‘The spirit of Christ is the spirit of missions. The nearer we get to Him, the more intensely missionary we become.’ Henry Martyn

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As he began the last year of his life, he wrote, ‘To all appearance the present year will be more perilous than any I have seen, but if I live to complete the Persian New Testament, my life after that will be of less importance. But whether life or death be mine, may Christ be magnified in me. If he has work for me to do, I cannot die’.   Henry Martyn

‘Now let me burn out for God!’

Henry Martyn was born on February 18, 1781, in Cornwall, England. He died about October 16, 1812, at Tokat, Turkey, and was buried in an Armenian cemetery near that city. Henry Martyn was a man of God and so consumed to serve his Lord that he literally burned out in his service to Him at the young age of 31. He was in the field only six years. These six years, however, were years of intense service during which he accomplished much in a field that was both difficult and dangerous to plant and harvest in.

Henry had entered Cambridge University at the young age of 16, where he took top honors in mathematics. Upon graduation Jesus Christ was far from being the focus of his life, yet on the sudden death of his godly father his focus changed. Commenting on the career path that he had set for his life after Cambridge he would then comment: “I had obtained my highest wishes but was surprised to find that I had grasped a shadow.” He had planned to go into law, but now felt bound to serve his Lord.

Henry was, however, in very delicate health. At one point before entering the mission’s field he wrote in his diary, “Though I was in good health a moment before, yet as I was undressing, I fainted and fell into a convulsive fit; I lost my senses for some time, and on recovering a little found myself in intense pain. Death appeared near at hand…[but] I felt assured of my safety in Christ.” This would be an ongoing factor in Henry’s missionary service.

On July 5, 1805 he obtained a chaplaincy under the British East India Company and sailed to India. On his voyage to the India, Martyn happened to be present at the British conquest of the Cape Colony, South Africa on January 8, 1806. He spent that day tending to the dying soldiers and was distressed by seeing the horrors of war. He would come away feeling that it was Britain’s destiny to convert, not colonize, the world. He wrote in his diary: “I could find it more agreeable to my own feelings to go and weep with the relatives of the men whom the English have killed, than to rejoice at the laurels they have won. I had a happy season in prayer. No outward scene seemed to have power to distract my thoughts. I prayed that the capture of the Cape might be ordered to the advancement of Christ’s kingdom; and that England, while she sent the thunder of her arms to the distant regions of the globe, might not remain proud and ungodly at home; but might show herself great indeed, by sending forth the ministers of her Church to diffuse the gospel of peace.”

For the first four years of his ministry in India, he spent his time ministering to British East India Company families and Indians in the employ of the East India Company.  He established schools and translated the New Testament into Hindustani, Persian, and Arabic. About a month after arrival in India, he met William Carey[1], the man who had been so instrumental in his coming to India. He was greatly challenged by the life and ministry of this great missionary pioneer. After only a few months, he recorded in his journal: “I have hitherto lived to little purpose; more like a clod than a servant of God. Now let me burn out for God.”

Henry’s Lord and Savior had forewarned His disciples in John 15:20 “”Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master ‘ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.” He served knowing this, however he served also knowing of the Promised Crown of Life: ‘Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” Revelation 2:10.

Opposition would soon come. Early in his ministry on June 8, 1806 he would preach in Calcutta and would later comment: “The sermon excited no small ferment; however, after some looks of surprise and whispering, the congregation became attentive and serious. I knew what I was to be on my guard against, and therefore, that I might not have my mind full of idle thoughts about the opinions of men, I prayed both before and after, that the Word might be for the conversion of souls, and that I might feel indifferent, except on this score.” He would, therefore, very early have his very vocal critics.

He had thrown himself unstintingly into learning the Urdu language; and on March 15, 1807 (less than one year after his arrival), was able to preach in that language. Henry worked long hours and suffered much from the heat and tropical diseases. His health began to fail in 1808; but he said, “While there is work which we need to do, we shall live.”  In 1809 he was devastated by the news that his sister Sally had died of tuberculosis, an affliction that others in his family had had. He then recognized that he was suffering from the same disease and seemed to intensify his work, feeling that he was working against limited time. He said, “The call of Christ bids me cry aloud, so how can I be silent.”

Along with his failing health he was under constant opposition. On April 9, 1810 he would write: “From the labours of yesterday, added to constant conversation and disagreement with visitors today, I was quite exhausted, and my chest in pain.” On April 10 he would write: “My lungs still so disordered that I could not meet my men at night.” Because of his frail health he would take a break from his work in India and in 1810, he took an ocean voyage to regain his health. During this voyage he worked on a revision of his translation of the Persian and Arabic New Testaments. He had originally planned to go to Arabia to master that language and revise an Arabic translation of the Bible, but it became necessary for him to go to Persia (present-day Iran). He arrived in Bushere, a port in Persia, on May 21, 1811.

Henry was the first Protestant missionary to live in Persia. He had resigned his post as chaplain with the East India Company and became independent of any outside source of support. He took on the habit of the Persians, wearing their clothes and growing a beard to be more acceptable in the eyes of the Muslim teachers. For the next eleven months he lived at Shiraz in the home of an open-minded Sufi-Muslim and spent long hours in the translation and revision of the Persian New Testament. In a letter he would write “Pray that utterance may be given me that I may open my mouth boldly to make known the mystery of the Gospel.” In another letter he said, “If God has work for me to do, I cannot die.” He completed the translation of the New Testament in February of 1812.

On one occasion during this time he was surrounded by a group of very fanatical Muslim clerics who were trying to convert him to Islam. In their vehement discussion with him, they blasphemed the name of Jesus Christ. Henry Martyn began to weep. This was a source of wonder to these Muslim fanatics. They asked him why he was weeping, for they had not personally injured him. He replied, “You have just blasphemed the name of my wonderful friend and Savior, Jesus Christ.” This had a profound effect upon these Fundamentalist Muslims. It was the power of gentleness in Henry Martyn that seemed to have such great power in his ministry to the Muslim people of Persia.[2]

Sir Robert Ker Porter would write six years after Henry Martyn’s time in Shiraz his recollections on approaching the city: “I felt a momentary reviving pleasure in the sight of a hospitable city, and the cheerful beauty of the view. As I drew near, the image of my exemplary countryman, Henry Martyn, rose in my thoughts, seeming to sanctify the shelter to which I was hastening. He had approached Shiraz much about the same season of the year, A.D. 1811, and like myself was gasping for life under the double pressure of an inward fire and outward burning sun. He dwelt there nearly a year, and on leaving its walls the apostle of Christianity found no cause for shaking off the dust of his feet against the Mohammedan city. The inhabitants had received, cherished and listened to him; and he departed thence amidst the blessings and tears of many a Persian friend. Through his means the Gospel had then found its way into Persia, and, as it appears to have been sown in kindly hearts, the gradual effect hereafter may be like the harvest to the seedling. But, whatever be the issue, the liberality with which his doctrines were permitted to have been discussed, and the hospitality with which their promulgation was received by the learned, the nobles, and persons of all ranks, cannot but reflect lasting honour on the Government, and command our respect for the people at large. Besides, to a person who thinks at all on these subjects, the circumstances of the first correct Persian translation of the Holy Scriptures being made at Shiraz, and thence put into the royal hands and disseminated through the empire, cannot but give an almost prophetic emphasis to the transaction, as arising from the very native country, Persia Proper, of the founder of the empire who first bade the temple of Jerusalem be rebuilt, who returned her sons from captivity, and who was called by name to the Divine commission.”

He had a desire to present the New Testament and Psalms to the Shah and left Shiraz for the long journey to Tabriz, where the Shah was at that time. Henry was very ill, and it took two months to make that perilous journey through dangerous territory and treacherous terrain. When he arrived, the Shah had gone to a summer encampment. Henry stayed a period of time with the British ambassador to recover his strength but never was able to encounter the Shah, who refused to give him audience. He was greatly disappointed in not being able to personally present the Shah with a copy of the New Testament. The British ambassador to the Shah, had been unable to bring about a meeting, but he did deliver Martyn’s manuscript of the New Testament to him. Although Martyn could not present the Bible in person, the Shah later wrote him a letter:  “In truth (said the royal letter of thanks to the ambassador) through the learned and unremitted exertions of the Reverend Henry Martyn it has been translated in a style most befitting sacred books, that is in an easy and simple diction…The whole of the New Testament is completed in a most excellent manner, a source of pleasure to our enlightened and august mind.”

Henry’s health had taken a turn for the worst. Early in September 1812 he decided to find a change in climate and left Tabriz for a 1500-mile trek to Constantinople. He knew that his health was suffering greatly and wished to return to England to recover. He reached Yeravan (the present-day capital of Armenia) on September 11. He then traveled on to Etschmadzin where he was warmly received by the patriarch of the Armenian Church. It was a very refreshing time for Henry after the antagonism he was subjected to in Islamic Persia. He was there only about a week and then began his journey through Turkey towards Constantinople. He was kindly received by Armenians all along this journey but suffered greatly from what probably was malaria as well as his advancing tuberculosis.

The journey was difficult and made more so by a Muslim guide-guard named Hasan, who had been assigned to Henry by the British Ambassador in Persia. Hasan’s cruelty toward Henry did much to further tax Henry’s health. He drove Henry unmercifully day and night in order to get to Constantinople and obtain the wages that the Ambassador had promised him. Henry, often so ill that he could hardly ride; on several occasions fell in a faint from the horse. He begged to stop and rest but was refused by the Hasan who, in the end, robbed him of most of his earthly possessions and left him to die at Tokat, Turkey.

The last entry in Henry’s journal was written with a very feeble hand on October 6, 1812. He was very ill and wrote, “I thought with sweet comfort and peace of my God, who, in solitude, was my company, my friend, and comforter.” An Armenian servant named Serges (who had been very faithful to Henry) and the monks in the Armenian monastery where he had found his last refuge buried him in an Armenian cemetery just outside Tokat. Serges took Henry’s journal and what few personal belongings that remained to Constantinople and turned them over to the British consulate in that city. Henry Martyn died in Tokat about the 16th of October, 1812. He was 31 years of age. A faithful servant of God who literally with zeal burned out for God.

[1] Born in England, William Carey (1761-1834) was a Baptist missionary to India. A pastor before going to the mission field, he spent an active forty-one years serving the Lord in India, including translating the Scriptures. Carey never returned to England, living and working in India for nearly 41 years.

[2] Carmichael, Amy. 7 Classic Missionary Biographies [Illustrated]: Raymond Lull, David Brainerd, Henry Martyn, William Carey, Hudson Taylor, John Paton

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