Henry Martyn was born on February 18, 1781, in Cornwall, England. He died about October 16, 1812, at Tokat, Turkey, and was buried in an Armenian cemetery near that city.
Henry was a man who literally burned out for God in a short lifespan of 31 years. He only spent six years in missionary service, but he served with an intensity that accomplished more than many who live the allotted threescore years and ten. Research has failed to find a life verse or favorite portion of Scripture, but Philippines 3:7-11 seems to epitomize this man's life:
"But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith."
As a lad, he was small of stature and sensitive about his lack of athletic ability; but it soon became evident that he had a very brilliant mind. His father, a godly, well-to-do merchant, was able to procure good tutors for him. He excelled in his studies, and at the age of 16 entered Cambridge University, where he took top honors in mathematics. He became arrogant and proud and turned his back on God.
A number of factors brought him into submission to God:
- The death of his godly father in January 1800, which was a real blow to the young Henry. It was at this time that he began to read the Bible.
- The prayers of his sister Sally, a very devout Christian.
- The influence of the saintly Dr. Simeon, pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge.
Dr. Simeon introduced him to the life of David Brainerd, who became Henry's hero, and to William Carey and his work in India. As did David Brainerd, Henry spent long hours in prayer and devotion to God and practiced self-discipline—he ate while standing and lived in an unheated room. He made a vow to a life of celibacy, if need be, in order to serve Christ. It was the work of William Carey in India that led him to feel a call to foreign missions and to serve in that land.
Henry turned his back on a very promising academic career to become a preacher of the Gospel. Many of his peers thought it a waste of talent and tried to dissuade him from missionary service; but once he had put his hand to the plow, there was no turning back. Upon graduating with top honors from Cambridge in January, 1801, he said, "I obtained my highest wishes but was surprised to find that I had grasped a shadow." He became a theological student and was ordained to the Gospel ministry on Sunday, October 23, 1803. He preached his first sermon in a small country church a week later.
Henry was not immune to cupid's bow, for he had what he called his "beloved idol." She was Lydia Grenfill, a young lady six years his senior, whose home was not far from his in the south of England. Of his love he said, "I endeavored to analyze it that I might see how worthless such love to a speck of earth was when compared with divine love." He also said, "To preach the Gospel to my poor fellow creatures that they might obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus seems then a glorious calling and Lydia a small hindrance." Unlike his hero David Brainerd, whose friend Jerusha Edwards (daughter of the famous Jonathan Edwards) was to David a great source of encouragement and who tenderly cared for him in his dying days, Lydia was indeed a hindrance—and no small hindrance! Her reluctance to leave the shores of England and join Henry in his missionary work was a source of great distress and discouragement to him; however, Henry did not allow his love for Lydia to keep him from the work to which God had called him. He again said, "I feel no wish to live except to be employed in that work for which Christ died." On the eve of his departure from England, he said, "With a Bible in my hand and Christ at my right hand strengthening me, I can do all things."
He boarded a ship on July 10, 1805, in a convoy sailing for India. However, due to some mechanical difficulties, the convoy had to put into Falmouth, very near to his home; and he was able to spend some time with his sister Sally and, on several occasions—much to his distress—he visited Lydia. His last visit with his "beloved idol" was on August 10, when the convoy actually sailed out into the Atlantic.
Henry was bold in his witness and did not shirk the task of witnessing to all that he encountered. He held services on board ship. Referring to Henry, one of the sailors remarked, "Mr. Martyn sends us to hell every Sunday." Henry had come on board well equipped with a number of books that he studied diligently during the long voyage. He wrote in his journal, "I thought at night of living in a beautiful country united with Lydia, but I could see no pleasure in it. I have declared war against the world, the flesh, and the devil. My single inquiry shall be ‘What is the Lord's will?'"
During this long voyage, he was introduced to strange lands and customs. There was a brief stop in Brazil and in the Cape Colony, South Africa. In Cape Town, Henry asked an old Dutch missionary if he ever regretted being a missionary. The answer was, "No! I would not exchange my work for a kingdom." The trip from England to India took nine and a half months. The ship arrived on April 21, 1806. Henry was 25 years old.
Henry had gone to India in the capacity of a chaplain for the East India Company. For the first four years of his ministry in India, he spent his time ministering to company families and Indians in the employ of the East India Company. He established schools and translated the New Testament into Hindustani, Persian, and Arabic. About a month after arrival in India, he met William Carey, the man who had been so instrumental in his coming to India. He was greatly challenged by the life and ministry of this great missionary pioneer. After only a few months, he recorded in his journal: "I have hitherto lived to little purpose; more like a clod than a servant of God. Now let me burn out for God."
As a chaplain, he was expected to give only a brief message and read from the Book of Common Prayer at a Sunday service to the assembled English genteel and military along with a few Indian servants, but this was far from the ministry that Henry Martyn envisioned for himself. He threw himself into the work with an unusual amount of energy for such a frail-framed man. He started services for the Indians and established schools for their children. He spent a great deal of time in visitation among the Indians in the hospitals, in their quarters, and in their work place. Dr. Simeon, his mentor at Cambridge, had advised him to break clear from the European company when he went to Asia and reach the thinkers and leaders of the society in their own language and culture. Henry took this sound advice. He said, "I learned that the power of gentleness is irresistible and also that these men are not fools. Clearness of reasoning is not confined to Europe."
The longing of his heart for his "beloved idol" during these six lonely years of service in India and Persia is apparent throughout his journals. He wrote, "Lydia is a snare to me. My heart is still entangled with this idolatrous affection and consequently unhappy."
On one occasion after preaching a powerful sermon, one in the congregation said he enjoyed the sermon. Henry later commented, "I told him I was not pleased to hear it; unless their hearts are pricked, it would be better for me not to have preached." He had thrown himself unstintingly into learning the Urdu language; and on March 15, 1807 (less than one year after his arrival), was able to preach in that language. Interestingly, this is the same year that Robert Morrison, the first Protestant missionary to China, arrived in that great land.
Henry worked incessantly in his translation work. One of his informants was Sabat, an Arab-Muslim who had come to know Christ and was his constant companion and helper in the translation work. Sabat planted the seed of thought of going to Persia and translating the Bible into that language. Henry worked long hours and suffered much from the heat and tropical diseases. His health began to fail in 1808; but he said, "While there is work which we need to do, we shall live." During these first four years in India, he worked with great intensity. He was the master of a number of languages and at times seemed to live in Latin and Greek. In fact, he wrote in his journal in those two languages for much of the year of 1809. In that same year he was devastated by the news that his sister Sally had died of tuberculosis, a malady that had ravished a number of his family. This was a real blow, for he leaned upon the faithful prayers of his dear sister to sustain him during his long hours of translation. He recognized that he was suffering from the same disease and seemed to intensify his work, feeling that he was working against limited time. He said, "The call of Christ bids me cry aloud, so how can I be silent."
Because of his frail health, it was thought necessary that he take a break from his work in India; and in 1810, he took an ocean voyage in an effort to regain his health. During this voyage with his informants, he worked on a revision of his translation of the Persian and Arabic New Testaments. He had originally planned to go to Arabia to master that language and revise an Arabic translation of the Bible, but it became necessary for him to go to Persia (present-day Iran). He arrived in Bushere, a port in Persia, on May 21, 1811. He was the first Protestant missionary to live in Persia, and he had only one year to live. He had resigned his post as chaplain with the East India Company and became independent of any outside source of support. He took on the habit of the Persians, wearing their clothes and growing a beard to be more acceptable in the eyes of the Muslim teachers. How like Hudson Taylor in China! For the next 11 months he lived at Shiraz, a famous city with a long history of medieval poets and teachers. He lived in the home of an open-minded Sufi-Muslim and spent long hours in the translation and revision of the Persian New Testament. In a letter to Lydia he said, "Pray that utterance may be given me that I may open my mouth boldly to make known the mystery of the Gospel." In another letter he said, "If God has work for me to do, I cannot die." He completed the translation of the New Testament in February of 1812.
On one occasion during this time he was surrounded by a group of very fanatical Muslim clerics who were trying to convert him to Islam. In their vehement discussion with him, they blasphemed the name of Jesus Christ. Henry Martyn began to weep. This was a source of wonder to these Muslim fanatics. They asked him why he was weeping, for they had not personally injured him. He replied, "You have just blasphemed the name of my wonderful friend and Savior, Jesus Christ." This had a profound effect upon these Fundamentalist Muslims. It was the power of gentleness in Henry Martyn that seemed to have such great power in his ministry to the Muslim people of Persia.
He had a desire to present the New Testament and Psalms to the Shah and left Shiraz for the long journey to Tabriz, where the Shah was at that time. Henry was very ill, and it took two months to make that perilous journey over brigand-infested areas and very treacherous terrain. When he arrived, the Shah had gone to a summer encampment. Henry stayed a period of time with the British ambassador to recover his strength but never was able to encounter the Shah, who refused to give him audience. He was greatly disappointed in not being able to personally present the Shah with a copy of the New Testament.
Early in September 1812, he left Tabriz for the 1500-mile trek to Constantinople. He knew that his health was suffering greatly and wished to return to England to recover and also to woo Lydia. He crossed the Araxes River (now the boundary between Iran and Armenia), passed within the sight of the mountains of Ararat, and reached Yeravan (the present-day capital of Armenia) on September 11. He traveled on to Etschmadzin where he was warmly received by the patriarch of the Armenian Church. One monk named Scrope was well educated and desirous of reforming the Armenian Church. He and Henry became very close friends in the few days they spent together. It was a very refreshing time for Henry after having been buffeted so severely by the antagonism of Islam. He was there only about a week and then began his journey through Turkey towards Constantinople. He was kindly received by Armenians all along this journey but suffered greatly from what probably was malaria as well as his advancing tuberculosis.
A Muslim guide-guard named Hasan, who had been assigned to Henry by the British Ambassador in Persia, was very cruel. He drove Henry unmercifully day and night in order to get to Constantinople and obtain the reward that was to be his. Henry, often so ill that he could hardly ride; on several occasions fell in a faint from the horse. He begged to stop and rest but was refused by the deceitful guard who, in the end, robbed him of most of his earthly possessions and left him to die at Tokat, Turkey.
The last entry in his journal was written with a very feeble hand on October 6, 1812. He was very ill and wrote, "I thought with sweet comfort and peace of my God, who, in solitude, was my company, my friend, and comforter." An Armenian servant named Serges (who had been very faithful to Henry) and the monks in the Armenian monastery where he had found his last refuge buried him in an Armenian cemetery just outside Tokat. Serges took Henry's journal and what few personal belongings that remained to Constantinople and turned them over to the British consulate in that city. Henry Martyn died in Tokat about the 16th of October, 1812. He was 31 years of age-a man who literally burned out for God.
Eventually the British Ambassador to Persia did officially present to the Shah a copy of the New Testament that Henry Martyn had translated, had printed, and bound in very ornate binding. His translation of the New Testament was later printed in St. Petersburg in 1815. The second edition was printed in Calcutta in 1816. His Urdu translation of the New Testament was printed in Serampore in 1814. On learning of the death of Henry Martyn, the English parliament passed a law changing the charter of the East India Company so that India was opened to an unrestricted preaching of the Gospel. Prior to that time, they had not allowed missionaries, per se, in India.
It is interesting to note that Lydia died of cancer in 1829-an unmarried, lonely, unhappy, and confused lady of 54.