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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 Mathematician: His Training

“A vessel unto honour, sanctified, and meet for the Master’s use, prepared unto every good work.”— 2 Timothy 2. 21.

In the old pit at Gwenap, near Truro in Cornwall, the Holy Spirit has mined many jewels for the Redeemer’s crown. This amazing amphitheatre became a favourite centre for John Wesley, where, he tells in his Journal (1774), twenty-four thousand used to come together to hear the Gospel.

The Cornish miners of the Eighteenth Century were a rough fraternity, if not worse, so that the story of Wesley’s contact with them is one of miraculous change by the power of God. Speaking towards the close of his life of a village at which he had addressed a large and attentive audience, Wesley wrote: “How changed, when he that invited me dust not take me in, for fear his house should be pulled down!”

It was in this state of revival that the Martyn family lived, and from which, though remaining members of the English Church, it must have received so much influence and blessing. Indeed, it is not far-fetched to suggest that Henry Martyn was in a real sense a spiritual grandson of John Wesley. It is more than likely that as a small boy he heard the great preacher, for the entry in the latter’s Journal for Sunday, September 9, 1787, reads: “About five I began in the Pit at Gwenap. I suppose we had a thousand more than ever were there before; but it was all one: my voice was strengthened accordingly, so that every one could hear distinctly.” Henry was then six-and-a-half years of age. Two years later Wesley preached for the last time at Truro, but a few miles distant.

*   *   *   *

Henry Martyn was born at Truro on February 18, 1781. His father, “a skilled accountant and practical self-made mathematician,” had a position of some influence in the Cornish tin-mining industry and was, moreover, a man of practical piety who trained Henry for Heaven. There were three other children, all of whom predeceased Henry despite his own early death. The youngest of the family was Sally, who became a great spiritual help to her brilliant brother, though once her judgement failed when she wrote to him (1803) that he was unfitted for the work of a missionary!

Henry’s chief characteristic in his early years seems to have been a hastiness of temper and waywardness of mind which contrasts, at least outwardly, with the character of the missionary saint who has become one of the outstanding figures in spiritual biography. Perhaps it was the very struggle with self that, under God, developed the muscles of the soul.

In 1788 Henry entered Truro Grammar School, there to gain a great reputation as a classical scholar. Unexpectedly he failed to gain a scholarship to Oxford, but later he saw the good hand of God in this disappointment, for it led to his entering St. John’s College, Cambridge, in 1797, thus bringing him under influences which helped materially to mould his life into its full spiritual beauty. Among the men who were “up” at that time was Kempthorne, who had been a senior at Truro and had often sought to check and guide the impetuous Martyn. He it was who now urged the somewhat reckless undergraduate to read the Scriptures and to think seriously of higher things.

The turning-point in Martyn’s life came in January, 1800. Mathematics was a necessary subject at the University in those days, and one with which Martyn felt no affinity, and in which he made little effort. But rebuked by friends, encouraged by Kempthorne’s triumph as Senior Wrangler (the leading Mathematician of any year), and wishing to please his father, he set about the unwelcome task and soon became a leading figure in the Mathematical School. It was at that moment of success that the news reached him that his father had died.

Immediately he began asking himself questions. What was the purpose of life when the reason for seeking success was removed at the moment of triumph? Was every worthwhile prize to be rendered as easily transient and nugatory? Was there no source of lasting satisfaction? Was he ready for eternity? The Light did not lighten his darkness in a flash as with Saul of Tarsus, but shone upon his soul through the patient study of the Scriptures until his heart warmed to the love and mercy of God. He started with the Acts and was then attracted to study the doctrine of the Apostles. After that he turned to the words of Christ and began “to devour them with delight.” “When the offers of mercy and forgiveness were made so freely, I supplicated to be made partaker of the covenant of grace with eagerness and hope, and thanks be to the ever-blessed Trinity for not leaving me without comfort.”

It was now that God’s purpose can be seen in taking Martyn to Cambridge. Charles Simeon at that time was exerting his remarkable influence over Cambridge life, if not, indeed, over the religious life of the whole country, and it was to his intimate circle that Henry Martyn was introduced. The saintly Vicar of Holy Trinity evidently saw the capabilities of the young Christian, not yet twenty years of age, and led him on in the things of God. For this we must thank God, for few can stand success such as was soon to come to the young undergraduate.

In January, 1801, a year after the death of the one who would have rejoiced at it most, Martyn became Senior Wrangler—a remarkable achievement for anyone, but especially for one who at the beginning of his course could not understand the first proposition of Euclid! The next year he became a Fellow of his College, and returning to his first love of the Classics, gained the University Prize for a Latin Essay for Bachelors of Arts.

All the time Martyn was growing in grace and responding to the inner urge of God to devote his great talents to the work of the Gospel. He began to visit the sick, care for the poor, and rebuke the careless. The need of the mission-field appeared vividly before him, leading him to offer to the newly-formed Church Missionary Society—a sphere of service which finally did not open to him.

Besides this, largely through the influence of Simeon, he felt the call to the ordained ministry. As a result he was made deacon at Ely in October, 1803, and became Simeon’s curate, being placed in charge of the neighbouring parish of Lolworth.

Through no fault of his own financial burdens now began to press upon him, including the care of his younger sister, so that he felt unable to go abroad as a volunteer missionary. Instead, the way opened up for a chaplaincy under the East India Company. During the negotiations he became introduced to members of the “Clapham Sect”—that band of evangelical reformers who dominated the religious horizon at the turn of the century.

It was now that his consecration underwent its severest test. He had become very deeply attached to Lydia Grenfell, a connection by marriage, whose home lay in Cornwall near his own. At last, in much diffidence, he invited her to marry him; but partly through scruples concerning a previous engagement, partly through unwillingness to go to India, and partly through an uncertainty in deciding how much he meant to her, she declined. Their letters reveal the struggles which went on in each heart, and the depth of Martyn’s devotion to Christ will never be understood except the story be read of how often he pleaded with God to give him what he wanted, of how often he journeyed with his mind “almost all the way taken up with Lydia,” and yet how always he thirsted for the Will of God.

As his ship lay off Cork on its way to India he wrote to Lydia’s sister: “I feel very, very happy in all that my God shall order concerning me. Let me suffer privation, and sorrow and death, if I may by these tribulations enter into the Kingdom of God. My prayer is continually that my whole soul may be altogether in Christ. The Lord teaches me to desire Christ for my all in all.”

>> Chapter 2 - His Labours in India








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Henry Martyn
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