by Timothy George
Carey is universally recognized as the father of modem missions.
Two hundred years ago, on June 13, 1793, William Carey; his wife, Dorothy; and their four children, including a nursing infant, sailed from England on a Danish ship headed for India. At the time few people noticed their departure. Carey was a shoemaker by trade. With only a modest village school education behind, he had no credentials for missionary service except an inextinguishable conviction that God Almighty had called him to devote his life to "the conversion of the heathens." Moreover, he went to India as an illegal alien, having failed to secure the required immigration permit from the East India Company. He also lacked financial resources, apart from the meager funds he had scraped together. As the unknown pastor of a small-town church in the English Midlands, he had been able to muster the promise of support from only a handful of friends. The Baptist bigwigs in London felt the venture was too uncertain to commit their denomination to it.
Now two centuries later, Carey is universally recognized as the father of modem missions. There is something misleading about that title. Carey was not the first missionary of the modem era. He was not even the first Protestant missionary to India. Nearly a hundred years before Carey arrived in Calcutta, two men from the Pietist center at Halle had established a mission at Tranquebar in South India.
Carey himself resisted the lure of the personality cult which had begun to flourish even in his own lifetime. He resented the fact that some of his former acquaintances in England were beginning to collect relics from his youth and early life: a cup from which he had drunk, a pair of shoes he had made, a wooden board advertising his cobbler business. "The less said about me the better," he declared.
When he lay dying in 1834, he summoned the Scottish missionary Alexander Duff to his side and whispered, "Mr. Duff! You have been speaking about Dr. Carey, Dr. Carey; when I am gone, say nothing about Dr. Carey. Speak about Dr. Carey’s Savior." This was the true spirit of Carey. And yet, perhaps inevitably, Christians of later generations have indeed been interested in Carey, as well as his Savior. His enduring legacy to us is not so much the precise model of missionary service which he pioneered, but rather his motivation and his faithfulness to carry the good news of Jesus Christ to all peoples everywhere.
THE WIDENING VISION
Many years after the event John Ryland Jr. recalled an event of a great moment in Carey’s early life.
On October 5, 1783, I baptized in the Nene, just beyond Doddridge’s meeting house, a poor, journeyman-shoemaker, little thinking that before nine years elapsed he would prove the first instrument of forming a Society for sending missionaries from England to the heathen world, and much less that he would later become professor of languages in an Oriental college, and the translator of the Scriptures into eleven different tongues.
How did such a remarkable thing come to pass? Ryland Jr. offered a simple but compelling explanation: "I believe that God himself infused into the mind of Carey that solicitude for the salvation of the heathen which can not be fairly traced to any other source."
Carey was born on August 17, 1761, in the Northamptonshire hamlet of Paulerspury. He was the eldest of five children born to Edmund and Elizabeth Carey. His father was a weaver turned village schoolmaster and young William was early on apprenticed to a shoemaker in a neighboring town. Here he met a fellow apprentice named John Warr, whose fervent gospel witness awakened the "stings of conscience" in young Carey. In time he was led to depend on a crucified Savior for pardon and salvation; and to seek a system of doctrines in the Word of God. He soon cast his lot with the Dissenters, one of whose daughters he married; eventually he joined up with the Baptists.
Carey began to preach in village churches and was soon called as a bivocational pastor of the small Baptist congregation at Moulton. While he eked out a living making shoes and teaching school, his vision greatly expanded to include a concern for the world far beyond the borders of his native land. He felt a great compassion for the slaves and prayed earnestly that God would abolish the dreaded slave trade. He read the journals of Captain James Cook and lamented the fact that the world was filled with those who had no knowledge of the gospel of Christ or any means of obtaining it. His great-grandson and biographer, S. Pearce Carey, wrote: "From his cottage windows he looked out unto the uttermost parts of the earth."
Carey did not-he could not-keep his concern to himself. His students must have thought it odd when their teacher pointing on the homemade globe to continents, islands and peoples far away, sobbed, "And these are pagans, pagans!" For Carey these "pagans" were not mere statistics, numbers he had gleaned from geographical surveys and news accounts. They were persons, eternal souls destined to live forever in the bliss of heaven or the darkness of hell. Somehow they must hear the good news of redemption through Jesus Christ. Carey pressed his case on Ms fellow ministers until they too were convinced. "He would not give it up," Andrew Fuller recalled, "but talked with us one by one, till he had made some impression."
BY ALL MEANS
One of the most famous incidents in Carey’s early ministry occurred when he proposed to a group of pastors that they consider the duty of Christians to attempt to carry the gospel to those who had never heard it The presiding minister, the venerable John Ryland Sr. was genuinely shocked and, with a rebuking frown, thundered back, "Young man, sit down. When God pleases to convert the heathen, he will do it without your aid or mine!"
This remark reflects a hardened attitude toward confronting sinners with their duty to believe in Christ, a position which had gained widespread support in Carey’s day. Andrew Fuller referred to this view as "false Calvinism" and refuted it in his 1785 treatise, The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation. Without denying any of the "discriminating doctrines of grace," which traditional Calvinist theology affirmed, Fuller argued that sinners were indeed duty bound to repent and believe the gospel since the failure to believe stemmed not from any physical or "natural inability," but rather from a "moral inability" which was the result of a perverted human will. This distinction, which Fuller borrowed from Jonathan Edwards, helped him to unlock, if not completely resolve, the mystery of divine sovereignty and human responsibility in the promiscuous proclamation of the gospel.
Carey developed his missionary theology out of basic insights. If sinners were obliged to repent and believe in Christ, was there not another "obligation" to be considered? Were not Christians, themselves delivered from darkness into light, most urgently obliged to present the claims of Christ to those who have never heard? Fuller was the theologian, Carey the visionary and activist of the missionary awakening.
Carey summed up his plan of action in An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens, published at Leicester where he then served as pastor in 1792. The Enquiry consists of an introduction and five chapters dealing, respectively, with the Great Commission, historical precedents, a world survey, obstacles to missions, and the Christian’s duty to promote the cause of missions. The last five words in the first paragraph of the introduction set the entire missions enterprise in the context of its ultimate, transcendent source-"the character of God himself."
Unless one grasps this point, it is easy to misunderstand the motivation which underlay Carey’s own life commitment. While his plan was a call for action based on genuine compassion for the lost, it was grounded in something deeper still; namely, the character of God himself-eternal, holy, righteous, loving, giving, self-expending to the point of a cross.
In appealing to the imperative of Jesus in the Great Commission, Carey countered the popular claim that these words applied only to the apostles and had been fulfilled already in the early history of the church. There was no statute of limitations on the Great Commission, he argued. "Go ye" means you-and now! He also answered three commonly held objections to new missionary endeavors. First, there are the advocates of a do-nothing strategy who justify their inaction by appealing to Providence. We must not force our way in, we must wait for openings, they say. To which Carey replies that we ought not neglect those providential openings which are daily presented to us. Second, others claim that the time is not right for such initiatives since many biblical prophecies await fulfillment. Carey claims that no prophecy must be fulfilled before the gospel is carried unto the ends of the earth. Significantly, Carey completed a series of sermons on the Book of Revelation just prior to his departure for India. Third, to those who say that "we have work enough at home," Carey questions whether this is a legitimate excuse for not sharing the good news of Christ with those who have no Bibles, no preachers, nor many other common advantages which are taken for granted at home.
The centerpiece of the Enquiry was Carey’s survey "of the present state of the world," divided by continent, country, and religion. It was as complete and accurate as the best information available to him would allow. In this work he laid the foundation for the modern science of missiology. His survey was a forerunner of the World Christian Encyclopedia and other indispensable resources for missions research today.
The closing section of the Enquiry is like the crescendo near the end of a great musical movement. All of Carey’s previous argument, his pleading, the pouring out of his soul, is brought together in a concentrated appeal for action. First, pray. "Fervent and united prayer" is the divinely appointed prerequisite for revival. Second, plan. Missionaries must be recruited and screened and commissioned. A strategy for the mission must be devised. A system of support must be developed. Carey proposed the formation of a missions society within his own denomination, the Calvinistic Baptists of England. Still, he pled, "there is room enough for us all." All evangelical Christians should respond to the call from Macedonia. They should pray for one another, encourage one another, and countenance no "unfriendly interference" among one another in their common commitment to the cause of missions. Third, give. Every Christian has something to offer. Let there be special collections, even if it is only one penny per week, and sacrificial giving by all.
On May 30,1792, Carey delivered a passionate sermon before the messengers of the Northamptonshire Baptist Association. Speaking from Isaiah 54:2-3, he urged them in what John Clifford once described as "two plain, practical, pungent, quotable watchwords," to expect great things and attempt great things. Later tradition added two words to each of Carey’s admonitions. Thus he is often quoted as having said, "Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God." Regardless of the original wording, Carey was keenly aware of God’s sovereignty in awakening the church from its slumber and sending it forth to accomplish his eternal purpose in bringing the lost to a saving knowledge of the Redeemer. In this sense, both the "expecting" and the "attempting" were "from God." It was his mission, his Spirit, his call.
At the conclusion of his sermon, as the meeting was about to be dismissed, Carey grabbed the arm of Andrew Fuller who was presiding and asked imploringly, "Is nothing again to be done, sir? Is nothing again to be done?" In response to his plea, they decided to appoint a committee, the surest way to kill a good idea! Carey, however, would not let the matter rest He continued to meet with the committee and on October 2, 1792, he persuaded them to organize the first Protestant missionary society in the English-speaking world, the Particular Baptist Society for the Propagation of the Gospel Amongst the Heathen. At their first meeting they collected pledges for thirteen pounds, two shillings, and six pence. It was a paltry sum, considered in itself, yet the first fruits of a great harvest yet to come.
FAITHFUL TO THE END
As we look back over Carey’s life it is easy to see why he has been almost universally regarded as a missionary hero. His 40 years of persistent service in India produced remarkable achievements by any standard of measurement. Under his direction the Scriptures were translated into dozens of Indian languages and dialects. He planted churches throughout the Ganges Delta and even sent forth missionaries to other nations. He organized a network of schools for Indian children, including girls, and finally launched Serampore College, where Christian theology was taught alongside Indian literature and Western science. He was a founder of the Indian Agriculture Society and published essays on the improvement of crops. He was a respected professor at Fort William College and brought out critical editions of the ancient Hindu writings. He set up a leper hospital and a mission to seamen. He deplored the wanton destruction of human life through infanticide, abortion, and sati (the ritual burning to death of widows) and worked to eliminate these practices. He pursued a policy of friendship and mutual support with other evangelical believers in India and called for "a general association of all denominations of Christians" to meet regularly to coordinate a strategy for world evangelization.
Each year Carey used the occasion of his birthday to look back over his life and take stock of his spiritual progress. Writing to his son Jabez on his birthday in 1819, he confessed, "I am this day 58, but how little I have done for God." On his birthday in 1831 he wrote:
I am this day seventy years old, a monument of Divine mercy and goodness, though on a review of my life I find much, very much, for which I ought to be humbled in the dust; my direct and positive sins are innumerable, my negligence in the Lord’s work has been great, I have not promoted his cause, nor sought his glory and honour as I ought, notwithstanding all this, I am spared till now, and am still retained in his work, and I trust I am received into the divine favor through him. I wish to be more entirely devoted to his service, more completely sanctified and more habitually exercising all the Christian graces, and bringing forth the fruits of righteousness to the praise and honour of that Savior who gave his life a sacrifice for sin.
We should not forget the many difficulties, obstacles, and discouragements which Carey faced not only in his early years but throughout his long ministry. In a sense Carey never fully recovered from the tragic demise and death of his first wife Dorothy whom Ruth Tucker has described as a "reluctant missionary," one who was drawn to the missions field without ever experiencing the compelling call to overseas service which constrained her husband to forsake all in obedience to God’s claim on his life. There were the long years of lonely ministry when Carey had no helpers on whom he could rely and saw no "visible results" from his tireless labors. There was the bitter dispute and eventual schism between the Serampore mission and the missionary society back in England. There was the disastrous fire which destroyed the Serampore Press and threatened to bring the Bible translations to a halt. There was the illness of Carey’s much-loved second wife, Charlotte von Rumohr, and the premature death of his eldest son Felix.
Through all of these trials Carey developed a spirituality refined in the crucible of suffering. The following lines from his diary, written during his first year in India, reveal a deep reliance on God which would sustain him throughout his life. "I feel that it is good to commit my soul, my body, and my all, into the hands of God. Then the world appears little, the promises great, and God an all-sufficient portion."
In evaluating Carey’s legacy we should remember that his accomplishments were not those of a "lone ranger" missionary but rather the results of a team approach to ministry. The work of William Ward, Joshua and Hannah Marshman, those who "held the ropes" at home, especially Fuller, Ryland Jr., John Sutcliff, and Samuel Pearce, the Indian nationals who were converted through Carey’s witness, the pandits who helped him to master so many languages so well, fellow evangelical leaders such as David Brown and Henry Martyn, all these were part of a missionary symbiosis brought together in the providence of God to herald the good news of Jesus Christ throughout India and into all the world.
Just at the crack of dawn, 5:30 a.m., on June 9,1834, Carey died in his 73rd year. Throughout his long life he had taken great comfort in the hymns of Isaac Watts. One of his last requests was that a couplet from one of his favorite Watts hymns, and nothing more, be inscribed on the stone slab which would mark his grave.
A wretched, poor, and helpless worm, On thy kind arms I fall.
One of those who witnessed his burial was a young missionary from Scotland, John Leechman. Carey would doubtless have approved of his description of the real meaning of that event.
And now what shall we do? God has taken up our Elijah to heaven. He has taken our master from our head today. But we must not be discouraged. The God of missions lives forever. His Cause must go on. The gates of death, the removal of the most eminent, will not impede its progress, nor prevent its success. Come: we have something also to do than mourn and be dispirited. With our departed leader all is well. He has finished his course gloriously. But the work now descends on us. Oh, for a double portion of the divine Spirit!
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