Henry Martyn



Henry Martyn, translator of the Scriptures, and missionary in India and Persia, had links with our diocese. Simon Kershaw looks at his life.

Henry Martyn lived only 31 years, but in that short time his inspiring life and scholarship laid down the foundations for future mission work and missionary vocations.

He was born in 1781 in Truro. At 16 he came to Cambridge to read mathematics. He graduated as the Senior Wrangler - the top of the First Class in maths - and was elected a Fellow of St John’s College. But, inspired by the preaching of Charles Simeon, he was ordained, and became an assistant to Simeon at Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge. He also had charge of the parish of Lolworth.

However, he felt called to mission work and when he was 24 he accepted a position as chaplain to the British community in Bengal. The young Church Missionary Society did not have sufficient funds to support him, but it was not Martyn’s intention to minister only to the British. Instead, he set about learning to speak the local languages and to visit Hindu temples to explain the Christian gospel. His efforts were not always appreciated by the East India Company who employed him. For instance, it was forbidden to recite the Magnificat at Evensong in case the idea of ‘putting down the mighty from their seats’ was taken too literally.

Martyn, though, was undeterred. He began to translate the New Testament, and the Book of Common Prayer, into Urdu, and to supervise the translation of the New Testament into Arabic and the Persian language, Farsi. He travelled to Persia, meeting Moslem scholars and debating with them the merits of Christianity and Islam.

Through all this time he kept a series of journals and a full correspondence, which provide a remarkable record of his life and work. His diary has been called "one of the most precious treasures of Anglican devotion."

Martyn died tragically in Armenia in October 1812 - probably from tuberculosis. He was on his way to Constantinople continuing his mission work, far from home and from any English community. He was buried by the Armenian Church with honours ordinarily reserved for one of their own bishops.

His work lived on in the inspiration his life gave to many more who were called throughout the 19th Century to overseas mission.

On the centenary of his birth, in 1881, a fund was created to endow what became the Henry Martyn Hall. It was built next to Holy Trinity Church as a meeting place for the University Church Missionary Union, and to house a library and a museum. The Library recalls the scholarly basis of much of Martyn’s work as a missionary, as a debater with those of other faiths, and as a translator of the Bible and the Prayer Book. Today, the Library, and the Henry Martyn Centre are housed at Westminster College, Cambridge. Martyn himself is commemorated in the calendar of the Church of England on 19 October.

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Henry Martyn