Henry Martyn was educated at Truro Grammar School and St John’s College, Cambridge. He was a disciple of the leading Evangelical Charles Simeon, whose curate he became in Cambridge. He was elected to a fellowship at St John’s College, but, rejecting an academic career, he went to India, where he served as chaplain to the East India Company.
Frustrated by the company’s policy against proselytising among the Indian population, he devoted his energy to translating the scriptures into Urdu, Farsi, and Arabic. His work laid the foundation of a future generation’s engagement between the Christian and Muslim faiths.
He died aged 31, from tuberculosis, in Turkey, in 1812. He is commemorated by the Church on 19 October.
“I OBTAINED my highest wishes,” Henry Martyn wrote about his academic achievement, “but was surprised to find I had grasped a shadow.” He had been awarded the highest honour in mathematics which Cambridge University could confer: that of Senior Wrangler.
Exchanging the shadow for the substance, he left Cambridge to be a missionary. The ship that he took from Portsmouth, an East Indiaman bound for Calcutta, was part of a fleet comprising more than 50 vessels, including five men-of-war. This was 1805, and Britain was at war with France.
The journey took more than nine months, during which time he studied Hindustani, and read Hooker’s sermons, Richard Baxter’s works, Milner’s History of the Church of Christ, and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.
”Let me burn out for God,” he said, echoing an earlier missionary to India, St Francis Xavier. His zeal was irrepressible. On board, he led prayers and organised services. The captain was not in favour. Most of the passengers were unimpressed. “Some looked another way,” he wrote in his journal. “Some women employed about their children, attending for a while and then heedless; some rising up and going away.”
In Calcutta he followed the example of the 16th-century Puritan Richard Baxter:
I preached as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.
His sermons offended some of his fellow clergy. “Inconsistent”, they called them, “extravagant, absurd”, and they said so, even from the pulpit. He was asked not to preach extempore. Not all the expatriates disapproved, however. Some of the British officers, although uneasy about his preaching, valued his company and intelligent conversation.
He was posted up country to Dinapore. The journey up the Ganges, on a budgerow — “a travelling boat constructed like a pleasure barge” — took several weeks. As an employee of the East India Company, he was entrusted with duties directed primarily to the British community: there was an official embargo on any attempt to make converts among the Indian population (the ban was lifted in 1813, after his time). This did not, however, stop him from holding two services for the local population each Sunday afternoon, as well as one in the morning for the British.
It is hard to assess how effective his work was among non-Christians, but there can be no doubt about the importance of his translations for the future development of Christian-Muslim understanding. Every day he would devote time to translating the New Testament into Urdu, Arabic, and Persian (Farsi), the three languages in which the Qur’an was read in Northern India. His work bore posthumous fruit when it came out in print.
In 1810, he left India for Shiraz, in Persia (Iran). Here, away from the restraints of the East India Company and its colonial culture, he was able to engage with Muslim scholars and sufis in debate about the nature of religious truth. These discussions were conducted with exemplary courtesy, and gave rise to a written correspondence. The first of Martyn’s tracts began:
The Christian minister thanks the celebrated professor of Islamism for the favour he has done him in writing an answer to his enquiries, but . . .
Martyn’s “Persian Tracts” found their way back to Cambridge, where Professor Samuel Lee included them in his Controversial Tracts on Christianity and Mohammedanism (1824). The title of the third tract, however, shows how firm Martyn’s opinions were: On the vanity of the Sofee system and on the truth of the religion of Moses and Jesus. It was written in Farsi for Persian readers.
Although Martyn seemed to approach interfaith debate with the closed mind of his Evangelical training, his Persian Tracts reveal a rational approach to apologetics, one that was open to the test of historical evidence rather than relying exclusively upon the literal authority of scripture. Many back home would have seen this as a betrayal, but it was a start in the long and continuing process of interfaith dialogue.
In Europe, and outside church circles, a gentler attitude to Islam was growing. Carlyle, in his Heroes, Hero-worship and the Heroic in History (1840) depicted Muhammad as a true prophet, not the mountebank of Christian tradition. He described Islam as a confused form of Christianity and Judaism, none the less to be considered seriously, and certainly a nobler creed than what he called the “penny-counting utilitarianism” of Western society.
Had Martyn lived longer, his agile mind might well have been influenced by further study of oriental languages, and his opinions widened by increased exposure to non-Christian scholarship. His decision to resign his chaplaincy with the East India Company to devote more time to his work as a translator might, in time, have allowed him to take a broader view than was possible under the daily pressure life in the mission field.
He died, aged only 31, in Tokat, in Anatolia, en route for Constantinople. His health had finally given way. It was, in human terms, a lonely death. His body was given a Christian burial by the local Armenian clergy.
The Revd Adrian Leak is an Hon. Assistant Priest at Holy Trinity, Bramley, in Surrey.