This is an article from the November-December 1992 issue: Building the Mission Bridge

1792—The 200th Anniversary

Lessons from William Carey for the ’90s

1792—The 200th Anniversary


In a letter from Leicester, England, to his "Dear and Honored Father" while preparing for his initial departure for India, William Carey wrote:

"I hope, dear father, you may be enabled to surrender me up to the Lord for the most arduous, honorable, and important work that ever any of the sons of men were called to engage in. I have many sacrifices to make. I must part with a beloved family, and a number of most affectionate friends. Never did I see such sorrow manifested as reigned through our place of worship last Lord's day. But I have set my hand to the plough."

In 1992, we stand at the 200th anniversary of two key events that launched Carey into his 40-year missionary career. In 1792 he published An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen, and he preached his "deathless sermon" from Isaiah 54:2-3, "Expect great things. Attempt great things." As a result of Carey's ceaseless prodding, 14 fearful, unknown Baptist leaders on October 14 of that year founded the Particular Baptist Society for Propagating the Gospel Amongst the Heathen. These were men of Calvinistic conviction led by Carey's lifelong close friend and fellow servant, Andrew Fuller.

Carey had set his hand to the plow. However, his first attempt to leave for India was thwarted by his debt-ridden companion, John Thomas. On this attempt Carey and Thomas were accompanied only by Felix, Carey's oldest son. While awaiting proper clearance, Thomas persuaded Carey's wife Dorothy to join them, along with their four children under nine, the youngest at only three weeks, and Dorothy's sister Kitty. Finally, on June 13, 1793, the Carey family and Thomas were on their way to India on a Danish ship. Only Kitty ever saw England again.

The story of William Carey, the precocious child, the voracious learner, the devoted husband and father, the conscientious cobbler, the enthusiastic naturalist, the intrepid missions advocate, the scholarly educator, and the tireless translator is so well-known as to defy one more recounting. "Since his death in 1834," states Timothy George, "some 50 biographies of Carey have been published in many languages of the world."

Our purpose is not to deliver one more eulogy, but to demonstrate what God can do with a person who is wholly dedicated to His divine purposes for reaching the peoples of the world.

No one sensed his inadequacies for the tasks before him more than Carey. Early in his ministry he wrote to his father:

"I see more and more of my own insufficiency for the great work I am called to. The truths of God are amazingly profound, the souls of men infinitely precious, my own ignorance very great and all that I do is for God who knows my motives and my ends."

Later he said to Eustance Carey, his nephew and first to write about Carey's work:

"Eustance, if after my removal, any one should think it worth his while to write my Life, I will give you a criterion by which you may judge of its correctness. If he give me credit for being a plodder, he will describe me justly. Anything beyond this will be too much. I can plod. I can persevere in any definite pursuit. To this I owe everything."

Really, what can a man who lived and served during the Enlightenment years contribute to missiologists who live and serve in the post- modern, post-Christian era? Much in every way. Carey was a man of humble origins. He had no formal education in theology or linguistics. Solar panels, computers, modems, and fax machines were unknown to him. Carey's strength was in his sincere integrity and his sustained commitment to the proposition that every person had a right to read the Bible in his own language. Mary Drewery states that, "It is this breadth of vision of making God's Word available to all mankind in its own tongue that is Carey's chief glory."

We will carry our purpose forward, then, by drawing lessons from Carey's life and ministry that are applicable to those who concern themselves with the world mission of the church today. Of necessity these will be selective.

Carey Had Sincere Appreciation For His Predecessors.

William Carey would have been the last to declare himself the Father of Modern Missions. Although he was severely limited in research sources, he demonstrated a remarkable knowledge of those missionaries who preceded him. In Section II of his well-known book, An Enquiry, Carey traces the progress of gospel proclamation from Pentecost to the Moravians and Wesley. He was deeply influenced by reading the lives of John Eliot and David Brainerd who worked among the American Indians. The Moravian Brethren always stood as monumental examples of missionary statesmen in Carey's thinking. He summarizes this Section in An Enquiry:

"But none of the moderns have equalled the Moravian Brethren in this good work; they have sent missions to Greenland, Labrador, and several of the West-Indian Islands, which have been blessed for good. They have likewise sent to Abyssinia, in Africa, but what success they have had I cannot tell."

Carey then concludes An Enquiry: "What a treasure, what a harvest must await such characters as Paul, and Elliot, and Brainerd, and others, who have given themselves wholly to the work of the Lord. ... Surely it is worthwhile to lay ourselves out with all our might, in promoting the cause and kingdom of Christ."

As moderns we will do well not to be caught up in our self-importance as we press for world evangelization as missions, schools and individuals.

Carey Pursued A Global View Of Missions.

Both the poverty of a cobbler and the paucity of books worked against Carey's insatiable desire to learn more about his world. However, he did obtain a copy of the Journal of Captain Cook's Lost Voyage. Through his study of this precious volume, his thinking focused more than ever on world missions.

The accounts of his globe made from scraps of leather and his homemade world map are familiar fare for Carey buffs. Though confined to his cobbler's bench, his mind and prayers soared to far off peoples and places.

Three momentous events in 1792 changed the history of global missions. In early 1792 after careful preparation, Carey finally published his treatise, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen. George summarizes its content:"The Enquiry consists of an introduction and five chapters dealing with, respectively, the Great Commission, historical precedents, a world survey, obstacles to missions, and the Christian's duty to promote the cause of missions." In the closing section Carey gives his solution to reaching the world for Christ--pray, plan, and pay. What of substance can be added these 200 years later?

The second memorable event was on May 31, 1792, when Carey delivered his "deathless sermon" to the Northamptonshire Baptist Association. His text was from Isaiah 54:2-3:

"Enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of thine habitation: spare not, lengthen thy cords, and strengthen thy stakes; for thou shalt break forth on the right hand and on the left; and thy seed shall inherit the Gentiles, and make the desolate cities to be inhabited. "

As Carey concluded his sermon, he threw out the ringing watchword, "Expect great things. Attempt great things." The usual quotation that appeared some 25 years later read, "Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God." There is no historical validity for this change.

Although Carey delivered the sermon with deep conviction, by the next morning the prospects for concrete action by the association seemed lost. Carey seized Andrew Fuller by the arm and pled with him to initiate action to implement immediate plans for missionary outreach. Baptists were slow to act even then.

The third momentous event of history occurred on October 2, 1792, with the founding of the Particular Baptist Society for the Propagation of the Gospel Amongst the Heathen. These "Particular" Baptist brethren were Calvinistic in contrast to the "General" Baptists in England who were Arminian. The battle raged, but Carey held to his convictions throughout his ministry. He preached a biblical, consistent message: personal salvation comes only through personal faith in Jesus Christ. He delivered this message in a wise yet uncompromising way to Hindus and adherents of other religions in India, seeing many of them come to a saving knowledge of Christ.

Carey Held A High View Of Scripture.

Like Paul, Carey believed in the authority and inspiration of Scripture. He was committed to the proposition that "faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ" (Rom. 10:17 NASB). For Carey, "The Bible was the very Word of God, uniquely inspired by the Holy Spirit; a totally truthful revelation from God; an infallible authority for doctrine, ethics, and all matters pertaining to the Christian life."

Nowhere in his ministry is Carey's plodding perseverance more in evidence than in his translation work. During his more than 40 years of labor, he supervised or personally produced some 40 translations. He continued to revise his Bengali translation until the end of his labors.

Sanskrit proved to be the key to understanding other languages in India. With his characteristic diligence, Carey mastered Sanskrit and further opened the way for learning the principal languages in India. George Smith observes:

All these advantages, his own genius for languages, his unconquerable plodding directed by a divine motive, his colleagues' co-operation, the encouragement of learned societies and the public, and the number of pundits increased by this college of Fort William, would have failed to open the door of the East to the sacred Scriptures had the philological key of the Sanskrit been wanting or undiscovered.

Carey translated the Sanskrit version of Scripture from the original, and he left it as a legacy to his successors. In his earnest desire to support the Scripture translations and to save later translators unnecessary labor, Carey wrote:

"I have of late been much impressed with the vast importance of laying a foundation Biblical criticism in the East, by preparing grammars of the different languages into which we have translated or may translate the Bible."

Nothing was too arduous to provide the best possible means for people to grasp the meaning of the Scriptures. He was totally committed to the truth that "there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved." (Acts 4:12)

Carey Held A High View Of Culture.

Like the apostle Paul, William Carey was adept in respecting and reaching people of both high and low degree. His own humble origins helped him identify with the poor and outcasts. His abilities as a linguist, translator, and professor opened doors for witness among government officials and scholars. He used all of these settings to witness to his faith in Christ.

His versatility in various cultural settings is astounding. A. Christopher Smith observes:

"In Carey we have a person accessible both to the humble poor and the self-made middle-classes of the Anglo-Saxon world. ...A self-educated young tradesman who rose to become a linguist and Orientalist--even a professor of a prestigious college. ...He was a catalyst extraordinary who operated during an unrepeatable and critical kairos in world history."

Carey respected Indian culture, and gave his talents to translating some of the Hindu classics. None of this deterred him, however, from his commitment to biblical Christianity with its life and culture- changing power.

Carey Was Committed To Church Planting.

The local church had always been central to Carey's ministry in England. His first pastorate was at Moulton amidst grinding poverty. While pastor at Leicester, he wrote a letter to his father in which he explained part of his weekly routine:

"Friday and Saturday are spent in preparing for the Lord's day: and the Lord's day, in preaching the word of God. Once a fortnight, I preach three times at home; and once a fortnight, I go to a neighboring village in the evening. Once a month I go to another village on Tuesday evening."

Carey always maintained his love for people, which was manifest in his ministry in India. He and his colleagues preached the Word on every possible occasion. Years passed. Finally in 1800 Krishna Pal, a Hindu, confessed Christ as His Savior. What rejoicing! Both Felix, Carey's oldest son, and Carey accompanied Krishna to the river for his baptism in the company of many eyewitnesses. John Clark Marshman, the son of Joshua and Hannah Marshman of the Serampore Trio, described the scene of Krishna's baptism:

"At the ghat, or landing stairs, the governor and several Europeans, and a large body of Portuguese, and a dense crowd of Hindus and Mahomedans, were waiting to witness this novel ceremony. To this assembly Mr. Carey explained that they did not believe there was any divine virtue in the river, but regarded it as the simple element of water; that Krishnu was formerly of their creed, but professed by the present act to renounce his belief in the gods, and to become a disciple of Jesus Christ. The most perfect silence and a feeling of deep solemnity pervaded the whole assembly, and the governor was melted to tears."

That afternoon the Lord's Supper was administered in Bengali. Other converts slowly joined the ranks, and by 1821 some 1400 believers were active in local assemblies. Local churches continued to be a centerpiece of the Serampore mission.

Carey Participated In Partnership Ministry.

The year 1800 was a watershed in William Carey's life. Prior to this time, he had served virtually alone with his family. Dr. John Thomas, with whom Carey went to India, proved to be a disappointment.

On October 13, 1799, a party of new missionaries arrived in India. Among them were Joshua and Hannah Marshman with their three children, and a single man, William Ward. These three, Carey, Marshman, and Ward, formed the famed Serampore Trio--a translator, an educator, and a printer. Shunned by India's colonial government, the new arrivals were welcomed by Colonel Bie in the Danish settlement of Serampore. Carey and his family joined the new group on January 10, 1800, to begin a decades-long ministry that would go down in the annals of mission history. A. Christopher Smith observes:

"They were amazingly close-knit as a leadership team. For several decades they complemented one another in an intricate way. Indeed, very few people in Britain ever realized how dependent Carey was on his partners for insight and a wide range of initiatives. This in itself should alert us to the great need there is to refrain from assuming that Carey should be given the limelight, while his lesser- known colleagues fade into the background."

Carey himself expressed deep appreciation for his partners-in-mission. In a letter to Andrew Fuller he said:

"Brother Ward is the very man we wanted: he enters into the work with his whole soul. I have much pleasure in him, and expect much from him. Brother Marshman is a prodigy of diligence and prudence, as is also his wife in the latter: learning the language is mere play to him; he has already acquired as much as I did in double the time."

Carey was no more a loner than the Lone Ranger. Even he needed Tonto and Silver.

He was quick to recognize the unique gifts of his fellow workers. Hannah Marshman proved to be the mother of the Serampore missionary children. Among those needing attention were Carey's own Felix and William. Carey was no disciplinarian, and his wife Dorothy was incapacitated by mental illness. Both Mrs. Marshman and William Ward tamed these teenagers who later served with distinction as missionaries.

The annals of mission history reveal that interpersonal relationships among missionaries can be a most grievous problem. To deal with this eventuality, Carey "proposed a weekly meeting, wherein any complaints could be ventilated for explanation and adjustment, or for acknowledgment and pardon. This simple Christian treatment, and the spirit that was in them all, kept the fellowship throughout the years healthful and clean."

The lasting legacy coming down to us from Serampore is the Serampore Covenant of 1804. They read the following 11 statements together three times a year:

  1. To set an infinite value on men's souls.
  2. To acquaint ourselves with the snares which hold the minds of the people.
  3. To abstain from whatever deepens India's prejudice against the gospel.
  4. To watch for every chance of doing the people good.
  5. To preach "Christ crucified" as the grand means of conversions.
  6. To esteem and treat Indians always as our equals.
  7. To guard and build up "the hosts that may be gathered."
  8. To cultivate their spiritual gifts, ever pressing upon them their missionary obligation, since Indians only can win India for Christ.
  9. To labour unceasingly in biblical translation.
  10. To be instant in the nurture of personal religion.
  11. To give ourselves without reserve to the Cause, "not counting even the clothes we wear our own."

E. Pritchett, a missionary to Burma, observed:

"The brethren in Serampore are men to be wondered at: I speak of Carey, Marshman and Ward; or, if you will, Peter, James and John. The former is most remarkable for his humility; he is a very superior man, and appears to know nothing about it. The great man and the little child unite in him, and, as far as I can see, he has attained to the happy art of ruling and overruling in connection with the others mentioned, without his asserting his authority, or others feeling their subjection; and all is done without the least appearance of design on his part. E. Pritchett, Burman Missionary, to a London friend, Aug. 12, 1811."

Carey Was Dedicated To Preparing National Leaders.
Christian education was written into the constitution of the Baptist Missionary Society when it was formed in 1792. Establishing Christian schools, translating the Bible, and preaching the gospel were considered partners in the new mission venture.

The Marshman's primary contribution to the Serampore effort was through Christian schools.

The Marshmans soon showed what spirit they were of by opening boarding-schools for the children of Civil Servants and merchants and others, which met a great want, and, in the course of the years, exercised a strong Christian influence over hundreds of European children and their families.

Schools on behalf of Indian children were based on the Lancasterian system of instruction and were carefully monitored by Marshman.

National evangelists and pastors were the backbone of church planting. In the beginning their preparation was quite basic, but their ministry resulted in many churches. The missionaries stated: "We have availed ourselves of the help of native brethren ever since we had one who dared to speak in the name of Christ, and their exertions have chiefly been the immediate means by which our church has been increased." Krishna Pal proved himself a faithful proclaimer of the gospel among his people.

Finally, in 1818, Serampore College became a reality. The Trio recognized the need for more complete formation of "native preachers and schoolmasters, whose defect had long been severely felt. ..." Dr. Marshman drew up the Prospectus and "announced in unequivocal terms that the institution was intended to be the handmaid of evangelization." The Trio ever demonstrated their intent to keep a balance between gospel proclamation and Christian education. Both students and faculty represented various denominations. Professors "were required to embrace the essential evangelical doctrines such as the death of Christ and His substitutionary Atonement."

William Carey's contribution to education in India was as professor of Bengali at Fort William College in Calcutta some 18 miles from Serampore. His entire salary went to the common treasury at Serampore. He established a place of worship in Calcutta where he preached to the poor. The ultimate commitment of the Trio was to gospel proclamation and church planting on the part of India's own believers.

Carey Learned Perseverance In Adversity.

Torrents of tears and stunned silence before God were familiar fare for William Carey. His adversities centered around death, devastation, and division. Illustrations from these three sources of trials are in order.

First, death plagued Carey's path. Dorothy, his first wife, finally agreed to accompany him to India in 1793. To her credit she was of solid Puritan stock, endured poverty at Carey's side in their early years, conquered illiteracy, bore seven children, and was even willing to become a Baptist. However, the loss of little Ann and Lucy, each in her second year, and five-year-old Peter's fall to fever in India, as well as isolation from family in England and the uncertainties of missionary life, led to her insanity and eventual death after years of suffering. Carey was patient and loving to the end, referring to her in his correspondence as "poor Mrs. Carey." Dorothy died on December 8, 1807. Their oldest son Felix preceded Carey in an untimely death in 1822, a grief that he took with him to the grave.

Charlotte von Rumohr, Carey's second wife, passed away after 13 years of unparalleled happiness in Carey's life. He was devastated by her death and requested that at his death he be buried by her side.

Alarming deaths in England snatched away some of Carey's support team. First, John Sutcliff was taken and then Andrew Fuller who had stood by Carey from the very beginning of their joint venture. Carey could only rest his grief on a sovereign God.

Second, devastation stalked Carey's path. The fire that destroyed the Serampore press including years of translation work is the best known of Carey's reverses. It happened on March 11, 1812. He was in Calcutta at Fort William College at the time and returned to Serampore the next evening. Dr. Marshman had gone to give him the news. With his eyes brimming with tears, Carey said, "In one short evening, the labours of years are consumed. How unsearchable are the ways of God! ...The Lord has laid me low that I may look more simply to Him." No self-pity. Carey and his pundits simply plodded on with revised versions of lost work that resulted in even better translations. Supporters in England rallied with funds to the point that they were asked to stop their contributions. Out of fire came refinement in character and work.

Another devastation that visited Carey and his colleagues was financial collapse. India's entire economy was affected, and the Serampore Trio were in dire monetary distress. The prospects of retreating in their work brought Carey down with severe illness.

As if this were not enough, a tornado destroyed Carey's extensive botanical gardens. He wrote to his son William: "All our hopes must depend on the power and faithfulness of God. All His promises were made with a full intention that they should be fulfilled, and it is our duty to live by faith and to walk by faith. ..." Again in another of their dark hours, the Trio received unreserved support from the homeland. All financial reverses were repaired, and Carey's "cup ran over." The plodder plodded on.

Third, as the mission matured, division raised its ugly head. After Fuller's death, the society at home began to make new demands on Carey, Marshman, and Ward. They accused the Trio of benefiting financially from their work, a charge that was utterly false. All of their assets were plowed back into the ministry. Communication with the home mission became an arduous task for the Trio.

On the field, a group of new missionaries arrived who refused to work with the Serampore missionaries. Carey's nephew Eustance was among them. They established their own base in Calcutta with the support of the home office. "Eventually," George states, "this dispute led to an open schism between Carey and the society his vision had first called into being." Carey saw this as an ominous development, not only for the Baptists, but for other denominations as well.

Carey Was Committed To Correcting Social Ills.

While still in England, William Carey decried the slave trade that was being carried on in the West Indies. He took action against slavery as best he could as an individual and continued his opposition during his missionary career. This blot on Britain's record was erased during Carey's lifetime much to his open thanksgiving.

Other social ills such as infanticide, abortion, and neglect of the infirm and dying earned his disdain and often his active opposition.

The social practice that Carey hated the most was suttee, the custom of widow burning on the same funeral pyres that consumed their husbands. Carey openly worked against this senseless suffering. Finally, on December 4, 1829, suttees were outlawed. Lord William Bentinck is credited with bringing the law into being. A copy of the regulation reached Carey with haste. He in turn, together with his helper, translated the law into Bengali instead of preaching that particular Sunday morning. John Marshman concludes:

Thus was consummated this great act of humanity, which has shed an imperishable lustre on the British administration in India. For the first time in twenty centuries, as it was remarked at the time with exultation, "the Ganges flowed unblooded to the sea."

Carey was careful to keep the preaching, teaching, and translation of the Word uppermost in his ministry. He knew that only the gospel could change the hearts of people so that social change could follow.

Carey Was A Faithful And Loving Husband And Father.

A brief account is recorded above about Dorothy Carey, William's first wife. They were faithful to one another, and in spite of Dorothy's foibles and failing mind, Carey maintained high regard for her. After 25 years of marriage, her passing was a blessed release for all concerned.

Carey's 13 years of marriage to Charlotte von Rumohr were filled with deep contentment for both. She took keen interest in Carey's children, and they in turn loved her for her motherly concern. Charlotte's letters to Carey in his absence display the love of a faithful wife. She was an invalid in her later years. After her death at age 60, Carey wrote his son Jabez, "My loss is irreparable." He later added, "I am exceedingly lonely. I hope you will never fail to pray for me."

Within the next year, Carey married Grace Hughes, who was twice widowed. She was a great support to him in his work, and she cared for him to the day of his death.

Of William and Dorothy's seven children, three died in early childhood. The contributions of the four remaining sons to missions and society are memorable. John Marshman states:

Mr. Felix Carey, the eldest, was endued with much of his father's scientific and philological tastes; and, with the intermission of four years, devoted his talents to the service of the mission. His second son, William, was employed as a missionary for forty years: the third, Jabez, was engaged for twenty years in the superintendence of schools in Amboyna and Rajpootana: the youngest, Jonathan, embraced the profession of law.

The record of Carey's correspondence with his sons displays the undying concerns of a father-heart.


During Carey's last years, he revised manuscripts, wrote, and ministered the Word as he was able. His magnificent garden of some 2,000 plants continued to be his delight. Twice destroyed by tornado and flood, its restoration demonstrated his deep commitment to botany, which he had pursued since his youth. In his garden and in the home, his wife Grace was his constant companion and comforter.

One of his last visitors was Alexander Duff, the Scots missionary. One day as Duff was leaving, Carey called to him, "Mr. Duff, you have been speaking about Dr. Carey, Dr. Carey.

When I am gone, say nothing about Dr. Carey--speak about Dr. Carey's Saviour."

Joshua Marshman visited Carey daily. On one occasion Carey said to other visitors as Marshman was leaving, "After I am gone Brother Marshman will turn the cows into my garden." Actually Marshman cared for the garden's upkeep from his own funds. Marshman's son John, in turn, kept the garden at his own expense until it was sold in 1875.

In the presence of Mrs. Carey, his sons, and close associates, Carey passed quietly into the Lord's presence on June 9, 1834, as the morning sun broke over the horizon. At his request, Carey's simple grave markerstates:

William Carey Born August 17, 1761 Died: A wretched, poor and helpless worm On Thy kind arms I fall.

Mary Drewery summarizes Carey's life:

"Carey had a remarkable intelligence which he used with remarkable application. He was patient, persistent, stubborn and humble and faithful. The unsuccessful school teacher of Moulton developed into the translator, orientalist and college professor of Serampore. The shoemaker of Northamptonshire took the gospel to India even as the tent-maker of Tarsus did to Europe. It is at once a glory and a wonder that faith in God can so transform a man."

At the end of a long and fruitful life, Carey released his grip on the plow to meet his God, the great Harvester of souls. Who are the Careys of the 1990s? Who are the men and women of vision and perseverance who will break new ground for God with the plow of faith?

Carey leaves us a final word:

"If God gives us work to do, and fits us for it, and strengthens us in it, that is enough."


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