by H. Miriam Ross
Does the illiterate and eventually deranged woman who married William Carey have anything to teach us? Yes.
Unlettered," "unimaginative," "…possessing neither the nerve nor the strength for hardship," write William Carey’s biographers of his wife Dorothy, who at first adamantly refused to accompany him to India in 1793, and who later lapsed into mental illness for many years in the mission compound at Serampore.
Who is this shadowy presence at the fringes of mission history? Have the biographers treated her fairly? And has her story anything to teach us? What about Dorothy?
Born Dorothy Plackett, her education was sketchy. School was seldom an option for girls of her station in that era, even if the village in which the Placketts lived had been favored with one. Consequently, on the day she and Carey were married-July 10,1781- neither Dorothy nor her bridesmaid sister could sign their names in the marriage register.
We might wonder at Carey’s choice of such a wife. With his active, inquiring mind and his insatiable curiosity about the natural world, what was the attraction? S. Pearce Carey maintains, however, that "Dorothy was illiterate, but not ill-chosen." She came from Puritan stock; her father was a leader of the local "Dissenters’ Meeting" of which Carey was an active member. And at that point in his life, Carey was bent on being a zealous servant of Christ as a shoemaker. He did not yet anticipate the rigors and demands of missionary life.
But in time, that changed. Carey began preaching in village churches. To eke out an existence, he moved his family to Moulton in 1785, where he was ordained to the Christian ministry two years later. Then, in 1789, he moved to Leicester. There he taught school all day, practiced his trade of shoemaking, preached seven times a fortnight-and increasingly became driven by a growing burden for the "heathen" overseas.
Of the Careys’ family life in England, we know little: William baptized Dorothy in 1788; she bore him six children, two of whom died at the age of two; and the family constantly struggled financially, sometimes on the verge of starvation. Nor do we know what William shared with Dorothy of his intellectual or evangelistic pursuits.
We do know, however, that he debated those concerns with his fellow preachers and that a year after the publication, in 1792, of his landmark pamphlet An Enquiry into the Obligation of Christians to use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens … in Different Nations of the World, he volunteered to go to India as a missionary. He would accompany Dr. John Thomas, a surgeon who had worked for some years with the East Company.
At first, Dorothy-who was eight months pregnant-refused to go. She was Impervious to Carey’s pleadings; however, when circumstances of war delayed their departure for six weeks, she eventually responded to Thomas’ dire predictions of the consequences should she fail to join her husband. She relented, however, only on condition her younger sister Catharine come as her companion to help with the family, which by then included three-week-old Jabez.
Dorothy’s reluctance to be a missionary’s wife was scarcely lessened during the arduous sea voyage from June 13 to November 11, 1793- five months less two days without touching land and two months without seeing another ship.
In India, the hardships continued unabated. During their first six years in the country, the family moved from one site to another as Carey tried to establish a mission. For the most part, they had little or no contact with Europeans, not even Dr. Thomas. Frequently they lacked even rudimentary food and shelter. They were often in danger from swollen rivers, tigers, and jackals. They suffered from malaria, dysentery, and other disorders. On several occasions, they despaired for their lives. Six months after their arrival in India, Catharine left them to accept the marriage proposal of an Englishman employed by the East India Company, and later the same year, five-year-old Peter Carey died.
It was too much. Dorothy began to suffer severe delusions before the birth of her seventh child in 1798. Her physical health and mental stability were shattered long before the family achieved a settled place at Serampore in 1800, in community with other missionaries. In 1801, Carey wrote to his sisters at home: "Mrs. Carey is obliged to be constantly confined; she has long gotten worse and worse, but fear both of my own life and hers, and the desire of the police of the place, obliged me to agree to her confinement."
Six years later he wrote to a colleague that on December 8,1807 "… it pleased God to remove my wife by death. She had been in a state of the most distressing derangement for these last twelve years…She was attacked with a fever, which terminated in about a fortnight." Not yet 52 years old, Dorothy’s earthly life ended and her body was placed in the missionary burying-ground at Serampore.
It hardly seems to have been the ideal marriage. Those who recount the story are often blunt: "the marriage was uncongenial"; "a mistake"; "Mrs. Carey was a woman of piety but not blessed with a very comprehensive mind." As Carey’s biographer, Dr. George Smith gives his assessment, "Never had minister, missionary, or scholar a less sympathetic mate, due largely to … latent mental disease." He adds that Dorothy remained "to the last a peasant woman, with a reproachful tongue,… the early hardships… and the fever and dysentery … clouded the last twelve years of her life with madness."
We rightly honor Carey as the father of modem protestant mission. But what about Dorothy? Certainly there is more to this woman’s story than the dismissive words of her husband’s biographers would indicate.
We may be sure, for example, that she was a strong woman physically. At times in England, her nutritional status must have been precarious due to the family’s poverty and the limited range of food then available to the population regardless of financial standing. And while in India, she suffered repeated and prolonged bouts of dysentery, along with continuing attacks of malarial and other parasites. Yet during her lifetime, she sustained seven pregnancies, with the latter ones carrying high risks of complications. Added to these physical factors would have been numerous stresses related to the uncertainties and dangers of the Careys’ first six nomadic years in India.
There are also indications that, early in her marriage, she probably tried to overcome some of her educational limitations. When Carey was away making preparations to leave England, he received her letter announcing the birth of a son. Was someone acting as her scribe in this instance or had she learned to read and write? Probably the latter, for there is evidence that early in 1795, as paranoia began to take hold of her, she wrote to John Thomas with accusations against her husband.
We also see hints of firm resolve. When Carey announced their departure for India, Dorothy resisted with determination, an act that required considerable courage in a day when a wife was strictly subject to her husband’s wishes and when her place was at his side wherever he might be. Apparently Dorothy did not take her stand lightly. She named the son she delivered soon afterwards Jabez-"because I bare him in sorrow" (1 Chron. 4:9).
But Dorothy was also capable of revising a decision when circumstances shifted. Whether it was courage, fear, remorse, or love that moved her, three weeks later she was packing up her household within 24 hours, and persuading her sister to join the little company setting off on an unknown way into an uncertain future.
Certainly, her marriage was troubled. But some of the responsibility for that must surely rest on Carey’s shoulders as well. He drove himself relentlessly, continuously exercising his considerable powers of concentration and discipline. Both in England and in India, he followed an exhausting schedule: preaching, prayer and Bible study, language learning, teaching and translating scriptures and other materials into numerous languages, classifying botanical specimens, over seeing plantations and construction sites, and maintaining a voluminous correspondence. Was this his way of compensating for lack of satisfaction in his marriage? And was it a cause of Dorothy’s emotional pain?
In January, 1814, Carey wrote to his newly married son, Jabez: "Be not satisfied with conducting yourself towards your wife with propriety, but let love to her be the spring of your conduct towards her." Love, however, can only be adequately expressed when one is able somewhat to enter into the fears and troubles of another. Over time, did the attributes and life experiences of William and Dorothy diverge to the point that she retreated into an emotional tomb beyond his reach?
From the limited descriptions available, it is impossible to determine the precise nature of Dorothy’s mental disorder, except that it became debilitating and ruinous for her and very distressing for those around her. Was it a destructive response to overwhelming emotional stress and unmet expectations? Was there a spiritual component? A genetic factor? A biological origin? From this distance, we can make no definitive judgments.
Dorothy’s story is a troubling one, but it also raises some valuable questions pertinent to mission today.
The first questions have to do with the nature of the call of God for every Christian. What steps could have been taken to enable Dorothy to experience God’s call as well as William? What constitutes a call to cross-cultural ministry?
How can we best nurture and encourage people in that call? How can we discern gifts, both spiritual and natural, and help each person to own, cultivate, and use them?
A second set of questions deals with celibacy. Should William Carey have remained single? Are there places and conditions which warrant singleness in order to answer God’s call in that situation?
And what about marriage? Does God give a call to one partner only, without giving evidence to the other? Is it ever justified or wise for one partner to plunge ahead regardless of the sentiments of the other, or for one partner to resist and impede the confirmed response of the other to God’s call? How might these considerations have modified the path of the Careys?
Thirdly, we need to ask questions about the tension between the pressure of work and the claims of family- whether at home or overseas. How would a better balance of these factors have affected the Careys’ marriage? How can husband and wife reach some accord on this issue? What are the responsibilities of the father and mother for their children, and especially those of parents in ministry outside their native locale?
Derived from the Greek, the name Dorothy means "a gift from God." There must have been times, however, when those around Dorothy Carey questioned the suitability of such a name.
Was she a victim of circumstances? The agent of her own destruction? An unprofitable servant who shirked her duty (Luke 17:10)? Or was she a prototype of myriads of women whose sufferings and deprivations have moved the gospel witness forward? Does she provide an example, in battling her darkness, that allows other women (and men) to admit and face their own struggles? Was her faith, even in the midst of her mania, such as to warrant a place in the roll call of the faithful? Samson, Jephthah, David form part of the band of witnesses listed in Hebrews 11. Is there a place for Dorothy?
I believe there is, for in her own way this illiterate "peasant woman, with a reproachful tongue" demonstrates the staying power of God in the face of unremitting suffering— suffering that led her through the darkness of mania before her release into God’s eternal sunshine.
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