the very best (though He is not limited to the use of the very best) material is not too good for the service of Christ overseas.

Henry Martyn’s intellectual gifts as classical scholar and mathematician fitted him specially for his work as translator and controversialist. A sound knowledge of the classics is a first-class foundation for primacy in the understanding, use and translation of any language. The type of mind which can “see” the meaning of mathematics, is one which can pierce to the heart of an objection and root out the fallacy, while setting forth the truth with clarity and forcefulness.

To these material gifts Martyn added an ambition to succeed and, even more, courage to persevere. He triumphed over an initial aversion to mathematics; he refused to allow any circumstances—health, the dictates of his heart, the material needs (which he never neglected) of his relatives, the then still-prevailing opposition to missionary work—to keep him from the pathway which he believed God had pointed out. He who would be a Henry Martyn must have his tenacity of purpose, as well as his gifts and graces.

He had, moreover, a grasp of strategic missionary concepts. He fought with a clear plan of campaign in his mind. He understood the need for literacy and for broadcasting the Holy Scriptures in the language of the people. He knew that though he might be imprisoned in a frail body of earth, “the Word of God is not bound”; he knew that though political expediency might hinder the preaching of the Word, its reading could less easily be prevented, and the Spirit of God go on with His work of conviction and conversion in the inner depths of the soul.

He believed, also, in attacking the non-Christian world at its heart. If Goliath were to fall, where would be the need to fight the fleeing Philistines? Accordingly he struck at Mohammedanism, the most vigorous and missionary-hearted of all the non-Christian religions, and only death hindered him from getting to grips with it in sacred Arabia itself.

In everything he studied to show himself approved unto God; he was a workman, and therefore unashamed.

*   *   *   *

A second characteristic of Henry Martyn which stands out from the pages of his history is his personal bravery and the thoroughness of his consecration. His physical bravery in journeying and preaching when he had almost reached the limits of human endurance; his moral bravery in discharging so faithfully his ministerial duties as a Chaplain, in days when to take one’s calling seriously was to invite not merely scorn and ridicule but even open hostility.

Everything he did bore the stamp of a wholehearted consecration. “The bent of my desires is towards God.” But the extent and quality of his consecration will never be understood until the place occupied in his affections by Lydia Grenfell is appreciated.

As the fleet crossed the Atlantic and approached Brazil towards the end of 1805, every favourable wind bearing him further from the shores of England, Martyn bared his soul in his Journal: “December 4.—Dearest Lydia! Never wilt thou cease to be dear to me; still, the glory of God, and the salvation of immortal souls, is an object for which I can part with thee. . . .”

After he had been in India for some time Martyn wrote again to Lydia Grenfell, asking her to join him in his work. October 24, 1807, brought her answer. Her mother would not consent, and to this she herself agreed, though of full age. In his Journal of that day he wrote: “Grief and disappointment threw my soul into confusion at first, but gradually as my disorder subsided my eyes were opened, and reason resumed its office. I could not but agree with her that it would not be for the glory of God. . . .”

Almost five years later, on August 28, 1812, he wrote his last letter to Miss Grenfell, not long before leaving Tabriz on that final terrible ride. Perhaps he could see dimly the gates of the Golden City across the river, and the messengers waiting to welcome him to eternal rest. At all events the letter is strangely restrained; yet does it end—“Soon we shall have occasion for pen and ink no more; but I trust I shall shortly see thee face to face.” Thirteen years later Miss Grenfell was writing in her Diary, “The anniversary of dear H.M. gaining the haven of rest after his labours. Oh, how little do I labour to enter into that rest he enjoyed upon earth!”


>> Chapter 5 - The Inner Man








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Henry Martyn
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