October 19: Henry Martyn, Priest, and Missionary to India and Persia, 1812

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From: A memoir of the Rev. Henry Martyn; Sargent, John; London : Printed for R. B. Seeley and W. Burnside : and sold by L. and G. Seeley; 1837.

About this commemoration

Translator of the Scriptures and Prayer Book into Hindi and Persian, Henry Martyn, an English missionary in India, died in Armenia when he was thirty-one years old. Though his life was brief, it was a remarkable one.

Like most English clergymen of the time, he was educated at one of the two ancient universities, Cambridge in his case. He had intended to become a lawyer, but Charles Simeon (November 12), the notable Evangelical rector of Holy Trinity, Cambridge, inspired him to go to India as a missionary. After serving as Simeon’s curate for a short time, Martyn traveled to Calcutta in 1806 as chaplain of the East India Company.

During his five years in India, Martyn preached the Gospel, organized private schools, and founded churches. In addition to his work as a missionary, Martyn translated the New Testament and the Book of Common Prayer into Hindi, a valuable missionary aid to the young Anglican Church in India. He also began the study of Persian, and translated the New Testament into Persian.

Martyn longed to go to Persia; in 1811, his persistence brought him to Shirmas, to become the first English clergyman in that city. He engaged in theological discussions with learned Muslims and had time to correct his Persian translations. Obviously gifted with a remarkable facility for languages, Martyn hoped eventually to visit Arabia, and to translate the New Testament into Arabic.

While on his way to Constantinople in 1812, however, he died in the city of Tokat. The Armenians of the city recognized his greatness and buried him with the honors usually accorded to one of their own bishops. Very soon afterwards, his life of energetic devotion and remarkable accomplishment became widely known. He is remembered as one of the founders of the modern Christian Church in India and Iran.


I  O God of the nations, who didst give to thy 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, we beseech thee, a love like his, eager to commit both life and talents to thee who gavest them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

II  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.

Psalm 56:8-12

Lessons:  Isaiah 49:1–6, Romans 1:8–15, and John 4:22–26

Preface of a Saint (2)

From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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7 thoughts on “October 19: Henry Martyn, Priest, and Missionary to India and Persia, 1812

  1. Place names here need some clarification for me, at least. For example, Shirma, a city in the north [or where ever] of modern Iran. Same thing for Tokat. Where is it? ‘on the way to Constantinople’ is a bit vague. Do these places have more damiliar modern names? Constantiople is well known enough to stand as it is. “The Armenians of the city” also needs some clarification. I take it you mean Armenian Christians – are they living in a largely Muslim city? Again, a little clarifcation will help readers understand better where this all took place.

    Do we need to be reminded that most Anglican clergy went to Oxford or Cambridge?

  2. I love this commemoration, the dedication and talent Martyn devoted to his calling is remarkable, uplifting, and inspiring. I was sad to reach the line that tells he died so young. The collect is excellent in that it can be prayed meaningfully by any Christian in their own context of life and ministry. The whole presentation could easily be used as is without further comment from me. (I’ll comment anyway.) (You guessed that, I know.)

    One sentence sounds too simple: “He also began the study of Persian, and translated the New Testament into Persian” (as if translating the NT were part of the beginning stage of studying Persian). I don’t expect it was either instant or effortless, and something to indicate “eventually,” “soon,” “before long,” or some indicator of the progress required, would sound more reasonable to my ears. (Repeating “Persian…Persian” seems, well, repetitious — and redundant, too, even.)

    In the next sentence (new paragraph), his LONGING to go to Persia and his ARRIVAL in Shirmas might be better separated by a period than a semi-colon, lest it sound like Scotty beamed him up.

    One sentence mentions he “had time to correct his Persian translations.” It’s tedious, I realize, to point out that having time to do something, and actually getting it done, are two different things. I suspect the latter was the case. If so, I’d prefer that were actually said.

    I have to agree with Cynthia that a bit more illumination about unfamiliar places (names or circumstances), eliminating the gratuitous Cambridge and Oxford generalization, specifying of “Armenian Christians,” and (with Philip) firming up the vague reference to “other holy writings” (would that mean the BCP?) in the collect, would all be welcomed adjustments.

  3. I know that LFF has for many years indicated that the Armenians buried Martyn with honors usually accorded to a bishop. The Dictionary of National Biography (DNB), however, says he was buried with the honors usually accorded to an archdeacon. All of which raises again a question that I researced many years ago as to whether Martyn ever received presbyteral orders. There is no evidence that I could find that this was so. The DNB only refers to his having been ordained to the diaconate. Is there a biography that presents evidence that he was priested?

  4. I suggest that a more appropriate subheading would be: “Priest, Missionary, and Translator of the Scriptures”.

    Henry Martyn was born in Truro, Cornwall, on February 18, 1781. This should be shown.

    Time has altered nomenclature and national boundaries since the information in the bio was first obtained. What follows are several suggestions to make it meaningful now and in at least the near future.

    In line 2 of the first paragraph, insert “what was then part of” before “Armenia”. (see below)

    I recommend inserting (now Kolkata) after “Calcutta” in line 5 of the second paragraph. (That name will be as familiar in future as Mumbai has become, and Chennai is becoming.)

    • And more:

      In line 5 of the third paragraph, I suggest inserting “Farsi” after “of”, and adding parentheses around “Persian”. Likewise,in line 6, substitute “Farsi” for “Persian”.

      In line 1 of the fourth paragraph, add “(Iran)” after “Persia”.

      In line 2 of the fourth paragraph, insert “(now in Afghanistan)” after “Shirmas”.

      In line 2 of the fifth paragraph, insert “, ( now in northern Turkey)” after “Tokat”.

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