Nathaniel Sabat

Assistant to Henry Martyn

Several years ago, at these early morning sessions, I gave a brief biographical sketch of Henry Martyn, that brilliant, young English man who, as a student at Cambridge University, had the highest record in mathematics of anyone who had ever attended that prestigious school.  He was thought to be marked out as a brilliant professor, but under the ministry of Charles Simeon, the well-known pastor of the church there in Cambridge, he left academia, went into theology, and was ordained to the Gospel ministry.  It was largely through Simeon and his close association with William Carey that Martyn felt called to India.  It was when researching the life of Martyn that the subject of this biographical sketch was brought to my attention.

Sabat was a Arab young man, and a brilliant linguist.  He was the informant for Henry Martyn who, during his first four years of ministry in India, translated the New Testament into Hindustani, Persian, and Arabic.

I became interested in Sabat, who was a very intense man and, in many regards, was probably one of the causes of Martyn's early death.  He pushed Martyn mercilessly in long hours over these translation endeavors.  Who was this young man, and what do we know about him?  As I tried to research this question, I learned that he was from a very prestigious and wealthy family in Arabia.  He had a companion by the name of Abdallah who came from a similar background.  They were about the same age, very wealthy, very brilliant and both very devout Muslims. 

As young men, they determined that they would like to see the Muslim world.  In order to prepare themselves for such an undertaking, they first went to Mecca, where they spent some time studying all the Muslim doctrines and practices from some of the most well-known Muslim scholars of the day.  Then, with unlimited funds, they took off to see the Muslim world.  One of the first places they stopped was in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.  It was there that Abdallah entered into the service of Zeman Shah, the famous emir, a very highly-trained Muslim scholar.  After some time in Kabul, Sabat went on to further travels; but Abdallah remained in the service of the emir.   While there in Kabul, an Armenian merchant leant Abdallah an Arabic Bible.  He studied this Bible very diligently, but secretly, comparing it with the Koran; and he  became convicted of his sin, of the truth of the Bible, and publicly made profession of faith in Jesus Christ.  He fled for his life from Kabul and eventually came to Bukhara, which is the capital of the province of the same name in Uzbekistan. 

Unknown to Abdallah, Sabat had already arrived in that city and very soon recognized him on the street and renewed their friendship.  When Sabat learned that Abdallah was a professing Christian, Sabat had no pity on him and afterward said, "I delivered him to Morad Shah, the king.  He was brought before a Muslim court, and this trial attracted great attention in the city of Bukhara.  Hundreds of people came to observe what would happen to this wealthy Muslim Arab who had converted to Christianity.  The judge exhorted Abdallah to abjure Christ, but he refused, saying, "I cannot.  I will not deny my Lord."  Then, one of his hands was cut off with a razor-sharp sword.  Again, he was pressed to recant his faith in Christ.  It is recorded by Sabat that he made no answer, but looking up steadfastly toward heaven like Steven, the first martyr, with tears streaming down his face, he looked at Sabat  with the countenance of forgiveness.  His other hand was then cut off, but he never changed.  When he was ordered the third time to recant, he refused and was ordered to bow his head to receive the blow of death.  It appeared that all of Bukhara seemed to say, "What new thing is this?"  The third time the sword swung through its deathly arc and decapitated Abdallah.  It was the blow of death.

Remorse drove Sabat to long wonderings in which he came at last to Madras,India, where the government gave him the office of mufti, or expounder of the law of Islam in the civil courts.   It was there that he fell in with a copy of the Arabic New Testament which had recently been revised by an Arab who was a well-known scholar and sent out to India by the Society for the Promoting Christian Knowledge.  This was in the middle of the 1700s.  Sabat compared the Arabic New Testament with the Koran.  Truth fell on him like a flood of light, and he sought baptism in Madras at the hands of the Rev. Dr. Kerr, one of the very early missionaries to India.

He took as his name Nathaniel.  He was at that time 27 years of age.  When the news reached his family in Arabia, he brother set out to destroy him; and disguised as an Asiatic, wounded him with a dagger as he sat in his house.  It is evident that the wound inflicted by his brother was serious but not fatal.

I have not been able to ascertain how he became associated with Henry Martyn, but he served him well as an aid in Martyn's translation work.  Sabat was a multi-lingual expert in a number of languages of that part of the world.  He proved to be an invaluable aid to the work of Henry Martyn.

Sabat was a very intense man and drove Martyn to long hours at the translation table, and this may have contributed somewhat to Martyn's early death.  But after four years of work in India, Martyn was very ill, and it was determined that he should take an ocean voyage to regain his health.  Sabat accompanied him; and on that voyage they spent hours revising their previous translations. Martyn had intended to go on to Arabia and make a new translation of the Arabic Bible, but the journey led them to Persia (Iran).

Martyn, along with Sabat, settled in the ancient university town of Shiraz.  There, for 11 months, they revised their original translation into the Parsi, or Persian, language.  Martyn had the goal of taking a copy, which he had very ornately bound, to present in person to the Shah of Iran.  This necessitated a long difficult and dangerous journey through hostile territory to the north of Persia.  He was never granted audience to the shah, but subsequently the British ambassador was able to place that copy of the New Testament into the hands of the shah of Persia. 

Martyn, now having spent six years as a missionary, recognized that he was very ill and continued on his way toward England hoping there to regain his health; but tuberculosis, a disease that had taken his father and one of his sisters who was very close to Martyn, claimed him as well.  He died in an Armenian monastery at a place called Tokat in Turkey and was buried in their cemetery in that city.

Sabat would still have been a relatively young man, but I have not been able to find any information as to how he spent the rest of his life.   For the short time that he was a believer, he was very intense in helping Martyn get the Word of God into a number of the languages of India, Persia, and Arabia.

I want to call to our attention that it was not particularly through personal evangelisim or preaching of the Word of God that Sabat and Abdallah came to faith in Jesus Christ.  It was reading the Word of God in their mother tongue particularly that brought them to the foot of the cross. 

What we do know is that Sabat was a dedicated believer and certainly, like his friend Abdallah, he was ready and willing to give his life for the cause of the spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

 

JAD 9/23/2007

Revised version 5/21/08