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A Handful of Stars: 7: Henry Martyn's Text

By Frank W. Boreham


      I

      With Henry Martyn the making of history became a habit, a habit so inveterate that not even death itself could break him of it. He only lived to be thirty-two; but he made vast quantities of history in that meager handful of years. 'His,' says Sir James Stephen, 'is the one heroic name which adorns the annals of the English church from the days of Elizabeth to our own.' And Dr. George Smith, his biographer, boasts that Martyn's life constitutes itself the priceless and perpetual heritage of all English-speaking Christendom, whilst the native churches of India, Arabia, Persia and Anatolia will treasure the thought of it through all time to come. Appropriately enough, Macaulay, who dedicated his brilliant powers to the great task of worthily recording the history that other men had made, composed the epitaph for that lonely Eastern tomb.

         Here Martyn lies! In manhood's early bloom
         The Christian hero found a Pagan tomb:
         Religion, sorrowing o'er her favorite son,
         Points to the glorious trophies which he won.
         Eternal trophies, not with slaughter red,
         Not stained with tears by hopeless captives shed;
         But trophies of the Cross. For that dear Name
         Through every form of danger, death and shame,
         Onward he journeyed to a happier shore,
         Where danger, death and shame are known no more.

      For more than a hundred years the bones of Henry Martyn have reposed in that far-off Oriental sepulcher; but, as though he had never heard of his own decease, he goes on making history still. Henry Martyn died seven years before George Eliot was born, and they had very little in common. But, in the novel which Dr. Marcus Dods described as 'one of the greatest religious books ever written,' George Eliot makes the spiritual crisis in the experience of her storm-beaten and distracted heroine to turn on the perusal of the Life of Henry Martyn. When Janet Dempster, clad only in her thin nightdress, was driven at dead of night from her husband's home, she took refuge with good old Mrs. Pettifer, and fell into a stupor of utter misery and black despair. Nothing seemed to rouse her. It chanced, however, that Mrs. Pettifer was a subscriber of the Paddiford Lending Library. From that village treasure-trove she had borrowed the biography that was lying on the table when, like a hunted deer, poor Janet took shelter in her home. After a day or two, Janet picked up the book, dipped into it, and at length 'became so arrested by that pathetic missionary story that she could not leave it alone.' It broke the spell of her stupor, gave her a new hold upon life, awoke her dormant energy, and moved her to renewed action.

      'I must go,' she said. 'I feel I must be doing something for someone; I must not be a mere useless log any longer. I've been reading about that wonderful Henry Martyn wearing himself out for other people, and I sit thinking of nothing but myself! I must go! Good-bye!'

      And, like a frightened dove that, having been driven to shelter by a hawk, recovers from its terror and again takes wing, off she went! Janet Dempster is all the more real because she is unreal. She is all the more a substance because she is only a shadow. She is all the more symbolic and typical because she appears, not in history, but in fiction. If I had found her in the realm of biography, I might have regarded hers as an isolated and exceptional case. But, since I have found her in the realm of romance, I can only regard her--as her creator intended me to regard her--as a great representative character. She represents all those thousands of people upon whom the heroic record of Henry Martyn's brief career has acted as a stimulant and a tonic. She represents all those thousands of people through whom Henry Martyn is making history.

      II

      The Gospels tell of a certain man who was borne of four to the feet of Jesus. I know his name and I know the names of the four who brought him. The man's name was Henry Martyn, and the quartet consisted of a father, a sister, an author and a minister. Each had a hand in the gracious work, and each in a different way. The father did his part accidentally, indirectly, unconsciously; the sister did her part designedly, deliberately, and of set purpose. The author and the minister did their parts in the ordinary pursuit of their vocations; but the author did his part impersonally and indirectly, whilst the minister did his part personally and face to face. The author's shaft was from a bow drawn at a venture; the minister's was carefully aimed. He set himself to win the young student in his congregation, and he lived to rejoice unfeignedly in his success. Let me introduce each of the four.

      The Father bore his Corner. Before Henry Martyn left England, he was one of the most brilliant students in the country, Senior Wrangler of his University, and the proud holder of scholarships and fellowships. But, in his earlier days, he failed at one or two examinations, and, in his mortification, heaped the blame upon his father. In one of these fits of passion, he bounced out of the elder man's presence--never to enter it again. Before he could return and express contrition, the father suddenly died. Henry's remorse was pitiful to see. His heart was filled with grief and his eyes swollen with tears. But that torrent of tears so cleansed those eyes that he was able to see, as he had never seen before, into the abysmal depths of his own heart. He was astonished at the baseness and depravity he found there. Years afterwards he writes with emotion of the distressing discovery that he then made. 'I do not remember a time,' he says, 'in which the wickedness of my heart rose to a greater height than it did then. The consummate selfishness and exquisite instability of my mind were displayed in rage, malice and envy; in pride, vain-glory and contempt for all about me; and in the harsh language which I used to my sister and even to my father. Oh, what an example of patience and mildness was he! I love to think of his excellent qualities; and it is the anguish of my heart that I could ever have been base enough and wicked enough to have pained him. O my God, why is not my heart doubly-agonized at the remembrance of all my great transgressions?' So poor John Martyn, lying silent in his grave, entered into that felicity which, in one of her short poems, Miss Susan Best has so touchingly depicted. 'When I was laid in my coffin,' she makes a dead man say,

         When I was laid in my coffin,
            Quite done with Time and its fears,
         My son came and stood beside me--
            He hadn't been home for years;
         And right on my face came dripping
            The scald of his salty tears;
         And I was glad to know his breast
         Had turned at last to the old home nest,
         That I said to myself in an underbreath:
         'This is the recompense of death.'

      The Sister bore her Corner. In his letters to her he opens all his heart. He is sometimes angry with her because, when he expected her to show delight in his academic triumphs, she only exhibits an earnest solicitude for his spiritual well-being. But, in his better moments, he forgave her. 'What a blessing it is for me,' he writes to her in his twentieth year, 'what a blessing it is for me that I have such a sister as you, who have been so instrumental in keeping me in the right way.' And, later on, he delights her by telling her that he 'has begun to attend more diligently to the words of the Saviour and to devour them with delight.'

      The Author bore his Corner. It was just about a hundred years after the birth of Philip Doddridge, and just about fifty years after his death, that his book, The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul, fell into the hands of Henry Martyn. Twenty years earlier it had opened the eyes of William Wilberforce and led him to repentance. Doddridge's powerful sentences fell upon the proud soul of Henry Martyn like the lashes of a scourge. He resented them; he writhed under their condemnation; but they revealed to him the desperate need of his heart, and he could not shake from him the alarm which they excited.

      The Minister bore his Corner. No preacher in England was better fitted to appeal to the mind of Martyn, at this critical stage of his career, than was the Rev. Charles Simeon, the Vicar of Trinity Church, Cambridge. In his concern, the young collegian found himself strangely attracted to the services at Trinity; and he gradually acquired, as he confessed to his sister, more knowledge in divine things. He made the acquaintance, and won the friendship, of Mr. Simeon, and confided in him without reserve. 'I now experienced,' he says, 'a real pleasure in religion, being more deeply convinced of sin than before, more earnest in fleeing to Jesus for refuge, and more desirous for the renewal of my nature.' The profit was mutual. For, many years after Henry Martyn's departure and death, Mr. Simeon kept in his study a portrait of the young student, and he used to say that he could never look into that face but it seemed to say to him, 'Be earnest! Be earnest!'

      And so, to repeat the language of the Gospel, 'there came unto Jesus one that was borne of four,' and his name was Henry Martyn.

      III

      I cannot discover that, up to this point, any one text had played a conspicuous part in precipitating the crisis which transfigured his life. But, after this, I find one sentence repeatedly on his lips. During a journey a man is often too engrossed with the perplexities of the immediate present to be able to review the path as a whole. But, when he looks back, he surveys the entire landscape in grateful retrospect, and is astonished at the multiplicity and variety of the perils that he has escaped. Henry Martyn had some such feeling. When, at the age of twenty-two, he entered the ministry, he was amazed at the greatness of the grace that had made such hallowed privileges and sacred duties possible to him. Even in his first sermon, we are told, he preached with a fervor of spirit and an earnestness of manner that deeply impressed the congregation.

         He preached as one who ne'er should preach again,
         And as a dying man to dying men.

      'For,' he wrote, 'I am but a brand plucked from the burning.'

      Again, when the needs of the world pressed like an intolerable burden upon his spirit, the same thought decided his course. On the one hand, he saw a world lying in darkness and crying for the light. On the other hand, he saw all those sweet and sacred ties that bound him to his native land--his devoted people, his admiring friends, and, hardest tie of all to break, the lady whom he had fondly hoped to make his bride. Here, on the one hand, stood comfort, popularity, success and love! And here, on the other, stood cruel hardship, endless difficulties, constant loneliness, and an early grave! 'But how,' he writes, 'can I hesitate? I am but a brand plucked from the burning!'

      A brand in peril of sharing the general destruction!

      A brand seen, and prized, and rescued!

      A brand at whose blaze other flames might be lit!

      A brand plucked from the burning!

      IV

      'Is not this a brand plucked from the burning?'--it was John Wesley's text. To the end of his days John Wesley preserved the picture of the fire at the old rectory, the fire from which he, as a child of six, was only rescued in the nick of time. And, underneath the picture, John Wesley had written with his own hand the words: 'Is not this a brand plucked from the burning?'

      'Is not this a brand plucked from the burning?'--it was John Fletcher's text. John Wesley thought John Fletcher, the Vicar of Madeley, the holiest man then living. 'I have known him intimately for thirty years,' says Mr. Wesley. 'In my eighty years I have met many excellent men; but I have never met his equal, nor do I expect to find such another on this side of eternity.' From what source did that perennial stream of piety spring? 'When I saw that all my endeavors availed nothing,' says Mr. Fletcher, in describing his conversion, 'I almost gave up hope. But, I thought, Christ died for all; therefore He died for me. He died to pluck such sinners as I am as brands from the burning! I felt my helplessness and lay at the feet of Christ. I cried, coldly, yet, I believe, sincerely, "Save me, Lord, as a brand snatched out of the fire! Stretch forth Thine almighty arm and save Thy lost creature by free, unmerited grace!"'

      'Is not this a brand plucked from the burning?'--it was Thomas Olivers' text. Thomas Olivers was one of Wesley's veterans, the author of the well-known hymn, 'The God of Abraham praise.' He went one day to hear George Whitefield preach. The text was, 'Is not this a brand plucked from the burning?' 'When the sermon began,' he says, 'I was certainly a dreadful enemy to God and to all that is good, and one of the most profligate and abandoned young men living; but, by the time it was ended, I was become a new creature. For, in the first place, I was deeply convinced of the great goodness of God towards me in all my life; particularly in that He had given His Son to die for me. I had also a far clearer view of all my sins, particularly my base ingratitude towards Him. These discoveries quite broke my heart and caused showers of tears to trickle down my cheeks. I was likewise filled with an utter abhorrence of my evil ways, and was much ashamed that I had ever walked in them. And, as my heart was thus turned from all that is evil, so it was powerfully inclined to all that is good. It is not easy to express what strong desires I felt for God and His service; and what resolutions I made to seek Him and serve Him in the future. In consequence of this, I broke off all my evil practices, and forsook all my wicked and foolish companions without delay. I gave myself up to God and His service with my whole heart. Oh, what reason have I to say, "Is not this a brand plucked from the burning?"'

      'Is not this a brand plucked from the burning?'--it was Stephen Grellet's text. Writing of his conversion, he says that 'the awfulness of that day of God's visitation can never cease to be remembered by me with peculiar gratitude as long as I possess my mental faculties. I am as a brand plucked from the burning; I have been rescued from the brink of a horrible pit!'

      V

      And it was Henry Martyn's text! 'Is not this,' he cried, as he entered the ministry, and again as he entered the mission field, 'is not this a brand plucked from the burning?'

      A brand that might have perished in the general destruction!

      A brand seen, and prized, and rescued!

      A brand at whose blaze other flames might be lit!

      A brand plucked from the burning!

      'Oh, let me burn out for my God!' he cries, still thinking of the brand plucked from the flames. He plunges, like a blazing torch, into the darkness of India, of Persia and of Turkey. He leaves the peoples whom he has evangelized the Scriptures in their own tongues. Seven short years after he left England, he dies all alone on a foreign strand. 'No kinsman is near to watch his last look or receive his last words. No friend stands by his couch to whisper comforting words, to close his eyes or wipe the death-sweat from his brow.' In the article of death, he is alone with his Lord. The brand plucked from the blaze has soon burned out. But what does it matter? At its ardent flame a thousand other torches have been ignited; and the lands that sat so long in darkness have welcomed the coming of a wondrous light!

Back to Frank W. Boreham index.

See Also:
   Introduction
   1: William Penn's Text
   2: Robinson Crusoe's Text
   3: James Chalmers' Text
   4: Sydney Carton's Text
   5: Ebenezer Erskine's Text
   6: Doctor Davidson's Text
   7: Henry Martyn's Text
   8: Michael Trevanion's Text
   9: Hudson Taylor's Text
   10: Rodney Steele's Text
   11: Thomas Huxley's Text
   12: Walter Petherick's Text
   13: Doctor Blund's Text
   14: Hedley Vicars' Text
   15: Silas Wright's Text
   16: Michael Faraday's Text
   17: Janet Dempster's Text
   18: Catherine Booth's Text
   19: Uncle Tom's Text
   20: Andrew Bonar's Text
   21: Francis D'assisi's Text
   22: Everybody's Text

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