This is an article from the September-October 2014 issue: Ethnodoxology

William Carey’s Encounter with Song and Proverbs for Gospel Communication

William Carey’s Encounter with Song and Proverbs for Gospel Communication

It has long been assumed that vernacular translation represents William Carey’s primary contribution for the propagation of the gospel in India. Some biographers have even gone as far as to describe him as one who spent most of his missionary career translating in seclusion. To be sure, his extensive translation work absorbed much of his time, but he always expected his translations would lead to salvations. He was convinced the “millions of perishing heathens tormented in this life” were pleading that “laborers may be thrust out into the Vineyard of our Lord Jesus Christ.”1 Therefore, he perceived the propagation of the gospel to also include the communication of the gospel.


Even so, his evangelism took seriously the Indian preference for oral transmission. He wrote, “The people are very fond of singing hymns and I have been forced to commence as poet to furnish them with hymns to sing.”2 In fact, he later encouraged many Indian converts to evangelize in this way. He also noticed the prevalence of proverbial expression among Indians and he used this method of communication for evangelism. Speaking with some Hindus about being good, he explained, “See the buffalo, he feeds upon grass. See the tiger, he feeds upon flesh. Go and make the buffalo eat flesh, or the tiger eat grass, you will find either of these easier than to make your evil heart good.”3


Clearly, Carey was not the antisocial scribe that some have supposed. Rather, he expected that translating the gospel and communicating the gospel would be necessary for the propagation of the gospel. At the same time, he was convinced that India’s evangelization would require Indian evangelists. But this meant endorsing an Indian style of communication—one that preferred songs and proverbs as containers of knowledge instead of text. In fact, he even encouraged the use of Indian stories, dialogue, and ritual. These nineteenth-century discoveries have important implications for our evangelism of oral learners today. 4

  1. "Carey to Society," Oct 17, 1793, in Leighton Williams and Mornay Williams, Serampore Letters (Memphis: General Books, 2010), 15.

  2. "Carey to Sisters," Jan 10, 1798, in Terry G. Carter, ed. The Journal and Selected Letters of William Carey (Macon: Smith & Helwys, 2000), 108.

  3. Periodical Accounts Relative to the Baptist Missionary Society, vol 1, 281.

  4. The author’s forthcoming article expanding on this theme will be featured in an upcoming issue of Orality Journal. See


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