Henry Martyn: A Student of the Great Books in Light of the Greatest Book for the Sake of the Great Commission


Twenty-first century American evangelicals can be excused for not knowing the name of Henry Martyn (1781-1812)—a paedo-baptist Anglican who was employed as a chaplain for the East India Company and whose ministry in India and Persia encompassed just six years before his death due to sickness at age thirty-one. But his formation and ministry provide us an example worth imitating at Bethlehem College and Seminary. His calvinistic, evangelical formation and his Cambridge classical education combined to give him an extraordinary ability to manage translations of the New Testament and to witness creatively in different cultures.

Henry Martyn received a classical education culminating in a degree from Cambridge. He distinguished himself by winning the prize as “Chief Wrangler,” the top student in mathematics at a time when Cambridge was known as the top school for mathematics. He also won a prize in Latin composition, was appointed fellow of his college after he graduated, and served as examiner for two years. His journal often records, as on a day in 1803, “I read Hebrew, and the Greek of the Epistle to the Hebrews.”[1] That was his classical training, a distinct privilege in the early 1800s and a tool that he carried directly into his ministry.

Martyn’s spiritual formation and love for Scripture received encouragement from a fervent group of evangelical Anglicans including Cambridge pastor Charles Simeon. He immersed himself in the biblical languages and in reading spiritual classics such as the Puritans and Jonathan Edwards.[2] He served in ministry to a village outside Cambridge under Simeon before traveling to India in 1806.

There is no question about his substantial contribution to early missions efforts in northern India. He oversaw and edited the first translation of the New Testament into Urdu, a text which was published shortly after his death and served as the basis for all Urdu Bible translations during the next century (nearly 230 million people speak Urdu today).[3] Second, in a furious year of work, he completely re-translated the New Testament into Persian after an initial version proved insufficient for native speakers. While a guest in Shiraz, Persia (today, Iran), he engaged with Muslim clerics and visitors about the Christian faith.

Martyn’s life and ministry followed the same three emphases as the undergraduate program at Bethlehem: engaging with classic and proven texts alongside consistently deep study of the Bible, all for the sake of participating in God’s redemptive purposes around the world.

In particular, he proved skillful in learning languages, a skill that was cultivated in his preparation and which set him apart from many other missionaries. One of Martyn’s recent commentators remarks, “Martyn’s qualifications in Greek and Latin gave him a foundation as a translator that the Baptist missionaries [including William Carey], despite great zeal, could not match.”[4] By the time Martyn arrived in India, William Carey had already served for thirteen years and was soon to be appointed professor of Bengali in Calcutta, so that he had learned a lot about languages. But it is also no secret that the ambitious plans for translations by Carey and his colleagues meant that those early Bibles went through several editions before they were easily understood by local people.[5]

Henry Martyn’s education prepared him in the best way possible for the tasks of analysis and communication that were crucial for bringing the gospel to bear in new circumstances. We do not have to agree with the nineteenth-century headmaster of Eton, who challenged his students that if they were not skilled in composing classical Greek poetry, “How can you ever be of use in the world?”[6] We do not believe that composing original Greek poetry is the key to making one useful in God’s service. But we can connect a rigorous attempt at renewing classical education today with the potential to produce gifted and tenaciously flexible missionaries like Henry Martyn.

The Global Studies emphasis at Bethlehem College and Seminary aims to graduate students who are prepared for a call to cross-cultural ministry. Learning the biblical language and perhaps Latin helps give a framework and practice for learning a living language in the future. Besides all the training we can give on cross-cultural learning and personal discipleship, the skill of understanding languages will equip students for whatever ministry the Lord may call them to undertake.

In his brief life, Henry Martyn gives us an example of dogged determination to use his particular gifts, to be spent in the encounter, to have little or no expectation of success, and to press on in faith. Our prayer is that God would form and prepare students today for similar lives of fruitful ministry.

Jon Hoglund, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Theology and Global Studies


Prayer Requests:

  1. Pray that we each would spend and be spent for Christ.
  2. Pray for our Global Studies students as they prepare for future ministry.
  3. Pray for the prospective students coming to Spring Preview Day April 26, that God will guide their steps.
  4. Pray that the remaining Serious Joy Scholarships would be subscribed by June 30.



[1] Sargent, Henry Martyn, 42.
[2] Reading Baxter (Sargent, 35.), Edwards (Smith, Saint and Scholar, 28–29.).
[3] Henry Martyn, trans., The New Testament of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ: Translated into the Hindoostanee Language, from the Original Greek, by the Rev. H. Martyn, B.D. (London: British and Foreign Bible Society, 1819).
[4] Ayler, “Introduction,” 37.
[5] Daniel Corrie reports that the Christians he knew preferred Martyn’s translation to an earlier work by the Serampore Baptists. Their initial Urdu translation was “too defective to be useful to any extent” Daniel Corrie, Memoirs of the Right Rev. Daniel Corrie (London: Seeley, Burnside, and Seeley, 1847), 210.
[6] Tracy Lee Simmons, Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2002), 128.