With our first ever online Mission Central Conference being held January 29 to 31, we all can gain inspiration from the father of Modern Missions.
William Carey had a humble beginning as a village shoemaker in Paulersbury, England. He was fascinated with reading books about science, history and travel journals of explorers like Captain Cook. His village playmates nicknamed him Christopher Columbus. Carey said that he was addicted as a young person to swearing, lying, and alcohol. A fellow cobbler, John Warr, began to share Jesus with him. A major turning point happened when Carey was caught by his employer embezzling a shilling. Fortunately, his employer did not press charges. For such petty larceny, Carey could have easily paid the price of imprisonment, forfeiture of goods and chattel, whipping or transportation for seven years to the plantations of the West Indies or America. Facing his own selfishness, Carey turned to Jesus.
Carey had a quick mind and a natural love of learning. He would have normally become a farm labourer, but suffering from a skin disease made it painful for him to go out in the full sun. If Carey’s face and hands were exposed to the sun for any lengthy period, he would suffer agony throughout the night. So instead, he became a cobbler, making shoes. While making shoes, he was able to read and pray. He learned to read the Bible in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Dutch, French and English. Through prayerful bible reading, Carey developed a conviction that he was to go to India. His unimaginative friends and colleagues tried to talk him out of this fantasy.
Many Christian leaders in Carey’s time were cessationists, believing that the Great Commission to disciple the nations was only given to the first century apostles and no one else. Dr. Ryland said to Carey: “Sit down young man! When God chooses to covert the heathen, he will do it without your aid or mine!” His own father, Edmund, wondered if his son had lost his mind. Carey said to his dad: “I am not my own, nor would I choose for myself, let God employ me where he thinks fit.” Carey’s five-month pregnant wife, Dorothy, refused to go to India. She eventually relented, but on the condition that her younger sister Catherine accompany her to help with childcare of her three-week old son Jabez.
With unshakable determination, Carey went to India in 1793 which was under the control of the East India Company. He later ended up becoming a Professor of Bengali and Sanskrit in Calcutta, India. Through teaching at Fort Williams College in Calcutta, he was investing in young civil servants from England, helping them to have a good start in India. Carey believed that the future was as bright as the promises of God. He had an exceptional natural gift for languages. Carey called himself a plodder; whatever he started, he always finished. Unlike a number of his family members and closest friends, Carey survived malaria and numerous other tropical diseases. Dorothy, who was very emotionally fused to her family back in England, experienced relentless culture shock, health challenges, and psychological trauma in India. In nine months, the Careys moved six times. Dorothy’s sister Kitty left her after marrying a British man that she met in India. The final straw that crushed Dorothy came with the death of their five-year-old son Peter. Because of strict caste regulations, no one would help with a coffin or burial. So, William had to dig the grave himself and bury his son. Only the five remaining members of the Carey family attended the funeral. Dorothy ended up having a nervous breakdown before later dying.
Some bureaucrats from the East India Company did their best to expel Carey and his team from India. Anything that might affect financial profit was seen as a threat. William Wilberforce however, having finally abolished the slave trade, presented 837 petitions to the British Parliament representing over half a million signatures, requesting that ‘these good and great men’ be allowed to stay in India. Carey’s enemies attacked him in Parliament for being a lowly shoemaker. Charles Marsh, MP, castigated these missionaries as ‘these apostates from the loom and anvil, these renegades from the lowest handicraft employments…’ Wilberforce won the day in the Charter Renewal Bill 1813.
Carey’s motto was “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.” Entirely self-taught, Carey impacted the emerging generation of Indian leaders that birthed the burgeoning modern democracy of India. Serampore College was founded by Carey and his colleagues in 1818. He produced six grammars of Bengali, Sanskrit, Marathi, Panjabi, Telugi, and Kanarese, and with John Clark Marshman, one of Bhutia. He also translated the whole Bible into Bengali, Oriya, Marathi, Hindi, Assamese, and Sanskrit, and parts of it into twenty-nine other languages or dialects. Scholars say that Carey significantly contributed to the renaissance of Indian Literature in the nineteenth century. Sir Rabindranath Tagore in 1921 informed S. Pearce Carey that his great-grandfather ‘was the pioneer of revived interest in the Venaculars’ of India.
While an ordained preacher and a church planter, Carey was fascinated with all aspects of daily living. In 1818 Carey founded two magazines and a newspaper, the Samachar Darpan, the first newspaper printed in any Asian language. He was the father of Indian printing technology, building what was then their largest printing press. Carey was the first to make indigenous paper for the Indian publishing industry. He brought the steam engine to India and pioneered the idea of lending libraries in India. Carey introduced the concept of a ‘Savings Bank’ to India, in order to fight the all-pervasive social evil of usury at interest rates of 36% to 72%.
Carey introduced the study of astronomy as a science, teaching that the stars and planets are God’s creation set by Him in an observable order, rather than astrological deities fatalistically controlling one’s life. He was the founder of the Agri-Horticultural Society in the 1820s, thirty years before the Royal Agricultural Society was established in England. Carey was the first person in India to write about forest conservation. In 1823, he was elected as a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London, one of the world’s most distinguished botanical societies even today. As Carey’s favourite flowers were lilies, he had the honour of having one (Careyanum) named after him.
Having a strong social conscience, Carey was the first man to oppose the Sati widow-burning and female infanticide. Women believed that by casting their female children into the divine Ganges River, it would help them give birth to males. Sati was finally banned by the Government of India in 1829. He also campaigned for humane treatment of lepers who were being burned or buried alive because of their bad karma. The view at the point was that leprosy was a deserved punishment in the fifth cycle of reincarnation.
Carey loved India and never returned to England, dying in 1834 at the age of 73. Near the end, he said: “You have been speaking about William Carey. When I am gone, say nothing about William Carey, speak only about William Carey’s Saviour.”
Our prayer for those reading this article is that we too would have the passion for world missions that William Carey once had.