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 Issues | Church History | Henry Martyn


Great Churchmen (No. 9)

Henry Martyn (1781-1812)

by A. G. Pouncy, M. A.

(Editorial and Prayer Secretary, Bible Churchmen's Missionary Society)

The First Modern Apostle to the Mohammedan

Published by Church Book Room Press


The Inner Man

The chief challenge of Henry Martyn’s life is not what he made of his talents, faithful as was his stewardship and great as were his achievements, but what he was in the inner man. Other translations of the Bible have improved upon the foundations which he laid; other men have entered into his labours and gathered in the fruits. It is by his life, rather than by his works, that, after 135 years, he speaks so clearly. The thing about him which struck everyone so forcibly, despite their boundless admiration of his learning, was his saintliness. “Mr. Martyn, the saint from Calcutta,” was Sir James Mackintosh’s description soon after meeting him, and his Journal has been described as “one of the great spiritual autobiographies of Catholic literature.” His story pleads with all who would valiant be for the Master—personal holiness first.

Unless the estimate of his friends was biased and inaccurate in ascribing sainthood to him, Henry Martyn’s life shatters the illusion that saintliness is unattainable except by the few who seem specially prepared for it, or that it cannot be achieved in the turmoil of a busy life. Henry Martyn was not specially prepared for sainthood, unless it be that an abundance of initial handicaps is a preparation. In childhood and youth he displayed a hastiness of spirit, and in manhood an irritability which he often bewailed. He confessed, also, to shameful feelings of pride. Yet to his friends he was known as the gentlest and humblest of men.

Throughout his life his self-revealing Journal tells of spiritual poverty, coldness of heart, lack of devotion, of neglect of prayer and Bible readings. Yet to all who met him he was a sweet savour of Christ. These apparent contradictions present no difficulty. They are what one would expect in a real saint. The measure of his inner struggle was the measure of the menace which he was to the powers of darkness. It was as though the devil had commanded his forces to fight neither with small nor with great, but with Henry Martyn. His Journal and letters read indeed like the war despatches of a warrior. In the thick of the fray defeats are lamented, and victories rejoiced in as “His alone.” Often a falling, always a rising again. “I am more convicted of sin than ever, more earnest in fleeing to Jesus for refuge, and more desirous of the renewal of my nature.” That was perhaps his secret—an utter determination to know final victory.

Bishop Daniel Wilson, the founder of the Islington Clerical Conference, expressed the thoughts which must surely come to all who read Martyn’s Journal. “It is consoling to a poor sinner like myself . . . to see how the soul even of a saint like H. Martyn faints and is discouraged, laments over defects of love, and finds an evil nature still struggling against the law of his mind.” This very human saint, so unconscious of his profound influence for the Master, encourages us all not to look for an imaginary piety which never feels the keen edge of the winds of temptation, but continually to look up and be given grace to rejoice that Christ’s men are called to be soldiers, and all alike may be victorious.

*    *    *    *

There is no “royal road” to holiness, but there are factors apparent in the lives of God’s saints which doubtless are means which God sanctifies to this end. The life of Henry Martyn contains such indications of the way to eminent and practical piety.

In the first place he was blessed with a godly father and a praying sister, and was led all his life to enjoy good friends. For the first he could not be responsible, but for the cultivation of friendship every man is responsible. Charles Simeon, William Carey, David Brown, Bishop Corrie, Daniel Wilson—these he loved. Saints all, their devotion burned the brighter because through conversation and correspondence they helped to maintain the fire of each other’s devotion to Christ.

Secondly, Martyn loved good reading. He made time to allow the worthwhile books to influence him deeply. At Cambridge he recorded in his Journal that he was reading, during one period of three months, Butler’s Analogy, Jonathan Edwards On the Affections and On Original Sin, and Bishop Hopkins, besides Hebrew and Greek. He read much of Augustine and delighted in Bunyan. On his voyage to India Leighton’s Rules for Holy Living “was ever in his hand”; Doddridge’s Rise and Progress he read to those who would listen. In this way he developed a deeply theological outlook upon life which stood him in good stead in moments of practical crisis. It is probable that saintliness cannot thrive without a seriousness of purpose, and for this the companionship of great books is of the most practical help.

But though it is a common mistake to underestimate the value of human friendship and the love of books in training a soul for the work of God, it is essential to realize that these, though mighty instruments in God’s hands, must never usurp the first place in life, which should be given to heavenly fellowship and meditation upon the Divine Word. With characteristic honesty and humility Martyn acknowledged the lack of these vital exercises. Thus—“Went in a gig to Ely with B. [before ordination]. Having had no time for morning prayer, my conversation was poor. . . .[eight days later] Rose with a heavy heart, and my head empty, from having read so little of the Scriptures this last week.” Nevertheless it can truly be said that he loved the Scriptures and delighted in communion with his Lord. They were his life, and the secret of his greatness. His Journal of April, 1805, records this of a visit to London: “. . . I went into St. James’s Park, and sat down on a bench to read my Bible.” Amidst the busy duties of his life as Chaplain to the outgoing fleet in 1805-6, he wrote: “February 5, 1806.—I am born for God only. Christ is nearer to me than father, or mother, or sister—a nearer relation, a more affectionate friend; and I rejoice to follow Him, and to love Him. Blessed Jesu! Thou art all I want. . . . . February 13.—After breakfast had a solemn season in prayer. . . .” So it was throughout his life.

More than twenty-five years after his death Bishop Daniel Wilson wrote: “In H. Martyn’s Journals the spirit of prayer, the time he devoted to the duty, and his fervour in it, are the first things which strike me. In the next place, his delight in Holy Scripture, his meditations in it, the large portions he committed to memory, the nourishment he thence derived to his soul, are full of instruction.”

What shall be our response to the challenge of Henry Martyn’s life? Not simply to a renewed and practical zeal for the spread of the Gospel, especially among the Moslems, but to a renewed and practical consecration in the things of God. Nothing less than a wholehearted giving up of one’s self to God can be a worthy tribute to this man of God who, as he began his ministry on India’s soil, wrote—“. . . now let me burn out for God.”

If his life was marked by a certain melancholy, it was only because he lived so close to the Divine Glory that he felt the utter inadequacy of his best for God.

                                   “. . . they who fain would serve Thee best
                                   Are conscious most of wrong within.”

But the Lord was true to His word, and because Henry Martyn hungered and thirsted after righteousness, he was filled, and his cup ran over, to fill others.



1. To one who scoffed at anything intellectual and once declared, “God does not need my brains,” the ready retort was given, “Still less, Sir, does He need your ignorance.” What bearing on this subject has God’s choice of Henry Martyn as a missionary?

2. Is controversy ever justifiable in the propagation of the Gospel? If so, when? And what “rules” should be observed in its use? What light do the experiences of Henry Martyn shed on this matter?


What do you think was Henry Martyn’s greatest contribution to missionary enterprise? Was he right in laying such stress on Scripture translation, rather than on direct evangelism? Compare the comparative needs of these two methods to-day.

3. What was the secret of the fragrance of Henry Martyn’s spiritual life? In what way in which he succeeded do Christians most commonly fail to-day?








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Henry Martyn
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