Jun 10, 2024

Henry Martyn


Henry Martyn (1781-1812) was a stellar student at Cambridge University in England, well on his way to becoming a professor or lawyer. Yet he suspected something was missing, “I obtained my highest wishes but was surprised to find that I had grasped only a shadow.” After reading David Brainerd’s diary and counseling with a local pastor, he professed Christ and resolved to go to India as a missionary. His teachers thought it was beneath him to preach “to ignorant heathen.” After taking leave of his girlfriend Lydia, he set sail on a nine-month journey. Many of the 5000 sailors were resistant to his ministry, but he immersed himself in learning the four dominant languages of India. He arrived to assume his duties as chaplain for the East India Company. He believed God’s peace through Jesus Christ was best expressed through friendship. He entertained Indians in his home, for which he received scorn. His refusal to regard Indian people as inferior did not sit well with English compatriots who thought caring for “degraded souls” was beneath the dignity of English chaplains. Shortly after his arrival, he wrote in his journal, “Walked by moonlight. My soul was first tried by desponding thoughts, but God wonderfully assisted me to trust him…It [God’s work] shall be done in good time. Even if I never see a native convert, God may design by his patience and continuance in the work to encourage future missionaries.” Believing that “the text will be its own perfect advocate,” he translated the New Testament into Urdu as well as an initial draft of the Persian New Testament. He also proposed to Lydia in a letter. Fifteen months later, he received her refusal. Her mother would not consent to it. His doctor advised his return to England as his tuberculosis worsened. He also hoped to persuade Lydia to reconsider. He journeyed to England by way of Persia to improve his translation, as he was always alert to the sensitivities of other cultures and religions. He perished en route, dead at 31. In his last journal entry, he recorded, “I sat in the orchard and thought, with sweet comfort and peace, with my God, in solitude, my company, my friend and comforter.” We join Henry in praying:

Oh, send Thy light and Thy truth, that I may live always near to Thee, my God. Oh, let me feel Thy love, that I may be, as it were, already in heaven, that I may do all my work as the angels do theirs; and let me be ready for every work to go out or go in, to stay or depart, just as Thou shall appoint. Lord, let me have no will of my own; or consider my true happiness as depending in the smallest degree, on anything that can befall me, outwardly, but as consisting altogether in conformity to Thy will. Amen.
Clinton Bennett, “The Legacy of Henry Martyn,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Jan 1991, 1992, 10-15.

Dorothy Yoder Nyce, “Henry Martin’s Short Stint in India and Persia: Prior and Later Influences.

Henry Martyn, Journals and Letters

Rev. Dr. Peter James served 42 years as the senior of Vienna Presbyterian Church in Vienna, VA — 21 years in the 20th century and 21 years in the 21st century. He retired in 2021 and now serves as Pastor-in-Residence at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Even as a pastor, prayer came slowly to Pete. Read Pete’s story.