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Angela Tilby: Henry Martyn showed admirable side of 19th-century missionaries

20 October 2023


Henry Martyn

Henry Martyn

IN THIS time of so much anguish about British colonialism, it is worth remembering Henry Martyn, commemorated in the Common Worship calendar yesterday (19 October). Martyn was a disciple of Charles Simeon, the great Evangelical divine, incumbent of Holy Trinity, Cambridge. Instead of going to the Bar, Martyn chose ordination, becoming Simeon’s curate. Then, not having the funds required to join the Church Missionary Society, he became a chaplain in the East India Company, sailing to India in 1805. The voyage took him via Cape Colony, in Southern Africa, where he saw something of the violence of British warfare against rival colonising powers.

This led Martyn to question whether it could ever be Britain’s vocation, under God, to fight for military supremacy in the race for colonial power. He concluded that Britain’s true mission was to spread the gospel. Once he reached India, he studied to equip himself to preach in the vernacular. In Dinapur (now in Bangladesh), and later in Cawnpore, he managed to produce sermons and conduct worship, and helped to found schools. He then went on to Calcutta and Bombay, before moving to Persia.

Martyn’s missionary activity depended largely on his undoubted linguistic gifts. He improved and revised an already existing version of the New Testament in Hindi. He then produced an Urdu Bible, the basis of which is still in use. He even translated the Book of Common Prayer. Later, he produced a Persian version of the Psalms, and a New Testament, which was presented to the Shah, who commended it for its style and readability. He had ambitions to produce an Arabic version of the scriptures, but his life was cut short by illness, as so many British lives were in 19th-century India and Asia. I once visited a British graveyard in Chennai which suggested that the average survival time of British subjects working in the area in that century was just six years.

Martyn was an Evangelical missionary, but he was also, instinctively, a man of peace. He is a reminder that the British presence in India was not all about exploitation. Alongside the familiar atrocities that accompanied British rule, there are many quieter examples of devoted men and women who sought to spread education and relieve the plight of the poor.

Their witness inspired support back home, but also had lasting effects on Indian society. Hindu tradition suggested that life depended on karma from previous lives. This was often taken to mean that there was no obligation to relieve the sufferings of the disadvantaged. Yet the active compassion of Christian missionaries came to be admired, and eventually influenced the founding of the Ramakrishna mission, which, alongside the teaching of Vedanta, brought a new emphasis on education, medical aid, and social welfare. Martyn’s vision was realised, although not, perhaps, quite as he intended.

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