Henry Martyn was born in England on the south-western coast of Truro, February 18, 1781. His father, Mr. John Martyn, worked in the mines. He was not educated but was very fond of learning. The miners were in the habit of working and resting alternately every four hours. Mr. John Martyn spent many of his rest intervals in study, and so by diligence and education raised himself to a higher position, and became a clerk in the office of a merchant in Truro. When Henry was seven years old, he went to school to Dr. Cardew. From his earliest years all who knew him considered him a very interesting and promising child. Dr. Cardew says his proficiency in the classics exceeded that of his schoolfellows; he was of a lively, cheerful temper and seemed to learn without application, almost by intuition. But he was not robust, and loving books better than sport, and having a peculiar tenderness and inoffensiveness of spirit, he was often abused by rude and coarse boys in the school. A friendship which he formed at this time with a boy older than himself was the source of great comfort and advantage to him, and was kept up throughout his whole life. This friend often protected him from the bullies of the play-ground. At this school, under excellent tuition, Henry remained until fourteen years old, when he was induced to offer himself as a candidate for a vacant scholarship at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. Young as he was, he went there alone, and acquitted himself so well, though strongly and ably opposed by competitors, that in the opinion of some of the examiners he ought to have been elected. How often is the hand of God seen in frustrating our fondest designs! Speaking of this disappointment he afterwards wrote: |Had I remained and become a member of the university at that time, as I should have done in case of success, the profligate acquaintances I had there would have introduced me to scenes of debauchery, in which I must in all probability, from my extreme youth, have sunk forever.|
He continued after this with Dr Cardew till 1797, and then joined his school friend at Cambridge at St. John's College. Here he obtained a place in the first class at the public examination in December, a circumstance which, joined to the extreme desire he had to gratify his father, encouraged and excited him to study with increased alacrity, and as the fruit of this application, at the next public examination in the summer he reached the second station in the first class, a point of elevation which |flattered his pride not a little.| At this time he appeared in the eye of the world most amiable and commendable, outwardly moral, unwearied in application, and exhibited marks of no ordinary talent. One exception to this statement is to be found in an irritability of temper arising perhaps from the treatment he had received at school. On one occasion in sudden anger, he threw a knife at the head of another boy, which providentially missed him and was left trembling in the wall; but it was a narrow escape, and might have proved fatal. Though not a Christian at this time, he was under two strong influences for good, one from his religious friend in college, the other from his sister in Cornwall, a Christian of a meek, heavenly and affectionate spirit. He paid a visit to his home in the summer of 1799, carrying with him no small degree of academical honor. It may be well supposed that to a sister such as we have described, her brother's spiritual welfare would be a most serious and anxious concern; and that she often conversed with him on the subject of religion we know from his own declaration. The first result of her tender exhortations and earnest endeavors was very discouraging; a violent conflict took place in her brother's mind between his conviction of the truth of what she urged, and his love of the world; and for the present, the latter prevailed. Yet, sisters similarly circumstanced may learn from this case, not merely their duty, but also, from the final result, the success they may anticipate in the faithful discharge of it.
|At the examination at Christmas, 1799,| he writes: |I was first, and the account of it pleased my father prodigiously, who, I was told, was in great health and spirits. What, then, was my consternation when in January I received an account of his death!| Most poignant were his sufferings under this affliction, which led him to God for comfort in prayer and Bible study. He says: |I began with the Acts, and found myself insensibly led to inquire more attentively into the doctrines of the Apostles.| Writing to his sister, having announced shortly and with much simplicity that his name stood first upon the list at the college examination of the summer of 1800, he says: |What a blessing it is for me that I have such a sister as you, my dear S., who have been so instrumental in keeping me in the right way. After the death of our father you know I was extremely low spirited, and like most other people began to consider seriously without any particular determination, that invisible world to which he was gone and to which I must one day go. Soon I began to attend more diligently to the words of our Savior in the New Testament, and to devour them with delight, when the offers of mercy and forgiveness were made so freely; I supplicated to be made partaker of the covenant of grace with eagerness and hope, and thanks be to the ever-blessed Trinity for not leaving me without comfort!| How cheering to his sister it must have been to receive at a moment of deep sorrow such a communication as this! How salutary to his own mind to have possessed so near a relation to whom he could thus freely open the workings of his heart. At this time he also received great benefit from attendance on the faithful ministry of Rev. Charles Simeon, under whose pastoral instructions he himself declares that he |gradually acquired more knowledge in divine things.| With this excellent man he had the most friendly and unreserved intercourse. Mr. Martyn received his first impressions of the transcendent excellence of the Christian ministry of Mr. Simeon, from which it was but a short step to choose this calling for his own, for until now he had intended to devote himself to the law |chiefly,| he confesses, |because he could not consent to be poor for Christ's sake.|
In January, 1801, the highest academical honor, that of |senior wrangler,| was awarded to him before the completion of his twentieth year. His description of his feelings on this occasion is remarkable: |I obtained my highest wishes, but was surprised to find that I had grasped a shadow.| So impossible it is for earthly distinction to fill and satisfy the mind.
In March, 1802, after another rigid examination, Mr. Martyn was chosen Fellow of St. Johns, a situation honorable to the society and gratifying to himself. Soon after he obtained first prize for best Latin prose composition over many competitors of classical celebrity, and this was the more remarkable, as his studies had been almost entirely in mathematics.
Henry Martyn's attention was called to the great cause of Foreign Missions by some remarks of Rev. Mr. Simeon on the work of Carey in India, but more particularly by reading the memoir of David Brainerd, who preached with apostolic zeal and success to the North American Indians, and who finished a course of self-denying labors for his Redeemer with unspeakable joy at the early age of thirty-two. Henry Martyn's soul was filled with holy emulation, and after deep consideration and fervent prayer he was at length fixed in a resolution to imitate his example. Nor let it be conceived that he could adopt this resolution without the severest conflict in his mind, for he was endued with the truest sensibility of heart, and was susceptible of the warmest and tenderest attachments. No one could exceed him in love for his country, or in affection for his friends, and few could surpass him in an exquisite relish for the various and refined enjoyments of a social and literary life. How then could it fail of being a moment of extreme anguish when he came to the deliberate resolution of leaving forever all he held dear upon earth? But he was fully satisfied that the glory of that Savior who loved him and gave Himself for him would be promoted by his going forth to preach to the heathen. He considered their pitiable and perilous condition; he thought on the value of their immortal souls; he remembered the last solemn injunction of his Lord, |Go teach all nations,| -- an injunction never revoked, and commensurate with that most encouraging promise, |Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.| Actuated by these motives, he offered himself as a missionary to the society for Missions, and from that time stood prepared with childlike simplicity and unshaken constancy to go to any part of the world whither it might be deemed expedient to send him.
In the early part of 1804, Mr. Martyn's plans of becoming a missionary were dampened by the loss of his slender patrimony, and as his sister was also involved in the calamity, it appeared hardly justifiable for him to go away. After some delay his friends obtained for him the position of chaplain to the East India Company, and so the obstacles which detained him were removed.
The time of the delay was spent in zealous service for his divine Master. He was associated with Rev. Mr. Simeon as curate and preached with great zeal and unction, often to very large audiences, and sometimes with such unsparing denunciation of common sins as to awaken opposition. He considered it his duty to rebuke iniquity, and on one occasion severely reproved a student for shocking levity, -- reading a play with some young ladies while their father lay dying. He feared the result of this might be estrangement from his friend, but prayed earnestly that it might lead to his awakening. This prayer was answered, and afterwards this very friend became his beloved associate in missionary work in India.
In very early youth Mr. Martyn became fondly attached to a young lady named Lydia Grenfell. She considered herself his superior in social position. The memoirs all speak of her as estimable, and we infer from the little that is said that she somewhat indifferently accepted Henry Martyn's homage, but she did not wholeheartedly and generously respond. What a contrast to the beloved and devoted Harriet Newell, who was not afraid to risk all for Christ, and counted not her life dear even unto the death! It was Miss Grenfell's greatest honor that Henry Martyn would have made her his wife, but she declined the honor, and yet gave him encouragement, for their correspondence only ended with his life, and his very last writing was a letter to her. He begged her with all the eloquence of a lonely and devoted heart to come out to him after he had gone to India, arranging every detail for her comfort with thoughtful tenderness, and urging and encouraging her and lavishing upon her an affection that would have crowned and enriched her life. We are left to infer from the history that she did love him in her way, but if she had shared his consecration and gone with him and taken care of him, and cheered and comforted him, and made for him a happy restful home, as some missionary wives have done in self-denying foreign fields, what a blessing she might have been, and her life, how fruitful, and her memory, how fragrant! As it was, she has this distinction, that she was Henry Martyn's disappointment and trial and discipline. No one less tender and sensitive than Henry Martyn can appreciate all he suffered on this account; but he made it, like all the other great sorrows of his life, a cross on which to be crucified with Christ.
He writes to his dear sister S.: |When I sometimes offer up supplications with strong crying to God to bring down my spirit into the dust I endeavor calmly to contemplate the infinite majesty of the most high God and my own meanness and wickedness, or else I quietly tell the Lord, who knows the heart, I would give Him all the glory of everything if I could. But the most effectual way I have ever found is to lead away my thoughts from myself and my own concerns by praying for all my friends, for the church, the world, the nation, and especially by beseeching that God would glorify His own great name by converting all nations to the obedience of faith, also by praying that he would put more abundant honor on those Christians whom he seems to have honored especially, and whom we see to be manifestly our superiors.|
In spite of Henry Martyn's beautiful humility, honor after honor was heaped upon him by his admiring and appreciative Alma Mater. Three times he was chosen examiner, and discharged the duties of this office with great care and faithfulness.
As the time approaches for his parting from all he holds dear, especially the beloved L., our hearts go out to him in irrepressible sympathy. He writes, |parted with L. forever in this life with a sort of uncertain pain which I know will increase to greater violence.|
And these forebodings were but too soon realized. For many succeeding days his mental agony was extreme, yet he could speak to God as one who knew the great conflict within him. Yet while the waves and billows are going over him he writes from these depths, |I never had so clear a conviction of my call as at the present. Never did I see so much the exceeding excellency and glory and sweetness of the work, nor had so much the favorable testimony of my own conscience, nor perceived so plainly the smile of God. Blessed be God, I feel myself to be His minister. This thought which I can hardly describe came in the morning after reading Brainerd. I wish for no service but the service of God, to labor for souls on earth and to do His will in heaven.|