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Life and Letters of Henry Martyn

The Life and Letters of Henry Martyn
First published 1819
The Banner of Truth Trust edition 1985
Began to read: September 9, 2000
Finished reading: October 12, 2000

Any memoir of a godly life provokes in the child of God a deep yearning for improved holiness. The Life and Letters of Henry Martyn has long been in the ranks of one of the most influential biographies for servants of God in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and I think that it will continue to be in our new century.


As a Baptist that generally draws spiritual inspiration from the English Separatists (Dissenters), it is a change of scenery to look into the soul of a Church of England man. In spite of our obvious theological differences, my heartbeat synchronizes with the one that thumps through his biography. “The soul that has truly experienced the love of God will not stay meanly inquiring how much he shall do, and thus limit his service, but will be earnestly seeking more and more to know the will of our heavenly Father, that he may be enabled to do it” (p.19).

The striking characteristic of Martyn is his humble pursuit of happiness in God. Having read Piper’s Desiring God this summer, this biography hammered home the truths of Christian “hedonism” (I deplore the use of that word in this context). “I know by experience that the spirit of submission, and a sense of the authority of God, is the state in which I can ever be happy; and precisely in proportion as I depart from that state of things, I am unhappy” (Martyn, p. 62). Martyn’s devotional life was genuine and his convictions ran deep. There is no trace of perfectionism here that you might find in the biographies of Hudson Taylor for example. The more Martyn drew close to God, the more poignantly he felt the sinfulness of his nature.

Refreshing to me was the old-fashion (even in 1810) dedication to honoring the Lord’s Day. He did not do language study on the Lord’s Day fearing “as it was the Sabbath, that such an employment might not be in perfect harmony with the sacred solemnity of that day, inasmuch as it was not strictly of a devotional kind, he desisted from further progress, — so deep was his reverence for a Divine appointment — so jealous his fear of offending his God” (p. 188). Perhaps I do not speak for you but, as a pastor, I wish my people would consider the Lord’s Day as a “divine appointment”. “The Sabbath, that sacred portion of time” (well worded, Sargent), “set apart for holy purposes in Paradise itself, was employed by him as to prove frequently a paradise to his soul on earth; and it as certainly prepared him for an endless state of spiritual enjoyment hereafter” (p. 409). Martyn enjoyed God.

This is a must-read for missionaries. Martyn experienced the let-down of reality upon arrival to the field that so often overwhelms missionaries. “But what surprises me is the change of views I have here from what I had in England. There my heart expanded with hope and joy at the prospect of the speedy conversion of the heathen, but here the sight of the apparent impossibility requires a strong faith to support the spirits” (p. 146).

He knew, too, of the dangers of romanticizing and fantasizing about ministry: “At night, read the third and fourth chapters of the Acts; and lost much time and spirituality by indulging ideas of schemes about the Gospel, which had more of romance and pride in them than of wisdom and humiliation”(p. 166).

He knew that to be a successful missionary he needed to be immune to criticism. “May I have grace to live above every human motive; simply with God, and to God, and not swayed, especially in the missionary work, by the opinions of people. . .”(p.174).

He was a worker. O, that these words would be the thoughts of every missionary serving today: “What a wretched life shall I lead, if I do not exert myself from morning till night in a place, where, through whole territories, I seem to be the only light” (p. 178).

He was not afraid of ministry that showed no tangible results. I feel that this is one reason why ambitious young men shun missionary work. Results are easier to come by in the homeland. Martyn, however, “was deeply conscious that it is God that giveth the increase, and when he did not see, or thought he did not see, that increase, he meekly submitted to the Divine will, and patiently continued in well-doing. At such times, also, more particularly would he turn, with joyful thankfulness, to the contemplation of the successful labours of his brethren in the ministry; for he had no mean and unholy envy respecting them; nor had he what is so often allied to it, an arrogant or domineering temper towards his flock” (p.411).

On Bob’s scale of “must-readability”, I give it a 9.7!

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2 Responses

  1. Thank you for this post. This reminds me of some of what you spoke of in “His Voiceles Years.” Some believers do live lives that are well-known, but even those remain in our minds for our edification (Hebrews 12:1).
    One biography you might enjoy (though I assume you don’t have much space to fill on your “to read list”) is Adoniram Judson’s. I read his biography the summer before last and was greatly encouraged. I always appreciate reading of the struggles, failures, and victories in the lives of those who have gone before me–though, I often benefit more from hearing how missionaries struggled and how God supplied grace rather than on their great spiritual exploits or how much increase they saw.

  2. I just finished reading this book last week and I was similarly impressed.

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