Dr Scott Ayler introduces his new book, an annotated edition of the collected letters of the British missionary Henry Martyn.
It was during a 15-month stint of relief work with Afghan refugees in Pakistan in the 1980’s that I first leafed through Constance Padwick’s 1923 biography of Henry Martyn. His name was new to me, but as I began to read, a new world unfolded. Its beautiful prose inaugurated a decades-long desire to understand more about Martyn and the world he inhabited.
In 1881, the Church Times declared Martyn to be “first great missionary of the English Church since Boniface”. Nearly 140 years later, Martyn is largely unremembered. His brief life (1781-1812) took him from the halls of Cambridge where he was named First Wrangler and first prizewinner for the Smith Prize for mathematics in 1801, to serve as a chaplain for the East India Company in both Dinapore and Cawnpore. There he nurtured his deep love of languages, becoming increasingly central to Anglican efforts to translate the Christian scriptures into strategic Asian languages. In 1810, he completed a translation of the New Testament in Urdu and did important work on the Arabic New Testament. He spent the last year and a half of his life in Persia completing the New Testament in Persian and engaging in the first extensive written debates between Muslim scholars and a Protestant clergyman, debates that would eventually be published and become a seminal influence on British and American understandings of Islam. Martyn died a few months later in Tokat, Turkey in 1812 at age 31. Following Martyn’s early death, a memoir written by his Cambridge friend John Sargent, quickly went through ten editions. It incorporated Martyn’s profoundly moving personal journals and a small collection of personal correspondence. Later biographers would unearth further correspondence, but no new letters were included by biographers after George Smith’s magisterial biography of 1892. The well of original source material appeared to have run dry.
My own introduction to Martyn had created a hunger to know more about this Cornishman at the heart of the new Protestant Missionary Movement—a friend of William Wilberforce, John Newton and Charles Simeon. I wanted more of his letters, more understanding of what made the man tick. Although no new primary source material had been published in over a century, letters kept emerging in archives from the families of recipients as the decades went by. Most have never seen the light of day.
Thus, a 16-year quest began to transcribe every extant letter or portion of Martyn’s letters, many of which had never seen publication. This took me to archives throughout the UK and introduced me to a coterie of like-minded scholars, eager to see new material available in this long-neglected area. I next began to annotate the letters, identifying the hundreds of individuals with whom Martyn related, providing a fascinating window on his era and the people who inhabited it. This process took me from the Persian Gulf to Cornwall, from Cambridge to Kolkata and involved me in discussions with numerous scholars and clergy. It is my hope that that the availability of this new and more complete correspondence and the identification of Martyn’s many Cambridge and South Asian contacts will foster renewed interest in studies surrounding the early days of the Protestant Missionary Movement and awaken the appetites of a new generation of readers.
This guest blog post was written by Scott D. Ayler. Scott spent spent 24 years as an English-language instructor in the Middle East and South Asia, most recently at the University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. He completed his doctorate in History at the University of Wales, Lampeter.