"The temper of our times is for instant gratification and short-term commitment—quick answers to prayer and quick results with a minimum of effort and discomfort. But there is no such thing as easy and instant discipleship. One can commence a walk of discipleship in a moment, but the first step must lengthen into a life-long walk." If one did not know better, he would think those words of J. Oswald Sanders were written about William Carey. If anyone took a life-long walk with God it was William Carey, the father of modern foreign missions. There have been over 50 biographies written about him since his death, which tells something of the impact this diminutive bald-headed shoe cobbler made on the entire world.
William Carey was born in 1761 in the remote village of Paulerspury, Northamptonshire, England. At the time of his birth John and Charles Wesley were at the pinnacle of their influence and George Whitefield was preparing for his sixth journey to the Americas. Whitefield and the Wesleys were educated within the confines of prestigious Oxford but Carey would know no such formal education. Instead, the majority of his education would be of the trial-and-error method, his school a heart set afire for lost people in far away lands, and his degree a Doctorate in suffering for the cause of Christ.
Just as both Bunyan and Spurgeon rose from rural obscurity, so did William Carey. His parents were rather plain people who belonged to the accepted church. At the age of seven young William developed a skin disease that was aggravated by exposure to sunlight. Because of this condition Carey’s parents realized he would have to learn a skill which allowed him to stay inside. So at the age of fourteen William was apprenticed as a shoemaker with Clarke Nichols. John Warr, a fellow apprentice and a Dissenter stands as one of those great unknowns who led a person to Christ whose name would be remembered above his own. Through careful seed-planting John led Carey to a realization of his own sinfulness and need for a Savior. Soon he was saved and seeking baptism among those same Dissenters. Carey now had to add to his list of lower-class traits that of being a Baptist.
Soon after his conversion William Carey began to speak at various Dissenting churches and soon felt called to pastor among the Baptists. If Carey’s future success had been judged by his early days in preaching, he would have been deemed hopeless for the ministry. He was never considered a good speaker. Carey was slight of build, prematurely bald, and crude in his speech. His first year at Olney was so unimpressive that the church refused to ordain him. One hearer commented about his sermon as, "weak and crude as anything ever called a sermon." Carey often said of himself that his one great strength was that he was a "plodder". He may not have had the greatest skills but he had extraordinary tenacity. So, the young preacher persevered and was finally ordained. His next ten years were served first as bi-vocational and then full-time pastor. In 1781 Carey married Dorothy Plackett. He was only 19 and she was 25. Though they were married for 26 years there was great sorrow in that time and the ending was tragic.
As a young boy, William developed a love for the explorers; so much so that his friends nicknamed him Columbus. That love for adventure became a love for adventuring for Christ as an adult. As a pastor, Carey also worked as a schoolteacher. While serving in that capacity he designed a shoe-leather globe to teach his students about geography. It is said that at times while he was teaching his eyes would fall on that globe. Soon Carey would be weeping, crying out, "And these are pagans, pagans!" Many a young Christian, including this author, have been moved toward the ministry by reading the account of Carey’s shoe-leather globe and his passion for the unreached masses. As he studied and prayed William Carey saw in Christ the perfect example of a missionary. He wrote:
"If Christ could stoop so low as to visit our ... sinful world, and be moved with compassion upon the most undeserving and guilty, the most sinful and depraved ... in what better way could we demonstrate that we are partakers of His grace than by earnest endeavor to imitate His example ... by laboring to promote the salvation of the most ignorant and helpless of mankind?"
Through his association with Andrew Fuller and others, Carey began to formulate a distinct sense of his calling to missions from God. That calling soon translated into a burden for others to see the same need for missionaries to far off lands. Sadly, Carey met a great deal of opposition to begin with concerning foreign missions. When He addressed the Ministers Fraternal of the Northampton Baptist Association in 1787 concerning missions, John Ryland Sr. replied, "Sit down young man. You are an enthusiast! When God pleases to convert the heathen, He will do it without consulting you or me." Such a reprimand only served to spur William Carey on in his zeal for missions. In 1792 Carey wrote An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen. This would become the Magna Carta for the modern mission movement. It was also in that year that he preached his famous sermon, "Expect great things. Attempt great things." By the end of that same day the Northamptonshire Baptist Association adopted a resolution penned by Andrew Fuller:
"Resolved, that a plan be prepared against the next minister's meeting at Kettering, for forming a Baptist Society for propagating the gospel among the heathen."
With Carey’s sermon and Fuller’s resolution, the modern mission movement was born. Nearly a century later that great Southern Baptist, B. H. Carroll wrote of Carey’s sermon:
"William Carey ... preached his great sermon, 'Expect Great Things, Attempt Great Things.' From the top of that sermon, if you were to sight backwards on a dead level, no other sermon will be high enough to cross the line until you strike Peter's sermon on the Day of Pentecost."
Before long it was William Carey who had been chosen by the new missionary society to head for India with the Gospel. Dorothy, Carey’s wife was not so ready to leave England and only after much persuasion did she agree to go. Time would prove that Dorothy’s heart probably never made it to the distant shores of India. Times for missionaries were quite different then than they are now. Today, missionaries tend to go to lands they have been well prepared for. They go with the benefit of language school and seminary degrees in missiology. Such was not the case in 1800. Like the first missionaries who followed him, William Carey was in unknown waters when he went to India. There was no precedent to follow. There were no mission textbooks to carry along. There were no experienced missionaries to show the way. "For the first few years in India, Carey was essentially in missionary orientation. He had not precedents to guide him, no sizeable body of missionary literature to offer insights, and few missionary colleagues with whom to compare notes. Carey's work was trial and error until after a few years he hammered out a missionary strategy to go with the missionary theology he had developed in England."
Along with his associate, a Doctor Thomas, William Carey and family arrived in the city of Calcutta in 1793. It was a town of over 200,000 people from many parts of the world. Because of the British influence, Calcutta was a town of varied shades. It teemed with everything from Indian street beggars to English aristocrats. It seemed like the perfect place to begin a mission. Perfect, except for the greater plans of God. From the beginning things began to fall apart. Dr. Thomas was a terrible money manager and they were quickly forced to move 30 miles out into the countryside. Almost immediately Thomas faced something he would for the rest of his life, creditors. Soon he squandered most of the mission money leaving Carey and his family nearly penniless. At this point Carey wrote, "Now all my friends are but one; I rejoice, however, that He is all-sufficient, and can supply all my wants, spiritual and temporal." There is much we could learn from the spirit of a man who was willing to reveal his doubts and fears and rejoice in the great faithfulness of his God at the same time.
All did not remain bleak, however. Under conviction for what he had done, Dr. Thomas returned to Carey and they soon found employment managing an indigo plantation. Carey’s love for reading books about horticulture and farming proved a great preparation for providing their livelihood in India. India was a formidable environment for the fair skinned Britts. In her jungles lurked man-eating tigers, rogue elephants, snakes, malaria and death with a thousand faces. In 1796 fever swept through the Carey family and claimed the life of their 5 year old son, Peter. Dorothy never recovered from this and blamed Carey for their son’s death. Mrs. Carey was to become mentally unstable and unable to cope with life throughout the rest of her years on earth. Feeling the depth of loss and alienation from his wife Carey wrote in his diary:
"This is indeed the valley of the shadow of death to me ... O what I would give for a sympathetic friend ... to whom I might open my heart! But I rejoice that I am here, not withstanding; and God is here, who can not only have compassion, but is able to save to the uttermost."
Trials always precede triumphs as night does day. By 1799 more missionaries had arrived and finally the work was established. Carey spent the first seven years without a convert but now the tide was turning. Finally in December of 1800 Carey baptized his first Hindu and by 1821 the missionaries had baptized over 1400 new Christians. Working without any kind of a real support system, William Carey had expected great things and attempted great things. God had blessed his commitment.
During this period, Carey's first wife, Dorothy, passed from this world. He was married again quite quickly to Charlotte which caused some talk among the other missionaries. Soon, however, others in the mission compound realized the need Carey had for a companion and a mother to his four children. They were to be married for 13 years that would prove to be the happiest of Carey's life. In 1821, William laid another wife to rest in the soil of India. In 1822 he married his third wife, Grace. They would remain together for the rest of their lives.
William Carey was not a formally educated man. He had none of the worldly training of someone with money. Yet, In spite of his poor education, Carey proved to be a brilliant linguist. After 71/2 years of work his first edition of the Bengali New Testament was ready in 1801. The Old Testament was finished in segments by 1809. Carey's translating work was prodigious. By 1837, he and his helpers had translated portions of the Scripture into more than 40 languages. The mission's first school for natives was opened in 1798 and in the next 20 years 102 more schools were opened with nearly 7,000 students. Carey's crowning jewel was the Serampore College which is still in operation to this present day.
On June 9, 1834, William Carey left this earth at the age of 73. Once he left England he never returned to his homeland. At his death he had requested the words of an Isaac Watts hymn be written on his tombstone: "A wretched, poor, and helpless worm, On Thy kind arms I fall." A young missionary who attended the funeral wrote these words:
"And what shall we do? God has take up our Elijah to heaven ... But we must not be discouraged. The God of missions lives forever. His Cause must go on ... With our departed leader all is well. He had finished his course gloriously. But the work now descends on us."
Like most great men, Carey was complex. He experienced many triumphs and yet also many defeats. His life and witness were forged in the hot furnace of trial and disappointment. There can be no doubt that Dorothy's mental illness was the darkest thing in Carey's life. She never adjusted to the wild life of the jungles of India. After Peter's death, Dorothy slowly slipped into an ever-increasing madness. Imagine William Carey trying to study and translate in the still night hours as he heard the screams and curses of his demented wife from the room next door. Finally, after 12 years of deep oppression Dorothy died on December 8, 1807. Should he have brought his reluctant wife to such a distant and remote land? God is the judge of that.
Carey’s other great trial was the schism that rose between the mission society he had helped form in England and the missionaries in India. In our day of instant communication it is quite possible that the problems which arose would never have even happened. Because news traveled so slowly with no way to confirm information without months of delay, rumors had a way of becoming fact before the accused could even speak. Some accused Carey of becoming wealthy as a missionary. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Everything he made was turned into the mission compound. After Andrew Fuller’s death, there was no one in Great Britain to speak sense to younger nay-sayers. So, Carey and the mission society his sermon began over 40 years earlier parted ways.
Great men cast long shadows. Carey’s influence shadowed an entire world. His influence reached America quickly. Missionaries on their way to India often traveled through America and stayed with Baptists along the way. Their zeal for missions was passed on to American Christians. Carey influenced missionaries even before he met them. When Ann and Adoniram Judson left the states as Congregationalists they knew they would soon meet Carey, a Baptist. In preparation the Judsons studied everything they could in their Greek New Testament concerning baptism. Thinking they would find a rebuttal to immersion for Carey, they instead came to embrace immersion and were baptized when they arrived in India.
William Carey's influence on Indian society was also felt keenly. Through his papers and efforts the Calcutta government finally outlawed the infanticide of babies being thrown to the alligators in the Ganges River. The practice of sati (widows being burned on their deceased husband's funeral pier) especially horrified Carey. Through his bold stance along with other missionaries, that practice came to an end in 1829.
Most importantly, Carey was a theological missionary. He was a committed follower of the Doctrines of Grace along with Fuller and yet was equally committed to the Great Commission. William Carey once called himself a "plodder for Christ." He just kept on doing what he was called to do and plodded toward the kingdom with sure and measured steps. May we have more plodders!
NOTE: Footnotes to this article have been lost.
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