WILLIAM CAREY: FATHER OF MODERN MISSIONS

Kenneth Ortiz

Have you ever met someone who loves people so much that they would pay any price to help others? You know, the type of person who would make any sacrifice or undergo any hardship to serve?

That was the exact type of person William Carey was. He would do anything to serve people… and he was motivated by the Gospel!

He was motivated by doing great things for God. He was the first say the famous statement:

“Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God.”

Known today as the father of modern missions, William Carey sparked a missions movement that is still influencing the world today. He was known most for his incredible perseverance, in spite of great personal tragedy and hardship.

Carey was originally a Baptist minister and an educator. He would later go to India as a missionary, where he spent 41 years, and he would become a Bible translator. He proved to be one of the greatest linguistics experts of all time.

His ministry work, writing, and activism inspired thousands of people.

How did Carey change the world?

After several years of pastoral ministry in England, Carey went to India

His greatest focus was on the work of translating the Bible into local languages and helping people become literal so that they could read God’s Word.

Carey and his team translated the Bible into more than 30 Indian languages and dialects, but it wasn’t without great pain.

He and his team worked for more than 15 years to translate the entire Bible into Bengali and several other dialects as well as several other literary projects, but a disastrous fire in 1812 at the mission printing shop destroyed thousands of manuscripts. Carey lost years of his life’s work.

So, what did Carey do? He started over. He and his team set out to do it again. They were able to re-do much of the work within seven years.

In addition to the great fire, Carey faced other obstacles such as grand opposition and resistance from businesses and the Indian government, he was widowed multiple times, several of his children died at young ages, and he himself faced illnesses several times.

But yet, Carey pressed on, motivated by a desire to see the unreached peoples of India hear the Gospel.

Economic Impact
While in India, he also saw it as his duty to help improve the quality of life for the people of India. He felt like he needed to do something to serve the people in a tangible way. One major way was to help create jobs. Carey partnered with English businessmen to establish factories; responsible for creating thousands of jobs.

Social Reform
Carey was the driving force behind the stoppage of the act of Sati in India. This was a traditional Indian funeral custom. If a man died, his body would typically be burned. Sati was the custom where his wife (or wives) would throw herself onto the burning pyre in order to kill herself.

This was practiced for thousands of years in India because women were considered to have no value apart from their husbands. Because of Carey’s protests and lobbying, Sati was banned in the entire British Empire, including India.

Lots of people talk about changing the world.

Carey actually did it.

Early Life

Carey was born in August 1761 in England. As a child, he was naturally inquisitive. He was interested in the natural sciences, particularly Botany. He never had any formal education after the age of 12. He was an avid reader and turned himself into a prolific self-educator.

He had a natural gift for language that made him able to teach himself Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, French, Dutch and French. He did this all while working as a shoemaker.

During this time period Carey met and married his first wife Dorothy. It seemed to be an odd match because she was an uneducated illiterate peasant woman, six years older than he was, but they married nonetheless. They would have seven children together. Their first child Ann died when she was only two years old.

Spiritual Formation and Early Ministry

Carey had been raised in the church of England, but as a teen he became involved with a local association of particular Baptists that had been recently formed.

Through that he met Andrew Fuller, John Ryland and John Sutcliff. They would become his close friends and served as great influences in exposing him to the Baptist faith.

Carey developed a deep abiding love for God and a profound desire to serve the Gospel. He began extensively studying the Bible and started working towards becoming a minister.

Carey was passionate about being well-studied when it came to the arenas of theology, the Scriptures, and world religions. He later wrote these words:

Those who would be employed in propagating the Gospel should be familiar with the doctrines he is to combat and the doctrines he is to teach, and acquire a complete knowledge both of the Sacred Scriptures and of these philosophical and mythological dogmas which form the souls of [false religions].

In 1789, he became the pastor of Harvey Lane Baptist Church in Leicester, England and a schoolmaster over a local school. Carey would quickly become one of the most well-known pastors within the Baptist association.

 

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The Start of a Missions Movement

It was a brief time after his pastoral appointment that Carey read An Account of the Life of the Late Rev. David Brainerd written by Jonathan Edwards about Brainerd’s incredible missionary work among the Native American tribes. This began to spark something in Carey. Just being the pastor of a local church wasn’t enough for him. He began preaching about making a global impact.

Around the same time, Carey read the journals of James Cook, the explorer. To many people in England, Cook’s journals were merely thrilling stories of adventure, but to Carey it was a revelation of human need around the world. Carey became deeply concerned with propagating the Gospel throughout the world.

Carey began to use his influence to provoke people to take the Gospel to places where it had never been. He wanted his local church to band together with the other churches of his region to send missionaries to Africa and India. Carey wrote:

[No work should] supersede all attempts to spread the gospel in foreign parts.

Just building a nice local church wasn’t good enough for him; Carey was convinced that his church needed to become a sending agency, but this was a radical thought in the minds of most people. Many churches resisted.

Carey published his now-famous book An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens (often referred to simply as Enquiry).

This was his manifesto.

It seemed like, almost overnight, that his book became one of the most popular Christian books in England.

There had been a lot of indifference and hostility in England towards missionary work abroad, but Carey’s influence changed that. He singlehandedly convinced thousands of Christians to become active in worldwide Evangelism. Carey wrote:

“To know the will of God, we need an open Bible and an open map.”

In October 1792, he was joined by his friends Fuller, Ryland, and Sutcliff as founding members of the “Particular Baptist Society for the Propagation of the Gospel Amongst the Heathen” (but it would later be renamed “Baptist Missionary Society” which I would say was a good move).

Their goal was to raise funds and train missionaries.

Around that time they met Dr. John Thomas, a medical doctor who had been living in Calcutta, India as a medical missionary. He was back in England at the time, raising funds. The Baptist Missionary Society decided to fund his missions work. Carey determined he would go with him to India to set-up a missions outpost for the Baptist Missionary Society.

Troubled Times in India

In the spring of 1793, Carey and his family set sail for India with Dr. Thomas and a few others. After several delays and months of obstacles, they finally landed in Calcutta in November.

During the first few months in Calcutta, the missionaries sought means to support themselves and a place to establish their mission post. They also began to learn the Bengali language.

But times were tough. They lived in a marshy, malaria-ridden area outside of Calcutta, an area where gangs were prevalent. They also had grossly underestimated the cost of living in Calcutta, so funds were rapidly depleting.

But despite the tough times, Carey’s attitude remained resolute. He believed the hardship was worth it, as evident by these words he penned:

“I can plod. I can persevere in any definite pursuit. To this I owe everything.”

Northward Bound for the Carey Family


A friend of John Thomas owned two indigo factories and needed a manager, so he sought to hire Carey. Originally, Carey had intended to make his living in India by farming, but he gladly accepted the position as the means of supporting his family. In 1794, Carey moved his family north to Midnapore to manage the factories.

He established a church near the factory. He also sought to establish a mission post there. But he saw very little success with either.

Carey’s letters home to England during this time period expressed great distress and discouragement. He wrote about the difficulties of presenting the Gospel to the Indian people because of the various languages and dialects spoke.

He also spoke about the fierce resistance they received from the Indian government, which forbade the missions enlargement. But despite the obstacles, Carey determined to press on.

The nearly six-year period that Carey managed the indigo plants seemed unsuccessful and filled with heartaches. Many people were shocked they could even survive in the conditions in which they lived, not to mention the common threat of tigers and cobras in their region.

Those six years were extremely difficult, but they were formidable years for Carey. He continued working hard to learn several Bengali and Sanskrit dialects. There he eventually completed the first revision of his Bengali New Testament. It was a great accomplishment.

It was also during this time period that he formulated the principles upon which his missionary community would be formed:

  1. Communal living
  2. Financial self-reliance
  3. Training of indigenous ministers

These principles would form the basics of modern day missions. Most missions work done in the world ever since the 1800’s has followed Carey’s principles and ideals.

Tragedy Strikes


Just a few months after the family’s move to Midnapore, Carey’s son Peter died of dysentery. This was the second child they had lost and it was a massive blow to the morale of Carey and his family.

His wife seemed to be the most devastated. Not long after Peter’s death, Dorothy suffered a nervous breakdown. She never recovered. She suffered from severe depression, fits of rage, and borderline insanity for the rest of her life.

Carey also felt abandoned by his friend Dr. Thomas, who had distanced himself from Carey’s work. Dr. Thomas had started a surgical business that hadn’t gone well, so he then started ventures in the rum business to pay his debts. Carey wrote these words in a letter:

“I am in a strange land, alone, no Christian friend, a large family, and nothing to supply their wants. I blame [Dr. Thomas] for leading me into such expense. And I blame myself for being so led.”

The Move that Changed Everything


In 1799, the factories were closed down and Carey was unemployed. First, he moved his family further to a different region in order to acquire a piece of land, in hopes of starting his own factory. But they didn’t stay there long.

They were facing severe opposition from members of the Indian government because they were against the missions work, so it seemed impossible to get anything done in business or in ministry.

The region Carey and his family lived in was suffering from political unrest, the family’s physical health was not good, and their poor economic situation was getting worse.

It seemed like everything was going wrong for the Carey family, but things were just about the break in his favor.

The Baptist Missionary Society had begun sending other missionaries. Carey’s inspirational work in England, years earlier, had inspired many to go to places around the world.

Among the missionaries that had come to India were John Fountain, William Ward, Joshua Marshman, and David Brundson. They had all settled in the Danish colony of Serampore.

Carey decided to move there to join them in January 1800. Together this group launched the first missions outpost at Serampore.

At first, this move seemed like a setback to Carey.

He had originally desired to live closer to the indigenous unreached people groups, so settling in Serampore, among mostly Europeans, seemed like he was going backward somewhat, but he later realized that this was the hand of God.

If the factories had not closed, it’s likely that Carey would not have ever moved to Serampore. But it was there at Serampore, with this new alliance with new missionaries, where Carey would live the latter part of his life and became an incredible success in his missionary adventure.

 

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The Mission Expands


At Serampore, Carey established a school and a print shop. He began the task of printing the Bible in Bengali, a dream he had always had.

At last in December 1800, after seven years of missionary labor, Carey baptized his first convert, Krishna Pal, and then just two months after that he published his first Bengali New Testament.

With this Bible printing, and its subsequent editions, Carey and his colleagues were able to lay the foundation for the study of modern Bengali, which up to until that point had been an “unsettled dialect.”

The difficult six years Carey had spent managing the factories had taught him a lot about perseverance, and finally, it was now paying off.

In 1801, Carey’s translation work led to him to be hired as a professor of Bengali and Sanskrit at Fort William College, in Calcutta, a prestigious British school designed for the children of British civil servants living in India.

This caused Carey’s mission to earn prestige and gave him access to government printing contracts for his printing shop.

Carey’s position also led to several very profitable relationships with representatives of the East India Company, the largest trade company on the planet at the time.

In 1807, Brown University (the prestigious Ivy League school in Rhode Island) recognized the work Carey had done from the other side of the planet, so they conferred on him a Doctor of Divinity.

More Tragedy for Carey


Poverty, illness, loneliness, and heartache had taken their toll on Carey’s wife Dorothy. In December 1807, she died, due to her debilitating mental breakdown.

John Marshman once wrote about how Carey would work on his studies and translations extensively for hours at a time even “while an insane wife was in the next room.”

While Dorothy was still alive, several friends and colleagues had urged William to commit her to an asylum. But he refused. He claimed that he did not want to expose Dorothy to the treatment that she might receive in an asylum.

He felt it was his responsibility to keep her within the family home, even though the children were exposed to her incredible rages.

 

Happiness Found

In 1808, Carey remarried to Charlotte Rumohr, a well-educated very intelligent Danish woman not connected with the mission, but she had become a baptized believer through Carey’s ministry and she jumped into missions work as soon as they married.

There was some bit of scandal being that Carey was getting married so soon after the death of his first wife, but he seemed to find real happiness with her. He and Charlotte were the same age (46), had similar interests, and in many ways they seemed to be a perfect match for each other.

Charlotte and William worked together on translations projects, she was a great stepmother and caretaker to the two youngest Carey boys still underage, and on all accounts they seemed deeply in love.

It was obvious that Charlotte had captured Carey’s heart in a way that Dorothy never did.

The Mission at Serampore Continued


Carey continued in his ministry work there at Serampore, leading the translations team as well as continuing his work as a professor at the college. The missions team opened multiple schools where literacy was taught.

Later in 1808, Carey published his first Sanskrit New Testament, and over the next 28 years, he and his team translated the entire Bible into Bengali, Oriya, Marathi, Assamese, Tamil, multiple dialects of Hindi and Sanskrit.

They also translated large parts of both the Old and New Testaments into at least 26 other languages and dialects.

They also began translating many works of Indian literature, philosophical works, and works of grammar in Bengali, Sanskrit, Marathi, Telugu, and Kanarese. These works were often used to teach people how to read and write.

And the print shop was also used for printing government projects, which was a great source of revenue for the missions team.

Around this time, the team was able to set-up a missions outpost 200 miles north of Calcutta. This would be the first of 19 missions posts established by Carey throughout his ministry years.

The Baptist Missionary Society would send and fund many missionaries coming to India. Some served under Carey while many others went out to other missions posts.

Many of the missions outposts started schools. At first they would focus on basic literacy for ordinary peoples. As churches were started and converts came to Christ, the schools began to focus more on training indigenous pastors.

Carey was able to expand the operations of the print shop and opened other local business ventures. He brokered deals between local government officials and businessmen which led to factories being opened throughout the Bengal region.

Thousands of jobs were created for Indian people.

But despite many other ventures and projects, Carey spent the bulk of his time and energy translating the Scriptures.

His attitude about remaining focused on translation work was always clear. He was obsessed with making an impact, evidenced by these famous words he wrote:

“I’m not afraid of failure; I’m afraid of succeeding at things that don’t matter.”

Carey’s reputation spread far and wide, across Europe, India, and the USA. He was known as a man with a deep love for God and a deep love for the people of India.

He demonstrated great visionary leader as he led the team at Serampore to do amazing ministry work for many years. Carey’s accomplishments in Bible translation are truly nothing short of a monumental achievement—especially since Carey had started off as a self-educated shoemaker.

The Communal Living of Serampore


The community of missionaries at Serampore grew to be several dozens of families by 1810, all living under the ideals set forth by Carey in the communal-style of living, with each family contributing to a common treasury that they all shared. All their family homes were all in close proximity to each other.

All the missionaries and their families shared meals and devotional times together each day. The purpose was to bring family life and ministry together. Earlier Carey had written, “Our families should be considered nurseries for the Mission.”

The mission post brought in revenue through the print shop and business ventures so that they would be self-reliant as a community, not dependent upon monies from England.

15 YEARS OF WORK GOES UP IN FLAMES


On March 11, 1812, the printing shop was destroyed by a large fire. More than two thousand reams of manuscripts and many volumes of Scriptures burned up that day. Works from thirteen languages were destroyed.

The biggest losses were Carey’s manuscripts of a dictionary of Sanskrit, which he had personally spent several years working on. It was almost ready to go to print right before the fire.

Also, a large quantity of works Carey had developed for the foundation of a universal dictionary for all Asian languages that are derived from Sanskrit. It was to be an incredible resource for many people working in translations.

Neither of these two projects were ever resumed after the fire.

More than 15 years of Carey’s life work, along with many years of work by his team, went up in flames that day. Thankfully no lives were lost in the fire, but devastation was the mood among the community of missionaries at Serampore.

The next morning Carey and a friend walked over the smoking ruins, with tears in his eyes he reportedly stated:

“In one short evening the labors of many years are consumed. How unsearchable are the ways of God! The Lord has laid me low that I may look more simply to him.”

Carey understood something great. God was in charge. God was in the midst of this tragedy. And God had a plan for it. Carey knew it was not his job to question God, but rather to cling to God more closely in the midst of the devastation. And this motivated Carey to press on.

The team got back to work a few months later, after rebuilding the printing plant. They were able to re-do most of the work they had lost. It took approximately seven years to re-do much of what was lost.

The team demonstrated incredible perseverance through it all.

God Works Through the Tragedy

The news of the fire reached England and the USA. Christians from all over began to unite to help repair the loss.

Funds were sent by churches from all different denominations to help rebuild the printing plant. In fact, the great fire at Serampore seemed to awaken many believers in the West to need for missions around the world.

The fire made Carey even more famous among Christians worldwide, and brought attention to the linguistic labors of he and his team. It also directly led to a spike in circulation of Carey’s book Enquiry.

This would spark more interest in world missions and inspired a wave of American missionaries going to Africa and Asia.

The Ending of Sati

As previously defined in this article, Sati was an Indian funeral custom where a widow immolated herself by throwing herself onto her husband’s pyre, committing suicide by burning herself to death.

If a women refused, she typically would be forced onto the burning pile. In some rare cases a widow was allowed to live, but she would have been completely shunned by her entire family.

The practice of Sati can be dated back to the 4th century BC, so when Carey arrived in India the practice had been going on for more than 2,200 years in some regions. It was also practiced in some parts of Vietnam, Nepal, and Indonesia.

Carey lobbied both British and Indian government officials. He pushed business representatives of the East India Company to use their influence to stop the practice. Carey even consulted with Hindu theologians, seeking to elicit their help.

He was very outspoken against the practice and become the world’s leading civic activist against Sati and fighting for the rights of women in India.

For nearly 30 years, Carey spent a considerable amount of time fighting against the practice.

In 1813, the famous abolitionist William Wilberforce gave an impassioned speech before the House of Commons in England. He cited stats and case studies collected by Carey. That sparked an international movement against Sati.

It took time, but eventually the practice of Sati was outlawed in 1829 by British parliament, so it was officially illegal in any British territory. Later, many of the princely states of India followed suit, outlawing the practice. This eventually led to several other social reforms in India too.

The changes in India would also provoke changes in other nations. Sati virtually evaporated from Indonesia. It was banned by Dutch colonists wherever they had influence in the Southeast. And Sati was also banned in Nepal in 1920.

In the late 1700’s when Carey first arrived in India, there were more than 600 cases of Sati each year in the Bengal region. Between World War I and the 1980’s, it is estimated that there have only been 40-50 cases of Sati in that same region (that’s an average of less than one per year).

The Indian Sati Prevention Act of 1988 further criminalized any type of aiding, abetting, and glorifying of the act of Sati.

This was a deep-rooted tradition, but Carey helped to bring change. He was the main force in the fight against Sati. He literally changed the world!

 

Widowed Again, and Married Again
In 1821, Charlotte died. Two years later, at the age of 62, Carey married Grace Hughes, a widow 17 years younger than he was.

In all honesty, Grace was never able to match Charlotte’s charm, intelligence, or culture, but Grace did have a strong reputation for being a good compassionate companion for Carey.

He wrote this about Grace in his diary: “Her constant and unremitting care and excellent nursing took off much of the weight of my illness. We live in great happiness.”

He remained married to Grace until his death.

Criticisms of Carey


William Carey clearly had a deep abiding love for God and for people.

He was a great visionary leader, a brilliant linguistics expert, a strong theologian, an incredible civil activists, a good businessman, and overall a man of great faith. None of these were ever in doubt.

However, as with any person, Carey had some major personal flaws too.

1) The biggest criticism of Carey was his poor fatherhood.
When the Carey family first arrived at Serampore, they were in bad shape. Carey himself had been consumed by his work, so he was sort of a neglectful father.

He was not inclined to discipline his children for misbehavior, and it was obvious that their mother was unfit to care for them.

John Marshmann’s wife Hannah had sought to provide a motherly influence to the Carey children as they grew up at Serampore. Hannah played a significant role in raising the Carey children.

Carey’s colleague William Ward often served as a surrogate father for the Carey children.

Carey himself was often consumed by his translations work. He also traveled extensively to and from Calcutta for his work at the college as well as traveling a lot to oversee the missions work at the many missions outposts they had established.

Carey’s friends believed that his children were important to him, but the ministry work always seemed to come first. This has earned Carey criticism.

2) Carey worked too much and too hard.
The second common criticism leveled at Carey, by both his contemporaries and historians, is his lack of soul-care.

Many times Carey’s colleagues thought he was pushing too hard and working too much. He set goals for the translations team that seemed far too ambitious. Some of his friends had urged him to slow down. His response was often to push his teams harder.

Some critics believe that Carey would have been more effective with less work. Some claim that he took on too much and therefore the quality of his work was not as good as it could have otherwise been (although, to be fair, the number of critics with these claims is small).

It is true that some of his work had to be substantially revised after his death, but he started works that many people would not have started; he laid a foundation that was able to be built upon for decades after.

 

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The Amazing Legacy Continues


In 1818, the missionary community established Serampore College, a school of higher education for theology, the arts, and the sciences. The school would have a major impact in higher education in India. It is still in operation today.

In 1820, Carey and his team organized the Agricultural and Horticultural Society of India. It was designed to a be a research epicenter for horticultural sciences, and that’s exactly what it has been for more than 180 years.

It was established with a large flower garden, greenhouses, a research laboratory, and a library. It is still in existence today as a robust research center and most of the original elements remain. It houses a massive collection of unique plants and flowers from around the world.

In 1823, Carey was elected a fellow by the Linnean Society of London, a prestigious honor.

By the time Carey died in 1834, he had spent 41 years in India without a vacation. Carey and his team had laid an impressive foundation of Bible translations, education, business brokerage, and social reform.

Today his legacy lives on as an educationist in at least nine schools named after him:

  • William Carey Christian School (WCCS) in Sydney, Australia
  • William Carey International University in Pasadena, California
  • Carey Theological College in Vancouver, British Columbia
  • Carey Baptist College in Aukland, New Zealand
  • Carry Baptist Grammar School in Melbourne, Victoria
  • Carey College in Colombo, Sri Lanka
  • The William Carey University, Hattiesburg, Mississippi

William Carey had a tremendous impact on the world. Very few people ever made a different the way he did. And his legacy remains. Biographer F. Dealville Walker put it this way:

“He, with a few contemporaries, was almost singlehanded in conquering the prevailing indifference and hostility to missionary effort; Carey developed a plan for missions, and printed his amazing Enquiry; he influenced timid and hesitating men to take steps to the evangelizing of the world.”

Another biographer wrote of him:

“Taking his life as a whole, it is not too much to say that he was the greatest and most versatile Christian missionary sent out in modern times.”

On his death bed, he was speaking with a friend. He asked the friend if people had been speaking about Carey and his legacy. The friend confirmed that many people revered and admired him, so naturally many had spoken well of him. Carey responded to his friend:

“You have been saying much about Dr. Carey and his work. When I am gone, say nothing about Dr. Carey; speak only about Dr. Carey’s Saviour.”

William Carey died at the Serampore mission on June 9, 1834. He was the father of modern missions and one of heaven’s heroes!

Bibliography:

  • John Taylor, Biographical and Literary Notices of William Carey. Bibliographical Notices of Works, Northampton, 1886
  • J.C. Marshman, Life and Times of Carey, Marshman and Ward, 2 vols., London, 1859
  • J. Culross, William Carey, New York, 1882
  • George Smith, Life of William Carey, London, 1887
  • H. O. Dwight, H. A. Tupper, and E. M. Bliss, Encyclopedia of Missions, pp. 133-134, New York, 1904; DNB, ix. 77.
Kenneth Ortiz

Kenneth Ortiz

Kenneth Ortiz is the Director of Bethany Teams. He is an author, international speaker, entrepreneur, and has more than a decade of pastoral ministry and church leadership. Kenneth has led more than 1,300 people on 30 mission trips to 25 different nations. He's also an avid reader, a theology nerd, and a Disney Enthusiast.
Kenneth Ortiz

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