Henry Martyn (1781-1812) in Cambridge: Spiritual Nurture and Ministerial Formation

Much has been written about Henry Martyn. The Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide (CCCW) Library has a range of books by different authors, for example David Bentley-Taylor, C. D. Bell, Jim Cromarty, Barbara Eaton, Kellsye Finnie, John Martyn, Constance Padwick, Jesse Page, John Sargent, George Smith and Vivienne Stacey. A number of these focus on Martyn in India and Persia, and in their titles there are descriptions such as ‘Henry Martyn of Persia’, ‘Scholar and Missionary to India and Persia’, ‘Pioneer Missionary in India’, ‘Translator of the Urdu New Testament’, ‘For the Love of India’ and ‘Beyond the Minarets’. The known Henry Martyn letters have for the first time been brought together by Scott Ayler, after painstaking research on his part, in a superb, annotated volume comprising 596 pages: Scott D. Ayler, ed., The Letters of Henry Martyn: East India Company Chaplain (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2019). This is available in the CCCW Library. Dr Ayler is now the leading authority on Martyn. His PhD (2009), through the University of Wales, was on ‘The Evangelical Chaplains in Bengal, 1786-1813’. He has been a very good friend of the work of the Centre. In October 2012 he gave a Lecture on The Making of a Missionary: Henry Martyn and Preparation for an East Indian Chaplaincy. He is now working on what will be a definitive biography of Henry Martyn.  

As part of the Centre’s Silver Jubilee celebrations, two volumes will be published: one of these, to be launched on 25 May 2022, gives an account of CCCW’s history and future direction. It is entitled From Henry Martyn to Global Christianity: The Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide and is by Ian Randall, Graham Kings (the founder and first Director of the Centre 25 years ago), and Muthuraj Swamy (the current Director of the Centre). This book offers a brief history of the Centre – beginning with the missionary work of Henry Martyn and his impact on generations of young Christians who went to different parts of the world as missionaries. The founding of the Henry Martyn Trust in 1881 was seen as a strategic way to continue to carry out Martyn’s work, particularly to influence the University of Cambridge students to get involved in world mission. This book also captures the significant transitions in Christian mission during the last few decades and the way that these have shaped the Centre’s vision, direction and work. Towards the end, some of the future directions are reflected upon by the current director.

The second book is Connecting Christianities: World Christianity and Mission in the 21st Century, edited by Muthuraj Swamy and Jenny Leith, The CCCW Dean of Studies. It is written by leading scholars and practitioners who have shaped the work of CCCW and whose work has been shaped by themes focused at the Centre. Twenty-five essays in this volume focus on different aspects of Christian mission and the connections within these. Many expressions in Christianity which need to be connected in ecumenical relations, building openness and harmonious relationships between Christianity and different religious traditions, and Christian public engagement in society – these are some of the main themes in this volume. Reflecting the diversity of the fields of world Christianity and mission studies, this volume is aimed as a resource for scholars, students, and mission practitioners in the Global North and South.

Returning to Henry Martyn, although books have been written about him as a Chaplain of the East India Company and a missionary exemplar and translator in India and Persia, relatively little has so far been written investigating his nurture and formation while in Cambridge. Martyn’s Cambridge years began in 1797 when he entered St. John’s College, Cambridge. This aspect will be covered fully in Scott Ayler’s book, but I have set out below - by way of a ‘taster’ - some of the things that struck me in my recent reading and re-reading. Much more in the Cambridge period can be investigated. The ways in which Henry Martyn engaged in prayer are crucial in understanding his spiritual life. Often he felt he was failing in prayer, but this could be examined to try to portray a more balanced picture. Also, he often thought of times with other people as having been characterised by ‘levity’ and consequently of no value. However, it is clear that he was very good company and many of his friends were enthusiastic about conversation with him. This piece does not include his times in London, with the circles of prominent evangelicals he came to know there. His Cornish experiences were also of great importance. The sections below are an introduction to Martyn’s spiritual nurture and ministerial formation in Cambridge.


Early Cambridge experiences
A major influence on Henry Martyn in deciding to enter St John’s College, Cambridge, was John Kempthorne, who had been his protector and friend while at school, and who had just distinguished himself at St. John’s, coming out Senior Wrangler, a position awarded to the highest achieving Cambridge University student in Mathematics, It was the highest academic recognition the university offered. Kempthorne also gained the 1st Smith Prize in Mathematics, awarded for the highest performance by a graduating student. He was named a Fellow of St. John College. Another influence was William Curgenven, his brother-in-law and St John’s alumnus. Martyn came to St John’s and his early period in Cambridge was marked by outstanding success in examinations but also by inner conflicts, which included serious bouts of irritability. On one notorious occasion he threw a knife at his friend, Thomas Cotterill, who only just escaped, with the knife embedding itself in a panel of the College dining-hall. Cotterill, like Martyn, went on to Anglican curacy.

The first extant letter of Martyn’s is dated 23 September 1799 and was written from Truro. In this first letter, to a University friend, Morgan Walter Jones, later Vicar of Ospringe in Kent, Martyn confessed that up to that point his time as a student had been ‘taken up with the nice girls’ in Cambridge - no doubt an exaggeration, to which Martyn was prone - and he was now thinking back on that with ‘silent horror’. However, he hoped that a week which Jones was spending back at home would involve his being gratified by seeing a Colonel whom he knew and ‘his more lovely daughter’. The appreciation of nice girls was still present. In this letter Martyn also asked Jones to pass greetings to ‘all my acquaintances at St John’s’. Martyn’s enjoyment of friendship and his commitment to friends was to continue.

Following the unexpected death of his father, in January 1800, Henry Martyn (as Scott Ayler puts it in his very helpful introduction to the ‘Letters’), ‘for the first time with any seriousness, turned his attention to spiritual matters’. In the second extant letter of Martyn’s, he wrote to his sister Sally in the summer of 1800 to tell her what a blessing she had been to him in his developing spiritual experience and that he had been ‘brought to a sense of things gradually’. He continued: ‘After the death of our father, you know, I was extremely low-spirited, and, like most people, began to consider seriously, without any particular determination, that invisible world to which he had gone and to which I must one day go. As I had no taste at this time for my usual studies, I took up my Bible.’

As well as Henry Martyn’s sister, Kempthorne was a continuing influence. Henry told Sally: ‘I often took up other books to engage my attention, and should have continued to do so had not Kempthorne advised me to make this time an occasion of serious reflection. I began with the [book of] Acts, as being the most amusing, and when I was entertained with the narrative I found myself insensibly led to inquire more attentively into the doctrines of the Apostles.... On the first night after, I began to pray from a precomposed form, in which I thanked God in general for having sent Christ into the world. But though I prayed for pardon I had little sense of my own sinfulness; nevertheless, I began to consider myself a religious man.’ Soon, he said, ‘I began to attend more diligently to the words of our Saviour in the New Testament, and to devour them with delight’. He prayed ‘to be made partaker of the covenant of grace with eagerness and hope’; and he thanked God, ‘the ever-blessed Trinity’ for the comfort he received.

The St John’s College Chapel services now took on a new meaning for Martyn. He spoke of going to Chapel and seeing, ‘with some degree of surprise at my former inattention’, that in the Magnificat ‘there was a great degree of joy expressed at the coming of Christ’. However, a far more significant influence on Martyn than his College chapel was to be Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge, where Charles Simeon, a Fellow of King’s College, was the Vicar for fifty-four years. The extent of the influence of Simeon can be seen in Martyn’s diaries, in his letters, in the biography by his close friend, John Sargent, The Life and Letters of Henry Martyn, and in later biographies, for example by Samuel Wilberforce, Journal and Letters of the Rev. Henry Martyn (1837), and by George Smith, Henry Martyn, Saint and Scholar (1892). Martyn was nurtured by Simeon and the Holy Trinity circle and by other evangelicals in Cambridge.


The influence of Charles Simeon and the Simeon circle
With the turning point in his spiritual life taking effect in 1800, Martyn was on the lookout for those who could help him with his new direction. One of these was John Henson, a student at Corpus Christi College, who went on to Anglican ministry in Bristol. Henry wrote to Sally in September 1801 to say that God had given him ‘a friend indeed, one who has made much about the same advances in religion as myself’. The reference was probably to Hensman. They had taken their degrees together. Martyn, following in the footsteps of Kempthorne, was named Senior Wrangler in January 1801, and a few months later gained the Smith Prize in Mathematics and was named first prize-winner for the year. He also had great linguistic gifts. His outstanding ability meant that an academic career beckoned. However, especially under Simeon’s influence, there would be a very different pathway. George Smith records that Martyn was ‘admitted to the inner circle of Simeon’s friends’, and that Martyn had conversation with those of his own age ‘who had come to Christ before him’. John Sargent was one year Martyn’s senior.

On 6 December 1802 Martyn wrote a joint letter with Hensman to another member of the Simeon circle, Henry Godfrey. At a later stage, Godfrey would become President of Queens’ College, Cambridge. During Martyn’s time, the President of Queens’ was another member of Cambridge’s evangelical circle, Isaac Milner. While Hensman, in this letter, covered topics such as ‘the unceasing conflicts of Calvinists and Arminians’, Martyn reported on those present at what were the weekly ‘conversation parties’ in Cambridge held by Simeon for evangelical students. There were many new faces there, Martyn reported, but his rather judgmental comment was: ‘I wish we could safely say that there are many new hearts.’ He continued, perhaps with undue pessimism: ‘But in truth, there is very little spirituality amongst any of us. The chilling air of the university rather damps the flame of devotion.’ It is unlikely that Simeon himself saw his circle of students in quite that way, since, as Martyn reported, he ‘advises us all to take holy orders’. Martyn made what was a momentous decision. Instead of the academic path, he said in this letter of December 1802 that he would apply for ordination in June 1803 and so perhaps would Hensman.

Martyn had also been working for a Fellowship at St John’s, which he had obtained in April 1802. What was driving him forward, as he put it in a letter to Kempthorpe on 31 December 1802, was a desire to spread the knowledge of God, and he reiterated his desire to take Holy Orders in the summer of 1803 and seek a curacy near Cambridge. It was subsequently arranged that he would be Simeon’s curate. Despite his desire to take on this work, he wrote in his journal for 22 April 1803 (having recently started a journal) that he was ‘ashamed’ to tell an acquaintance that he was to be Simeon’s curate, and he commented on his ‘despicable fear of man from which I vainly thought myself free’. The conversation with the acquaintance continued and Martyn was ‘obliged’ to confess to what was happening. Martyn updated Henry Godfrey on developments on 22 June 1803, as he was preparing for his expected ordination. He reported that John Dashwood, who had been a curate in Lolworth - the village where Martyn would succeed him in that role - had preached a farewell sermon in which he had lauded Simeon. For all his own admiration for Simeon, Martyn found Dashwood’s sermon ‘too long’ and lacking in impact. In the same letter he told Godfrey that Simeon had suggested Martyn might later go to Ceylon or to China. Simeon’s thinking about Martyn’s future was to change.

John Dashwood figured again in a letter Martyn wrote to Sargent on 30 June 1803. The information from Dashwood concerned a young man, Henry Kirke White, who needed financial support to come to Cambridge, to St John’s College. Martyn, in outgoing mode, wrote: ‘He [White] is very clever and from the perusal of some poems which he has published, I am much interested about him.’ White did come to St John’s, supported by William Wilberforce, who had been recommend to White by Simeon. White was a gifted evangelical poet. The Simeon circle was at work, with Martyn close to its centre. It was a spiritual network and within it Martyn developed an almost relentless sense of pastoral and vocational concern for many of his fellow students. In the same letter of 30 June 1803 to Sargent, Martyn said that Sargent had been remembered ‘at our prayer at Mr Simeon’s room on Thursday evening’. Writing again to Henry Godfrey on 15 October, Martyn gave an update on a number of those to whom he was close. Hensman had left Cambridge to begin as a curate in Wraxall, near Bristol. Martyn had felt ‘some pain in losing him’, but was assured that he goes ‘to preach the gospel of peace’. Dashwood was meeting ‘with great acceptance’ in Leicester. His word was coming ‘in great power’. There were also two ladies who ‘wish to be united to him’ in marriage, and Martyn had heard that ‘he means to take one’, which he did. William Mandell, another of the Simeon circle, was to be curate to Edward Thomas Vaughan, Vicar of All Saints, Leicester.

A week after the letter to Godfrey, on 22 October 1803, Martyn went to Ely for his ordination. He had submitted testimonials and a certificate to show that he had attended the requisite 51 lectures in Divinity in Cambridge. He wrote in his journal that he ‘felt great shame at having come so confidently to offer myself for the ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ, with so much ignorance and unholiness, and I thought it would be but just if I were sent off with ignominy’. The examining chaplain gave him various tests, which included translations and an apologetic task: ‘To prove the being of a God, His infinite power and goodness.’ After the testing was completed, Martyn recorded: ‘I had now nothing to think of but the weight and difficulty of the work which lay before me.’ The following day he went to Ely Cathedral. During the ordination and sacramental services, he wrote, ‘I sought in vain for a humble heavenly mind. The outward show which tended to inspire solemnity, affected me more than the faith of Christ’s presence, giving me the commission to preach the gospel. May I have grace to fulfil those promises I made before God and the people!’ He walked back to Cambridge from Ely and went straight to Holy Trinity Church, where he was to begin a curacy under Simeon that also took in the village of Lolworth.


Benefit gained from reading
Martyn was a scholar. An important part of his spiritual nurture was his reading, and he often referred to books that were significant for him. Above all, while in Cambridge he was reading the Bible and memorising parts of it. In 1802 he noted: ‘I have found the Bible a never failing source of interesting thought.’ At times, however, he felt that he was not giving the reading of scripture the attention this aspect of his spiritual exercises deserved. His journal for 6 February 1803 had this reflection on the day: ‘Read the Scriptures, between breakfast and church, in a very wandering and unsettled manner.’ Often he read the Old Testament in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek, as well as using an English translation. With his linguistic ability, reading in the original languages provided insights, although he once referred to his slow progress in Hebrew, which, he said, ‘sleeps for awhile’. On 20 October 1803 he wrote that at mid-day of that day he had read the fortieth chapter of Isaiah, and he continued: ‘Amidst the bustle of common life, how frequently has my heart been refreshed by the descriptions of the future glory of the Church.’ The ‘bustle’ had to do with his academic responsibilities and also to visits by friends. Martyn was in no way an isolated individual. Friends were continually calling - at times when he would have rather been reading.

On 6 December 1802, Martyn said in a letter to Godfrey that he had been reading William Paley’s Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity (1802), Jonathan Edwards’ The Life of David Brainerd (first published in 1749), Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible (first published in 1706) and notes – ‘terse and spiritual’, Martyn said - by John Brown, a Scottish minister, in his Self-Interpreting Bible (first published in 1778). It is not clear who was recommending books to Martin, but apart from Paley these books represent standard works that were very widely read in the Reformed/Puritan/Calvinist tradition. Edwards became a particularly influential source for Martyn. When he was examined in Ely, however, the name of Edwards, as Constance Padwick puts it in her Henry Martyn: Confessor of the Faith, was ‘unknown to examining chaplains’. Brainerd’s life had an ongoing powerful impact on Martyn, especially as he saw the way in which Brainerd brought together spirituality and a vision for mission – in his case among native North Americans. On 3 November 1803 Martyn wrote in his journal: ‘I longed to draw very near to God, to pray Him that He would give me the Spirit of wisdom and revelation. I thought of David Brainerd, and ardently desired his devotedness to God and holy breathings of soul.’ In his later journal entries, he wrote of the example of Brainerd and how he was thinking of the missionary call: ‘Go and teach all Nations, I am with you.’

Commentators on the Bible were of particular interest to Martyn. In early 1803 he was reading Old Testament and New Testament commentaries by ‘Lowth’. Martyn mentioned commentaries on Isaiah and Acts, and it is probable that this was work by William Lowth, who in the early eighteenth century published A Commentary upon the Old and New Testaments, with the Apocrypha. He separately published a commentary on Ezekiel which Martyn read in June 1803. Lowth’s son was also a commentator and was Professor of Poetry in the University of Oxford. Another writer who was valued by Martyn was Ezekiel Hopkins, a seventeenth-century clergyman of the Church of Ireland who became Bishop of Derry. Many of Hopkins’ sermons were published. On 29 September 1803, Martyn wrote to Sargent: ‘My studies during the last three months have been Hebrew, Greek Testament, Jon. Edwards On Original Sin, and On the Affections, and Bishop Hopkins,—your favourite and mine. Never did I read such energetic language, such powerful appeals to the conscience. Somehow or other he is able to excite most constant interest, say what he will.’

Martyn returned again and again not only to Jonathan Edwards on Brainerd but also to the theological work of Edwards, who was to be recognised as America’s foremost theologian: in 1803 it was Edwards On Original Sin and then On the Affections. Martyn had great hopes that this second book, entitled in fuller form A Treatise on the Religious Affections (1746), would be ‘of essential use to me’. It seems clear that the evangelical Calvinism of Edwards, with its combination of reason and experience, attracted Martyn. In 1803 he also read the Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature (first published in 1736), by Joseph Butler, who became Bishop of Durham. But Butler did not have the spiritual challenge which Martyn found in Edwards. The challenge to effective ministry was present in the Puritan, Richard Baxter. On 22 June 1803 Martyn wrote to Godfrey: ‘We are taken into a more strict course of training by our hierarch (Simeon) with whom we read Baxter’s Reformed Pastor every Thursday night.’ Perhaps in the light of engaging with Baxter’s pastoral methods, Martyn wrote to Sargent on 30 June 1803 about the fear he felt of being of no value to God. Happily for us, he continued, ‘the covenant is ordered in all things and sure’, a reference to God’s eternal covenant, ‘and it is not left to our own wisdom, but to that adorable agent, the Spirit of God, to perform the good work which he has begun in us.’

Some of the reading Martyn undertook was under Simeon’s guidance, and was discussed with Simeon, but it is likely that he was exploring books for himself. Hugh Evan Hopkins, in his Charles Simeon of Cambridge (1977, reprinted by Wipf and Stock in 2012), notes that Simeon ‘could not share Henry Martyn’s fascination’ for the life of Brainerd. For Simeon, there was too much ‘gloom and despondency’ in Brainerd’s introspection. Martyn also drew from William Law. He recorded in his journal for 1 October 1803 the impact of William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728), a book which influenced John Wesley. Martyn had been reading it since June. He wrote: ‘In the afternoon read in Law’s Serious Call, the chapter on “Resignation,” and prayed for it, according to his direction. I rather think a regular distribution of the day for prayer, to obtain the three great graces of humility, love, and resignation, would be far the best way to grow in them.’ The same journal entry notes that ‘there was in the Christian Observer something of my own, the first which ever appeared in print’. Perhaps in the light of William Law’s Call, he was worried about ‘going off to vanity and levity’ about his first published piece. In the following month he sought Sargent’s thoughts on William Law. He wrote on 18 November 1803: ‘As you have read Law, tell me your opinion of him. He is rather a favourite of mine, though not without his faults.’ In the same period Martyn was gaining benefit from reading Augustine, and he spoke of ‘St Augustine's Meditations’ and of his own experience - ‘in a joyous and happy state’. Four days later he wrote: ‘For two or three days I have been reading some of St. Augustine’s Meditations, and was delighted with the hope of enjoying such communion with God as this holy man. Blessed be God!’

As it became clearer that Martyn was likely to go overseas rather than staying in England, he began to read more missionary material. Entries in his journal in 1803 speak of reading the Missionary Transactions of the London Missionary Society (LMS). The missionaries were exemplars and yet seemed to set unattainable standards. Martyn wrote: ‘The account of their sufferings and diligence could not but tend to lower my notions of myself.’ In particular he was struck by the work of Dr Van der Kemp, who was with the LMS in Southern Africa. ‘What a man!’ was his comment. On 29 September 1803 he wrote to Sargent: ‘I have been lately reading the first volume of the Reports of the Missionary Society, who sent out so many to Otaheite and the southern parts of Africa. You would find the account of Dr. Vanderkemp’s mission into Kafraria infinitely entertaining. It appeared so much so to me, that I could read nothing else while it lasted.’ Later Martyn would meet Van der Kemp. Someone who had wanted to be a missionary but whose health did not allow it was the Baptist, Samuel Pearce, and Martyn wrote in his journal that he was ‘much interested in the working of his [Pearce’s] mind on the subject of mission’.

During 1804 and the first part of 1805, until he left Cambridge, Martyn continued with a mix of reading. On 22 March he wrote to Godfrey: ‘Bishop Hopkins has long been a favourite of mine. What a magnificent display of the powers of the imagination is there in him.’ He had also read the seventeenth-century writer Izaak Walton’s ‘Lives’ of prominent figures but found these ‘rather dull’. Godfrey had asked if Martyn had been reading any Nonconformist writers, and Martyn replied that he had not, and would ‘take no notice of them if I did’. This is not strictly true, since Pearce was a Nonconformist, and Martyn was to find himself drawn to the Baptist missionary William Carey and other Baptist missionaries in India. Indeed, Simeon directed him to Carey and Martyn wanted to get Carey’s ‘Bengalee New Testament’. Martyn valued the Puritans, and often turned to John Flavel ‘with great blessing’. On 11 June 1804 Martyn replied to what had evidently been reservations expressed by Godfrey about Hopkins. Martyn wrote: ‘Your censure of my preference of Hopkins I confess to be merited. I have certainly been carried away by his uncommon eloquence, so much so that I fear my sermons are too far removed from the simplicity of the gospel.’ He assured Godfrey that ‘it is my purpose for the future, for some time to come at least, to preach nothing but Christ crucified’. He did, however, continue to consult Hopkins., especially on the Ten Commandments. Edwards remained very significant. In September and October 1804, he was reading Thomas à Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, and spoke of wanting ‘closer communion with Christ’. In January 1805, he spoke of a great desire ‘to increase in spirituality’. This was the main result he hoped would have come from his reading.


Ministry in Lolworth
Along with Holy Trinity Church, where he was supervised by Simeon, Martyn was curate in the village of Lolworth, eight miles outside Cambridge. This assignment was important for his ministerial formation. In a letter to John Sargent on 18 November 1803 he reported that he had already preached four times, twice at Holy Trinity and twice in Lolworth. His texts were Job 14:14, John 4: 10, Psalm 9:17 and Hebrews 6:11. More could be done to analyse his choices of texts. His Lolworth congregation was ‘about one hundred’, which meant that most of those living in the village were attending. Martyn looked forward to when ‘the composition of sermons will become easier’ so that he could ‘perform all the duties of the ministry with more attention than I have yet been able to give’. In his development, Martyn continued to be deeply affected by Simeon. As Scott Ayler puts it, Simeon looked for the direct relation of theology to the salvation of the hearers. ‘His training thus focussed on the content of the preached word, instilling a love for clarity and practicality.’

Martyn also noted those who came to Lolworth to preach as visitors and made an impression. Writing to Godfrey on 27 December 1803, he said: ‘I have engaged you one Sunday at least at Lolworth.’ Martyn explained about a Mr Cotton, who remembered a sermon by Godfrey and thought that Godfrey would be able to connect with the Lolworth congregation. Robert James Hoar of Magdalene College had also preached at Lolworth. It was evident to Martyn that the village congregation judged preachers by how well they could understand them and also by their manner. Hoar, for example, was ‘very lively and pleasing’ and when preaching at Lolworth he ‘gained great attention’. Martyn found that this lively style was ‘a great contrast to my dullness, for as you will see, I can scarcely read a sermon with any tolerable degree of propriety, and what is worse, I feel very little aware of the presence of God, or the value of the souls that hear me’. This was self-deprecatory and was not a realistic assessment, although the evidence is that Martyn strength was not in preaching.

Martyn’s journal entries in early 1804 gave an indication of his work in the parish. On 8 January he not only preached at Lolworth but called on three houses, where as far as he could see the people were ignorant of the gospel. In February he recorded his ‘earnest desire’ to persuade people who heard him to commit their lives to Christ. He had ‘some desires in prayer for the good of my Lolworth people’. Writing to Hensman on 6 February 1804, he said he was ‘astonished and grieved’ at the lack of knowledge of the Christian faith in the village. Before one sermon he had ‘prayed as in a void and barren place’, but as he rode back to Cambridge he was ‘in a more cheerful mood’. For him, prayer for his congregation was vital. He wrote of ‘interceding seriously for the people of Lolworth’ and praying particularly ‘that I might take delight in being with them and wait in faith for the time when the wilderness should begin to blossom’. However, he was regularly discouraged when he undertook pastoral visiting. By February 1804 he had visited all the local families. After one service he visited two families who ‘seemed incapable of comprehending or attending to any saving truths’. Even worse was a visit in June 1804 to a man in Lolworth who was ‘near death’. When Martyn offered prayer, this offer was accepted, but the man said he was not sure it would do much good.

After the summer of 1804 spent in London and Cornwell, Martyn returned to Lolworth. On 23 September 1804 he preached at Lolworth and visited a woman who was ‘obviously near death’, and whom Martyn considered ‘had nearly never heard of Christ’. In a letter of 8 October to Henry Godfrey, he said he was now preaching at Lolworth without notes. However, this was not ‘extempore’ preaching, as his method now was to write the sermons in full and then memorise them. In the same letter, Martyn told Godfrey that sadly he did not know of one person through him he had been ‘the means of awakening’. The autumn of 1804 seems to have been a struggle for Martyn. His journal speaks of his riding back from Lolworth ‘very much dejected’ and about a home meeting when he said nothing about religion to a young man who fell down and was carried out unconscious. Martyn was told by some in Lolworth that his preaching ‘would not do at all for this place’. On 4 November, preaching on Acts 16: 29-31, he found the people ‘inattentive’. By contrast, he preached the same sermon at Holy Trinity and found the people in the congregation there ‘were attentive’.

In the meantime, discussions had been going on with evangelical leaders such as William Wilberforce about Martyn going to India as a chaplain with the East India Company. After months in which the outcome was not certain, the arrangement was agreed on 3 April 1805. Simeon was important in Martyn’s thinking about service in India. Charles Grant of the East India Company, an evangelical, looked to Simeon for chaplains and several ‘evangelical chaplains’ were appointed. On 7 April 1805, with the way ahead clearer, Martyn recorded in his journal: ‘Preached at Lolworth on Prov. xxii. 17; very few seemed affected at my leaving them, and those chiefly women. An old farmer of a neighbouring parish, as he was taking leave of me, turned aside to shed tears; this affected me more than anything. Rode away with my heart heavy, partly at my own corruption, partly at the thoughts of leaving this place in such general hardness of heart.’


Curacy in Cambridge
Whereas at Lolworth Martyn was in effect the pastor of the people in the village, in his curacy in Cambridge (attached as he was to Holy Trinity), which is what took up most of his time, he was closely supervised by Simeon. Analysis could be undertaken of how this happened. An indication of how he was trained is seen in Simeon’s comments after Martyn spoke in Holy Trinity. As Martyn recorded it in his journal, Simeon told him that he ‘ought to read with more solemnity and devotion’. Martyn, unsurprisingly, was ‘not a little grieved and amazed’. There were complaints that Martyn spoke ‘too low and with little elocution’. Martyn began to see, as he put it, ‘that I must be contented to take my place among men of second-rate abilities’. When he preached at Holy Trinity, he might be involved in the preparation of his sermon during the whole of the preceding week. At Lolworth there was less need for extended preparation as he could use Simeon’s ‘Skeletons’, the brief sermon outlines Simeon produced to help younger ministers with their sermon preparation.

In November 1803, Martyn spoke of the responsibility of ‘visiting the people of Cambridge, and reading to and praying with them’. Although he often found it hard, visiting, including visiting the poor house in Walls Lane, became part of his regular involvement. As Constance Padwick notes: ‘Diligent pastoral visiting was the rule for Simeon’s curates.’ On 15 January 1804, Martyn preached at St Giles Church in Cambridge, in this case preaching extemporaneously, and then called on some old women in alms houses. The Vicar of St Giles was William Farish, who was Professor of Chemistry and Natural Philosophy in the University. Farish was a strong supporter of Simeon and exercised a significant ministry at St Giles, expanding the building considerably to accommodate increased congregations. During the week after preaching at St Giles, Martyn spent time with Farish as well as with Simeon. Presumably based on what he heard, on 7 February 1804 Simeon advised Martyn not to try to preach extemporaneously. However, Martyn was part of discussion groups in Cambridge which called on him to speak without notes. On 8 February he was at one group, with ‘many people crowded in a small room’, and he tried to explain the first chapter of Revelation. In his own estimation he was ‘very unprofitable’, but he was able to lead the group in prayer. He was also involved in helping children with learning through catechism.

Taking part in the worship and life at Holy Trinity was always important for Martyn. On 26 February 1804 he wrote: ‘The hymn before sermon, in behalf of ministers, seemed to draw down a blessing at the time upon my soul.’ A month later he was edified by Simeon’s account of God's providence in bringing him [Simeon] to the church. On 15 April, after preaching at Holy Trinity, Martyn ‘enjoyed the blessing of peace and joy’. He also joined ‘with great freedom and delight in spiritual conversation’, seeking to make it ‘profitable to some young people there’. Martyn felt ‘unusual fervour’ as he took part in the Holy Trinity service on 13 May, although, in typical fashion, he spoke of subsequent ‘vain, self-exalting thoughts’. This was a period when he was thinking about the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and on 20 May he heard Thomas Lloyd, who was Dean of the Faculty of Divinity in the University, ‘preach with great clearness and power on the internal illumination of the Holy Spirit’. Lloyd had come to evangelical convictions and was, like Simeon, a Fellow of King’s College; indeed, the two had set themselves ‘the arduous task of reforming the college’ and had agreed they would ‘not be afraid of reproaches’.  On the evening when he heard Lloyd, Martyn preached in Holy Trinity on Ephesians 4: 30, ‘Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption’ and after the service he found his thoughts were taken up ‘alone with God’.

Hugh Evan Hopkins suggests that reading between the lines of Martyn’s journal there were struggles on the part of Simeon and Martyn during the curacy period. On 7 June 1804, at a meeting at Simeon’s, with another of the Simeon circle present, Simeon addressed some remarks to Martyn about ‘a person who, he said, lashed the subjects of his censure in his sermons with undue severity, forgetting that he himself was equally weak’. There was a difference between this approach and that of Martyn, which Simeon would have appreciated, in that Martyn set unachievable high spiritual standards for himself as well as looking for those levels of spirituality in others. He wrote to Henry Godfrey on 11 June to say that we ought ‘to bear in mind that the work of the ministry is not the main business of our lives, but the keeping of our own hearts.’ On 21 June, Simeon preached on John 4:34, ‘My food is to do the will of Him who sent me and to finish His work’, and Martyn found: ‘My soul was stirred up within me to follow his steps’. Yet, he continued, ‘my heart sinks within me at the prospect of the terrible opposition I shall have to encounter from the world, from the flesh and from the devil’. A few days later Martyn found himself ‘in great dejection’ but he met ‘that man of God’, Thomas Lloyd, and was able to talk about his experience. The encounter left him with hope.

The summer of 1804, as noted, was partly spent in Cornwall. Many of the Anglican pulpits there were not open to Martyn. It was said disparagingly: ‘Mr. Martyn is a Calvinist preacher in the dissenting way.’  But he was able to preach in some churches. Back in Cambridge, Martyn took up his curacy duties once more. As well as preaching at Lolworth and in Holy Trinity, he preached at Stapleford, where his friend, Thomas Thomason, was the curate in charge. Thomason would also go to India as a Chaplain, as would Daniel Corrie and William Dealtry, who became the first and second Bishops of Madras. They encouraged one another. On Sunday 11 November 1804 Martyn shared in the service at Holy Trinity and his ‘natural spirits were high in church’. Afterwards he rode to Stapleford to preach but was disappointed that he had not preached with ‘more life and zest’. He was still learning from Simeon. On 22 November he recorded that Simeon preached on John 15:9, ‘As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.’ Through this sermon, Martyn found ‘great joy and love to Christ’ and was able to pray ‘with great delight and fervour’.

Although Simeon, in giving Martyn advice about preaching, had said that the extempore method was not one to pursue, on 30 December 1804 Martyn preached in this way at St Giles on John 3:3 on the theme of being born again. In January 1805 Martyn preached at Holy Trinity and recorded that he ‘was in greater fear when I ascended the pulpit, than I ever remember to have been’. However, as soon as he began to pray, all his fears vanished. Although Martyn felt that he was able to give the message he had prepared, Simeon pointed out some faults later. These were to do with some people finding Martyn hard to understand. However, it seems that people had been expecting Simeon to preach at that service and were disappointed for that reason. At the end of January, Martyn was continuing his one-to-one conversations with Simeon and was finding these ‘agreeable and spiritual’.

On 4 April 1805, as preparations for Martyn to leave Cambridge were being concluded, Martyn had an evening in which Simeon prayed for him. On 7 April 1805, Martyn recorded that he ‘prayed over the whole of my sermon for the evening [in Holy Trinity], and when I came to preach it, God assisted me beyond my hopes.’ He continued: ‘Most of the younger people seemed to be in tears.’ The text was 2 Sam. 7:28, 29, on the theme of God’s covenant and of prayer for God’s blessing on ‘the house of your servant’, presumably with an application to Holy Trinity. Martyn took his leave of Isaac Milner, who was ‘much affected’, and ‘said himself his heart was full’. There was prayer by Simeon, who ‘commended me to God in prayer, in which he pleaded, amongst other things, for a richer blessing on my soul. He perceives that I want it, and so do I.’ Professor Parish walked home with Martyn to the College gate, ‘and there I parted from him, with no small sorrow’. The next day, he recorded, ‘my young friends in the university, who have scarcely left me a moment to myself, were with me… A great many accompanied me to the coach, which took me up at the end of the town; it was a thick misty morning, so that the university, with its towers and spires, was out of sight in an instant.’

Martyn spent time in London and then in Portsmouth and Falmouth, from where he set out on his voyage to India. He wrote to the congregation of Holy Trinity Church on 11 July 1805 from Portsmouth. Simeon was there with him, as was his future fellow-Chaplain, Daniel Corrie. Martyn’s letter referred to ‘our dear brother and minister’ who were there to say farewell and had taken a gift from Holy Trinity Church. The prayer from Martyn was, ‘Oh may my God richly recompense you for your great affection!’ He continued: ‘Remember me sometimes at your social meetings, and particularly at that which you hold on the Sabbath morning.’ The letter concluded: ‘Farewell, dear Brethren! May God long continue to you the invaluable labours of your beloved minister; and may you, with the blessing of his ministry, grow, day by day, in all spirituality and humility of mind, till God, in His mercy, shall call you, each in his own time, to the eternal enjoyment of his glory.’


The purpose of this short piece has in part been to indicate ways in which further research on Henry Martyn can be pursued. It is against this background that Scott Ayler’s biography is eagerly anticipated. For those who want to continue to read about Martyn and have read the standard biographies, there is also:

In addition, there is….

  • Clinton Bennett, ‘The Legacy of Henry Martyn’, International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Vol.16, No.1 (1992).
  • Brian Stanley, ‘The Spiritual Legacy of Henry Martyn’, in Richard Fox Young, ed., India and the Indianness of Christianity (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2009).
  • And my article: ‘Henry Martyn (1781-1812) and the Baptists in India: An Ecumenical Vision?’, Baptist Quarterly, Vol. 45, No. 2 (April 2013), pp. 87-113.

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