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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 Persia

Soon after the beginning of the new year Martyn set sail for Calcutta on his way to Persia and Syria. His purpose was twofold—to spare his life by a change of climate, and to use the time of rest for the improvement of his knowledge of Arabic and Persian so that he could correct and complete his translations of the New Testament.

On February 18 he reached Bombay and here enjoyed the company of several men of intellect and attainments. How moving it is to read the entry in his Journal for this day! “This day I finish the thirtieth year of my unprofitable life, an age in which Brainerd had finished his course. He gained about a hundred savages to the Gospel; I can scarcely number the twentieth part. . . . Hitherto I have made my youth and insignificance an excuse for sloth and imbecility: now let me have a character, and act boldly for God.” The impression he made on others was somewhat different. Sir James Mackintosh wrote, “Padre Martyn, the saint, dined here in the evening”; whilst in a letter of commendation to Sir Gore Ouseley, the British Ambassador to the Court of the Shah of Persia, Sir John Malcolm (the historian of Iran) described him as “a great enthusiast in his holy calling.”

Martyn was now given a passage to Bushire in a small warship which, with its companion, had been ordered to chastize some troublesome pirates who were rendering the Persian gulf unsafe for trade by their terrorism. The pirates made good their escape, but the search took the ship from shore to shore, and afforded Martyn an opportunity for landing on Arabian soil. His purpose was to return to Arabia via Persia, and then to give himself up to the task of giving that scarcely approachable stronghold of Islam the Scriptures perfected in its own tongue.

Sunday, May 19. “My thoughts so much on Lydia . . . that I had a sense of guilt for having neglected the proper duties of the day.”

                                                                                *   *   *   *

The story of Henry Martyn’s journey through Persia is one of peculiar fascination. It is a tale of exhausting rides through the mountains when the cold winds pierced to the bone; a tale of blistering heat in the open plains where the temperature rose to 126° (“in this state I composed myself, and concluded that though I might hold out a day or two, death was inevitable”); a tale of coming across sweet valleys where corn grew and cattle browsed, and the air was that of the English countryside in spring.

It is a story of leisurely discussions about the things of God with the most learned Sufis and orthodox Moslems of Persia, seated on beautiful rugs in the fountained-courtyards of this strange eastern dream-place, while at the same time pressing on with the perfecting of his Persian version of the Scriptures.

It tells of the pale-faced delicate Englishman, never far from the gates of death, inwardly scorned by the proud sons of Mohammed, protected from open contempt and physical violence only by the restraining influence of the famous British Ambassador, nevertheless doing battle for the Truth with such effect that the confines of the kingdom were scoured in vain to find some learned doctor able to meet him in argument.

Martyn’s days at Shim were filled with receiving visitors, translating, writing tracts to expose the follies of Islam, and meeting the arguments of opponents of the Gospel. One scarcely knows which to admire most—the amazing ability with which the arguments of the mullahs were lead into an impasse of futility, and the clarity of thought with which the Truth was set forth, or the gracious humility with which the sweet reasonableness of the Gospel was declared, winning many to a grudging uneasiness about their own faith.

Much is said and written about the merits and demerits of controversy as a handmaid of the Gospel, and it might be a disservice to the cause of Christ if many were led to emulate Martyn’s victories without studying closely his style and imitating sincerely his humility of mind and heart. Nevertheless the truth is that in the hands of Henry Martyn controversy did become a preparation for the Gospel, owned of God. The secret of his success lay in the fact that he argued not for an intellectual victory but to persuade men to Christ; he never let the slender lance of human intellect, though consecrated, keep him from wielding the trusty blade of Scripture; he had thought out the implications of his faith and had learnt to express them with clarity; and he never allowed himself to be side-tracked from the main issue. “I bring forward no arguments, but calmly refer them to the Holy Scriptures.”

The then Secretary to the British Embassy to Persia records that Martyn decided to write a tract in reply to the Moslem arguments, and so save himself much wearisome discussion. At length it reached the hand of the Shah. “One of the best controversialists in the country was ordered to answer it, but such were the strong positions taken by Mr. Martyn that the Persians themselves were ashamed of the futility of their own attempts to break them down: for, after they had sent their answer to the ambassador, they requested that it might be returned to them again, as another answer was preparing to be given. Such answer has never yet been given.”

It is true that he records at one time that he had now lost hope of ever convincing Mohammedans by argument, but it is noticeable that he continued to use this method of propagating the Gospel, and with considerable effect. After one discussion with a leading Persian gentleman, Martyn was asked by him, “Why all this earnestness?” To which the scholar replied, “For fear you should remain in hell for ever”; after which he noted that Seyd Ali was both affected and silenced.

By the time Martyn was due to leave Shiraz he had gathered around him a group of learned Moslems who were willing to sit beneath the Scriptures. “Their attention to the Word, and their love and attention to me, seemed to increase as the time of my departure approached.” And of one of them he wrote that “he took his leave, in great sorrow, and what is better, apparently in great solicitude about his soul.”

On May 11, 1812, after a year’s residence in the country, Martyn set out for Tabriz. The British Ambassador alone could introduce the stranger to the Shah and present him with the beautifully prepared copy of the New Testament in Persian.

The difficulties of the long journey were as nothing compared with Martyn’s initial treatment at the Vizier’s levee. Fearing that the precious Book would be trampled upon he wrapped it in a cloth, while the company looked on with utter contempt. “What have I done, thought I, to merit all this scorn? Nothing, I trust, but bearing testimony to Jesus.”

Later the Ambassador in person was able to present the sacred volume to the Shah, who replied: “If it please the most merciful God, we shall command the Select Servants, who are admitted to our presence, to read to us the above-mentioned book from the beginning to the end, that we may, in the most minute manner, hear and comprehend its contents.” The eleventh Report of the British and Foreign Bible Society (described by His Persian Majesty as “the high, dignified, learned and enlightened Society of Christians, united for the purpose of spreading abroad the Holy Book of the religion of Jesus”) contains a translation of this striking letter from a Mohammedan King. It is, perhaps, worth recording that this translation was considered of sufficient importance to warrant two denunciatory Bulls from Pope Pius VIII.

Martyn’s Arabic and Persian translations were indeed bettered, but Dr. Robert Brace, the translator, wrote many years later that the Hindustani New Testament “is still a living influence.” In analysing Martyn’s success as a translator he speaks not only of the meticulously high technical standard which was sought and attained. “Above all” —so he testifies—“he prays . . . and rises from his knees full of the mind of the Spirit.”

                                                                                *   *   *   *

The story of Henry Martyn’s ride from Tabriz in his vain endeavour to reach Constantinople—the gateway, he trusted even then, to health and Lydia—is moving beyond description. His chief guide was Hassan the Turk, whom the gentle and uncomplaining saint described as “merciless.” For hundreds of miles over tortuous mountain-tracks the dying man was hurried. The poorest of lodgings, the briefest periods of respite for sleep, were his portion. He was fast wasting away from consumption, ague racked him continually, and he burned with fever; yet his indomitable spirit carried him more than half-way along the fifteen hundred mile road.

October 2 was a day of torture. It ended in a stable-room: “I pushed my head among the luggage, and lodged it on the damp ground, and slept.” October 6 witnessed the last entry in his Journal. There was delay in securing horses, so ‘I sat in the orchard and thought with sweet comfort and peace of my God, in solitude my Company, my Friend, and Comforter.”

No one knows what happened during the next ten days, or how that frail vessel ever reached the mountain city of Tokat in Asia Minor. Whatever the tempests which buffetted him, without doubt he rejoiced to reach his desired haven. On October 16, 1812, he was not, for God took him.

                                                                                *   *   *   *

How strangely does God sometimes honour unworthy places! Tokat, close to Komana—“a little Corinth for vice and traffic”—is holy ground. Here, in 312, Basiliscus, the bishop of Komana, was led shod with red-hot iron along the road without food for four days, and then beheaded. Here, the great St. Chrysostom, a fever-stricken old man, found rest in death from his cruel three-months’ march from Constantinople, whence he had been driven by the Empress Eudoxia in 407 for his fearless preaching. Here, by his death, Henry Martyn so stirred the hearts and consciences and activities of the people of God, that he accomplished more in his brief thirty-one years than he might have done had he lived in peace to a great age. Sacrifice never fails to bless.


>> Chapter 4 - The Man his Challenge








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