Father of Modern Missions – William Carey

In a sermon delivered on 30 May 1792 at Friar Lane Baptist Chapel in Nottingham, a then relatively little known pastor of a Baptist church read a biblical passage from Isaiah 54:2-3, “Enlarge the place of your tent, and let them stretch out the curtains of your dwellings; do not spare; lengthen your cords, and strengthen your stakes. For you shall expand to the right and to the left, and your descendants will inherit the nations, and make the desolate cities inhabited.” The message of his sermon could be summarized in two memorable lines:

“Expect great things from God
Attempt great things for God”

It was this very sermon that broke the barriers of resistance to missionary work prevalent in England at that time and brought about a revival of interest for spreading the gospel to unevangelized lands. And little did the audience know that the little known pastor who delivered this sermon would one day be revered as the ‘Father of Modern Missions.’

William Carey (1761 – 1834) was born in 1761 into the humble family of Edmund and Elizabeth Carey in the village of Paulerspury, Northamptonshire. Raised with a spiritual background in the Church of England, with his father appointed the parish clerk and village schoolmaster, he was an inquisitive learner since young. His interests ranged from subjects such as the natural sciences to languages, in which he was said to have mastered Latin in his younger days through self-teaching.

Carey was apprenticed to a cobbler in a nearby village at the age of 14 with his father’s help. It was during this time when he left the Church of England to form a small Congregational church in Hackleton along with other like-minded members. He also mastered Greek during this time with the help of a local villager, a Greek grammar book and the Greek New Testament.

 Artist's impression of William Carey's early home

When his master passed away a few years later, he went on to work and apprentice himself with a local shoemaker, Thomas Old. Carey married Old’s sister-in-law, Dorothy in 1781, and after his death, Carey succeeded the shoemaking business. He was known by the higher status of a shoemaker to the local community in which he lived, but he would often refer to himself with the humble status of a cobbler (one who repairs shoes). It was also during this time of working as a shoemaker when he taught himself several other languages such as Hebrew, Dutch, Italian and French.

Carey himself was actively involved in the activities of the local church and the local association of Particular Baptists. In fact, he was also frequently engaged to deliver sermons in surrounding churches, eventually being appointed schoolmaster and pastor of one of the local Baptist churches. He became highly interested in the lives and accounts of several Protestant Christian missionaries who have been involved in the evangelizations of people in faraway lands. The more he read on the lives of these missionaries, the more he realized that the Protestant churches and Christians around him were uninterested and unmoved to engage seriously in missionary work overseas. In a meeting of pastors in 1786, Carey raised the need for all Christians to be involved in spreading the gospel to the world and not to remain within the comfort zones of their local churches, to which another pastor purportedly retorted, “Young man, sit down; when God pleases to convert the heathen, he will do it without your aid and mine.”

Carey in his workshop during his younger days

In 1792, Carey published a short but highly influential work entitled An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens. In it, he argued the need for obedience to Jesus’ Great Commission to spread the gospel to every nation in the world, at the same time giving an outline of the history of Christian missions worldwide. He also called for the formation of a Baptist missionary society, describing its role in missionary work and prudent use of resources to propagate the gospel to unevangelized nations.

Nonetheless, it was the sermon above from Isaiah 54:2-3 that finally broke the barrier. Carey, by now a full-time pastor, spoke with such authority that those who were present to hear his sermon were moved into missionary action. A plan was on the way to form a new missionary society among the Baptists, and this culminated in the successful establishment of the Particular Baptist Society for the Propagation of the Gospel Amongst the Heathen (later known as the Baptist Missionary Society or BMS) in October 1792. 

Carey's motto in St. James' Church, Paulerspury, Northamptonshire, where he attended as a child

The Society thus came into existence, but where should its first destination for propagating the gospel be? It was decided that the Society’s first focus would be the vast and unexplored land in the East known as India. Then surfaced the next question: who should be sent to the vast and unexplored land of India? William Carey stepped forward and volunteered himself.

Preparations were made for Carey and his family to sail to India with Dr. John Thomas (1757 – 1801), a medical missionary who had returned to England from Calcutta. They thus set sail from London in April 1793 in an English vessel. The journey, however, was met with its first major obstacle – the British East India Company’s policy of not allowing missionaries aboard its ships. As the only English ships to set sail to India belonged to the Company, this was an especially difficult situation to circumvent. The missionaries were consequently delayed at the Isle of Wight until June when they could finally acquire permission to board a Danish ship en route to India, finally stepping foot in Calcutta (Bengali: কলকাতা)  in November that year. 

Location of Calcutta and Midnapore in India

Life in Calcutta in the initial years was a great trial for Carey and his team. He had set out to a new, unknown land with no clear outline of his missionary plans and activities. Surrounded by uncertainties, Carey’s first thought was to get themselves established and self-sufficient in their new home. Even this was not easy; he made various attempts to get settled in Calcutta, all of which ended up futile and depleted his resources quickly. He was finally appointed manager of a new indigo factory by a friend of Dr. Thomas, after which he moved into the factory situated in Midnapore (Bengali: মেদিনীপুর). Unfortunately, hygiene in the factory was far from good, and as a result one of Carey’s sons died due to dysentery, which also resulted in his wife suffering from a permanent nervous breakdown, making her unfit to care for the rest of their children.

It was also during these trying times when Carey learnt and mastered the Bengali language, the primary Indian language used in Calcutta. With the assistance of Ramram Basu (Bengali: রামরাম বসু) (1751 – 1813), an Indian scribe and translator working with the British whom Carey got to know through Dr. Thomas, the missionary made much progress in learning his first Indian language. Ramram Basu was himself a scholar knowledgeable in both Bengali and Sanskrit, and although he stayed and worked closely with Carey in translating the Bible into Bengali, he never converted into Christianity, instead remaining a Hindu until his death.

Portrait of Carey and a Brahmin scholar

Carey’s mission finally saw brighter hope in October 1799, when he received an invitation to settle in the Danish colony at Serampore (Bengali: শ্রীরামপুর) while all other territories under the British East India Company were unwilling to host missionaries. Earlier, the BMS had sent more missionaries to India such as William Ward (1769 – 1823), Joshua Marshman (1768 – 1837) and John Fountain (1767 – 1800), all of whom had settled in Serampore. Joining these new missionaries in January 1800, Carey could thus carry out his missionary efforts without hindrance in the Danish colony – something that would have been considered illegal in areas controlled by the British East India Company.

With the amount of Bengali he mastered until that time, Carey attempted to propagate the gospel to the Indians, albeit without much success. Nonetheless, in December 1800, he baptized his first Indian convert, Krishna Pal (Bengali: কৃষ্ণ পাল) (1764 – 1822), in the Ganges River. Pal himself was a native of Calcutta, a carpenter and an acquaintance of Dr. Thomas. After his baptism and conversion, he renounced his caste and became a dedicated missionary himself, propagating the gospel in the vicinities of Calcutta and constructing a place of worship for Indian Christians there. Pal also subsequently became an active writer of hymns in Bengali, many of which were translated into English by John Marshman.

Baptism of Krishna Pal by Carey in the Ganges River

The missionaries in Serampore secured the protection and goodwill of both the local Danish government and the British Governor-General of India at that time, Richard Wellesley (1760 – 1842), which proved to be very helpful to them. When Governor-General Wellesley established Fort William, a college for the education of civil servants in 1801, Carey was invited to hold the position of professor of Bengali. It was in this academic capacity that Carey advanced his knowledge of the language further, and with the assistance of Indian scholars, finally published his first Bengali New Testament several months later, which was to be repaired and refined in later editions. These works, besides serving their evangelical purposes, also laid the ground for the study of Bengali especially for foreigners.

Carey knew that to publish the Bible in Bengali alone was not enough in spreading the message of Christianity in India; he set out to “attempt great things for God” by venturing into other major Indian languages, starting from Sanskrit. Knowing the fact that Sanskrit forms the basis of many Indian languages, the great missionary poured out much of his time and energy into mastering Sanskrit and completing a New Testament translation in the language. This he succeeded in achieving by 1808, thereafter setting out to learn and produce New Testament translations in several other Indian languages as well. The Oriya version was published in 1809; the Hindi and Marathi versions were published in 1813, followed by the Punjabi and Assamese versions in 1815 and 1819 respectively, and finally the Gujarati version in 1820. Carey ensured that each page of the translations, although assisted by native Indian speakers themselves, were meticulously checked and revised, and the final copies endorsed by him before being approved for publication.

The first ever Bible in the Bengali language by Carey

Contributions made by Carey in the field of Indian languages did not just stop at Bible translations. He was also the author of Bengali and Sanskrit grammar books, which greatly contributed to the learning of these languages especially for foreigners. Besides translating Christian materials into Indian languages, he also set out to translate classical Hindu literature into English in order to make them available to the West. Among his works were English translations of parts of the renowned Hindu epic Ramayana. Although his works included many other English translations of highly-prized Sanskrit literature, much of them were unfortunately destroyed in a fire in 1812.

Social reforms too formed a major focus of Carey’s missionary work in India. Carey realized that Indian culture, though rich and interesting, was plagued with certain inhumane practices such as sati (Hindi: सती) (widow-burning), infanticide and assisted suicide. Finding no proper basis for such practices even in Hindu scriptures and from the opinions of Hindu scholars, he led campaigns against such practices, pressuring the British government through Wellesley and William Wilberforce (1759 – 1833), an Evangelical Member of Parliament, to ban the practice of sati. These campaigns, though not directly supported by Hindu reformers of that time, were generally agreed upon in principle even by them. Nonetheless, it was not until 1829 when the British officially passed a law that banned sati in the Bengal Presidency, subsequently doing the same in other British-ruled presidencies in India.

The practice of sati (widow-burning) in traditional Indian culture

Caste, forming a major element of Indian-Hindu culture, became another obstacle that Carey and the new Indian Christians had to face. As caste formed the very core of Indian-Hindu social structure and hierarchy, defying it would be seen as tantamount to defying society as a whole itself. Carey and the newly-established churches in Bengal were of the opinion that the caste system was discriminatory and against Christian principles of equality before God. It was somewhat due to this stand of the church as well that many of the early Indian Christians in Bengal were attracted to Christianity, in particular Hindus from lower castes. Accepting Christianity meant that they did away with their castes, which consequently resulted in their rejection by the Hindu-majority society.

Carey and the other missionaries were well-aware of this, and as such they made it a point to raise a native Indian church that would, at the nearest possible time, have its leadership and management delegated to the Indian Christians themselves. To this end, they paid much attention to the importance of providing sound education. Primary schools funded and managed by the missionaries started to mushroom, providing education to Indian children that is of such quality that these schools were soon in high demand in the local population. These schools, although being managed by missionaries and often included Christian-related subjects or activities, made no compulsions on the conversions of Indian children.

With the importance of education in mind, Carey went on to realize his next dream in cooperation with Joshua Marshman and William Ward – the establishment of ‘a college for the instruction of Asiatic Christians and other youth in Eastern Literature and European Science.’ The Serampore College was thus established in 1818, with the aim of providing Christian training to the locals for the growing Indian churches and at the same time providing education in the sciences and arts to everyone regardless of caste or creed. The college was, in essence, non-denominational, and its education system placed much emphasis on the learning of English, Sanskrit and Indian classical languages. The learning of English was to enable Indian students to acquire a deeper understanding of European knowledge so as to enrich their own culture with it, while the learning of Sanskrit and classical Indian languages was to promote understanding of Indian thought among both Christian and non-Christian students alike.

Artist's impression of Serampore College during Carey's lifetime

Managing the college was difficult for its founders due to a lack of funds and support from missionary societies of various denominations as a result of its non-denominational nature. Nonetheless, Marshman’s visit to Copenhagen in 1827, in which he received the privilege to meet the King of Denmark, King Frederick VI (1768 – 1839), gave a fresh breath of life to the college. King Frederick VI and the crown prince were greatly interested in Marshman’s plans for the college, and the king responded by conferring a royal charter on the college for the awarding of degrees in arts and theology. In the years to come, Serampore College went on to become the leading centre for theological studies in South Asia.

Carey spent his final years leading a quiet life in Serampore. He left the missionary society he helped found due to irreconcilable differences with his colleagues in the society over matters pertaining to administration. Resentment was by then also growing within the society, as younger missionaries who arrived in India later were unhappy with the communal fashion of living that Carey and his other fellow pioneers have developed. Carey continued preaching, teaching students and revising his Bengali Bible until his passing on 9 June 1834.

Carey’s mission in India may not have enjoyed the success of conversions in terms of numbers, but it paved a way for future Protestant missions in both South Asia and the rest of the world. As the ‘Father of Modern Missions,’ it would be his renowned sermon on 30 May 1792 that would later encourage thousands more to follow in his footsteps, “expecting great things from God” and “attempting great things for God.”

Commemorative stamp of William Carey issued by the Government of India

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