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Henry Martyn and the word of God

1 September 2012 | by Gina Giles

Henry Martyn and the word of God

As the word of God is beamed into Middle Eastern lands in our day, so Henry Martyn (1781-1812) brought its penetrating light into Iran (Persia). Through that same word of God he had come to abhor himself and ‘repent in dust and ashes’ for his former life spent without God. As he studied for and obtained the highest academic honours in Cambridge, he found the satisfaction it brought was nothing but the grasping after a shadow. The once proud and at times passionate youth became the meek and lowly disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Missionary calling

After ordination in the church of England and a successful time of preaching, Martyn felt a call to, ‘Go and teach all nations’. It was a costly decision, for he loved the refined and spiritual society, where he was valued as a lively and cheerful contributor. Needing to support a younger sister, an appointment to travel to India as a chaplain in the East India Company provided the necessary opening.

However, Martyn had fallen deeply in love with Lydia Grenfell, a life-long acquaintance and a like-minded Christian. Lydia was six years his senior and was endeavouring to cope with the aftermath of a broken engagement. So, with a heart near breaking he said farewell and embarked for India. Unexpectedly the ship docked for repairs at Falmouth near to Lydia’s home. He strove against the desire to visit her, but decided to do so. He opened his heart to her and so an attachment began which was to be his ‘one supreme earthly joy’ through all the vicissitudes of his remaining life.


On his arrival in India in May 1806 he prayed, ‘Let me have come here to some purpose.’ In Dinapore and Cawnpore, where he was stationed, Martyn faithfully fulfilled his duties as chaplain, labouring to master the spoken Hindustani language, preaching to and visiting all classes of the population: the military, natives, foreigners, prisoners and the hundreds of beggars that thronged his compound. He established and taught in schools and welcomed the teachers to his home.

In 1808 he wrote to ask Lydia to join him India. She did not, however, see her way clear to do so. His disappointment was great. Nevertheless he rested in the knowledge that it was ‘the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.’ He wrote to her, ‘If I had never spoken of my love for you, how much pain I should have been spared and how much trouble you would not have had. But,’ he added, ‘I am glad I did.’

As he viewed the task involved in the conversion of the millions, he prayed that, should he never see the conversion of a native, God would use his patience and continuance in the work to encourage future missionaries. His translation of the New Testament into Hindustani was a most valuable work which would be used in every following translation of the scriptures into Urdu.

The wife of Captain Sherwood, in whose home Martyn was always welcome, writes of his cheerfulness and his love and patience with the little children. In spite of his vast knowledge, he would hold conversations with them, with no hint of condescension. All loved to hear him sing, for he had a fine voice and a wide knowledge of hymns. She writes, ‘He was so dear to all of us and brought a bright ray of sunshine to us which gladdened our eyes and warmed our hearts.’

Sadly, however, a smouldering tuberculous to which the Martyn family was prone was taking its toll on Henry, requiring a time of convalescence. The habitual use of his voice in preaching became an increasing trial to him. Because of this, his friends arranged for him to concentrate his immense talents on the translation of the New Testament into the Arabic and Persian languages, on which he was already engaged.


Fresh translations of the Arabic and Persian (Farsi) were necessary because of his assistant’s incompetence. Martyn recognised the desirability that the work be undertaken where the languages were spoken and he planned to visit Persia (Iran) via Arabia. This plan was thwarted on account of war in Arabia, so he proceeded directly to Shiraz, the seat of academic excellence in Persia. An able and willing assistant was forthcoming in the person of his host’s brother-in-law and Martyn immediately applied himself to his task.

His object in coming to a country, which had never possessed the Bible in its own tongue, caused much curiosity. Rumours were circulated and a constant stream of intellectuals came to inquire and test him with hard questions. He received all, for he wished all to have an opportunity to learn the truth as it is in Jesus. The answers that he gave displayed a clarity and wisdom that were redolent of the Lord’s responses to his opponents. Eventually a retreat was provided for him by his thoughtful host so the translation work could proceed.

Of 1811 Martyn writes, ‘This year has been the most painful I have ever spent’ – painful because for the whole year he had no fellow-Christian to commune with, painful because the truths which were so dear to him were so vehemently opposed, and painful on account of the deep depravity he found all around him. ‘Heaven,’ he writes, ‘will be heaven because there will not be one liar there.’

Through his close involvement with the scriptures, his assistant, Seid Ali, began to comment on the word.  ‘How,’ he said on one occasion, ‘must He have loved those twelve disciples!’ ‘Yes,’ replied Henry, ‘and all those who believe on Him through their word.’ Gradually Seid Ali’s behaviour began to change for the better and his inquiries into the truth deepened. Martyn spent time with him opening up the gospel and it became evident to him that God was at work. When the work of translation was completed, two copies of the New Testament were prepared. As the time neared for Martyn to leave, the love for him of those who were receptive to the word of God increased. Sweeter to him than the lovely surroundings, where three inquirers sat with him one day to hear the histories of the Old Testament saints, were the words of Seid Ali’s companion who described to them the details of the death of Christ.

In May 1812, one year after entering Iran Henry Martyn left Shiraz having sown the word of God in some hearts. With the two copies of it in his hands he began the eight week journey to present them to the King and to the Prince (the heir to the throne). That journey was attended by many difficulties and he arrived at the residence of the British Ambassador weak and very sick. He was too ill to present the New Testament to the King himself, so the Ambassador undertook to do so. It was favourably received and, as at Shiraz, it ‘excited much public curiosity’ in the area.

Nursed back to health by the kindness of the Ambassador and his wife, but still weak, Henry Martyn planned to return to India via England. In his frailty, the hazards of the journey overcame him; just two hundred years ago, he died in Tokat in Turkey on his way back to England, aged thirty-one. On 16 October the Lord took that humble and shining example of the Christian faith to be with Him in glory.

Gina Giles is a member of Eastbourne Evangelical Free Church.