An In-Depth Study Of A Pioneer Of The Modern Missionary Movement – Case Study Of William Carey


It is incontrovertible that Christianity was a working missionary institution for a thousand years from the days of the apostles. The Church initially won the Roman Empire from heathenism to Christianity in the first four centuries of its history. The advancing hordes of barbarians were subsequently conquered. Unfortunately, after the tenth century, church, state, pope and emperor fought for supremacy. A sad realization is that the missionary spirit declined, though it was not entirely lost. The Reformation did not actually extend the church but was more concerned with efforts to purify and reorganize the church. In the later age of the Reformation, the first extensive efforts to Christianize the heathen was were made, not by Protestants, but by Roman Catholics. It was indeed embarrassing to Protestants to hear that Roman Catholic missionaries were “writing off the Protestant movement because it was not sending missionaries” (Winter 1999, 212). The Moravians began to establish foreign missions by 1932. It is believed that in proportion to its small membership at home, no other denomination has maintained as many missions as the Moravian Church. Writers contest the popular view that British missions began with Carey. It is argued that “strictly speaking, this is not correct” (Kane 1975, 81). The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts are cited as supportive evidence. However, the point of this in-depth study is that Carey brought a veritable revolution in missionary thinking and planning. Carey realized that “at the very heart of the Church”s vocation in the world is the proclamation of the kingdom of God inaugurated in Jesus the Lord, crucified and risen” (Scherer and Bevans 1992, 73). This truth is indeed the lifeblood of missionary inspiration and endurance. Carey himself expressed the connection:

When I left England, my hope of India”s conversion was very strong. But amongst so many obstacles, it would die, unless upheld by God. Well, I have God, and His Word is true. Though the superstitions of the heathen were a thousand times stronger than they are, and the example of the Europeans a thousand times worse, though I were deserted by all and persecuted by all, yet my faith, fixed on the sure Word, would rise above all obstructions and overcome every trial. God”s cause will triumph (Piper 1993, 14).


William Carey was born in Paulerspery, Northamptonshire, England on August 17, 1961 (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th ed., s.v. “William Carey”). Great men indeed have humble beginnings. There is little information about young Carey during his teen years.

He initially worked with his father and at the age of fourteen he apprenticed himself to Clarke Nichols, shoemaker at Hackleton, where he worked for twelve years. At the age of eighteen, he was led through the influence of a pious fellow apprentice (John Warr) to the faith in Christ and became an earnest Christian and preacher of the gospel. He left the Church of England and began preaching in nearby Churches. At twenty-six, Carey was “formally ordained by John Sutcliff, John Ryland and Andrew Fuller” (Kane 1975, 84).

On May 19, 1781, three weeks before William and Dorothy were married in Piddington, members of the nearby Hackleton Meeting House organized themselves into a church. The members had been meeting for worship as dissenters for fourteen years. The Carey marriage coincided with the beginnings of their involvement in this new Hackleton Church. When Carey applied for membership with the Baptist Church in Olney, it took a year before this call was recognized. In 1786, he became pastor of the Baptist Church at Moulton. Although he was progressing spiritually, it is worth mentioning that “three children arrived in the Carey family during their five years in Moutlon: Felix, 1795; William, 1798? And Peter 1789″ (Beck 1992, 47). It is therefore evident that care for the growing family consumed Dorothy”s time and energy.

In his intense desire to learn, Carey often borrowed books he could not afford to buy returning them after mastering their contents. It is fascinating to note that “in order to study the Bible better, he went beyond Latin to learn Greek and Hebrew. Then he added Dutch and French” (Harold 1967, 55). In his office was a crude leathern globe with the continents and the nations of the world, on which he had traced the travels of explorer Captain Cook, England”s idol of the hour. It was “China. Burma. Africa! Or he stared at the map on the wall. ”Captain Cook. Tahiti. Australia. Botany Bay” (Beka 1993, 83).


Carey challenged the hyper-Calvinist view, prevalent among British Baptists that “God would bring the nations to Christ without human assistance” (Anderson 1998, 115). In other words, he “contended against a theology which supposed that the commission had been repealed” (Hedlund 1985, 210). As he studied the Scriptures, Carey noted that “it was the church”s business to take these [heathen] people the Gospel… Others did not agree” (Cook 1967, 55). It is admitted that although a few shared his vision, “among them John Sutcliff, Andrew Fuller, Samuel Pearce and others, even they counseled caution and delay in the execution of the plan” (Kane 1975, 85). The popular account has been re-echoed that the elder Dr. John Ryland rebuked Carey for his missionary zeal when he retorted: “Young man, sit down, sit down. You”re an enthusiast. When God pleases to convert the heathen he will do it without your aid or mine” (Houghton 1980, 203).

3.1 The Enquiry

Carey”s missiological pamphlet, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens (1792), vehemently argued that Christians should undertake evangelistic missions overseas. It is interesting to observe that the full title suggests a much longer publication than it turned out to be: 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. As he observed, “no wonder books of that day did not heed a table of contents. The title told all” (Beck 1992, 62). Indeed, “there is theology in Carey”s pamphlet and there is history and there is demography” (Walls 1996, 243). A critical examination of Carey”s Enquiry reveals that it was certainly “a landmark in Christian history and deserves a place alongside Martin Luther”s Ninety-five Theses in its influence on subsequent church history” (Kane 1982, 147).

In the first section Carey asked the rhetorical question, is the Great Commission still binding? He forcefully argued that baptism stop if Christians are unwilling to go because both commands form a unified whole in Matthew 28. He believed that the so-called insurmountable barriers to missions (travel, language and climate) have all been conquered by English traders, the Moravians and Roman Catholics. Section 2 surveyed the Book of Acts as he reviewed the apostolic missionary journeys, both canonical and traditional. He traced the efforts of faithful missionaries to bring the gospel to Britain implying that even his readers would not yet have been believers if all previous generations of Christians had treated the Great Commission as the English Baptists were treating it. Section 3 set out in tabular form Carey”s evaluation of the state of the world in relation to the Gospel. These displays of data foreshadowed missiologists such as Patrick Johnstone who have in more recent years assembled similar material about the state of Christianity in the world at large. He observed that those who did not have the Bible were subject to tragic conditions such as cannibalism and human sacrifice. Section 4 is an examination of the impediments to taking the Gospel to the heathen. The first was distance. Carey argued that recent advances in the science of the mariner had removed this barrier. A second was the barbarous and savage manner of living of the heathen. Carey”s response was that it could only be an objection to those unwilling to expose themselves to inconveniences for the good of others. A fourth objection was the danger involved in going overseas. Carey noted that Paul and Barnabas were not afraid of being killed. A fourth objection involved the difficulty of obtaining the necessities of life. Carey wrote that the minister is not his own; he is a servant of God. The final objection had to do with language. Carey was confident that any language on earth could be learned in a year or two. His own experience with language had already been demonstrated that fact since “no second Pentecost was needed, only hard work. Missionaries would learn the language best by mingling with the people” (Beck 1992, 65). The pamphlet concludes with a plea for ongoing, united prayer.

It is evident therefore that the publication argued convincingly that “the New Testament command to ”preach the Gospel to every creature” was as binding upon the Christians of his day as it was upon the apostle” (DuBose 1979, 22).

3.2 Epoch-making sermon

On May 31 1792, Carey preached his epoch-making sermon before a group of Baptist ministers at Kettering on the text ”Enlarge the borders of thy tent” (Is. 54:2-3). The divisions of the sermon were: Expect great things from God and Attempt great things for God. Although it was an unusual text for a missionary sermon, “Carey had determined to appeal for missions” (Cook 1967, 56).

3.3 The Baptist Missionary Society

Although Carey pleaded for consideration after the sermon had a profound effect on his hearers, action was not immediate. He did not relent. Four months later, he pressed again for action but the brethren wavered again. At the crucial moment, where all hope seemed gone, Carey took a booklet entitled Periodical account of Moravian Missions from his pocket. With tears in his eyes and a tremor in his voice he said these famous words: “If you had only read this and knew how these men overcame all obstacles for Christ”s sake, you would go forward in faith” (Kane 1982, 147). The men agreed and the minutes of the meeting record their decision to form ”The Particular Baptist Society for Propagating the Gospel among the Heathen. The Baptist Missionary Society, formed in 1792, was the British society organized especially for foreign missionary work. This society “was founded at Kettering, England with an initial fund of a little over thirteen pounds” (Cairns 1981, 402).


The first field of the Baptist Missionary Society was India and Carey was the most illustrious missionary. Although the obstacles seemed insurmountable, he arrived in India in 1793 initially settling in the Danish colony at Serampore, about fifteen miles up the Hoopghley River from Calcutta. He would have preferred to work in British India but was refused passage by the East India Company which regarded the presence of missionaries as a threat to the peace and safety of its possessions. Even though he preached for seven years before he got his first native convert, he did not linger. He was faced with other challenges: “His child died. His wife was a burden… He got pessimistic, depressing letters back from England” (Beka 1993, 87). He perservered, even when a fool might have known the battle was lost. He completed a translation of the New Testament, setting a standard prose and an arrangement of Sanskrit borrowings which has affected Bengali prose to this hour. Tying Krishna Pal to a tree, John Thomas joined him to pray for his broken leg. Krishna was healed, converted and baptized in the River Hoogly. When invited to dinner, he ate beef with foreigners, thereby striking a hard blow at an old and paralyzing doctrine of Ahimsa (the Buddhist doctrine that all living things are one and are sacred and thus the animals have rights just like humans).

At the height of lonely labours, Carey was joined by four British missionaries (Joshua Marshman and William War, and their wives). Marshman was an educator. Hannah, his wife, started a school for girls which was a dangerous thing to do since the status of a woman in India was ridiculously low. Ward was a printer, producing what Carey translated. The translations of the latter came so fast that people began to call him the Wycliffe of the East. He not only translated or guided the translation of Indian classics, preserving thereby a wealth of ancient prose and poetry, but also created dictionaries and grammars, so that even the humblest and the lowest might read. Opening the pages of the Bible to all India, he is also responsible for thirty one million pages of the Old and New Testaments in the language of the East. Before his death, he translated the Bible or parts of it into forty dialects and languages. Mission promoters daubed Carey, Marshman and Ward, in a unique partnership as the Serampore Trio. Carey spent well over half his time working as a Professor of Bengali and Sanskrit at Fort William College, Calcutta. In partnership with several veteran colleagues and scores of Judian pundits, he accomplished much of the areas of philology, Bible translation (into dozens of languages), orientalism, literacy, education (founding Serampore College in 1818), publishing, technology, relief work, social reform, botany, evangelization and mission promotion. Supportive evidence is presented justifying Carey as knowledgeable in Science, Mechanical Engineering, Economics, Medicine, Printing Technology, Mass Communication, Literature, Education, Mathematics, Indian Forestry, Social Science, Public Administration, Indian Philosophy and History (Mangalwadi and Mangalwadi 1999).


It is worth mentioning that Carey had a major flaw. This may have resided in his limited capacities for domestic relationships. He “did not seem to give a lot of attention to his wife and sons” (Beck 1992, 138).

The above notwithstanding, Carey was indeed a philanthropist, benefactor and humanitarian. He was able to put into effect the earlier Protestant principles:

i. Widespread teaching of the Gospel

ii. Aiming at personal conversion

iii. Distribution of the Bible in local languages

iv. Study of the culture of the people and

v. Establishment of an indigenous church with national leadership as soon as possible (Fuller 1980, 18).

With the aid of Indians and Englishmen, he filed a report with Lord Bentick, finest of India”s governors, that resulted in a law abolishing widow-burning (suttee). He had seen babies exposed in baskets in the trees, exposed to the pitiless sun and deadly white ants. He also saw them torn from their mothers and thrown to alligators and sharks. He was also influential in stopping infant sacrifice. After he saw a leper burned alive in 1812, he did not rest until he had brought about the establishment of a hospital for lepers in Calcutta, the first in India. This renowned Professor of Sanskrit was honoured in a government college by the very government that tried to keep him from preaching in India. Although he died like a humble patriarch in 1834, “seeds blew from his garden on the wings of the wind, taking root in far-off unexpected places” (Horton 1993, 89). It is fascinating to observe that “when Carey launched the modern missionary movement around 1800, the world”s population was about 900 million” (Wagner 1974, 3).

A fitting tribute is paid to Carey attributing the formation of the under mentioned missionary societies largely through his labors and letters:

The London Missionary Society (1795), the Scottish and Glasgow Missionary Societies (1976), the Netherlands Missionary Society (1797), the Church Missionary Society (1799), the British and Foreign Bible Society (1804), the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (1810), the American Baptist Missionary Union (1814) and the American Bible Society (1816) (Kane 1982, 148).

Carey”s influence “led women in Boston to form women”s missionary prayer groups, and women eventually became the main custodians of mission knowledge and motivation” (Hiebert 1985, 286). Single women began to go abroad as missionaries and by 1865 they had organized mission boards operated entirely by women.


It is true that serious missionary attempts had earlier taken place among English colonists in Northern America where John Eliot (1604-90), and the Mayhew family (first Thomas, Jr. [1621-57], and then his father, Thomas, Sr. [1593-1682] has led to the some Christian conversions among Algonquian-speaking Indians of Massachusetts and the Native Americas on Martha”s Vineyard and Nantucket. It is indubitable however that what began with Carey was “cross-cultural outreach with single-minded missionary purpose” (Noll 2000, 279).

Who then was William Carey? It is therefore incontrovertible that, among other things,
He was a pioneer of the modern missionary movement of the west, reaching out to all parts of the world; a pioneer of the Protestant Church in India; and the translator and publisher of the Bible in forty different Indian languages. Carey was an evangelist who used every medium to illuminate every dark facet of Indian life with the light of truth. He is the central character in the story of the modernization of India (Mangalwadi and Mangalwadi 1999, 528).

Indeed, Carey is highly revered by generations of Bengalis for his contributions to the renaissance of their culture. In many respects Carey restored the gospel to its central place in Christianity. In this important sense, it recovered an element in the Holy Catholic church that the Reformation had obscured. It is a truism that “this catholicity began on Carey”s workshop map, [and] reached out to embrace new peoples in many new lands” (Shelley 1982, 402). I endorse the argument that “few will wish to deny him the title of ”Father of Modern Missions”” (Kane 1975, 86).


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Houghton, S.M. 1980. Sketches from church history. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust.

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Christian College.

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___________________ 1982. Understanding Christian missions. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker

Book House.

Mangalwadi, Ruth & Vishal Mangalwadi. 1999. Who (really) was William Carey? In Perspectives of the

World Christian Movement: A reader, 195-213.

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Michigan: Baker Academic.

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Baker Book House.

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statements 1974-1991. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books.

Shelley, Bruce. 1982. Church history in plain language. Dallas: Word Publishing.

Wagner, C. Peter. 1974. Stop the world: I want to go on. Pasadena, California: William Carey Library.

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Winter, Ralph D. 1999. The kingdom strikes back: ten epochs of redemptive history. In Perspectives on

the world Christian movement: A reader, 195-213. Pasadena, California: William Carey Library.

(c) Oliver Harding 2008

Michael Ortiz

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