BBC Radio 4 talk on Abdul Masih 1996
by Graham Kings
Date added: 26/07/2020
Script by Canon Graham Kings
for BBC Radio 4 series ‘Ten to Ten’
Broadcast on 12 July 1996
I’m in the Henry Martyn Library, in Westminster College, Cambridge. It is a specialised collection for the study of mission and world Christianity and serves as a foundational resource for these subjects, both in the theological colleges and in the University.
From this library window, in Westminster College, I can see across the road to the back of St John’s College. 200 years ago in 1797, Henry Martyn came up to St John’s as a student.
He became Senior Wrangler (first in his year in Maths) and a brilliant linguist. He then gave up his college fellowship to become a missionary translator in India. Tragically he left his heart with Lydia Grenfel in his native Cornwall: she never followed him to India and he never made it back to persuade her.
In our library archives I’ve got here, on loan from Ridley Hall, a beautiful medallion minature of Martyn, set in brass in a velvet case. When I first found it I was curious. I took it out of the velvet, like this, turned it over and found the back of the case to be of glass. Inside is a long lock of hair. Is this Lydia’s? Perhaps, so.
St John Rivers, in the novel Jane Eyre, is based on the life, if not the character of Martyn. For Charlotte Bronte’s father, had been helped by him as a young student at St John’s College and Martyn was his hero: he had arranged for him to receive £10 a year each from Henry Thornton and Willam Wilberforce.
In under five years Martyn translated the New Testament into Hindoostanee (now known as Urdu) and Persian and supervised its translation into Arabic. Concerning his discussion with Muslims, he noted in his journal “I learnt that the power of gentleness is irresistible and also that these men are not fools. Clearness of reasoning is not confined to Europe.”
He died tragically at the age of 31 at Tokat in Armenia and is buried there. His memorial in Cambridge is the Henry Martyn Hall, built in 1887 in the centre of town, to provide a focus for students to consider the missionary call. Hundreds of graduates have followed him overseas over the years. This is still its use and a small library of mission books was started 10 years later in 1897.
It is that library which has been considerably expanded in the last few years and which opened here in its new spacious location in January last year.
There is a secret door in the oak panelling of the library just over here. It’s a bit like going through the wardrobe into Narnia, but in this case it leads to my study.
Here above the fireplace is an amazing original pen and ink drawing. It has a walnut frame with gold leaf on it and is a fascinating study of Abdul Masih. Masih was a Muslim convert of Henry Martyn’s, a medical missionary among his own people, supported by the Church Missionary Society and in 1825 he became the second Indian ordained Anglican clergyman.
In the portrait he is wearing a turban and has a full beard. He’s sitting on a chair, looking calm, devotional and meditative and reading a book, which is obviously precious to him. For it was this book, the New Testament in Hindoostanee, that brought him to Christ.
If I take the portrait down, very carefully, we can look on the back, for the writing there is part of his story. The picture itself is also on loan from Ridley Hall and was discovered in a cupboard by the Principal a few years ago. Here we are. The words say:
“The Revd. Abdul Masseeh. Henry Martyn’s one convert” - that’s actually a bit of an exaggeration for he had other converts in Persia later on -“ordained by Bishop Heber” - more about him later - “Revd. G. E. Corrie, Jesus Coll: Cambridge. Luggage Train.”
So this portrait belonged at some stage to George Corrie, Professor of Divinity and Master of Jesus. It was his brother Daniel Corrie, who had followed up Masih after his baptism and it seems likely that he also commissioned this portrait.
Masih’s original name was Sheik Salih. He was born in Delhi about the year 1776, and became a zealous Muslim. When working for an officer in the East India Company he even induced a Hindu servant to become a Muslim.
In 1810 he was at Cawnpore, in northern India and heard Martyn preach to the poor who assembled at his door on Sunday afternoons to receive alms. Salih, in his own words, went “to see the sport”. He was struck by Martyn’s exposition of the Ten Commandments and wanted to hear more. In the end he was engaged to work with Martyn’s assistant as copyist of Persian writings.
Back in the library now, I have in front of me a copy of the Missionary Papers of the Church Missionary Society published in 1831, which documents his conversion in 1810:
When Mr. Martyn had finished his Translation of the New Testament into Hindoostanee, the book was given to Sheik Salih to bind. This he considered as a fine opportunity; nor did he let it slip. On reading the Word of God, he discovered his state, and perceived therein a true description of his own heart. He soon decided in favour of the Christian Religion; but still concealed what was passing within him; till Mr. Martyn being about to leave Cawnpore on account of his health, Sheik Salih could no longer refrain from asking his advice with respect to his future conduct; earnestly desiring, at the same time, to be baptized.
In fact, it was Martyn’s friend and fellow Cambridge missionary, David Brown, who later baptized him and gave him the name Abdul Masih, (servant of the Messiah) and another friend, Daniel Corrie, who taught him the faith and engaged him as a catechist of the Church Missionary Society at Agra. Corrie, who later became the first Bishop of Madras, records a journey up the Ganges with Masih:
He has several native children in the boat with him, whom he teaches, as we go along, to read, and to learn passages of the Scripture by heart: and when the Natives argue with him about Caste, he sometimes asks the Children if they remember any passage of Scripture in answer; which one or other of them usually does, to the admiration of the poor ignorant people. He has composed many Hymns to Native measures, which he sings with the Christian Children and Servants, after we come-to for the night; and often, during the darkness and stillness of the evening, he and his little Church in the boat make these sandy plains and lonely wilds echo with the Beloved Name.
[Missionary Papers No. LX11, Midsummer, 1831]
Masih was ordained first by the Lutherans because the Anglican Bishop at the time was unwilling to do so. But when Heber became Bishop he interviewed him at Agra in 1825 and ordained him in Calcutta. Heber wrote:
His rank, previous to his conversion, was rather elevated, since he was Master of the Jewels to the Court of Oude, an appointment of higher estimation in Easter Palaces than in those of Europe, and the holder of which has always a high salary. Abdool Maseeh’s present appointments, as Christian Missionary, are 60 rupees a month, and of this he gives away at least half! Who can dare to say that this man has changed his faith from any interested motives. He is a most sincere Christian, quite free, so far as I could observe, from all conceit or enthusiasm. His long eastern dress, his long grey beard, and his calm resigned countenance, give him already the air of an Apostle.
The following poem has a note added to it that it is a translation of a hymn in Hindoostanee, composed by Masih and sung by him just before he expired in March 1827:
Beloved Saviour, let not me
In thy kind heart forgotten be.
Of all the plants that deck the bower,
Thou art the fairest, sweetest flower.
Youth’s morn has fled - old age come on,
But sin distracts my soul alone.
Beloved Saviour, let not me
In thy kind heart forgotten be.