THE 16th October, 2012 marks the 200th anniversary of the death of Henry Martyn, one of the most zealous and gifted of missionaries to follow the trail blazed by William Carey.
Born in Truro, where stained-glass windows in the Cathedral baptistry commemorate his life, Henry went studied at Cambridge University.
He was a diligent student, whom his contemporaries called “the man who had not lost an hour”. Before he had reached the age of twenty, he attained the highest academic honour open to him, earning the title ‘Senior Wrangler’.
What might have brought immense pride to others, brought only a sense of disappointment to Martyn.
He said, “I obtained my highest wishes, but was surprised to find that I had grasped a shadow.”
His Christian faith, developing fast under the ministry of the celebrated Charles Simeon, enabled him to see the transience of such honours.
As well as brilliance in mathematics, he was also discovering that he possessed a phenomenal gift for languages, committing to memory Paul’s letter to the Romans, in Greek!
In 1805, while Britain was fighting for its life against Napoleon, Martyn was sailing east in the service of a greater kingdom, as chaplain to the East India Company, where he determined to “Burn out for God.”
Lydia Grenfell, the girl he loved, and who loved him in her own way, refused his offer of marriage, and did not travel with him. Had she been at his side, to surround him with tender loving care, his life of usefulness might well have been prolonged.
Not gifted as a preacher, his energy was poured into translation work. He produced a fine translation of the New Testament in Urdu, before moving to Persia (modern Iran), that he might better prepare an idiomatic Persian edition.
He engaged in healthy debate with leaders of the Muslim faith, and held firm to his belief in the sufficiency of Jesus Christ for salvation.
Once, hearing a Muslim cleric tell of a dream in which he saw Christ tugging at Muhammad’s robe and pleading for mercy, as he waded through Christian blood, Martyn confided to his journal that he ‘could not bear existence were Christ always to be thus dishonoured.’
He came from a family in which his mother and two sisters had already died from tuberculosis. Convinced that “death had settled in his lungs”, he drove himself relentlessly, dying a lonely death, aged 31, but not before completing his felicitous Persian translation.
Henry Martyn’s memory is honoured to this day, where a hall in Cambridge University bears his name, and a portrait, painted when disease was ravaging his frail body, may still to seen.
For some years his mentor, Charles Simeon, could scarcely bear to look at the portrait. However, in after years, Simeon would glance at Martyn’s portrait and tell his visitors, saying, “See that blessed man….he always seems to be saying, ‘Be serious. Be in earnest. Don’t trifle. Don’t trifle#. And I won’t. I won’t”.
Across two centuries, Henry Martyn challenges modern Christians not to trifle, but rather to ‘burn out for God’.