Many persons seem to believe that the fame of William Carey rests entirely upon the fact that he was the pioneer of modern missionary effort. Undoubtedly this is reason enough for the reverence in which he is held in the Christian world. But it may be worth while to remind the reader how extraordinary were the gifts which he consecrated to Christ and foreign missions. William Carey was one of the greatest men of his age. Twenty ordinary men, however complete their consecration, could not have accomplished what this one man wrought.
Toward the end of the eighteenth century, soon after the establishment of our American government a young journeyman shoemaker in England began to pray and plead for the conversion of the heathen.
He was very poor and his education was extremely limited; but as he began to speak in the Baptist church the thirst for knowledge began to possess him. He mastered the Latin grammar in six weeks. An old book on the French language gave him the ability in three weeks to read French with ease. Dutch, he learned with the same facility. In an incredibly short space of time he had acquired a knowledge of Greek and Hebrew. By this time he had begun to preach regularly, though the income received from the churches was so small that he was obliged to add to it by teaching and cobbling.
Still the needs of the heathen were uppermost in his mind. He traced rude maps of the world on brown wrapping paper and hung them over his cobbler's bench. As he pointed to them He would say, "See! this territory is Pagan, and this, and this;" and often he would weep aloud at the dark picture these words called up to his mind.
No wonder that, having once seen the need, he was sorely distressed by the situation. At this time spiritual life was at a low ebb in England. The churches were without power over the lives of the people. Worship was cold and formal. Few persons were stirred with interest in the salvation of others.
William Carey did not know where to turn for sympathy in his desire to reach the untaught world. His first efforts to arouse the Christian people about him met with no response. But in May, 1792, he preached a sermon to an association of Baptist ministers, the sermon which proved to be the bugle call of modern missions. In it he spoke the sentence quoted among Christians everywhere as the watchword of progress: "Attempt great things for God; expect great things from God." The immediate result of this sermon was the organization of the "Baptist Society for Propagating the Gospel Among the Heathen." This society held its first meeting in the back parlor of a private house in Kettering — so few in number were those who were interested in carrying out the commission of our Lord.
About a year later Carey went to India as a missionary. "I will go down," he said to the little society which he had helped to organize, "but you must hold the ropes." Many discouragements awaited him. India was under the control of the East India Company. The officers of this company were infidels, and it was their determination that the Christian religion should not be taught to the Hindus. The ship on which Carey first sailed refused to carry him to his destination. He embarked again, this time on a Danish vessel. During the five months' voyage Carey aided his companion, Dr. Thomas, in a translation of the book of Genesis into the language of Bengal. This was the beginning of the wonderful service performed by him, in giving the people of India the word of God in their own language.
When he reached India he found what seemed to be a barred door. When he gained admission he found it necessary to engage in business in order to support his family and provide himself with means to carry on the work.
But God was with him, and raised up friends for him in unexpected places. His work as a translator drew to him the interest of scholars and statesmen. In the year 1798 the mission was established permanently at Serampore, and reinforced by the arrival of new missionaries. Serampore was under the Danish government, and the workers had here more freedom than they would have been allowed in other parts of India.
Soon after this, Carey's translation of the Bible into Bengali made its appearance. The Governor General of India threatened to shut down the press and forbid the circulation of the book, but wiser counsels prevailed and it was allowed to go upon its errand of blessing.
Soon after, a college was established in Calcutta by the British authorities, and Carey, now recognized as a profound scholar, was called to a professorship. This position gave him new opportunities for service, which he was prompt to improve.
As years went by, Serampore became a center of power. Its press gave the Scriptures to all India, and to many others of the countries of the East. Carey and his fellow-laborers translated the New Testament into twenty-three languages, and by doing so made it accessible to one-third of the whole world.
By this time the charter had been adopted which gave the protection of the British government to missionaries. Carey's later years were crowded with honors, but nothing turned him from his purpose to make his life serve Christ in India to the very uttermost. His humility increased as his honors grew. "When I am gone," he said, "say nothing of Dr. Carey —speak only of Dr. Carey's God."
He lived to be an old man, and it was his privilege to be actively at work until near the end of his long life. He was especially thankful that three of his four children had given their lives to the cause of missions.
Few lives have achieved so much. Few, indeed, have been so entirely given to the will and work of God as was that of William Carey, cobbler, preacher, missionary, scholar, scientist, and hero of the faith.
From Pioneer Missionaries: Short Sketches of the Lives of the Pioneers in Missionary Work in Many Lands by Jessie Brown Pounds. Indianapolis, Ind.: The Young People's Department of the Christian Woman's Board of Missions, 1907.
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