“Expect Great Things from God”: William Carey, A Pioneer Missionary
Daniel Y. Lee (DYL@ship.edu)
Key Verse: Matthew 28:19
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…”
Dear Lord, please help me to learn from the life of your servant, Missionary William Carey as I prepare this report! In Jesus’ name, amen.
1. A Young Shoemaker Repents
William Carey was born in 1761 to a poor family in Paulerspury, Northamptonshire, England. His father Edmund was a weaver, but when William was five years old, he became the schoolmaster of a parish school. Young Willy liked to read and devoured most of the books in the school especially those on plants and animals. He was also interested in the Latin language and memorized a vocabulary book all by himself. He had a keen aptitude in mathematics as well.
As a young boy, William was not particularly religious. He wasn’t much interested in the Bible except for the adventure stories of Joseph and David in the Old Testament. When he was thirteen years old, he and his friend sneaked out of the town to attend a revival meeting of John Wesley. There he discovered that there were many English people who did not follow the traditions of the Church of England. They were called the Baptists, Quakers, Congregationalists, and Methodists. John Wesley was seventy years old then, and he had been preaching the gospel everyday for the past 35 years to thousands of people at a time in each meeting. William quickly figured that Wesley reached out to tens of millions of people through his preaching and was amazed that God could use just one man to do such a great work. William had planned to be a gardener for living when he grew up, but now he was wondering if God had a greater purpose in his life.
In the summer when William was fourteen, he developed a severe skin condition that was related to an excessive exposure to the sun. The reaction was so serious that he had to give up his dream of becoming a gardener. His father found a shoemaker in the nearby town of Piddington who could train him as an apprentice. Little did he know that this was God’s preparation to make him a man of God, because the shop owner, Clarke Nichols, and the other apprentice, John Warr, would have a big impact on his life.
One day, Mr. Nichols sent him to Northampton to buy supplies for the shop. William took the opportunity to buy a few things for himself. But on the way back, he discovered that among his change was a counterfeit shilling. It was a great deal of money to the poor apprentice. How could God let this happen to him? Then he found a way out. He could simply switch the coin with the one in Mr. Nichols’ change. The shop owner could bear the loss much better than he could, he reasoned. So he decided to switch the coins. But the shop owner found out about the bad coin and began to question him. William was not a smooth liar. He was acting so strange out of guilt that Nichols already knew what William had done. The fifteen-year-old boy was so ashamed. How could he tell his father about this deception? What would his mother say? And he would be surely fired by Mr. Nichols. But the shop owner did not fire him. He forgave him and never mentioned the incident again. Up until that time, William thought that he was a pretty good Christian because he attended the church regularly. But this event proved that he was a sinner. He realized that he needed to be changed.
The first thing he did after the incident was to begin to read the Bible more carefully. John Warr, the other apprentice, urged him to study the word of God. William discovered that the Scriptures had the answers to all his questions. For example, he learned why many people were unhappy with just following the traditions of the Anglican Church. For the first time, he realized that a Christian should do more than attending the church on Sundays. William began to study the Greek language to understand the New Testament in its original words. He began to grow spiritually through the word of God. He also decided to leave the Church of England to anchor his faith solely on the word of God, even though this would mean a difficult life in a society where all non-Anglicans were discriminated against.
In 1781, William married Dorothy Plackett at a Baptist church in Piddington. Earlier that year, William, Dorothy’s father and seven others had established a Baptist ministry called the Hackleton Meeting House. William was only 20 years old. He and Dorothy were dirt poor, but the young couple was very happy. And yet, this was not exactly a marriage by faith. Soon William would discover that his wife would become a major source of burden in his mission life rather than a suitable helper, because she did not share his mission vision.
In the winter of 1782, William was stricken with a fever that threatened his life. This illness lasted several months and he thought he might die. He was poor, sick, and cold and losing his hair from the sickness. But God restored his health, though not his hair. He remained bald-headed throughout his life.
2. Carey’s World Mission Vision
Carey began to preach the gospel at the age of 20 in the Hackleton church. As he studied the Bible earnestly, God began to open his eyes to the world where millions of people still had not heard the good news of Jesus. He drew a huge world map on the wall of his small cottage, adding the names of countries and cities with populations and religions. He also made a globe out of leather to remind himself of the world mission command of our Lord Jesus. From the Bible he learned how fervently the disciples of Jesus went out to preach the gospel in the first century. Why wasn’t there much effort in England in his time to send missionaries to other countries? Why were they ignoring the great commission of Jesus?
By 1786, Carey was serving as the pastor of a Baptist church in Moulton. His passion for world mission was growing steadily. By this time, he had mastered three more languages: Italian, Dutch and French. When a fellow Baptist minister named Andrew Fuller found out his vision for world mission, he told Carey that he should no longer make shoes but devote himself to the worthy cause. But not everyone was supportive of his vision. Carey knew that his own father wouldn’t approve. One day, at a meeting of the Northampton Baptist Association of Pastors, Carey suggested that they discuss the great commission of Jesus. He was immediately shot down by his own spiritual advisor, Rev. John Ryland, Sr., who told him, “Sit down, young man. If God wants to convert the heathen, he will do it without consulting with you, or me!”1 Carey realized that most pastors did not share his vision. And who was he but a young pastor? He wasn’t even ordained yet.2
But Carey did not give up. He continued to study the works of missionaries in history. Whenever he read the Acts of the Apostles he was deeply touched by the missionary life of St. Paul. He was moved by the Moravian missionaries and also by John Eliot (1604-90), a Puritan minister who went to preach the gospel to American Indians during the colonial times. Most of all, as he read Isaiah 54:2, it seemed that the voice of God spoke to him personally: “Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes.” How could he pretend to do the work of God ignoring this voice of God?
Carey continued to compile data for foreign countries. When a young deacon of his church named Thomas Potts saw what he had gathered, he encouraged Carey to publish it as a pamphlet. Carey did not have the money for that, and he was very busy with serving his congregation and soon he was appointed to be the pastor of a church in Leicester, which was a pretty big town with 17,000 people. But finally three years later, in 1792, his work was published. The “pamphlet” turned out to be an 87-page book with a long title: An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens, in which the Religious State of the Different Nations of the World, the Success of Former Undertakings, and the Practicability of Further Undertakings, are Considered.
The book starts out with quoting St. Paul from Romans 10:12-15: “For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile--the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent?”
Then Carey asks a series of questions about the great commission of our Lord Jesus. The first section is an enquiry as to whether or not the great commission given by Jesus in Matthew 28:19 to his disciples is still binding to contemporary Christians. And Carey’s answer is that yes, it is binding as long as there are people in the world who have not heard the good news. Similarly, Carey raises and answers other questions concerning the great commission.
The second and the longest section of the book is devoted to the history of missionary work up to his time. He reviews the work of God described in the Acts of Apostles. Then he moves on to more modern mission work.
The third section provides many tables with detailed information about the size, population, and religion of various countries of the world. Carey estimated that more than 550 million people in his time had not heard the gospel of Jesus. The fourth section of the book discusses the practical aspects of missionary work, such as how to overcome distance and language barriers, problems with provisions, and potential persecutions. In the last section, Carey outlines what his people could do practically to obey the command of the Lord. He urges them to pray. Among other things, he also suggests that his people should form missionary societies to plan and support missionary work. His world mission vision was much more than an ideal. We may say that he thought globally but acted locally to obey the world mission command of Jesus.
3. A New Missionary Arrives in India
Carey pressed on his campaign to establish a missionary society. At first, no one seemed to respond. Many church leaders not only ignored his call but some of them denounced it. Even Carey himself had a doubt in his weak moments. “We are so poor. It’s preposterous to be thinking of foreign missions!”3 But there were some leaders who supported him, including Andrew Fuller and John Ryland, Jr. At one meeting of the ministers of the Northampton Baptist Association, Carey again delivered a fiery message based on Isaiah 54:2, concluding with the now famous phrases, “Brothers, expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.”4 Finally, a resolution was passed to explore the establishment of a missionary society for foreign missions.
When the news about a missionary society spread, he received an encouraging letter from a Dr. John Thomas of London who was volunteering to be the society’s first missionary to India. It turned out that Dr. Thomas had already been to India for evangelism and he wanted to go back as soon as possible. And at the face-to-face meeting with Dr. Thomas, God moved Carey’s heart to volunteer to go with him as his assistant. Carey knew that this was a decision that many people objected. His father didn’t like it. His wife Dorothy declared that she would not go with him. They had three little children, ages 7, 4, and 3. Dorothy was expecting another child soon. How could he abandon his family? But the words of Jesus from Luke 14:26 was ringing in his ears: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters--yes, even his own life--he cannot be my disciple.” Carey knew that he had to go, at any cost.
In March 1793, Carey and his oldest son Felix left home to accompany Dr. Thomas to their trip to India. His wife and other children were left behind in Hackleton. He told his wife to trust God, but his heart was heavy. When they arrived in London, they discovered that no licenses to travel to India were issued for Carey and Thomas. Some English officials did not want to jeopardize their commercial interests in India by allowing missionaries to go to the country and offend the natives. They had to return home to wait for the next ship. And Dr. Thomas used the opportunity to persuade Carey’s wife Dorothy to join them, who reluctantly agreed. So in June 1793, they were aboard on a Danish ship (Kron Princessa Maria) sailing to India.
After a difficult, five-month long sailing through the stormy seas, they finally landed near Calcutta. The new mission land did not exactly welcome them with open arms. The family first settled in the northern Bengal area and lived there for six years. The place was void of any green grass, but only mud. There were all kinds of dangerous animals that threatened their lives including tigers and cobras. The natives were steeped in their own religious traditions and the complex caste system. They looked at the foreigners with suspicious eyes, because most of the foreigners in India were there to exploit the resources and the cheap labor force of the country. The East India Company of England, for example, was purely a moneymaking system. The English officials would often block or limit Carey’s activities for evangelism.
Many tragedies struck the missionary family not long after they arrived in the mission land. His second son Peter died of fever. He was only five years old. Carey himself had another severe bout with fever that threatened his life. Above all, he had to suffer with his wife for many years in India. She had come there reluctantly. She complained just about everything from the beginning. Then she retreated from reality and became delusional. She would accuse him for having an affair with other women and follow him around.
Carey wrote in one of his journal entries: “… I am in a strange land, alone, no Christian friend, a large family—and nothing to supply their wants… I am dejected, not for my own sake but my family’s... In the evening poured out my soul to God; but still my burden continued. The next day had a pleasant time in prayer to God in the morning but afterwards the abusive treatment I received from her who should be an help to me quite overcame my spirits…”5
Dorothy gradually got worse and eventually became a mental patient until she died after 14 years in India. What caused her mental illness? Some people speculate that her illness was caused by her loss of two baby girls and Peter, isolation from her family in England, the difficulties of mission life, or even mercury poisoning.6 In any case, Carey had to suffer a great deal because of his wife. He had to hold on to God only and that wass what he did.
The most unbearable agony Carey had to endure, however, was the fact that his ministry did not have a single convert for the first seven years. In addition, the financial situation was serious. The Baptist Association back home supported him financially, but the money ran out quickly and he had to support his family and the mission by managing an indigo plantation. These first years in the mission land were indeed difficult period in Cary’s life. But he persevered by faith. And God prepared a better environment. Finally, Carey and his family moved near Calcutta and settled in a place called Serampore which was controlled by the Dutch government. It was there Carey’s mission work would thrive and make a tremendous impact on India as well as other missionary work of the world.
4. The “Word of Christ” Ministry
Carey firmly believed in the power and authority of the word of God. He believed that faith comes from hearing the word of Christ. So all through the sufferings in the mission land, he devoted his heart to the translation of the Bible into local languages. He knew that for the Indians to hear the gospel of Jesus, he had to give them the word of God in their own languages. So he diligently studied Bengali and other languages from the very beginning and translated the Scriptures. He had to struggle with this work through many sleepless nights. Often he had to do this with his wife screaming in her room and the children fighting nearby. Only the word of God sustained him through the difficult years.
Finally after more than seven years of hard work, the first Bengali New Testament was published in December 1800. At a special thanksgiving service, Carey delivered a message based on Colossians 3:16, with the title, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.”7 What was more remarkable was the presence of the Indian sheep at the service. Just a year earlier, the first convert named Krishna Pal had been baptized by Carey. Several others followed and they were there at the service. Carey was deeply grateful to the Lord. But it was only a beginning.
Throughout his mission life in India, he devoted himself to the work of translation and the Bible was published in some 40 different languages, including Sanskrit, Oriya, Hindi, Marathi, Punjabi, Gujarati, Kashmiri, and others. And when he had the reverent fear of the word of God, the Lord blessed his ministry and added many more converts from among the natives.
The Serampore Mission House8
5. Co-working Spirit with Other Missionaries
Carey was a great servant of God. He was also a very able man and did many great things despite the countless obstacles he had to overcome. But it was not a one-man show. He was able to do the great work of God through coworking with other missionaries. Dr. Thomas was his only mission coworker during the difficult first years. He helped Carey in many ways. But Thomas seemed to lack a clear direction and vision.
The work of God began at a full speed in 1799 when eight new missionaries arrived in India, sent by the Baptist Association in England. Together with them, Carey established a mission center in Serampore located near Calcutta. It was a beautiful common life. All 10 adults and nine children lived in a big house together and shared one big dining room. They served the mission together according to their talents. For example, one young missionary was a printer by training and he helped with the publishing ministry. Another was an educator and served to educate the missionaries’ children. He also helped to establish boarding schools for Indian children, which provided income for the mission. Carey of course was the glue that held them together.9 They pooled all their earnings and used for their common expenses. Any surplus was used to expand the mission. Their Serampore mission house was clearly modeled after the beautiful common life of the first-century believers described in Acts 2:42-47. God blessed their sacrificial life of mission and blessed their ministry abundantly.
6. Discipleship Ministry
Christian education was an essential part of the Serampore mission from the beginning. The boarding schools provided Christian education to many children of Indian civil servants, merchants and others. Tens of thousands of Indian children were educated through the schools.
In the Serampore mission, one man, Krishna Pal, accepted Christ as his personal Savior and became an ancestor of faith for the ministry. He abandoned his caste and was baptized in the name of Jesus. Krishna was threatened by his neighbors. But he stood firm. He even led his family and relatives to the Lord.
When Carey’s work on the translations of the Bible was known, he was also invited to teach at the Fort William College in Calcutta, which was located 18 miles from the Serampore mission house. He was 39 years old. His labor to spread the word of God was rewarded even in human terms. This man with a humble origin was now a respected professor in Bengali, Sanskrit, and Marathi. Brown University in Rhode Island recognized his scholarship and conferred on him an honorary doctorate degree of divinity (1807). He was called Dr. William Carey. But he wasn’t proud. He put all his salary to the Serampore mission treasury. His professor position was another way to have spiritual influence on future leaders.
In 1819, the Serampore mission welcomed young students to its own college, Serampore College. The purpose of the college was to educate Indian students in such subject areas as history, astronomy, geography and divinity, all in their native language. The missionaries envisioned that from among the students of Serampore College many future spiritual leaders would be established.
7. Respecting Local Culture but Denouncing Evil Practices
Unlike some of the English officials of the East India Company, Carey showed his respect for the Indian people and their culture as he served them with the gospel of Jesus. For example, the sixth article of the “Serampore Compact”10 (1805) states, “It is absolutely necessary that the natives should have an entire confidence in us, and feel quite at home in our company… We ought to… on all occasions treat them as our equals.”11 However, he also made great efforts to help them to purge some of the evil practices, such as “sati,” the practice of burning a woman along with her dead husband, abandonment of the old and the diseased people along a river, and sacrificing babies to the river. He was aware that hundreds of widows were burned alive year after year. This broke Carey’s heart. Finally, as a result of his persistent effort, sati was banned in 1829.
8. A Faithful Father
Besides Peter who died young, William and Dorothy Carey had four sons, Felix, William, Jabez and Jonathan. Felix was eight years old and Little Willy three when they moved to India and Jabez was only an infant. In fact, this baby was born when Dorothy thought that William had already left for India and she named him Jabez, which means, “sorrow.” Jonathan was born when Dorothy was suffering from her mental illness and Carey was struggling with his mission life after arriving in India. One thing Carey felt sorry for his children was that he could not spend much time with them because of his mission-centered life. And given the condition of their mother, the boys seemed to grow up with no discipline or education. But things changed when they moved to Serampore. His mission coworkers helped his boys with their education, discipline and spiritual growth. In fact, God blessed them to grow to be second-generation missionaries. For example, his son Felix was ordained by Carey himself and served as a missionary to Burma. Willy also preached the word of God. Carey himself could not take good care of his sons, but God took care of them through his mission coworkers.
9. Carey’s Legacy Continues
William Carey died on June 9, 1834, after serving the mission in India for 40 years. He was 73 years old. He had done a great work of God in India. More than 1,500 converts were active in various ministries. The word of God was published in many languages. He even established an impressive botanical garden and aviary, and founded the horticultural society in Calcutta. His life was long and his achievements impressive. But he suffered many tragedies as well. After Dorothy’s death, he remarried to Charlotte who also died before him. His son Felix died at the age of 37. Many of his mission coworkers died of various diseases. Finally, God took Carey home. But his spiritual legacy still lives on. Today he is called the father of modern missions.
10. May God Bless the People of India!
In her recent letter to UBF directors, Missionary Sarah Barry writes: “It was a great privilege to attend the Autumn [Bible] Conference of the India UBF in New Delhi from September 19-22, 2002… [Among the 107 people who attended the conference were] a total of 65 sheep, 16 shepherds and 8 shepherdesses. 34 sheep were from a Hindu background… Shepherd Abraham Nial is the first convert from Hinduism. He is very joyful and very clear about his commitment to Jesus. He will finish his Ph.D. in a couple of years and wants to be a full time shepherd. He was the conference coordinator, and made the announcements and gave prayer topics after each meeting. He also delivered one main message and brought tears to our eyes by his portrayal of the father of the prodigal son in the drama. Because of his conversion, many other Hindus are studying the Bible and 52% of the sheep at the conference were Hindus. This is an answer to prayer, for Dr. Samuel Lee gave the prayer topic to pray for Hindus. (‘May Indians eat cows instead of worshiping them.’)… These young Christians are the hope of India. They are bright lights shining in the darkness. They need prayer.”12
It was more than 200 years ago when William Carey first went to India as a missionary. His impact was great. But India still remains a Hindu nation. There are still millions of Indians yet to hear the gospel of our Lord Jesus. May God bless our coworkers in India UBF to raise up many disciples of Jesus among college students. May God bless us to obey the world mission command of our Lord until Jesus comes again in his glorious second coming!
Barry, Sarah. Unpublished letter to the directors of the University Bible Fellowship. October 7, 2002.
Beck, James R. Dorothy Carey: The Tragic and Untold Story of Mrs. William Carey. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1992.
Carey, S. Pearce. William Carey, D.D., Fellow of the Linnaean Society. New York: George H. Doran Co., 1923.
Carey, William. An Enquiry into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens. Leicester: Ann Ireland, 1792. Online version available at www.wmcarey.edu/carey/enquiry/enquiry.html, Accessed October 25, 2002.
Finnie, Kellsye M. William Carey: By Trade a Cobbler. Illustrations by John Finnie. Bromley, UK: STL Books, 1986.
Smith, George. The Life of William Carey: Shoemaker and Missionary. London: J.M. Dent & Co., 1885.
Wellman, Sam. William Carey: Father of Modern Missions. Uhrichsville (OH): Barbour Publishing, Inc., 1997.