Henry Martyn: How God Called a Brainy Student to be a Missionary

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“Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!

Isaiah 6:8 (NIV)

Henry Martyn was the most capable undergraduate at Cambridge University of his generation. To the surprise and consternation of many, Martyn, at 24 years of age, sailed to India to attempt to reach the peoples of that vast land for Christ.  He is considered by some to be the first modern missionary to the Muslims

Preparation for Service

What would lead a cultured young man with so much promise to ‘bury’ his life in the Orient? I found it helpful to trace the influences that led him, first to come to know Jesus, then to grow as a Christian, and finally to make the heart wrenching decision to leave his girlfriend to obey God’s call.   Martyn’s spiritual journey challenged my own life; I share some details with you, often quoting his own words.

His Conversion

          Raised in a devout Christian home, when Martyn left for university his sister made him promise that one day he would read the Bible for himself, and she prayed diligently for him. The excitement of university life pushed her words aside. However, the crushing death of his father forced him to think of eternity and whether he himself was ready to die. As a result he began reading the Bible, searching for answers.

          Through reading most of the New Testament, his spirit came to discover not a doctrine, but a Person (p. 47) and he experienced conversion. Four years later he wrote,

          The work is real. I can no more doubt it than I can my own existence. The whole current of my desires is altered, I am walking quite another way, though I am incessantly stumbling in that way (p. 48).

His Conversion

          Raised in a devout Christian home, when Martyn left for university his sister made him promise that one day he would read the Bible for himself, and she prayed diligently for him. The excitement of university life pushed her words aside. However, the crushing death of his father forced him to think of eternity and whether he himself was ready to die. As a result he began reading the Bible, searching for answers.

          Through reading most of the New Testament, his spirit came to discover not a doctrine, but a Person (p. 47) and he experienced conversion. Four years later he wrote,

          The work is real. I can no more doubt it than I can my own existence. The whole current of my desires is altered, I am walking quite another way, though I am incessantly stumbling in that way (p. 48).

Scripture

Three times a day he set aside time to meditate on passages from the Bible and learned whole books by heart. Though he appreciated his fellow students he marveled at their lack of spiritual sensitivity.

It sometimes appeared astonishing that men of like passions with myself, of the same bodies, of the same minds, alike in every other respect, knew and saw nothing of that blessed and adorable Being, in whom my soul findeth all its happiness, but were living a sort of life which to me would be worse than annihilation (p. 69).

David Brainerd

While still a student, Martyn read the journal of David Brainerd, the American missionary to the Indians in New England, and found his hero. Brainard’s passion for the salvation of his indigenous friends touched Martyn deeply. He wrote in his journal: 

I thought of David Brainerd, and ardently desired his devotedness to God and holy breathings of soul…I long to be like him; let me forget the world and be swallowed up in a desire to glorify God (p. 75). 

Called to Missions  

Challenged by his young hero, and against the inclinations of his own nature, Martyn decided to seek service in India as a missionary. Both in Cambridge and in his hometown, his decision was regarded as “fantastic and absurd.” One of his friends “thought it a most improper step for [him] to leave the university to preach to the ignorant heathen, which any person could do” (p. 76). Martyn recognized that following this path would be a “life of warfare and constant self-denial.” He wrote in his journal, “To climb the steep ascent, to run, to fight, to wrestle was the desire of my heart” (p. 77).  

The Lord gifted him with personal friendship with such spiritual giants as William Wilberforce[2] and John Newton[3] who encouraged his dedication and vision for ministry. The latter supposed that “Satan would not love me for what I was about to do” (p. 93).

Lydia

Perhaps the most difficult experience Martyn had to work through was his love for Lydia Grenfell. He daydreamed about a country manse together with Lydia, a quiet study, and children in the garden. But he soon saw this relationship coming in direct opposition to his devotedness to God and his call to missions. Though she had feelings for him, she would not consent to go to India with him. He wrote in his journal:

At night I continued an hour and a half in prayer, striving against this attachment… I was about to triumph, but in a moment my heart had wandered to the beloved idol. I went to bed in great pain, yet still rather superior to the enemy; but in dreams her image returned, and I awoke in the night, my mind full of her (p. 99).The next morning, he reviewed his call to sacrifice and made his decision. 

My dear Lydia and my duty call me different ways, yet God hath not forsaken me but strengthened me….At chapel my soul ascended to God, and the sight of a picture at the altar, of John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness, animated me exceedingly to devotedness to the life of a missionary (p. 103).

Though the decision was made, she was not forgotten. Six years later, on his way to Persia, he wrote in his journal, “My thoughts so much on Lydia, whose old letter I had been reading the day before…” .

Last Thoughts

Six years later he had translated the New Testament into Hindi and Persian (with the help of national scholars), supervised its translation into Arabic, and translated the Psalter into Persian and the Prayer Book into Hindi.  He spent his last year in Persia revising his New Testament. The next year he died in Tokat, Armenia, suffering the last effects of tuberculosis and fever, while on his way back to England hoping to regain his health.  He was 31.  Seven months earlier he wrote the last entry in his journal:

I sat in the orchard, and thought with sweet comfort and peace of my God; in solitude my company, my Friend and comforter. Oh, when shall time give place to eternity?! When shall appear the new heaven and new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness! (p. 252).

Some Reflection Questions

  1. What human instruments did God used in helping Martyn grow in his relationship to God?
  2. What expressions of his devotion to God in Martyn’s life challenge you?
  3. What do you think was the secret of his great delight in God?
  4. I would suggest that you read once again Martyn’s quotations scattered through the essay.

 

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