Henry Martyn was born on February 18, 1781 in the town of Truro, which is located in southern England. His father was converted during the revivals that came through the preaching of John Wesley and George Whitefield, which changed much of England. His family was somewhat well to do, so that Henry was able to go to university. Henry was not an athletic boy, in fact he was often sick. But his mind was keen and brilliant. He was skilled in math and language. This produced a great pride in his heart so that all he wanted to do was to make a name for himself. But the Lord began to work on his heart through the death of his father, the counsel and prayers of friends, and the preaching of Rev. Charles Simeon, an evangelical minister. When he was about nineteen, he experienced the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. Henry Martyn was a new man in Christ. He had formerly wanted to study law, but now he desired to be ordained as a minister in the church of England so he could go to India as a missionary. In order to prepare himself he became a curate or assistant to Rev. Charles Simeon, so that he might gain experience in preaching and pastoral ministry. At this time he applied to become a chaplain to the East India Company which controlled most of India. Through some influential friends he was able to get a position. On August 10, 1805, Henry Martyn left for India.
All missions work requires sacrifice and it was no different in Henry's case. He could have had a comfortable job teaching at university or pastoring some important church, but his heart was set on the lost people in the Far East. He also left behind a girl he loved. This girl whose name was Lydia considered Henry a friend, but did not share the same love as he had for her. Yet Henry thought when he left that when he arrived in India, she would join him and become his wife. In fact he did propose to her a few times, but she never said yes. They did continue to write letters till the end of his life.
Henry Martyn was a Calvinist in a church that often had nominal attendees and clergy who only wanted to hear moralistic sermons. This difference was a source of much hostility from others in the church of England. While his theology was good, his preaching was not as good. He was an intelligent man, but his sermons were often too difficult for others to understand. He did work hard on improving both his delivery and his manner of preaching. Both his theology and his preaching style caused him much trouble, especially on his voyage to India. He was responsible for the spiritual health of the people aboard the ship. But through out this long voyage, he was met with indifference, contempt, and scorn from those on board. Yet in spite of this, he continue to warn, reprove, and teach those on board. Almost 10 month later with a number of stops, he arrived in India. William Carey was in India at this time as well and Henry spent some time with him and his friends. Soon Henry received his first post. He was to be a chaplain to some 400 British troops at Dinapore. While he did his duties to care for the spiritual welfare of these soldiers, he was also translating the Bible and other religious literature into Hindustani and starting a school for the local Indian people. While most Europeans disliked the Indians and cared little for them, Henry worked among them, teaching them to read and preaching the gospel to them. Like his time on the ship, Henry was disliked by the soldiers he worked among for his gospel preaching and tough stance on sin. He often was a lonely man, with few other Christians to fellowship with. Later on however while he was stationed in Cawnpore, there were a handful of Christians soldiers who spent time with him in worship and fellowship.
Translation work was the main focus of Henry. He loved languages and grammar like some people love their favorite sport's team. His great skill in translating produced very clear and accurate translations. After learning the languages of the area, he set out to produce a Bible in the language of the people of India. Five years after he came to India,with the help of a few others, he had produced the New Testament, Genesis, and 'The Book of Common Prayer' in Hindustani. He also started to translate the New Testament into Arabic and Persian, since those two languages were spoken in that area. But Henry's health was not very good. His labors, the heat, and his weak body made him a sickly man. In 1810, he decided to go back to England for a rest and hopefully to marry Lydia. On his way home, he planned to travel through Persia and Arabia so that he could learn the languages better and thus produce more accurate translations of the Arabic and Persian New Testaments. He stayed in the city of Shiraz for about a year where he completed the translation of the Persian New Testament along with the Psalms. During his stay in Shiraz, Henry often debated with the Muslims. He wrote tracts explaining the errors of Islam and the truth of the gospel. As you might expect, he endured mush hostility here among the Muslims as he had before among the British.
Henry Martyn pushed himself in spite of his sickness to finish his translation work and to preach the gospel. Sometimes he made foolish decisions which harmed his health, like traveling in the hottest time of year. While at times his health improved, his condition grew worse and worse. On his long journey home to England, he traveled though extreme heat with dangers on every side. Accommodations were regularly poor. These conditions are bad for a healthy man, but for a sick man like Henry, they are fatal. On October 16 1812 in Tokat, Henry Martyn died at the age of 31.
Henry Martyn had a passion to see sinners worshiping the Lord Jesus. He never saw anyone converted through his preaching or teaching. But who knows how many were blessed through his translations? Henry kept a journal of his daily activities and his spiritual progress. This journal and the biographies that were written by his friends have been a blessing to many Christians as well. Many can thank the Lord God for the gifts He gave to Henry. He was a man who lived close to his Savior. His godliness was evident to all and left a great impression on them. He lived and breathed the gospel in all areas of his life. His love for his Redeemer compelled him to sacrifice much to bring the good news to a people living in darkness.
"We bear the torch that flaming
fell from the hands of those
who gave their lives proclaiming
that Jesus died and rose
Our is the same commission
the same glad message ours
fired by the same ambition
to Thee we yield our power."
From the song 'Facing a Task Unfinished'
By Frank Houghton and Keith and Kristyn Getty