Born at Truro in 1781, Henry Martyn studied at St John’s College, Cambridge, of which he became a Fellow in 1802. He had intended to study law but Charles Simeon, the noted Evangelical rector of Holy Trinity, Cambridge, inspired him to go to India as a missionary. After ordination to the diaconate and serving as Simeon’s curate for a short time, Martyn became a chaplain of the East India Company at Calcutta in 1805.
Once in India, Martyn spent the first five months in Serampore, waiting for his assignment, during which time he lived with David Brown, Anglican priest and missionary, and his family. Another protégé of Simeon’s, Brown was chaplain of Fort William in Calcutta and a Hebrew scholar who encouraged Bible translation into the many Oriental languages. While in Serampore, Martyn met William Carey, the English Baptist “father of modern missions”. After their meeting, Carey declared that wherever Martyn was, no other missionary would be needed. Martyn’s zeal for the gospel, humble spirit, and facility with languages made him a natural missionary.
During the five years that he spent in India, Martyn preached the Gospel, organized private schools, and founded churches. In addition to his work as a missionary, he translated the New Testament and the Book of Common Prayer into Hindustani, which was a valuable missionary aid to the young Anglican Church in India. He also translated the New Testament and the Psalm into Persian during this time. Persian was spoken at the Moslem courts in India and was the language of judicial proceedings under the British government in Hindustan. People from Calcutta to Damascus could speak, read, or understand Persian at the time, making it a lingua franca for southwestern Asia. Martyn’s New Testament was the first translation of the Scriptures into Persian since the fifth century.
Desiring for some time to travel to Persia, Martyn arrived in Shiraz in 1811, becoming the first English clergyman to visit the city. During the months that he remained there for the recover of his health, he engaged in theological discussions with learned Muslims, upholding the deity of Christ and the truth of the Gospel in these exchanges. He also had time to correct his Persian translations. Gifted with a remarkable facility for languages, Martyn hoped in time to visit Arabia and to translate the New Testament into Arabic.
On his way to Constantinople in 1812, whence he planned to return to England further to recover his health and to recruit new missionaries for the work in India, Martyn died in the Armenian city of Tokat. The Armenians recognized his greatness and buried him with the funeral dignities usually reserved for one of their own bishops. Soon after his death, his remarkable accomplishments became widely known. He is honored as one of the founders of the modern Christian Church in India and Iran.
prepared from Lesser Feasts and Fasts (1980) and other sources
O God of the nations, you gave your faithful servant Henry Martyn a brilliant mind, a loving heart, and a gift for languages, that he might translate the Scriptures and other holy writings for the peoples of India and Persia: Inspire in us a love like his, eager to commit both life and talents to you who gave them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The propers for the commemoration of Henry Martyn, Priest and Missionary, are published on the Lectionary Page website.