Henry Martyn: A Life to Inspire
Two men breakfasted together in Calcutta on 16th May 1806. The older of the two was baldheaded, unassuming and plain in manner, and about forty-five years old; the other man was twenty years younger with a mop of dark hair, clean-shaven, more refined and scholarly in bearing. The older man was William Carey; the younger, Henry Martyn. It is interesting to compare these two men; their backgrounds were so very different. Carey had little formal education, a cobbler by trade who later took up school teaching; a plain working man, no small talk, unpolished. Martyn was a quiet scholar and a Cambridge Fellow. Yet they had in common an extraordinary ability for languages and a burning heart for Christian Missions.
It is then to the life of Henry Martyn that we turn. He was born in Truro in Cornwall in 1781. (John Wesley was still alive and travelling and preaching up and down England at the age of seventy-eight! He often visited Truro and preached there). As a young boy Martyn was very bright, and attended Truro Grammar School. From there he went, when he was not quite seventeen, to St John's College, Cambridge. He excelled in mathematics and became Senior Wrangler of his year (that simply meant that he was top of his year in Mathematics). But more important things were happening in those early years. His sister Sally – a year or two younger – was a devout Christian with a deep concern for her brother's salvation. At first he resisted her pleas but finally agreed to read the Bible. He was greatly affected at that time by the death of his father and began to think of 'that invisible world to which he has gone and to which I one day must go'. Slowly the Christ of Scripture became to him the living Lord and Saviour and Henry Martyn was 'born from above'.
Zealous Christian undergraduates at Cambridge – and there were all too few in those days – almost all worshipped at the same church – Holy Trinity church in the very centre of the city. The minister was Charles Simeon. For the past fifteen years he had maintained a faithful witness to the Lord Jesus Christ and to the evangelical faith, in the face of all manner of ridicule and scorn from all levels of University life. To be an earnest Christian in those days was to earn the nickname 'Sims' (after Charles Simeon). Between this young undergraduate and the minister of Holy Trinity there grew up a deep friendship. Simeon had a consuming interest in missionary work, especially in India and the East. The East India Company needed chaplains and Simeon undertook to find them – a good number of 'Simeonites' were eventually to sail for India. So Martyn came to share Simeon's burden for missions.
Henry Martyn stayed on at Cambridge, but changed over from Mathematics to Classics. Once more he excelled, and was eventually offered a fellowship at St John's, and so joined the junior teaching staff of the University. He made time for Christian reading and was deeply affected by the Diary of David Brainerd, which Jonathan Edwards published. Brainerd had been a missionary to the North American Indians, and his ardent love for the souls of men struck a chord in Martyn.
The life of a Fellow in the University was highly attractive to Martyn, with its time for study and quiet reading, with all earthly needs adequately met. To face poverty and hardship for Christ's sake was a challenge which he increasingly knew he must face up to. Martyn was ordained by the Bishop of Ely in October 1803, and became a curate to Charles Simeon at Holy Trinity church, and so for the next eighteen months he came more than ever under the influence of that good man. He worked hard, visiting the people of Cambridge, and reading the Scriptures and praying with them. There was an urgency and a reality about his preaching. He preached: 'As never sure to preach again, as dying man to dying men'. He did not however have Simeon's flare for preaching to ordinary people. His growing conviction that the Lord was calling him to missionary service was viewed by others, when they knew of it, both in the University and at home in Cornwall, as sheer madness; even his sister Sally was not encouraging. He wrote in his Journal of 'his need to fit himself for a long life of warfare and constant self-denial'.
I resolved on my knees to live a life of far more self-denial than ever I had yet done, and to begin with little things. Accordingly, I ate my breakfast standing at a distance from the fire, and stood reading at the window, though the thermometer stood at freezing point ... To climb the steep ascent, to run, to fight, to wrestle, was the desire of my heart.
He read widely, but favoured Jonathan Edwards above all: The Great Doctrine of Original Sin Defended; The History of Redemption, Concerning the Religious Affections, and, of course, the Life of David Brainerd. He wrote, 'Read Brainerd, and feel my heart knit to this dear man, and really rejoice to think of meeting him in heaven'. Such reading served him well for his ministry in Cambridge and far beyond.
This period of work under Simeon's direction was of great help to him. His Journal shows a growing awareness of his own shortcomings, along with a deepening devotion to Jesus Christ. Listen to him on 18th February 1803: 'This is my birthday and I am ashamed to review the past; Lord Jesus, watch over me in the deceitful calm! Let me beware of lethargy, lest it terminate in death. I desire this day to renew my vows to the Lord, and oh, that every succeeding year of my life may be more devoted to His glory than the last.' His Journal reveals his introspective tendencies and his proneness to melancholy, but he is a good corrective to our shallowness and dislike of self-examination. He applied himself to his ministry – preaching, visiting, praying – with great diligence and, it must be said, with great joy. Sargent's account of these years – full of quotations from Martyn's journal – is very challenging. His happiest days were days of prayer and preaching and visiting. Constance Padwick says, 'His relaxation and reward after work was the grammar of some Eastern language.'
It was at this time that he began his work on Eastern languages. He studied Bengali, Persian, Arabic, Hindustani and Sanskrit. His circle of friends was now widened and enriched – he was introduced to a group of men known as 'the Clapham Sect' (or 'the Clapham Saints' – a more fitting term!) – and came under the influence of William Wilberforce, 'that little man with powdered hair, bright eyes, a diamond brooch and an eye glass'. He was introduced also to the elderly John Newton – the father figure among English evangelicals.
The road to overseas service seemed to be through a chaplaincy in the East India Company. The reasons for this were partly financial. Martyn needed to be able to provide support for his sister, and service with the East India Company would provide sufficient income for him to do this. Martyn preached his farewell sermon at Holy Trinity on Palm Sunday 1805, and then travelled to London.
There is a love story entwined in these events, to which I allude only briefly. I do so because it highlights a part of the costliness of Martyn's missionary call. Henry Martyn fell in love with Lydia Grenfell. He met her when preaching at Marazion in Cornwall. She was five years older than he, and an earnest Christian. She had been engaged to a young solicitor from that town, but when she discovered that he was not all she had thought him to be she broke off the engagement. He soon took up with another woman and a few years later they were married. But – and here is the strange twist in the tale – Lydia felt bound to remain free from all other ties until this man married. It was an unreasonable scruple and one which caused Martyn – and herself – much heartache. Martyn loved her passionately – he could never be a lukewarm lover! And yet there was an obstacle – his call to missionary work, which he knew would mean hardship and toil in some far off land. He had set his face to serve his Lord and Master as a missionary and nothing could turn him aside from that call. There was never a courtship as such and yet he loved Lydia. They went for walks in the lanes and over the uplands, and Martyn treasured those memories. When at last the day came for him to sail she would not give him permission to write – courtship was a very formal affair in those days! I ought to add that he received conflicting advice over marriage – Richard Cecil said he was acting like a madman to go unmarried! Charles Simeon, himself a bachelor, urged celibacy! In the event they did correspond, and he had hopes of marriage almost to the end. To be fair to Simeon, sometime later he actually travelled down to Cornwall to meet Lydia and try to resolve her scruples, but failed.
Martyn sailed in August 1805 in a convoy of one hundred and fifty ships, many of which were heavily armed. The danger came from the French fleet. It was the year of the Battle of Trafalgar. It was a time of severe testing for him. He wrote in his journal,
I repeated the farewell discourse of Paul (to the Ephesian elders), and endeavour to think how he would act in my situation. I thought of all God's people looking after me with their expectation, following me with their wishes and prayers. I thought of the holy angels, some of whom were, perhaps, guarding me on my way; and of God, and of Christ, approving my course and my mission. "Who will go for me?" "Here am I, send me". I thought of the millions of precious souls that now and in the future might be benefitted.
Martyn felt not only lonely and friendless, but a 'foreigner' – out of place among many men whose only mealtime conversation was of regiments and battles. The atmosphere below deck was almost unbearable – the air was foul, people were sick and cold, soldiers jeered and swore at one another, and drums and fifes played constantly.
In spite of it all, Henry Martyn was a pastor and a missionary to the whole company on the ship. He visited the families, and read from Pilgrim's Progress to a little group. He went among the soldiers and mingled with the crew. His gifts and background hardly fitted him to reach such people and yet he yearned to make his Saviour known to them. A few were converted, including one of the officers who, at some personal cost, joined in Martyn's hymn-singing sessions. The whole account of this sea journey is very moving – his humble concern for all sections of that company of over three hundred souls in the midst of all the vastness of the ocean, caught at times in terrible storms. The ship anchored off San Salvador in Brazil, and Martyn spent one of the sunniest fortnights of his life ashore. The next stop was Table Bay off the Cape Province of South Africa. The fleet anchored and the 59th Regiment disembarked. Very soon the sounds of battle reached their ears, the awful roar of the artillery rumbled round the hills, as Dutch and English armies clashed. Martyn was allowed ashore and visited the wounded and dying. The fleet lingered for nearly a month and so Martyn took shore lodgings and enjoyed 'honest English apples and pears, and tea and bread and butter for breakfast'. To his great delight he met the elderly Dutch missionary Dr Vanderkemp. One evening he asked him if he ever regretted giving his life to such hardship. 'No', said the old man, smiling. 'I would not exchange my work for a kingdom'.
I ought to add that throughout the voyage Martyn took every opportunity to increase his knowledge of Hindustani. The ship's officers saw a strange sight: the chaplain sitting down with the native crew in his cabin and testing on them his knowledge of their language.
At last the coast of Ceylon appeared, and on May 16th 1806 the ship sailed into the Hooghly River on the western side of the Ganges Delta, and so to Calcutta. The journey had taken nine months. Calcutta was famous – or rather, infamous – for its wealthy 'Nabobs' who made their wealth with the East India Company and then settled down to a life of luxury and boredom, with no religion or morality, and a view of the Bengali people as 'mere chattels to be used, but otherwise ignored'. The first man to welcome Henry Martyn to Calcutta was William Carey and they had breakfast together!
For five months Martyn was kept in Calcutta, though he lived near Serampore and slept and prayed in an old pagoda, which has ever since been known as 'Henry Martyn's Pagoda'. The idol had been removed some years before, but Martyn still 'felt something like superstitious dread, at being in a place once inhabited as it were by devils, but yet felt disposed to be triumphantly joyful, that the temple where they were worshipped had become Christ's oratory. I prayed aloud to my God, and the echoes returned from the vaulted roof. But the darkness and deep need of the world around him pressed in upon him. One day he rushed from his pagoda to a nearby funeral fire, only to find he was too late to save the widow of the dead man, who had already thrown herself into the flames. He longed to be able to preach the true and living God to these people and to speak to them of his love in Christ.
Martyn's friendship with the Serampore missionaries grew, and he spent time, especially with Joshua Marshman, talking about mission policy. It was at Serampore that he met for the first time a group of Indian Christians and heard one of them preach. 'To see a native Indian an earnest advocate for Jesus, how precious. An Indian sermon about Jesus Christ was like music to my ear – I longed to begin my work'. It was a part of his duty to preach in the English church of St John's in Calcutta. Most of the congregation had little place for his plain and earnest preaching of Christ, with the exception of two of the other chaplains Davie Corrie and David Brown, the senior chaplain, both of whom were heartily with him in his witness to Christ.
At last he was directed to leave Calcutta and go up country to Dinapore, near Patna. The journey was to take six weeks in a houseboat, being towed upriver against the stream. Martyn used the journey to do language study, and in the evenings to visit neighbouring villages. In one of these he met a Brahmin who spoke a little Hindustani, and so Martyn was able to talk to him. The man asked, 'Was idol worship true or false?' Martyn wrote later, 'I felt it a matter of thankfulness that I could make known the truth of God, though in a stammering way; and that I declared it in the presence of the Devil.' He adds, 'I learned also that the power of gentleness is irresistible.'
Much of the time when travelling was spent in the study of Hindustani, Persian and Bengali, discussing Bible translations with his language helpers (Moonshees, as they were called), and holding long discussions with them. Martyn's Journal describes the long journey in great detail, allowing us insight into his soul and his communion with God. For example:
Passed the Lord's Day with great comfort ... glory to God for His grace! Reading the Scriptures and prayer took up the first part of the day ... How happy I am when, in preparing for the work of declaring His glory to the Gentiles, I think that many of the Lord's saints have been this day remembering their unworthy friend. I felt as if I could never be tired of prayer.
At last he reached Patna and then Dinapore in the suburbs of the city. Here a military barracks was established. Martyn immediately set about his gospel duties amongst the soldiers, the British expatriate population and the native Indians. He was almost overwhelmed by the immense multitudes of this second city of Bengal. There was no church building and so he conducted services in barrack rooms, in the open air and from his own house. The soldiers were paraded by their officers, the General loaned the band to lead the hymns, merchants came, ladies arrived in palanquins carried by servants, and soldiers' wives under their painted umbrellas. To all these Martyn preached Jesus Christ and him crucified. Some were affected and came to trust and follow the Saviour, at great cost in that godless society.
At Dinapore, Martyn conducted services in the native language for Indian women belonging to the soldiers. These women, despised by all, were to Martyn 'a people committed to me by God and as dear to him as others'. He set up schools for the children, in which they were taught the Scriptures in their own language. With regard to the Sunday services, he received a written complaint from some of the residents regarding his extempore preaching – one suspects they found it too direct!
On the first day of 1807 Martyn wrote in his Journal:
Seven years have passed away since I was first called of God. Before the conclusion of another seven years, how probable it is that these hands will have mouldered into dust! But be it so; my soul through grace has received assurance of eternal life, and I see the days of my pilgrimage shortening, without a wish to add to their number. But oh! may I be stirred up to a faithful discharge of my high and awesome work...
One has to read his journal in Sargent's account of his life to see how utterly devoted he was to Christ and his gospel. On Sundays he took one service at seven for the Europeans, another at two in the afternoon for Hindus in Hindustani – something like one hundred women attended then he would visit the Hospital and speak again there. Then in the evening he opened his home to a growing number of soldiers who were willing to come for fellowship and prayer.
Let me say a word here about Henry Martyn's translation work. In June 1807 a definite proposal came from David Brown – senior chaplain in Calcutta and a close friend – that Martyn should translate the New Testament into Hindustani (or Urdu) and supervise translations into Persian and Arabic with the help of two other men.
Martyn had begun to study Urdu in London under the famous scholar Dr Gilchrist, and had diligently pursued his studies since then. We must remember that the missionaries of Serampore – Carey, Marshman and Ward – were also eager to translate the Scriptures into the native languages, and by 1801 the first Bengali New Testament was translated.
Martyn was meticulous and exact in this work. By 1808 he had finished Mark's Gospel in Hindustani. As he battled with failing health his fear was that he would not live to complete the New Testament. But he did complete it, and in 1814, after his death, it was printed by the Serampore Press for the British and Foreign Bible Society. This was undoubtedly Martyn's greatest single work. His translation has been largely used in all subsequent revisions, and remained the only translation of the Urdu New Testament up to the 1970s. (I drew that fact from a small biography of Henry Martyn written by Vivienne Stacey – in Urdu first and then in English!).
His other translation work, in Persian and Arabic, presented different challenges. Arabic was the chief language of Islam, and to translate meaningfully he must understand not only the language but the mind and world of Islam. So he read everything he could that cast light upon the Muslim mind. Martyn was very dependent on his two language-helpers, one of whom – a man called Sabat – was extremely difficult to work with. He had a furious temper and would fly into a rage at the slightest provocation – or none at all! Martyn saw this work on the Arabic New Testament as a key to reach the Muslim world. 'We will begin to preach to Arabia, Syria, Persia, India, Tartary, China and half of Africa, and all the south coast of the Mediterranean and Turkey, and one tongue shall suffice for them all'.
To come back for a moment to Sabat, Martyn's Arabic helper. In his youth he and a friend made a pilgrimage to Mecca. Later in Kabul they came across an old Arabic Bible and through reading it Sabat's friend became a Christian. His life was then in danger and he fled to another city, but Sabat recognised him and betrayed him to the authorities. In the market place they cut off one of his hands and urged him to recant, but he refused and steadfastly looked up towards heaven, as Stephen, the first martyr, had done. They then cut off his other hand and then his head. Sabat could not forget his friend's last look, and came at last to profess that same faith. When Henry Martyn met him he had not been long in the Christian faith and was still given to wild tantrums and sudden explosions of rage. Martyn treated him with great patience and humility. Sabat's Arabic proved faulty and Martyn became convinced that the only way to be sure of catching just the right idiom in translating was to visit Persia and experience the Arab world.
In 1809 Henry Martyn was transferred by the military authorities from Dinapore to Cawnpore, and so, at the hottest season of the year, made the 300-mile journey. He travelled by palanquin with little or no protection from the heat and dust. When at last he arrived he was sick and exhausted. In the mercy of God a Christian home was opened to him and there he slowly recovered. As his strength returned he loved to sing and had an uncommonly fine voice and a fine ear for music. His hostess said of him, 'He could sing many fine chants, and a vast variety of hymns and psalms'.
There was again no church building and his first service was held on the parade ground. It was so hot that two of the officers and some of the men fainted! After a while he gathered together a group of soldiers in his house, where they prayed and sang the Saviour's praise. The translation work was taken up again and Sabat arrived, having come up by boat on the Ganges. It was a most extraordinary household – soldiers sitting reading the Bible, scribes copying translations, piles of manuscripts and dictionaries and books of grammar, pundits and moonshees, poor native nominal Christians who hung about the house for their daily handful of rice.
In Martyn's early days at Cawnpore, Captain and Mrs Sherwood were exceedingly kind to him – often in an evening he would ride over to their bungalow and have a meal with them and a long talk in the cool of the day.
At home his sister Sally was now dying of tuberculosis and Martyn knew that the disease was already at work in himself. A steady stream of beggars visited him almost every day, and among them were 'holy men' – strange religious men travelling from place to place. Martyn desired to have a service for this particular group of people. On the appointed afternoon the beggars came – about four hundred of them – and gathered in Martyn's garden. Mrs Sherwood describes the scene. 'No dreams', she said, 'or visions excited in the delirium of a raging fever could surpass the realities. They were young and old, male and female, tall and short, bloated and wizened; some clothed in abominable rags, some nearly without clothes; some plastered with mud and cow dung; others with heads bald or scabby; every facial expression being hard and fixed, as it were, by evil tempers and passions ... the temperature was above 92 degrees Fahrenheit, as the sun poured its burning rays down upon them.' Nor were they silent. As Martyn tried to speak to them of the true and living God, 'Shouts and curses and deep and lengthened groans, hissings and gestures arose, till Mr Martyn was compelled to silence. But as the storm subsided he again began to speak in a calm and steadfast tone.'
Let me give you just a taste of his preaching at Cawnpore, to a large congregation of Muslims and pagans, on the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah:
After finishing', he observes, 'the narrative of the fall of Sodom, I said, without further preparation, "Do you, too, repent of your sins, and turn to God?" It was this simple sentence that seemed to come with great power, and prevented my proceeding for a time. "For though you are not like the men of Sodom, – God forbid! – you are nevertheless sinners. Are there no thieves, fornicators, railers, extortioners among you? Be you sure that God is angry. I say not that He will burn your town; but that He will burn you. Haste, therefore, from amongst them: forsake not your worldly business, but your sinful companions. Do not be like the world, lest you perish with the world. Do not, like Lot, linger; say not, 'Tomorrow we will repent', lest you never see tomorrow; – repent today. Then, as Lot, seated on the hill, beheld the flames in safety, you also, sitting on the hills of heaven, shall behold the ruins of the world without fear".
Henry Martyn now began to speak of a burning sensation in his chest the sign of advancing TB – and knew that his time was short. So poor did his health become that the General gave him unlimited leave, supposing he was dying, and so Martyn left Cawnpore for the long journey down river to Calcutta. But one extraordinary incident must be recounted here. As he preached to the beggars one day, a group of young Muslims came to see what was happening, and stood on the front row before the preacher and made their disdain known. But one of them, a Professor of Persian and Arabic from Delhi, was touched by the message – and doubtless by the Holy Spirit. He began to read the Scriptures and to seek after the true God and his Son Jesus Christ. He followed Martyn to Calcutta and there asked for baptism, and later was to prove a faithful and useful servant of Christ.
When Martyn arrived in Calcutta he was delighted to renew fellowship with his friends, and with Thomas Thompson, Charles Simeon's senior curate, who was to serve as a missionary in Arabia. During these days Henry Martyn had his portrait painted to fulfil a five-year-old promise to Simeon.
I cannot over emphasize the effect that Martyn had on his friends. They loved him dearly and yet stood in awe of him. Thompson wrote to Simeon, 'He shines with all the dignity of love; and seems to carry about with him such a heavenly mystery as impresses the mind beyond description'.
Martyn's Persian New Testament, to which Sabat had made such a contribution, was found wanting in some respects. It did not always catch the idiom of the Persian of the common people. He decided that he must visit Persia and improve his grasp of the language and revise his New Testament. So in January 1811 Henry Martyn left India, never to return. They sailed past Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and up the west coast, stopping at Goa, where Martyn stood on the grave of Francis Xavier, and then on to Bombay. The Governor there was a man called Sir John Malcolm, who spoke Persian fluently and gave invaluable help to Martyn. His letter to the British ambassador in Persia is perhaps the last word on Martyn from a fellow-countryman. He writes, 'Mr Martyn expects to improve himself as an Oriental scholar; he is already an excellent one. His knowledge of Arabic is superior to that of any Englishman in India. He is altogether a very learned and cheerful man, but a great enthusiast in his holy calling'.
Whilst at Bombay Martyn celebrated his thirtieth birthday. He wrote, 'This day I finished the thirtieth year of my unprofitable life; the age at which David Brainerd finished his course, I am now the age at which the Saviour of men began His ministry, and at which John the Baptist called a nation to repentance. Let me now think for myself and act with energy'.
From Bombay Henry Martyn took a ship up the Persian Gulf to the small port of Bushire (which one can find on a modern map just west of Shiraz). Here he stayed for a week, dressed now in Persian clothes – a large pair of blue trousers, a pair of huge red boots, a shirt and then a tunic and great coat! On his head an enormous black cone-shaped hat, made of black sheep skin. After a fearful journey beset by fever, and in fear of scorpions, he arrived in Shiraz, the renowned home of Muslim scholars and poets. Here he was to live for a year. It was, in effect, a mediaeval city, where the Prince-governor ruled as an autocratic tyrant.
A few words from his Journal, which is so very full and detailed:
June 28th, 'The poor boy, while writing how one of the servants struck the Lord on His face, stopped and said, "Sir, did not his hand dry up?"'
June 30th, Sunday, 'Preached to the Ambassador's household on the "Faithful saying" (1 Timothy) – in the evening baptized his child.'
The covered bazaar was soon seething with rumours about the stranger in their midst. Some said he was a spy and an army would soon be approaching; others called him 'a beardless boy': how should he know anything of the faith? Soon the learned men of Shiraz were coming up to sip coffee with him and debate the great questions of religion. The chief Mullahs prepared and published a defence of Islam intended to silence Martyn forever! Martyn issued a reply – and yet in his Journal he wrote, 'How powerless are the best directed arguments till the Holy Spirit renders them effectual!'
Amongst the Muslim scholars who came to debate was a renowned Sufi teacher – the Sufi Muslims are mystics. The man was regarded by his disciples as a saintly semi-god, but Martyn concluded, 'the real state of this man seems to be despair'.
Sargent gives us a lengthy detailed account of these discussions, which so often focused on the divinity of Christ and his superiority to Mohammed. Martyn wrote, 'Their sneers are more difficult to bear than the brickbats which the boys sometimes throw at me: both, however, are an honour of which I am not worthy. How many times in the day have I occasion to repeat the words:
If on my face, for Thy dear Name,
Shame and reproaches be,
All hail, reproach, and welcome, shame,
If Thou remember me'.
Martyn's graphic description of the Feast of Ramadan is fascinating and as Sargent himself says, 'Affords a striking view of the interior of Mohammedanism'. Again, regarding a conversation with a Mullah whom he knew well, Martyn writes, 'In translating 2 Corinthians 1:22 "Who hath given the earnest of the Spirit in our hearts", he was much struck when it was explained to him. 'O that I had it!' said he, 'Have you received it?' I told him that, as I had no doubt of my acceptance through Christ, I concluded that I had'.
There is an instance of his deep jealousy for the honour of Christ. The same Mullah quoted to Martyn some verses which celebrated a Muslim victory in which so many Christians were killed that Christ, from the fourth heaven, took hold of Mohammed's skirt to entreat him to desist. Martyn was cut to the soul by this blasphemy. His friends, realizing how troubled he was, enquired why it was so offensive to him. 'I told him', Martyn replied, 'that I could not endure existence if Jesus was not glorified – it would be hell to me, if He were always to be thus dishonoured'.
On 24th February 1812 the Persian New Testament was finished. A copy was made for the Prince and then Martyn was determined to move on. His Persian friends could hardly let him go. It must have been a strange sight to see these Muslim scholars who had argued so vehemently with him, now urging him to stay, and making him read the words of Scripture again to them for the last time. Even at the last moment one such man came to him to make confession of belief in Christ. Martyn put into his hands a copy of the Persian New Testament. Years afterwards the man confessed his conversion to a Christian traveller and showed the Book that was his greatest treasure. On one blank leaf was written: 'There is joy in heaven over one sinner that repents' and the signature 'Henry Martyn'.
The next stop was Tehran, across the Persian plateau and high mountain passes, where even in mid-summer there could be ice on the pools. Martyn's aim was to meet the Shah himself and present a copy of the Persian New Testament to him. But first he must face the Vizier and a group of influential Muslims, who abused Martyn greatly. Finally the Vizier issued a direct challenge: 'You must say, God is God and Mohammed is the Prophet of God.' Martyn replied slowly, 'God is God, and Jesus Christ is the Son of God'. The Vizier and his company exploded! Word came the following day that he could only meet the Shah through the Ambassador, and so must go to Tabriz. The journey took a month and the way was rough and mountainous.
The weariness and exposure brought on a fever, and Henry Martyn was not far from death. Although he reached Tabriz he was too weak to present his New Testament to the Shah, so the Ambassador undertook to do so for him. The Shah's response was overwhelming and exceeded his highest expectations – the Shah gave it wholehearted praise and commendation and promised to read from it. But before Martyn could know this he moved on, aiming now to reach Constantinople (Istanbul), 1300 miles away. His journey took him past Mount Ararat, where the ark had rested long ago.
So began the final stage of the journey. They travelled mainly at night because of the heat. Sometimes they lost their way and wasted weary hours. Stopping at poor and primitive villages, Martyn slept where he could, often amongst dirt and vermin. To be six or seven hours in the saddle was not uncommon. At one stage they heard that the plague was raging in Constantinople, and thousands dying every day, and that the plague had reached Tocat. A fever had now come upon him so that his eyes and forehead throbbed with pain.
He wrote a last moving letter to his friend Charles Simeon, telling him that he had applied for leave to return to England and hoping Simeon would not think he was giving up! Another last letter was to the woman he loved and whom he had had to leave behind in England. The muleteer, Hassan, was a cruel, pitiless man, relentlessly driving the party on, even though Martyn was clearly dying. The entry in his journal for 6th October (ten days before he died) reads, 'No horses being to be had, I had an unexpected repose. I sat in the orchard, and thought, with sweet comfort and peace, of my God; in solitude my company, my friend and comforter. Oh, when shall time give place to eternity? When shall appear that new heaven and new earth wherein dwells righteousness?'
So at last they came to Tocat, and the mules clattered along the cobbled streets. On 16th October 1812 Henry Martyn died at Tocat, where an Armenian minister gave him a Christian burial. He was thirty-one when he died.
Some weeks later a bundle of papers was handed to a friend in Constantinople. The Lord had taken his faithful servant home. An obelisk now marks his grave, engraved very simply in English, Armenian, Persian and Turkish:
Rev. Henry Martyn, MA
Chaplain of the Honourable East India Company
Born at Truro, England, February 18th 1781
Died at Tocat, October 16th 1812
A fuller memorial is to be found in Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge. The lessons and challenges of his life are many. There is the challenge to personal holiness and devotion to Christ. His steady, ardent pursuit of God – he could say with Paul, 'This one thing I do...' To know and to love and to serve God was Martyn's abiding concern. All his trials and sorrows seemed only to increase that concern. Yet he would happily have sung:
Lord it is my chief complaint
That my love is weak and faint;
Yet I love Thee and adore,
O for grace to love Thee more.
A friend said of him, 'Mr Martyn's zeal was tempered with love, and his love invigorated by zeal. He combined, also, ardour with prudence; gravity with cheerfulness; abstraction from the world with an enjoyment of its lawful gratifications'.
Then we must add to this his unfailing delight in prayer and in the Scriptures. Not that he did not feel times of barrenness, but he could never be content with such a state. Again and again he found new consolations and fresh strength at the throne of grace. His life rebukes our dullness and carelessness, and our willingness to settle for less, so much less, than God would give us.
Like William Carey, he believed in a sovereign God in salvation and in providence. He knew that he was in God's hands and that he was ever the object of God's Fatherly care. In all his gospel labours he knew that God was at work.
I am going upon a work immediately according to the mind of Christ; and my glorious Lord, whose power is uncontrollable, can easily open a way for His feeble follower through the thickest ranks of his enemies. And now let me go on, smiling at my foes; how small are human obstacles before this mighty Lord! How easy it is for God to effect His purposes in a moment! What are inveterate prejudices when once the Lord shall set to His hand?
And not only over events and nations did Martyn recognize God's sovereignty, but over individuals. He knew that the finest arguments, without the power of the Spirit, were all in vain. Only God could give to men new life and at his gracious and powerful call even those dead in sins must respond.
One final word: It was some eighteen months after Henry Martyn's death that his portrait reached Charles Simeon. He was deeply moved by it and called Martyn his 'beloved brother'. The picture hung over Simeon's fireplace, and he would say to friends, 'There! – see that blessed man! What an expression of countenance! No one looks at me as he does – he never takes his eyes off me; and seems always to be saying, Be serious – be earnest don't trifle, don't trifle'. Then smiling at the picture and gently bowing, Simeon would add, 'And I won't trifle, I won't trifle'.