Henry Martyn: A Love That Would Not Let Him Go

5 min

The young missionary eagerly awaited the arrival of his bride. For months Henry Martyn had been expecting his beloved Lydia to make the journey from England to take up residence with him at Danapur, on the banks of the Ganges River in northeast India. Week after week passed as he waited for his bride.

Similar to the Lord Jesus preparing a home for His bride, the Church, Henry Martyn had been preparing a place for Lydia. He had made his mission dwelling as comfortable as possible, under the circumstances. Ambitiously, Martyn redesigned the garden. Thinking of details that might delight his bride, he had even ordered a set of fine silverware to adorn the dining table!

The industrious, hopeful groom, Henry Martyn, was born on February 18, 1781, in Cornwall, the extreme southwestern peninsula of England. His father was an overseer at a local mine, and Martyn’s mother died when he was still a small boy. Martyn’s father was a pious member of the local church, and he provided well for his motherless son. For his education, his father sent him to a fine school in Truro and eventually to St. John’s College at Cambridge University.

Henry Martyn excelled in mathematics. He intended to practice law, but during his days at Cambridge, he heard that his benevolent, caring father had died. While not a rebellious lad, Martyn was not walking in the ways of the Lord either. His father had often prayed for his son, and now that his father was gone, Martyn took an active interest in eternal matters. His previously neglected Bible suddenly drew his interest, and he began to read it. The young man was captivated by the truth of God’s eternal Word and came to a personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

In the joy of his newfound faith, Henry Martyn heard of the work that William Carey was doing in India for the heathen’s conversion to the faith. Martyn purposed that he too would leave England and bring the light of the Gospel to the corners of the world that were languishing in darkness. The young man discovered that God had given him an interest in and aptitude for the learning of languages. After his rigorous studies at the University were done for the day, he spent the recreational hours of the evening in the study of Persian, Arabic, Hindustani, and Bengali—languages he longed to see the Bible translated into, languages which had not yet known the light of truth.

After leaving Cambridge and while he was preparing for the mission field, Henry Martyn met Miss Lydia Grenfell. They met at a church where he was invited to preach. The ardent young missionary immediately fell deeply in love. He did not know at the time that Lydia Grenfell had been engaged to another man. She had become a Christian and had broken off the engagement, but in her heart she still had a fond hope that her former fiancé would embrace Christ and she could then marry the man she loved.

Henry Martyn, not knowing of her other interest, visited the young lady as often as possible over the coming weeks before he would sail for India. Only a few days before departure, the matter of Lydia’s former engagement was fully laid before him. He also learned that her mother could not bear the thought of sending her daughter to live and die at a lonely mission station, far from family and friends. Meanwhile, the young woman had come to deeply admire Martyn.

When the time came to depart for India in order to follow God’s calling, Martyn realized that he must sail without Lydia. He hoped that the obstacles before them would be removed and that she could and would join him. Before embarking on the ship that would carry him far from home and far from Lydia, he wrote of his resting contentment in God: “I feel very, very happy in all that God shall order concerning me . . . the Lord teaches me to desire Christ for my all in all.”

After the long, nine-month voyage, Martyn arrived in India in April, 1806. He met William Carey in Calcutta, and the elder missionary assigned his younger brother in the Lord to labor at Aldeen. In Aldeen, Martyn could thoroughly learn the necessary languages. Henry Martyn learned quickly and was soon speaking Hindustani, Bengali, and Persian. While in Aldeen, Martyn’s lodging was in an abandoned pagoda. This eerie dwelling place was the scene of many fervent, earnest prayers for the conversion of the souls in India, fond intercessions for his beloved Lydia, and an awakening, prayerful interest in the masses of unreached Moslems (today called Muslims) scattered throughout India.

After six months at Aldeen, Martyn was transferred to Danapur, an area along the banks of the Ganges River, in the extreme northeast of India. He was offered a position as pastor of an English congregation at Calcutta. But his calling was to press to the frontiers of the mission effort, so he declined a comfortable living to pursue taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Intent on this purpose, he had already begun to translate the Gospel of Matthew into Hindustani.

During this same time, Martyn received a letter from Lydia. Her letter made his heart rejoice in hope that she would yet come to India and consent to become his wife! He responded by writing a long, loving letter back to her. He urged her to come to India and assured her mother and family that he would take good care of her. The hopeful missionary even included detailed instructions on when to come and what route to take to reach him. With renewed focus and hope, Henry Martyn threw himself into his translation work, even while he joyfully prepared a home for his bride.

Alas, just when he was expecting to receive Lydia as his wife, another letter arrived. The letter from his intended contained the devastating news that she would not be coming after all. Her mother refused to give her permission to leave for this far-off land. The news hit Martyn hard. Looking to God and in His Word, he found contentment in the promises of the Lord Jesus for those who leave all to follow Him. Martyn penned a final loving letter to Lydia, instructing her that she must honor her mother and that he bore no resentment toward her, although he wrote to her that “my heart is bursting with grief and disappointment.”

Henry Martyn canceled the order for the silverware. He threw himself unreservedly into the work of the Gospel. He finished his translation of the New Testament into Hindustani in remarkable time and began a translation into Persian. He toiled night and day, writing in his journal that he expected to “burn out” for Christ.

Burn out he did, at the age of thirty-one. So tirelessly did Henry Martyn labor on his translations that he was taken with tuberculosis and then a long, dangerous fever. Ordered by the doctors to rest, he asked permission to go to Persia (modern-day Iran) so he could perfect his translation. After the Persian translation was presented to the shah of Persia and affirmed as excellent work, Martyn journeyed on toward Constantinople. His physical afflictions worsened as he traveled.

The final entries in Martyn’s journal are very moving. He had learned contentment even in his loneliness and afflictions. The only thing he longed for was to finish well for Christ. His final entry was made on October 6, 1812: “Oh when shall time give place to eternity?”

In his brief life and ministry, Henry Martyn was content with how the Lord had directed him. By the time of his death, Martyn had translated the New Testament into two languages and had earned the name “Apostle to the Mohammedans.” His well-spent life blazed a trail that others would follow to take Christ’s Gospel into all the world.

Sources and Further Reference:
Lopez, Amy. Henry Martyn, Apostle to the Mohammedans. Anderson, IN: Gospel Trumpet Company, 1929.

This article is from our Matters of Life & Death teaching series.

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