Henry Martyn was an outstanding example of the missionary zeal of the 19th century evangelical movement. He also had a flair for languages that enabled him to make a significant contribution to the church in India and the Middle East.
Henry was born to a faithful church family, his father worked as head clerk of a merchant house. After attending Truro Grammar School, he proceeded to Cambridge to read mathematics. He went through a period of personal turmoil, then encountered Charles Simeon, the great evangelical organiser, preacher and pastor. Henry Martyn graduated in 1801 and became a fellow of St John’s College in 1802. He had originally planned to be a lawyer, but under Simeon’s influence decided to seek ordination. He was also greatly attracted by the story of David Brainerd’s missionary work among the American Indians.
When Simeon was approached by an evangelical chaplain with the East India Company and asked to recommend additional chaplains, he suggested Martyn among others. Martyn, then a curate of Simeon’s, was accepted, and sailed for India in 1805. Evangelical chaplains with the East India Company at Calcutta had to contend with an indifferent British army and a business community intent on exploitation, quite apart from the problems of any mission to the Indians.
Martyn first lived at Dinapore, north-west of Calcutta. With his linguistic abilities, he was asked to translate the New Testament into Hindi and to supervise the Persian and Arabic translations. At the same time, he was involved in a heavy round of preaching and teaching in the mission’s schools. By 1810 he had finished his Hindi translation of the New Testament, which was regarded as a fine piece of work. For the Persian and Arabic versions he had the assistance of a Christian Arab, Sabat, but it became clear that these versions needed improving. In addition to his work on the New Testament, he translated the psalms into Persian and the frequently used parts of the Book of Common Prayer into Hindi.
Martyn was suffering from tuberculosis (consumption), and it was suggested that he go to sea. He elected to sail to Persia in order to improve the Persian translation there. In June 1811 he arrived in Shiraz in Persia. He completed the revision of the New Testament, engaged in dialogue with Moslem religious teachers, including a Sufi mystic, and maintained a lonely witness to Christianity. Henry Martyn left Shiraz in May 1812, hoping to revise the Arabic New Testament in Arabia. He travelled overland to Teheran and then Tabriz, but fell ill in Azerbaijan. He eventually decided to return to England to recuperate. He got as far as Tokat in Armenia and died there on 16 October 1812. He was buried by Armenian Christians. His life of devotion to the mission of the church made a great impression in Great Britain.
BORN:18 February 1781, Truro, England
DIED: 16 October 1812, Tokat, Turkey