Life of Henry Martyn


Inspired and encouraged by the life of Henry Martyn, Eric Lui shares excerpts from Sarah J Rhea's book, "Life of Henry Martyn, Missionary to India and Persia, 1781 to 1812", highlighting the thoughts and struggles the missionary had with his antagonists in India and Persia, and how he persevered despite ill-health. 

life-of-henry-martyn-sarah-rheaHenry Martyn was born on February 18, 1781 in Truro, on the south western coast of England. His father was a miner, but through diligence in spending many hours of his rest intervals in study, he raised himself to a higher position and became a clerk in a merchant’s office. Henry was sent to school in Truro at the age of seven. His constitution was not robust, and was often bullied by other boys in the school. Fortunately, he befriended an older boy who could protect him from the bullies, and their friendship lasted throughout his lifetime. 

At the age of 16, he was enrolled into St John’s College in Cambridge. He did well in the College, gaining first class in his public examinations, which “flattered his pride not a little”. In the eyes of the world, he was "most amiable, outwardly moral", yet he harboured an irritable spirit that could flare up suddenly. On one occasion in a sudden burst of anger, he threw a knife at another boy, but providentially missed him or it might have proved fatal. 

In 1799, he went home for his summer vacation and met his sister, who was a Christian. She tried to converse with him on Christianity, but he was too much in love with the world and his academic success and he reacted violently to his sister’s tender approaches.  Nevertheless, the seed of God’s word was planted in his heart. In January the next year, he was faced with the sudden death of his father. He wrote in his journal: “At the examination at Christmas, 1799, I was first, and the account of it pleased my father prodigiously, who, I was told, was in great health and spirits. What, then, was my consternation when in January I received an account of his death!” He was profoundly afflicted by this event, which led him to God for comfort in prayer and Bible study. He later wrote to his sister, saying, “What a blessing it is for me that I have such a sister as you, who have been instrumental in keeping me in the right way. After the death of our father you know I was extremely low spirited, and like most other people began to consider seriously without any particular determination that invisible world to which he was gone and to which I must one day go. Soon I began to attend more diligently to the words of our Savior in the New Testament, and to devour them with delight, when offers of mercy and forgiveness were made so freely; I supplicated to be made partaker of the covenant of grace with eagerness and hope, and thanks be to the ever-blessed Trinity for not leaving me without comfort!” 

At this time, he also received pastoral care from Rev Charles Simeon, under whom he declared that he “gradually acquired more knowledge in divine things.” In observing him, he perceived the transcendent excellence of a Christian ministry, but at that moment he intended to devote himself to study law, as he confessed that “he could not consent to be poor for Christ’s sake.” Unbeknown to him, God had started to prepare his heart to serve Him. 

henry-martyn-pullquoteIn the following year, January 1801, he was awarded the highest academic honor when he was just 20 years old. Yet his description of his feelings on this occasion was revealing: “I obtained my highest wishes, but was surprised to find that I have grasped a shadow.” A year later, he was attracted to some remarks by Rev Simeon on the work of Carey in India, and also what he read of David Brainerd, who preached to the North American Indians and later died there. His soul was filled with holy emulation of David Brainerd, and after deep consideration and fervent prayer, he was fixed in his resolution to imitate his example. It was not without much anguish that he made this resolution, for he had warm and tender affections for his friends and exquisite relish for the enjoyment of a social and literary life as a young man. But he was fully convinced that the glory of that Saviour who love him and gave Himself for him would be promoted by his going forth to preach to the heathens. He thought of the value of their immortal souls and remembered the last solemn command of his Lord, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations … and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” 

He offered himself as a missionary to the Society of Missions and stood prepared to go to any part of the world whither it might be deemed expedient to send him. Meanwhile, he attached himself as an associate to Rev Charles Simeon and preached with great zeal and unction to large audiences. 

In 1804, at the age of 24, he was offered the position of chaplain to the East India Company, and departed on the Union East Indiaman to India. On the day of his departure, he wrote: “Though it was what I had been anxiously looking forward to so long, yet the consideration of being parted forever from my friends almost overcame me. My feelings were those of a man who should suddenly be told that every friend he had in the world as dead.” 

henry-martyn-pullquote-1Yet he would speak to God as one who knew the great conflict within him, and he wrote: “I never had so clear a conviction of my call as at the present. Never did I see so much the exceeding excellency and glory and sweetness of the work, nor had so much the favorable testimony of my own conscience, nor perceived so plainly the smile of God. Blessed be God. I feel myself to be His minister. This thought which I can hardly describe came in the morning after reading Brainerd. I wish for no service but the service of God, to labor for souls on earth and to do His will in heaven.” 

In India 

It was a tumultuous sea voyage of nine months from Portsmouth to Madras and then to Calcutta. During this voyage, there were mutiny, battles at the Cape of Good Hope, sickness and death. Onboard, he preached to the officers, passengers and crew the whole counsel of God, even the unpalatable doctrine of the future punishment of the wicked. His listeners said they would not come again if so much hell was being preached. Nevertheless, God blessed his sermons to the good of many and some of the cadets and soldiers were moved to tears. 

Upon arrival in Madras, he wrote: “Wide as the world is thy command. Therefore, it is easy for Thee to spread abroad Thy holy name. But oh, how gross the darkness here! The veil of the covering cast over all nations seems thicker here; the friends of darkness seem to sit in sullen repose in this land. What surprises me in this change of view I have here from what I had in England. There my heart expanded with hope and joy at the prospect of the speedy conversion of the heathen; but here the sight of the apparent impossibility requires a strong faith to support the spirits.” 

In Calcutta, he was received into the home of a missionary, David Brown, with much affection. He suffered from severe illness due to acclimatisation, but was nursed to good health by the missionary. He started to learn Hindustani from a Brahmin in order to be able to preach to the locals. He witnessed the horror of the cruel and debasing rites of Hinduism. One day, he witnessed a funeral pile being burnt and a widow was cast into the fire to be consumed. He wanted to jump in to save the widow, but was restrained by the devotees. In a forest, he saw the natives prostrated with their foreheads to the ground before a black image in a pagoda surrounded with burning lights, which made him “shiver as if standing in the neighborhood of hell.” 

His preaching to the English congregation in Calcutta was a great offense to them, as they were easy-going formalists of the English tradition. For instance, they strongly objected to his doctrine of repentance as a gift of God and human nature is wholly corrupt, saying that this will drive men to despair. Also, they objected to the sufficiency of the righteousness of Christ for salvation, as this would make it unnecessary for them to have any righteousness of our own. Looking down on his young age, they derided him as one knowing neither what he said nor unaware of himself being puffed up, unloving and aiming to gratify his own self-sufficiency. 

After five months in Calcutta, he was posted north to West Bengal. He visited a hospital where there were 150 European sick soldiers and talked to a man who was dying. But he was interrupted by the surgeon who came to attend to the dying man. The next day, he rose early and went to the hospital, hoping to induce men to listen to his preaching, but it was in vain. He left them with some books and left amidst the sneers and giggles of the soldiers. “Certainly, it is one of the greatest crosses I am called to bear to take pains to make people hear me.” 

Walking into a village on day, he found the worshippers of Kali by the sound of their drums and cymbals. He was invited to join them by the Brahmin and started a dialogue with him. He wrote, “The Brahmin spoke bad Hindustani and disputed with me in great heat, and the people, about one hundred, shouted and applause. I continued with my questions and asked whether what he had heard of Vishnu and Brahma was true, which he confessed. I forbore to press him with the consequences, which he seemed to feel; and then I told him what was my belief. The man grew quite mild and said it was chula bat (good words) and asked me seriously at last what I thought, ‘Was idol worship true or false?’ I feel it a matter of thankfulness that I could make known the truth of God through a stammerer and that I had declared it in the presence of the devil.” 

henry-martyn-pullquote-3aOn another occasion, a Muslim man asked him “How can you prove this book (the gospel) to be the word of God?” After much discussion, Henry came to realise that Muslims “allow the gospel to be in general the command of God, though the words of it are not His as the words of the Koran are, and contend that the actual words of God given to Jesus were burnt by the Jews, that they also admit that the New Testament have been in force till the coming of Mohammed. When I quoted some passage from Scripture which proved the Christian dispensation to be the final one, he allowed it to be inconsistent with the divinity of the Koran, but said, ‘Then those words of the gospel must be false.’” After this discussion with the Muslim, he wrote, “My spirit felt composed after the dispute by simply looking to God as one who had engaged to support His own cause; and I saw it to be my part to pursue my way through the wilderness of this world, looking only to that redemption which daily draweth nigh. How should this consideration quell the tumult of anger and impatience when I cannot convince men ‘the government is on His shoulders’? Jesus is able to bear the weight of it; therefore we need not be oppressed with care or fear, but a missionary is apt to fancy himself an Atlas.” 

While in West Bengal, he set about establishing schools, attaining proficiency in Hindustani so as to preach the gospel in that language, and translating the Scriptures and other religious books into Hindustani. In addition, he had to serve as chaplain to the European community in shepherding them and performing duties such as marriage ceremony, child baptism and funeral service. Every Sunday, he held at least four services: at 7am for Europeans, at 2pm for Hindus, about two hundred in attendance, in the afternoon at the hospital and in the evening in his own room for the soldiers. In his household he had two natives to assist in his studies and translations, one a Muslim and the other a Hindu. He was later asked to translate the Scriptures into Persian, which further added to his workload.  

He set up five or six native schools which he taught personally using the Sermon on the Mount and the Parables translated into Hindustani as a text book. He writes: “The time fled imperceptibly while so delightfully engaged in translations; the days seemed to have passed like a moment. What do I not owe to the Lord for permitting me to take part in a translation of His word? Never did I see such wonder and wisdom and love in the blessed Book since I have been obliged to study every expression…. Never before did I see anything of the beauty of the language and the importance of the thoughts as I do now. What a source of perpetual delight have I in the precious Word of God!” 

After two and a half years in West Bengal, he was posted to Cawnpore, in Uttar Pradesh in the north. It was one of the most important commercial and military stations of British India. At the time of his arrival “the air was as hot and dry as that of an oven, with no friendly cloud or verdant carpet of grass to relieve the eye from the strong glare of the sun pouring down on the sandy banks of the Ganges.” He fainted as soon as he entered into the house due to exhaustion and heat. Yet he laboured on to serve both the soldiers and the natives. Every Sunday at dawn were prayers and sermon for the regiment, and again at eleven at the house of the General of the station. In the afternoon, he preached to a crowd of poor natives, five to eight hundred of them, who were rude, noisy and wretched beggars, for whose souls he felt a tender care. Again in the evening, he had a meeting with the more devout of his flock. Unfortunately, at this time too, from England came the sad and sudden news of the death of his sister, the one who had led him to Christ. 

The alarming state of health made some change necessary and he was advised to leave India and make a sea voyage to Persia. His Persian New Testament was criticised as unfit for general circulation, as it was written in a style too learned and exalted for the common people to understand. He was advised to visit Persia and revise his work, and also to complete his translation of the Scripture into Arabic. His mentor in Calcutta had these kind words to persuade him to go: “Can I then bring myself to cut the string and let you go? I confess I could not if your bodily frame were strong. But as you burn with the intensity and rapid blaze of heated phosphorous, why should we not make the most of you? Your flame may last longer in Persia than in India. Where should the Phoenix build her odoriferous nest, but in the land prophetically called ‘the blessed’? and where shall we ever expect, but that country, the true Comforter to come to the nations of the East? I contemplate your New Testament springing up, as it were, from dust and ashes, but beautiful as the wings of a dove covered with silver, and his feathers like yellow gold.” 

On the way to Persia, he stopped in Calcutta to visit his friends. One Rev Thomason said of him when he was there: “In all other respects (besides his ill health) he is exactly the same as he was; he shines in all the dignity of love, and seem to carry about him such a heavenly majesty as impresses the mind beyond description. But if he talks much, though in a low voice, he sinks, and you are reminded of his being dust and ashes.” Though so infirm, he continued to preach in Calcutta and his last sermon was entitled “Christian India, or an appeal on behalf of nine hundred thousand Christians in India who want the Bible.” 

In Persia 

Henry Martyn arrived in Persia when he was 30 years old. En route, he stopped at Muscat in Oman and went onshore to meet the Vizier and gave an Arabic copy of the gospel to his African slave, who “at once began to read and carried it off as a great prize”. 

He arrived in the province of Bushire in Persia and called on the governor who was a Persian Khan. He was warmly received and seated next to him and entertained with Persian coffee and shisha. He noticed there were several small paintings of the Virgin and child and asked him whether such things were unlawful among Mohammedans. He coolly replied “Yes”, then related to Henry the words of a ‘good’ man who was found fault for having an image before him while he prayed, and he said “God is nearer to me than that image, so that I do not see it.” 

He left Bushire and travelled on a nine-day journey to Shiraz on pony back. Shiraz was the center of Persian culture and literature. It was the beginning of summer and the heat was unbearable for Henry, who had to put on a formal Persian outfit. Upon arrival at Shiraz, he intended to work on the Persian translation right away, but faced many interruptions because he was an object of attention and curiosity. He wrote: “June 17, in the evening, Seid Ali [one of my translation helpers] came with two Moollahs [ie. religious teachers] and with them I had a very long and temperate discussion. One of them read the beginning of John in Arabic and inquired very particularly into our opinions respecting the person of Christ, and when he was informed that we did not consider His human nature eternal nor His mother divine, seemed quite satisfied, and remarked to others, ‘how much misapprehension is removed when people come to an explanation.’”

He was also dragged into a debate with Sufism, a mystic religion which focuses on Islamic spirituality, ritualism, asceticism and esotericism. They tried to excite his wonder by telling him that he and every created being was God. 

Others asked him what is the state and form of disembodied spirits. They also asked him bluntly to bring a proof of the religion of Christ. His reply was “You allow the divine mission of Christ, why need I to prove it?” Not being able to draw him into an argument, they said that he had no other proof for the miracles of Christ than they had for those of Mohammed, which is tradition. To end this discussion he said, “Softly, you will be pleased to observe a difference between your books and ours, when by tradition we have reached our several books, our narrators were eye witnesses; yours are not, nor nearly so.”

henry-martyn-pullquote-4Seid Ali again came to him and asked him the cause of evil. He replied that he knew nothing about it. Seid thought he could teach him about it, and wanted to prove that there is no real difference between good and evil; it was only apparent. But Henry told him that even if it was apparent, evil was still the cause of great misery. 

Indeed, Shiraz was stirred to its depth by his presence during the whole year that he was there. Men of every kind, especially the learned and zealous, came singly and in groups almost every day to argue and dispute against Christ. Even the Mujtahid (an authoritative interpreter of the religious law of Islam in the Shi’a sect of Islam) invited him to his house, where for hours he talked on and on, defending his Prophet and showing his learning. He was greatly annoyed at any difference of opinion, and decided it was “quite useless for Mohammedans and Christians to argue together, as they had different languages and different histories.” Fearing Henry Martyn’s influence on his Muslim flock in Shiraz, he wrote a treatise on Islam in defense of his faith, and addressed an appeal to Henry “Oh, thou that are wise! Consider with the eye of justice, since thou hast no excuse to offer to God. Thou hast wished to see the truth of miracles. We desire you to look at the great Koran: that is an everlasting miracle.” Henry’s reply to him was: “Mohammed was foretold by no prophet, worked no miracles, spread his religion by means merely human, appeals to man’s lowest and sensual nature, that he was ambitious for himself and family, that the Koran is full of absurdities and contradictions, that it contains a method of salvation wholly inefficacious, sadly contrasting with the divine atonement of Jesus Christ.” For his audacity, had the British Empire not protected him, Henry would have been put to the sword! 

On his thirty first birthday in Shiraz, he completed the translation of the Persian New Testament. One month later, the completed the translation of the Psalms. He intended to present the New Testament translation to the King of Persia. He left Shiraz and journeyed for three weeks to reach the King’s camp. Upon arrival at the King’s camp, he was stopped by the Vizier (a high official in the King’s court) and there arose a most intemperate and clamorous controversy regarding his religion. In the end, the Vizier said to him, “You had better say, God is God and Mohammed is the prophet of God.” He said instead, “God is God, Jesus is the Son of God”. No sooner had they heard this, they all exclaimed in contempt and anger and one of them said, “What will you say when your tongue is burnt out for this blasphemy?” After things had cooled down, a messenger from the Vizier said to him that it was the custom of the King not to see any Englishman unless presented by the ambassador or accredited by a letter from him. So he had to make his way to Tabriz to see his ambassador in order to present his New Testament translation to Persian King. 

It was a tiring journey to Tabriz, and upon arrival, he was sick and was nursed through a fever for two months, which defeated his plan of presenting the Persian New Testament to the King personally. It was later done by the ambassador himself and was publicly received with royal approbation. 


Having accomplished his translation of the New Testament in Persian, he intended to return home to England. He set out on his last fatal journey towards Constantinople. On the first leg of the journey, it was a pleasant experience, with his journal filled with expressions of gratitude of restored health, delight in the scenery of Tabriz, the Araxes river, the hoary peaks of Ararat, the ancient Armenian church and monastery at Ech-Miazin, where he received great kindness from the Patriarch and the monks. But his health turned for the worse as he approached Constantinople. 

On October 1, 1812, he wrote “Marched over a mountainous tract; we were out from seven in the morning till eight at night. After sitting a little by the fire, I was near fainting from sickness. My depression of spirits led me to the throne of grace as a sinful abject worm. When I thought of myself and my transgression, I could find no text so cheering as, ‘My ways are not as your ways.’ From the men who accompanied Sir Wm. Ouseley [the Ambassador] to Constantinople I learned that the plague was raging at Constantinople and thousands were dying every day… Thus I am passing into imminent danger. O Lord thy will be done! Living or dying, remember me.” 

On October 6, he wrote: “No horses were to be had, and I had an unexpected repose. Sat in the orchard and thought with sweet comfort and peace of my God: in solitude my companion, friend and comforter. Oh, when shall time give place to eternity—when shall appear that new heaven and earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness! There, there shall in no wise enter in anything that defileth; none of that wickedness which has made men worse than wild beasts, none of those corruptions which add still more to the miseries of humanity, shall be seen or heard of any more.” 

henry-martyn-pullquote-5That was the last entry in his journal, “with panting for the glory and purity of Immanuel’s land”. Into Immanuel’s land he was admitted and “released from all the sufferings of life on October 16, 1812, at Tocat, in Turkey. The manner of his death was not known, whether from the sickness described or from the raging plague… No relative or friend was there, no tender voice of sympathy, no woman’s soothing hand, no alleviation of pain from medicine. Earth gave nothing to Henry Martyn in his mortal need, but we are sure heavenly consolations were unstinted.

‘Jesus can make a dying bed
Feel soft as downy pillows are.’”