Henry Martyn was born on February 18, in Cornwall, England in 1781.
In 1791 he started at St John’s College, Cambridge. He was saved in 1800. In 1801 he was the top Mathematics student in his year (called Senior Wrangler) and he also won a Latin prize. He was gifted in languages, as was later revealed in his successful translation work.
When Martyn tackled his translation work on the mission field he mentioned in a letter that he was drawing from grammar books in Latin, Greek, French, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Hebrew, Rabbinical Hebrew, Chaldee, Syriac, Ethiopic, Samaritan, Arabic, Persian, Sanscrit, Bengalee and Hindoostanee and wanted a Celtic grammar as well.
Yet at the end of his studies, all of Martyn’s academic achievements left him wanting. He noted, “I obtained my highest wishes but was surprised to find I had grasped a shadow”. This recognition of the emptiness of human achievement, despite his own excellence, must have undergirded his willingness to serve the Lord sacrificially. He not only gave up his homeland and career opportunities for mission service, he also left behind the one love of his life.
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After theological studies at Cambridge, Martyn was appointed curate at Holy Trinity to the godly Charles Simeon who was thus his spiritual father or mentor. And from thence he sailed forth to India as chaplain to the East India Company (1805).
He left his heart with Lydia Grenfell in his native Cornwall. She did not follow him to India and he never made it home to see her again.
Henry Martyn made several major contributions through his life of missionary service. His translation work gave the scriptures to the Indian and Persian people. Also his life of personal sacrifice for missions has shone as an example to many. He also promoted ideas about missions which helped to formulate the vision and activities of future mission endeavours.
Within five years in India he had completed his translation of the New Testament in Urdu (known then as Hindoostani). His journal tells of the joy he found in this work – “What a source of perpetual delight have I in the precious Book of God! Oh, that my heart were more spiritual, to keep pace with my understanding…” (Memoirs of H. Martin, compiled by J. Sargent, 1848, page 241).
One of the challenges of these early translators is that many Bible concepts are not readily translatable into cultures where the concepts are not known. Such Bible truths as grace, redemption and hope are not readily known in other tongues and cultures.
CF Note: I once heard a Christian minister tell of a Moslem woman who asked him to help her convert to Christianity. When he asked why she wanted to make this change she told him that the Christian concept of ‘forgiveness’ was not part of Islam. Similarly I learned that some Australian Aboriginal tribes do not have a mechanism to restore people back into their community once they have been banished for bad behaviour. Cultural challenges such as these confronted Henry Martyn’s translation work.
Martyn’s diary notes also make reference to his “beloved Lydia”… although historian Sargent actually suppressed her name in the first edition of his best-seller biography of Henry Martyn, cited earlier. The call of God upon his life meant that he must say “Farewell” to the one he had hoped to wed.
Martyn’s diary also refers to the fellowship he enjoyed with William Carey and Anglican clergyman David Brown (of Jamieson, Fawcett and Brown Commentary fame … and with whom Carey did not enjoy sweet fellowship!) (Carey, by S. Pearce Carey, page 145).
Martyn was an intelligent and sensitive man, who respected the cultures to which he went. Rather than adopting the cultural arrogance which some other missionaries displayed, Martyn wrote, “I learnt that the power of gentleness is irresistible and also that these men are not fools. Clearness of reasoning is not confined to Europe”.
After a decade of evangelical ministry in various parts of India, Henry Martyn proceeded to Persia and there took up the task of translation anew. He also supervised translation of the New Testament into Arabic. By 1812 his Persian New Testament was ready for the printers. But our missionary did not live to see his work in print. On October 16, 1812, in Tokat, Armenia, Asia Minor, on his way home with high hopes of meeting again his Lydia, Henry Martyn died, at the age of 31.
It is interesting to note that Martyn’s Urdu and Arabic translations were not only a help to the Christian missionaries but were well read by the Moslem leaders.
On his return journey toward England, Martyn chose to travel through Persia, Damascus and Arabia, hoping to improve his tuberculosis and find scriptural manuscripts. His friends in Calcutta tried to dissuade him but he set out in 1811. On his way to Constantinople he died, whether from his own sickness or the plague which was raging at the time we do not know.
Thus closed the book on a man who put all else aside, in order to make an investment in the Kingdom of God.
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This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com