Henry Martyn, a missionary with a talent for languages, was born 230 years ago today. He didn’t live much past his 30th birthday, but on that birthday, 200 years ago, he was writing in his diary about his unprofitable life, and pleaded with himself: ‘If I cannot act, and rejoice, and love with the ardour some did, oh, let me at least be holy, and sober, and wise.’
Martyn was born in Cornwall on 18 February 1781. He studied at Cambridge, and, because of a facility with languages, was persuaded to forego the law in favour of missionary work in India. He went in 1806, but was only to live for another six years. In that time, he translated the New Testament into Hindi and Persian, and revised an existing Arabic translation. He also translated the Psalter into Persian and the Prayer Book into Hindi.
In 1811 Martyn left India for Persia with the aim of undertaking more translating work there. But he fell ill on the way, and died the following year. His extensive diary was edited by Samuel Wilberforce and first published as Journals and Letters of Henry Martyn B. D. in 1837 in two volumes by Seeley and Burnside. Christian websites say the book has been called ‘one of the most precious treasures of Anglican devotion’. Wikipedia has more biographical information, as does the Henry Martyn Centre website.
Journals and Letters of Henry Martyn B. D. is widely available on the internet, at Internet Archive, for example, and Project Canterbury. Here is Henry Martyn in India, sailing up the west coast from Goa to Bombay.
10 February 1811
‘Somewhat of a happy Sabbath; I enjoyed communion with the saints, though far removed from them; service morning and night in the cabin.’
11-16 February 1811
‘Mostly employed in writing the Arabic tract, also in reading the Koran; a book of geography in Arabic, and Jami Abbari in Persian.’
17 February 1811
‘A tempestuous sea putting us all in disorder we had no service; for myself, having had two nights’ rest broken from the same cause, I was fit for nothing during the forenoon; in the afternoon I had an affecting season in prayer, in which I was shewn something of my sinfulness. How desperate were my case without grace, and how impossible to hope even now without such strong and repeated assurances on God’s part, of his willingness to save! Indeed it is nothing but his spirit’s power that enables me to believe at all the things that are freely given us of God. I feel happy when reading that the enjoyments of heaven consist so much in adoration of God. This is as my heart would have it. I would that all should adore, but especially that I myself should lie prostrate. As for self, contemptible self, I feel myself saying, let it be forgotten for ever, henceforth let Christ live, let Christ reign, let Him be glorified for ever.’
18 February 1811
‘Came to anchor at Bombay. This day I finish the 30th year of my unprofitable life, an age in which Brainerd [an American missionary to Native Americans who, as it happens, also died as a young man] had finished his course. He gained about a hundred savages to the gospel, I can scarcely number the twentieth part. If I cannot act, and rejoice, and love with the ardour some did, oh, let me at least be holy, and sober, and wise. I am now at the age, &c.’
20 February 1811
‘Mr C_, the chaplain for Surat, called on me. I talked very freely with him about the views of the Bible Society, the duty of labouring for the natives, and in short, almost every subject connected with the ministry. He was very candid, and showed a simplicity and gravity that pleased me much. At four went to dine at Mr B_'s. A religious discussion took place at dinner, which lasted the whole time I was there; the Advocate-General chose to express his incredulity respecting eternal punishment, which Mr B controverted, but in so prolix a way, though on the whole well-directed, that it did not appear convincing, so I took upon myself to consider the chief points of discussion; freedom of discussion produced great familiarity, insomuch that I ventured to give him advice about the necessity of praying and keeping the sabbath, &c. and acting up to the light that he had received, that he might receive more, proving to him that in the gospel, the apparent severity of God in punishing sin, appeared reconcilable with the exercise of mercy.’
1 March 1811
Called on Sir J Mackintosh, and found his conversation, as it is generally said to be, very instructive and entertaining. He thought that the world would be soon Europeanized, in order that the gospel might spread over the world. He observed that caste was broken down in Egypt, and the oriental world made Greek, by the successors of Alexander, in order to make way for the religion of Christ. He thought that little was to be apprehended, and little hoped for, from the exertions of missionaries. Called at General Malcolm’s, and though I did not find him at home, was very well rewarded for my trouble in getting to his house, by the company of Mr _, lately from R_. Dined at Parish’s, with a party of some very amiable and well-behaved young men. What a remarkable difference between the old inhabitants of India, and the new comers. This is owing to the number of religious families in England.
15-16 March 1811
‘Chiefly employed in the Arabic tract, writing letters to Europe, and my Hebrew speculations. The last encroached so much on my time and thoughts, that I lost two nights sleep, and consequently the most of two days, without learning more than I did the first hour. Thus I have always found, that light breaks in, I know not how, but if, stimulated by the discovery, I think of forcing my way forward, I am always disappointed. I can learn no more than what God is pleased to teach me. With pleasure let me acquiesce in the method of my God. Constantly let me be reminded of my helplessness, and my dependence upon him. Walked at night with a Jew of Bussorah, whose name was Ezra, by the sea side. Besides the Hindoos and Mahometans, there were some Persians adoring the setting sun. My companion, though one of the highest order, as I judged from his appearance and complexion, knew next to nothing. He said they expected the restoration to Jerusalem every day.’
18 March 1811
‘A rope-maker just arrived from London called upon me. He understood from my preaching, that he might open his heart to me. We conversed and prayed together.’