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  • Writer's pictureJill Ball


When I started to research the inspirational stories of British missionaries, such as Hudson Taylor, Mary Slessor, William Carey, Gladys Aylward, Amy Carmichael & Jackie Pullinger I soon realised that this topic was too big for a single blog.

They learnt multiple languages, translated Scriptures and wrote hundreds of books. Some rescued drug addicts, kidnapped children from temple prostitution, became the only European in a city or the respected mother to an entire tribe.

All of them left the comfort of their own home to bring Good News to a lost world.

I've decided to include inspirational quotes from many different British missionaries, but to focus on one man's life story. He went to a place that I have visited, to a culture and a people that I love, and so I'm hoping to bring something extra to his inspirational story.

The power of gentleness is irresistible Henry Martyn

Henry Martyn

Ancient baths in Shiraz in use when Martyn lived there
Vakil Hammam, Shiraz

Henry Martyn was born in Truro, Cornwall in 1781. His mother died when he was a baby and his father started out as a miner. He was extremely clever and went to Cambridge University, where he was the top Mathematics student in his year.

I'm not afraid of failure; I'm afraid of succeeding at things that don't matter. William Carey

The early death of his father caused him to become more serious and he decided to dedicate his life to Christ by becoming a missionary. He was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1803.

Unfortunately he and his sister had contracted tuberculosis. He had recurring bouts of sickness for the rest of his life.

God uses men who are weak and feeble enough to lean on Him. Hudson Taylor

It was difficult for him to leave friends, especially Lydia Grenfell, who he had fallen in love with. He wanted to marry her, but she needed to care for her elderly mother. So he set sail for India in 1805, leaving behind his sweetheart. He was employed by the East India Company as a chaplain.

God isn't looking for people of great faith, but for individuals ready to follow Him. Hudson Taylor

The journey took nine months and as they rounded the Cape of Good Hope they were delayed by the Battle of Blaauwberg. Martyn tended to some of the dying soldiers from the battlefield. He was opposed to the war and reflecting on the attitude of Jesus Christ at Calvary, he said:

I would rather be the trampled upon than the trampler

He arrived in India in 1806 and studied Hindi, Urdu, Persian and Arabic. He opened schools and preached to crowds of hundreds. William Carey knew him and admired him. He started to translate the bible into Urdu and Persian with the help people who spoke Urdu as their first language. However he wanted to check the Persian translation more accurately.

Lord, the task is impossible for me but not for Thee. Lead the way and I will follow. Mary Slessor

When the doctors advised fresh sea air because of his tuberculosis. I'm not sure they intended him to take a voyage and move to the hot, dusty city of Shiraz.

Henry Martyn arrived in Persia, or Iran, in 1811. He settled in Shiraz, where there were some Jews and Armenian Christians, but these were in the minority. Overwhelmingly, the population were Shia Muslims.

Persian culture is very hospitable and Henry would have been treated as an honoured guest, rather than a stranger. Many of the local Imams and priests would have been delighted to discuss God with the first European priest to visit the city.

I expect that all the men of Shiraz would have been happy to discuss religion with him. It must have been overwhelming, especially for someone in poor health. However discussion is not the same thing as acceptance. The Iranians would have been very polite to their guest's face, but we don't know of any Iranian becoming a Christian during Henry Martyn's stay in Iran.

Even if I should never see a native converted, God may design by my patience and continuance in the Word to encourage future missionaries. Henry Martin

After a year in Shiraz, the translation of the New Testament was completed with the help of a Muslim scholar, Mirza Seyedalikhan and Henry wanted to present a copy to the Shah. However he had to go to the high ranking officials first. With due reverence, he presented the gift for Fath-Ali Shah Qajar. However this was not appreciated and he was challenged to say,

'There is one God, Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet.'

This is the Muslim confession, and is how a person shows they have converted to Islam, by saying this in Arabic. The statement is loaded with meaning and the assembled dignitaries waited in silence for Henry's reply. Henry Martyn said,

There is one God, Allah, and Jesus is the Son of God

There was complete chaos and Henry knew that Muslims would consider this a blasphemous statement and might kill him. Muslims believe that God cannot have a son. Unfortunately this is generally misunderstood as a son in a human or physical sense.

Henry knew he was in danger and so he retrieved his precious Persian New Testament and retreated to the home of the British ambassador, Sir Gore Ousely in Tabriz. Later the ambassador was able to present a copy to the Shah, who said he was pleased with the gift and wrote:

In truth, through the learned and unremitting exertions of Rev Henry Martyn, it has been translated in a style most befitting sacred books, that is in easy simple diction

These are the words of a diplomatic, polite ruler, not someone who was convinced by the truth of the Gospel.

Front Bible page written in Persian
Persian translation of the Bible

There are three stages to every great work of God; first it is impossible, then it is difficult, then it is done. Hudson Taylor

Henry Martyn was a sick man and after several months of illness, his journey home was arranged. The plan was to travel to Istanbul, through the Ottoman Empire with two servants, and then on to Britain, back to Lydia. Although he had said:

Let me burn out for God

But Henry was never going to recover and in 1812 he died on route, aged 32.

He was buried in the Armenian cemetery in Tokat, Turkey.


Sometimes when we read the words of those who have been more than conquerors, we feel almost despondent. I feel that I shall never be like that.
But they won through step by step, by little bits of wills, little denials of self, little inward victories. By faithfulness in very little things, they became what they are.
No one sees these little hidden steps. They only see the accomplishment, but even so, those small steps were taken.
Amy Carmichael

Remember Amy Carmichael was an inspirational missionary herself.

I am awed by Henry Martyn's commitment & perseverance, his faith & his bravery, but most of all for what he was prepared to sacrifice for his love of God and the people of Iran.

For centuries Persia has seemed closed to the Gospel and when the Islamic Republic of Iran was established in 1979, it seemed impossible to reach.

However there has been a sovereign work of God amongst Iranians. Many have had to flee their homeland because of persecution, but they are a people who value their history. They will not forget a young Englishman who came alone to share the Good News with them.

Listen to Mojtaba's story - a young man from Shiraz.

Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God. William Carey

This one of my favourite Farsi worship songs

There have been many Christian Martyrs in recent years in Iran. Read about some from a different age:

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1 Comment

Jun 09, 2021

A wonderful uplifting song to end with. I can’t understand farsi, so I hope I got the feel right!

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