Henry Martyn: A Chosen Vessel

by Bernard R. DeRemer

The first modern missionary to Muslims and a famous ambassador for Christ was not a missionary-in the conventional sense! Henry Martyn, a chaplin for the East India Co., served in India and Persia.

Yet his accomplishments, and spiritual devotion were remarkable, especially considering the short 31 years of his life. Arriving in Persia, he wrote, "Now let me burn out for God." In only six years, he accomplished the tremendous task of translating the New Testament into three major languages.

According to Robert Hall Glover's classic The Progress of World-Wide Missions, Martyn's "devotion, fervid zeal, and deep spirituality have led as many to become missionaries as David Brainerd's flaming life."

Henry MartynMartyn was born at Truro, England, in 1781. He seemed to inherit the delicate constitution of his mother, who died when he was a year old.

His sister, a consistent servant of Jesus Christ, was a powerful factor in Martyn's salvation, at 19.

He studied at Cambridge University, later becoming a fellow of St. John's College. During school days, letters from Henry's sister constantly urged upon him the importance of the claims of God. Then he was profoundly influenced by a sermon emphasizing that India's teeming millions had only one witness for Christ-William Carey. The life of David Brainerd, legendary missionary to American Indians, also mightily influenced Martyn, who felt a strong kinship with him.

In 1803 Martyn was ordained deacon in the church of England, and became assistant to Charles Simeon in Holy Trinity church, Cambridge, where he spoke with solemn earnestness, as a "dying man to dying men."

Martyn first offered himself to the Church Missionary Society in 1802 for the field, but could not leave immediately. In 1804 he was providentially offered a chaplaincy, which he accepted promptly.

While awaiting departure he eagerly studied Hindustani, and after he sailed he wrote friends for prayer that Christ would be "magnified by the ingathering of multitudes to Himself…."

He arrived in India on April 22, 1806, to find authorities were bitterly hostile to missions. Anglo-Indians feared lest "the offer of the grace and mercy of Christ might upset their hold upon the people." Furthermore, he had been commissioned only to preach to the English people resident there. The military authorities also hindered contact with the nationals.

But friends opened heart and home to him, and there his translation work began. By September, 1806, he could write home about the delight of some of his Sunday services, concluding, "I rejoice in the dispensation of God in sending me to this country more than ever."

Later he testified that, "Through great mercy my health and strength are supported as by a daily miracle. But oh, the heat!" At night in bed, he seemed "in danger of suffocation."

Then he was ordered to a military station at Dinapore, many miles up the Ganges.

While most parishioners had little interest in the gospel, and thus offered no encouragement to the "thin, wan-faced missionary burning with Christ-like love for their souls," some men in hospitals did learn to appreciate his daily visit and attended to his words.

Conditions at Dinapore were similar to Calcutta: the Europeans held aloof, the natives were shy and suspicious, and the work was generally uphill and difficult. His services were sometimes not attended by a single European, and he was thankful to get a few native women to hear him explain in Hindustani the Word of the Lord."

Martyn studied the writings of the Deists, so common in his age, and he especially sought to refute the teaching of the Koran.

Translation work brought the greatest joy and usefulness. He translated the New Testament into the three great languages of the Muslim world: Urdu, Arabic, and Persian. These translations have been superseded by new ones, but Martyn's work served as a basis for the later translations.

In September, 1812, he left on a 1200-mile trek to Constantinople-on his way home to England. Fever again began to waste his strength; he was sleepless and shaking with ague, and in the last stages of tuberculosis.

On October 1, 1812, he wrote, "O Lord, Thy will be done! Living, dying, remember me!"

On October 16 he breathed his last in Tokat, Turkey-the same place where Chrysostom, an outstanding leader of the early church, had died centuries before. His prayer to "burn out for God" had been fully answered.

Could Martyn revisit India and Persia, Jesse Page wrote in 1890, "what fruit of his work would he see? He would find his translations distributed in thousands by laborers in the field, who though belonging to different sections of the one great church of God, have all agreed that the seed of life is the Word of God.

"Since Martyn lived and died, others have followed in his steps and have fought the good fight, and with him are crowned today."

The gospel light in foreign lands was a "flickering candle blown about amid unfriendly darkness…now these distant lands are ablaze with the good news of Christ's redemption."

Henry Martyn was indeed a chosen vessel.