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Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/The missionaries - Martyn, Huc, Livingstone, Selwyn

< Once a Week (magazine)‎ | Series 1‎ | Volume 2



At the opening of this century, there was a certain youth, somewhat meagre in form and delicate in face, and of an anxious cast of countenance, who might often be seen walking in summer evenings on a heath in Cornwall. He was not alone. Somebody was with him who made the barren heath blossom to his heart, like a garden of roses. She had been his playfellow; and he hoped—as did she also—that she would be his companion through life. His mother said they must not think of it; for they had nothing to marry upon; and, learned and diligent as Henry might be, there would not be the less hunger at home for the wealth of Henry's mind. His father had been a labourer in a mine at Gwennap; he had raised himself to a clerkship, and to the ability to send Henry to the grammar-school at Truro: but this was no reason why his son should venture upon an early marriage. So said the mother. If she had been a little less hard, it would have made more difference to the world than she or her son dreamed of.

With his love in his heart to urge him on, Henry Martyn had tried for a scholarship at Corpus Christi College, Oxford; but had failed. He then entered at St. John's College, Cambridge, where he soon saw, humble as he was, that he could achieve distinction in mathematics, or perhaps any branch of study to which he applied himself. In fact, he came out Senior Wrangler in 1801. It might seem that his love might now run a smooth course; but a new obstacle had arisen. A man of his proved quality was sure of an honourable maintenance; but a prohibition had arisen within, from which he suffered more than from his mother's opposition.

At Cambridge he had been deeply impressed by the preaching of Mr. Simeon, and won over by Mr. Simeon's encouragement and friendship to a life of religious self-sacrifice. He might now be seen in summer evenings walking on another common, with a companion very different from her who was far away. She was far away; but still, as he thought, too dear to him; for his love for her embarrassed the great purpose to which he was girding himself up. It was on Clapham Common, winding in and out among the gorse, that Henry Martyn might be seen, when paying an occasional visit to Mr. Henry Thornton. His companion was perhaps the greatest man-of-business of his time—the man who, in fact, governed India with the fewest words, the quietest style of despotism, and the least possible self-seeking. He was Mr. Grant, the chief of India Directors, the father of Lord Glenelg and his twin-brother Robert. Mr. Grant was a silent worshipper in the Clapham sanctuary; but he was one of the devoutest: and the heathenism of Asia lay heavy at his heart. Wilberforce and his coterie were busy about African slavery; and Mr. Grant sympathised with them: the horrors of Asiatic superstition came vividly before him in the discharge of his daily business; and it became the supreme interest with him. Henry Martyn's sympathetic character made a coadjutor of him at once. Mr. Grant's grave and strong words burned in upon his heart and brain the project of devoting himself as a missionary.

I need not say that missionary work was nothing new. The early Christians believed the pagan gods to be demons, and warred against them as against treason and blasphemy in one. From the time of Theodosius to the present century, a horror of idolatry, as the work of the devil, has at intervals renovated the missionary work among all denominations of the Catholic and Protestant world. But the most remarkable perhaps of modern awakenings in the missionary cause was that which ensued upon the revival of religion by the Wesleys. The alarm about the terms of salvation which agitated the old religious world, and created a new one, towards the close of the last century, turned men's minds to the heathen, with a zeal unsurpassed in the records of Catholic missions. Henry Martyn is the representative of this modern movement at its outset.

He was at the same time an exponent of the emotional character of the revived religion. His character was emotional by constitution: it had continued so by habit; and now it was carried to the highest pitch of sensibility by the faith and doctrine of the special party to which he had joined himself. He was upheld in his missionary purpose by the strong and practical mind of Mr. Grant; and this, no doubt, saved him from much conflict; but there were difficulties behind, which no human aid could solve. The work seemed to him so great, and he himself was so small, that he was perpetually disparaging himself, fearing to sink in a holy enterprise and become a castaway, and insisting to himself on the necessity of sacrificing every predilection which could impair his devotedness to the task of his life. After conflicts of mind which it is painful to read of, he sailed for India in 1805, under the countenance of the Missionary Society. It may be said at once, that it was not poverty—in the sense of deficiency of income—that Henry Martyn encountered as one of the trials of missionary life. His objects involved a good deal of expense; and Mr. Grant procured for him an allowance of 1200l. a year. No one who knows anything of the character of the man, could suppose for an instant that the prospect of a good income tempted him, more or less. With some people his reputation would have stood higher if he had not had it; but money was no consolation for such troubles and sorrows as Henry Martyn went forth to encounter.

In frail and feeble health, with a heart half broken by an attachment which he believed it his duty to surrender; at times lifted up by high hope, or calmed by a divine peace; but again perturbed by the remorse of a sensitive conscience, and the humiliations which dog a repressed and perverted nature, he went to Asia, because the people there were infinitely more miserable than he was. He regarded the whole heathen and Mohammedan world as lost. Every soul that he should meet would need to be rescued from perdition. Such was then, as it usually is still, the view of the promoters of missions. Such a view is not only a sanction of their devotedness, but it accounts for the practice, universal among Protestants in Henry Martyn's time, of endeavouring to root out, at the earliest possible moment, every idea and feeling involved in heathen religion and morality, and to plant down into the minds of converts ideas, beliefs, and feelings, such as are entertained by their new teachers. The Catholics had done differently. They had compromised with the old worship by slipping their saints and apostles into the shrines and garments of the old idols—had, in fact, sanctioned the old idolatry to a certain extent, in the hope of modifying it immediately, and at length transmuting it into the real religion of their Church. This, and the shocking failures which had taken place after wholesale conversions (which sometimes meant baptism by a broom sprinkling the greatest possible number in the shortest time), wrought up to the highest pitch the eagerness of the renovated English Church to save souls by a real renewal of the heart and mind; and this renewal could, as was then supposed, be effected only by an extirpation of old thoughts and feelings, and the introduction of new.

Great and varied dangers must attend such a work as this warfare against the faith and prepossessions of a whole community. Every missionary prepared himself to endure contumely, solitude of the mind and heart, want, mortification, persecution, torture, and death, amidst every outward disgrace of the religion he venerated. Missionaries professed to expect such things; and they did expect them in the way in which we anticipate future evils while surrounded with present comforts. The devotedness was as entire as it could be by anticipation: but there is great support in the admiring homage of the Church, the sympathy of friends, the united hope, and confidence, and prayers of a multitude.


When faith is firm and conscience clear,
And words of peace the spirit cheer,
And vision'd glories half appear,
'Tis joy,'tis triumph then to die:


and, we may add, to go forth to death.

In this spirit Henry Martyn went forth. The new phase of the missionary office was marked by the special preparation he underwent. It was not his object at first to set himself on high places, and cry out to the heathen to forsake their abominations. He proposed to circulate the Scriptures in the Eastern tongues, and to gain access to the minds of superior men in the societies he should enter. He spent five years in Hindostan, under the name of a chaplain of the East India Company; and then he entered the Mussulman field, by travelling in Persia. He had laboured long and hard at the translation of the Bible into Persian and Hindostanee; and had proceeded some way with an Arabic version. Thus provided, he took up his abode at Shiraz for a twelvemonth, suffering in almost every incident of his life, and rarely cheered by confidence within or success without.

His abode in Persia was a dreary purgatory. The climate kept him constantly feverish or feeble. He found it difficult to the last degree to get any hold of minds like those of the learned men who conversed with him—slippery, specious, ingenious, and sceptical, or bigoted, under manners which were polite and hollow, or really kind, in the absence of all intellectual sympathy. At times he hoped he had made some impression on an individual here and there; and again, he did not know what to think, and fell back on the hopes afforded by the diffusion of the Scriptures. His fever consumed him; his strength waned; his spirits fluctuated; the old human affection seemed to gain ground as his prospect of life receded. He was tormented by scruples about leaving his work; but it became evident that his only chance for life was in returning home. Once convinced of this, his eagerness for home and its intercourses may be imagined; and what was the torture to a heart like his of the doubt whether he should ever again see a familiar face, or hear his own language in an English home! Ten days before his death, he made his last entry in his diary, telling how he sat in the orchard, and found comfort in devotion, while wondering how long the defilements of the unregenerate should keep the promises at a distance. He pursued his journey towards Constantinople in a way which showed how much he needed the care and guardianship of affection which he had long ago surrendered. Nearly all the way from Tabriz to Tokat he rode at a gallop under a burning sun. Few things in biography are more painful than the record of that journey, with its anguish of body and consequent misery of mind. He could get no further; and Constantinople was still 250 miles off. He died at Tokat on the 6th of October, 1812, in his thirty-second year.

He has been mourned in England from that day to this. He is the Church of England's great missionary,—at least equal to any sent forth by the piety and zeal of the Dissenters. His personal character, his cultivation of mind and manners, his meek devotedness, and the heroic direction of his will and temper of his soul make him worthy of the place he holds as the representative of modern English protestant missions.

The Missionary of the Roman Church (provided he issues from her organisation) holds a different place, and fulfils a different function. Henry Martyn would have said that however persecuted and obstructed, he has an easy task in comparison with the Protestant. The difference is in the placing of the responsibility. Henry Martyn had, with his Protestant freedom, the obligation to choose his own line of duty, and bear all the doubts, misgivings, and after-questionings which belonged to it. He was exactly the man to suffer under the necessity for such a decision. He had strong passions united with a constitutional melancholy and an imperative conscience; and he was therefore incessantly anxious about every act of his mission,—questioning whether it was done to gratify himself or to further his work. From all such misgivings the Lazarist Fathers, Huc and Gabet, were free, when they were sent to "the Land of Grass," beyond the frontier of China, as Missionaries to the capital of Thibet, in or about 1844.

Catholic devotees do not wait on the operations of the Spirit for guidance as to their course. Their Church takes all that care off them; and they are spared the pains and penalties of all search into, and interpretation of the Divine Will. They consider this an advantage; and Protestants think otherwise. There is no question as to the comparative ease, in the first instance, of the two methods. The controversy between them is on quite a different point, which does not concern us here. What does concern us is that on which all are agreed,—that it is far easier to go anywhere, and meet any fate, at the bidding of an authority believed infallible, than to determine for oneself whether it is right or wrong to choose such a course, whether it is presumption or holy courage which incites to the choice, and, therefore, whether good or evil results may be expected.

It is not to be supposed that M. Huc would have been liable to Henry Martyn's sufferings if he had been ever so Protestant, and even a member of the most anxious coterie connected with the Clapham Church. He is not a man who could, under any circumstances, be liable to severe spiritual sufferings. But neither could he have been so gay and light-hearted, in such a country and among such people, if he had carried a weight of responsibility about being there at all. He lived under a direction which he never thought of questioning. By that authority he was ordered into Thibet, and told where to go, and for what purpose. Thus he had only to bear the genuine force of the evils he encountered, without a single question as to how he came into the midst of them. If we wonder at the hilarious tone of his missionary travels under such circumstances, we shall hardly see where the mistake lies when thoughtless people are surprised at the mirth and levity of negro slaves.

These Jesuit missionaries would have made Henry Martyn stand aghast, if their work had been contemporary with his. With as true a courage and devotedness as himself, they had no turn for sentiment, or at least for expressing it. When he would have been plunged in the torment of self-questioning on the verge of a new effort, they were joking and quizzing the natives. Where he would have described the peril of lost souls, they give us caricatures of the people about them. Where he roused up a heroic patience to sustain him under mortifications of the flesh such as attend missionary travels, these Jesuits make wry mouths, and declare them detestable, but make fun of them all the while. In the gravest dangers, when Henry Martyn would have been happiest, in the certainty that he was in the path of duty, for the glory of God, these Jesuits declare that they shook as in an ague, that their teeth chattered with fear, that they wished themselves a hundred miles off, and so forth. Yet they always said and did what was so wise that they were certainly self-possessed; and so brave that they were certainly possessed with the true spirit of their office. They prayed to the Virgin in the moment of crisis, just as Martyn resorted to his Protestant prayer. Like him, they knew the heart-sinking of spiritual solitude. They witnessed a spiritual degradation lower than he saw in Persia, and as low as anything he saw in Hindostan; and he and they held in common an assured belief that all whom they could not convert were doomed to perdition; and the sense of this appears through the fun and frolic of M. Huc's narrative, as distinctly as through Henry Martyn's melancholy diary. The Jesuits pined and sank under hardship in a barbarous land and a fatal climate, with as much suffering as human nature can endure. M. Gabet died under it; and M. Huc struggled through with great difficulty. Their efforts, their sufferings, and their splendid merits were much alike; but nothing could be more opposite than their tone of mind and manners, and their style of narrative.

The Catholic mission at Pekin had sunk very low,—below the ken of the Government. The native Christians had, for the most part, crossed the frontier, and settled in "the Land of Grass," to escape notice and persecution. A new diocese of Mongolia was formed, in consequence; and the mission of M. Huc and his comrade was to explore this diocese, and give an account of its extent and circumstances. As at least one-third of the population were priests, and this amount of celibacy caused so much social embarrassment that M. Huc avows his opinion that polygamy, though unchristian, is the best method for Mongolia, the Jesuits were in a more urgent and constant peril than they could have been in almost any other country. It was indispensable that they should dress as priests,—celibates as they were, and unable to appear as traders: but to escape detection all the way to Lhassa, among a people, one-third of whom were priests, was so improbable, that they went as under sentence of death. Their disengaged state of mind and gay French courage saved them in many a crisis. They could refuse to kneel as successfully as the most solemn confessor; but they chatted together in French, quizzing the two rows of executioners between whom they passed,—frowning executioners, who shook and clattered their axes and knives, and cried out "Tremble!" When they had audaciously refused to offer rites of homage, and there was a pause during which their fate was to be decided, they were so struck with the ludicrous aspect of the grandees before them, and their mutual remarks so nearly upset their gravity, that it was a relief when they were remanded. The minute details of M. Huc's sketches of character and portraits show that there was no affectation in this. His observation was as active and admirable in these critical moments, as when he was jogging on with the caravan through the deserts of Thibet. His humour was unsleeping. When charged by some Chinese authorities with being English, or at least of the same race, he protested on this ground: "You know very well that sea-monsters, such as you yourselves declare the English to be, can no more penetrate thus far inland, than the fish of the ocean can wriggle to Pekin. You know how fishes thrown up on land gasp and tumble about, and at length die, unless some one throws them back into the water. Well! these sea-monsters from England, though very strong when they first rise from the bottom and venture on the margin, must have died from bring in a wrong element, before they could have travelled thus far. This shows that they are of a radically different race from us and you." All this may seem very shocking to some people: and so may the stealthy way in which they advanced their work of conversion. Where Henry Martyn preached to five hundred beggars, they shut themselves up, with every chink stopped, to take out the vestments and sacred vessels they managed to carry, to celebrate mass with their converted servant. When they discussed religious matters with Lama priests, they did not tell them they must root out their superstitions, and resort to a new belief; but instead, they traced out the analogies (which are very remarkable) between their own faith and that of the Buddhists, and took for granted that a transition from one to the other would not be very difficult. This is very unlike our view of effectual missionary work; and none but men unlearned, credulous, and agents of ritual religion, like these Lazarists, could have adopted such methods: but, regarding them as representatives of their class, we must admit that they did their work faithfully and effectually. They learned what they were sent to ascertain; they opened a path for others to pursue; one laid down his life,—dying, like Henry Martyn, of fatigue and hardship under a bad climate, and at about the same age: the other lived to win an easy passage through China, by dint of gay audacity, when a solemn, unready, self-conscious man, however brave, would have perished at almost any point of the journey.

These are the differences between representatives of different religions,—the Catholic and the Protestant,—the ritual and the spiritual. In the great essentials of devotedness, courage, patience, and sustained zeal, all are so admirable that we are free to honour them all in the highest degree. As to the points of difference,—of gravity or gaiety of mood and manner, and methods of furthering their objects, their admirers may differ as much as the men themselves. Probably all will go on to admire most the representatives of their own communion.

Our Protestant missions have considerably changed their character even since Henry Martyn's day. The American mission in Ceylon, and others from the United States, gave us a sound lesson of wisdom above a quarter of a century ago. At the very time when the lives of devoted Englishmen and women were thrown away, and ground was rather lost than gained among heathen peoples, because the dogmatical part of Christianity was put forward first or solely, in places where it could not be in the least understood or intelligently appropriated, the Americans were engaging the interest, and enlisting the understandings, and winning the hearts of even the Singalese by a wiser method of approach. Sir Alexander Johnston, who, as Governor of Ceylon, abolished slavery there, and introduced trial by jury, and many other good things (and whose son, by the way, brought the knowledge of MM. Huc and Gabet to England), always bore the heartiest testimony to the quality of the Americans as missionaries.

What their methods were may be best indicated perhaps by referring to the highest types of the English missionary of the present day.

Long after Henry Martyn was in his grave the type of the English missionary was looked for in such men as Tyerman and Bennett, who went round the world to report on the state of missions, and the capability of countries and peoples to entertain more. As I do not regard those gentlemen as fair representatives, any more than missionaries of yet another class who have built up a prosperity of their own on the funds of missions, and the helplessness of their barbaric charge, I shall say nothing more of Messrs. Tyerman and Bennett than that they went round the world without having learned to swim, or, apparently, to do anything but pray and preach and rebuke; that they conceived themselves to be the first care of the Universal Father, and everybody else who did not think exactly as they did, doomed to perdition; so that they insisted on Western, on European, on English, and even on Protestant dissenting ideas as the only way of salvation. Those who may remember the incidents of their travel, the upsetting of their boat, and the mistaking the clasp of a faithful native for the gripe of a shark, and the way in which the preservation of both from dangers which ought not to have been dangers, and the final death of one are spoken of, will see what advance must have been made when we are represented by a Livingstone in Africa, and by a Selwyn in the Eastern seas.

All the world knows what Dr. Livingstone has done and is doing in Africa. If it is objected that he is hardly a representative of the religious world,—hardly the messenger to the heathen who would have been chosen, if his mode of behaviour to the Africans had been foreseen, I reply, "then let him be the representative of the secular element of English life, which is as anxious to see the Africans not only civilised but spiritualised as the straitest sect of Protestantism can be." Time will show whether Christianity does or does not spring up in the footsteps of this very original missionary faster than where it has been presented to barbaric nations in other forms than by sympathy and helpfulness in their objects and interests and ways of living. The Makololo constitute a pretty strong evidence already, in the eyes of most people.

But who objects to Bishop Selwyn? Who can say that he is not religious enough, or not secular enough? When consecrated to his work, he was charged to convey the blessings of Christianity wherever he could beyond the bounds of his New Zealand see. He has done this by means of enlarged views and personal qualifications which mark a great advance in missionary action. He steers his own little ship from one group of islands to another, making a wide circuit of visits every year, and passing through sea-accidents which all natives suppose to be over-ruled for him by some special grace. Wherever he lands, he climbs higher, swims faster, and walks further, than the natives can do; and thus he obviates a world of difficulties which would be raised up about his carrying the most promising youths of each settlement away with him for a time, for instruction and training. It is known that he will bring them back to spend the cold, or the hot, or any other unfavourable season, at home; and they see that he can and does put them in the way of welfare in this life as effectually as if he had nothing to say to them of another.

In him, the Church of England has sent forth, after an interval, another marked representative of its missionary function. Henry Martyn will long be remembered with a tender admiration and pitying affection, as the first scholarly and holy minister sent out by our century to bring the barbaric world into a participation in our best privileges. But wherever he is spoken of, the name of George Augustus Selwyn will follow,—a minister of the same Church, with the learning, and the holiness, and the devotedness of Henry Martyn, but with no need of compassion, or any sorrowing emotion, to be mingled with the admiration with which his career is regarded. As a family man, with his intellectual faculties equably and highly cultivated, and his moral nature as thoroughly exercised as the physical in the service of a waiting multitude, he is that fair and noble specimen of a man of our age which we are proud to send to the other side of the globe, to convey to the antique nations of barbarism the idea and the impulse of progress.

Ingleby Scott.