Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Henry Martyn - a short but astounding life

Texts: Isaiah 55.6–11 & Mark 16.15–end

Do you ever wonder what on earth you can do, personally, about the troubles in the world?  I know I do.  I’m an anxious consumer of news.  I listen to the Today programme every day.  I can’t have my lunch without the 1 o’clock news, and I check the headlines again when I go to bed!

The recent news of events in Palestine and Israel has drawn the world’s attention away from the horror of Russian’s attempted conquest of the Ukraine.  Largely unnoticed has also gone the recent earthquake in Afghanistan, and other natural disasters.  A man shot three people in Brussels this week – but the event barely got a mention.  The world is going to hell in a handcart, but you and I are largely powerless to do anything about it.  Aren’t we?

That could have been the attitude of Henry Martyn, who the Anglican church commemorates today as one of our outstanding Christians.  Born in Truro in 1781, Henry Martyn went up to Cambridge at the age of sixteen. He became an avowed evangelical and his friendship with Charles Simeon led to his interest in missionary work. In 1805, he left for Calcutta as a chaplain to the East India Company. The expectation was that he would minister to the British expatriate community, not to the indigenous peoples.  But, in fact, he found that there was a constant fear of insurrection among the ex-pat community.  They lived, somewhat as Israelis live today, under constant fear of violent uprising by those whose lands had been taken over.  Even the recitation of Magnificat at Evensong was forbidden, lest ‘putting down the mighty from their seat’ should incite the natives.

Henry’s response to this situation was notable.  He could have kept his head down, and quietly carried on ministering to his ex-patriate community.  But, instead, Henry – being a gifted scholar - set about learning the local languages so that he could share the Gospel with them, following Jesus command at The Great Commission.  One assumes that his motivation was a belief that converting the natives of India to Christianity would be a means of bringing the British and the Indians into a new fellowship with each other. 

Having learned their tongues, Henry then supervised the translation of the New Testament first into Hindustani and then into Persian and Arabic, as well as preaching and teaching in mission schools.  Many of those schools, and also some hospitals, were built out of his own funds.   He went to Persia to continue the work, where his translation of the New Testament was warmly welcomed by the enlightened Shah.  But, unfortunately suffering from tuberculosis, he died in the Turkish mountains, in modern day Armenia, on this day in 1812 – having only spent seven years in his task of translating the Scriptures.

In just seven years of his missionary life, Henry Martyn succeeded in spreading the Gospel among millions of people.  He was a famous and noted preacher, who engaged in public debate with scholars from other religions, and who gained their respect.  This was at a time when tensions between religions were rather less than they are today…a time when religious leaders didn’t claim, by and large, to have the monopoly on truth. 

What, I wonder, does Henry Martyn’s life have to say to us today?  Few of us, I suspect, have the intellectual skills to become bible translators…I know I don’t.  The world today is a far more fractured place than it was for Henry – and missionary work is no longer carried out (in the main) by British people going out to convert people of other nations.  Much has changed.  And Henry had some very particular skills and opportunities. 

Nevertheless, his short but brightly lit life teaches us that even in seven years, a great deal can be achieved, by those who have the faith and the courage to serve.  Henry’s life, of course, mirrors the life of Jesus who, as far as we can tell, only had a ministry of three years, and yet managed to set in motion a world-changing movement.

So the question that Henry Martyn leaves for each of us to ponder is this:  in the life that each of us has left (whether we have years or just months ahead of us) how are we going to be salt and light to the world in which we are placed?  Henry Martyn sought to make his corners of the world into a better place, by the light, the teaching and the example of Christ.  He brought the Gospel to those who hadn’t heard Jesus’ teaching of love.  He provided schools and hospitals for thousands.  He worked to break down barriers between religions and national identities.  

How are you and I going to do the same and perhaps even more, in the time that each of us has left on earth?  You and I are not likely to be able to do very much about the global conflicts currently shaking our world – except perhaps to direct our charity towards those who are suffering.  Henry Martin tackled the issues before him in Calcutta.  How are you and I going to bring the good news of Jesus’ life, teaching and example, to the people of Havant, Bedhampton, Emsworth and Hayling?  They are our mission field.  And it is first of all to them that we are called.  Amen.

1 comment: