Friday, June 19, 2015

William Carey (1761-1834) : Pioneering Protestant Missions in the Modern Age by Chris White

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.  –Romans 12:1

“To know the will of God, we need an open Bible and an open map.” –William Carey

The year was 1993.  In that year two very important people were honored with commemorative stamps by their respective postal services.  In the United States, 16 years after his untimely death at age 42, Elvis Presley, was remembered as the King of Rock n’ Roll and acclaimed for his rise from obscurity and poverty to become one of America’s great success stories.  On the other side of the world, the nation of India honored William Carey with his own stamp.  Carey had been gone 159 years by this time and had lived a relatively long life.  And just like Elvis, Carey too had risen from obscurity and poverty in his early life to become famous in Britain, Europe, and America as well as India.  Carey was not an entertainer but an esteemed missionary linguist whose influence has been felt by countless millions around the world.  But how could somebody you’ve probably never heard of (at least not as much as Elvis) come to have such a great impact?  That’s a story that needs to start from the beginning.

William Carey was born in the small village of Paulerspury England in 1761.  Not much is known about his early life except that when he was a young boy, his father Edmund Carey became the village schoolmaster and this gave William access to learning and many books.  Carey had an insatiable curiosity and was a disciplined self-directed learner all his life.

As a young man Carey wanted to have a career as a professional gardener but was prevented from doing so because of his great allergies.  Instead he pursued a humble career as a shoe cobbler.  Cobbling was not lucrative but it was an honorable profession and always steady work.  He found an apprenticeship opportunity in a nearby village of Piddington and there he learned his craft.  During this period in his life Carey comes under the influence  of a fellow apprentice who sways him away from the Anglican (Church of England) and towards a Reformed Baptist congregration.  Carey’s master also has a sister-in-law named Dorothy who is a woman of a good reputation, single, and a devout Christian.  They are introduced and soon afterwards they marry.

Carey biographers have long puzzled over this union for it seems a great mismatch.  Dorothy was from a well-known and well-established family and marries a man who lives at the edge of poverty.  Carey is constantly learning even mastering several foreign languages while Dorothy was actually illiterate (not common at this point in time).  And finally there is no evidence of their relationship being a great love match.  Whatever their reasons were for marrying, Dorothy was supportive of her husband despite their difficult lot in life that was quickly compounded just as Carey was becoming a journeyman.

At this point in time the Carey’s had been married a year.  In addition to making shoes, Carey was at this time a part-time preacher at a local Baptist church.  Between both jobs, the Carey’s were not comfortable but they were not starving either.  But then the owner of the shoe shop dies unexpectedly and he is faced with inheriting the business, all its debt, and financially caring for his former boss’s widow and children.  Carey faced this situation with his characteristic faith and continued on despite being reduced to abject poverty.

In time Carey was able to become a full-time minister by serving two different congregations subsidizing his family with making shoes on the side.   Those who knew Carey referred to his shoe shop as “Carey’s College” because he taught himself to read and study while working at the cobbler’s bench.  Basically every spare moment of his day was given over to reading and studying and learning all he could about the original languages of the Bible, theology, world geography, and history.   Dorothy did something at this point that I think is very much to her credit:  as an adult she conquered her illiteracy.  First she learned to write her name and to spell and then began learning to read.  Although her husband was so far ahead of her in his intellectual pursuits, she determined that she was going to grow as well.  When you think about the fact they had no modern conveniences and she had to cook and clean and raise boys without a lot of support, this was really quite an achievement.  

During the many hours of reading in the shoe shop, one book in particular that changed the course of Carey’s whole life: The Last Voyage of Captain Cook.  This awakened in him the idea of world evangelization and from that point on he read everything he could get his hands on about foreign countries.  His interest led him to make lists and catalogues of peoples who had never been reached with the Gospel.  As is so often the case, what starts as an interest becomes a passion that God was kindling all along the way.  This culminates with William Carey offering himself as a living sacrifice to the Lord in his cobblers shop to take the Gospel to the nations where he is unknown.
Sketch of Carey's Baptist Church interior

At the next Baptist ministers meeting that Carey attended, he shared his views about going to do foreign missions and was met with a stern rebuke and opposition from his leaders.  The head of their denomination actually told him that “when it pleases God to convert the heathen, He will do it without our help or mine!”  But Carey’s commitment and temperament led him on and some Churches eventually  got behind him and sent him as their first missionary to India.  

Carey was greatly influenced by the Moravians who were a protestant group from Bohemia which were deploying missionaries all over the world.  The Moravians looked for ways to become self-supporting on the field and sometimes did things as radical as selling themselves into slavery or servitude as a means of staying in an area they wanted to evangelize.

In 1792 Carey writes a famous booklet  An Enquiry into The Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens.  This is a moderate Calvinist statement on world mission and how the mandate remains for the church in all times not just the apostolic age which was a popular belief.  In Enquiry Carey also preaches that the missionary is not to rely on Imperial power or convincing arguments for conversions but on fervent and united prayer asking God for favor and for changed hearts among the heathen.  Carey watched the great mercantile organizations of his day who invested greatly in building outposts in foreign countries where they could sell and purchase goods to market elsewhere.  Their great profitability and effectiveness inspired Carey that the same could be done for missions.  Why couldn’t churches pool together and do a similar thing for the profit of winning souls for the Kingdom of God?

So as Carey puts forth this great effort of mobilizing his denomination in missions and helps co-found their first mission society finally offering himself as a field missionary, where is his wife in all this?  Although a strong Christian, she is adamant about one thing: she isn’t going anywhere especially in a land as strange and inhospitable as India!  We musn’t chastise Mrs. Carey for her lack of vision though.  She was by now age 40 and half-way through her fourth pregnancy with three small children at her side when William announces they were going to India.  He had great ideas about doing missions but not the foggiest idea of how to live in a foreign culture either.  And to top it all off, the trip would require a 5 month voyage by ship.

What follows is even more unbelievable at least by today’s standards.   Although Dorothy will not go, she sees her husband is so impassioned and determined, that she tells him to go without her.  They had been married for 16 years by this point and had a family, but she was willing to sacrifice her husband to the Lord’s call.  There was no promise he would even make it there much less come back.
Eventually she felt so worried about his mental health, that she wanted him to take their 8 year old son Felix so he wouldn’t be totally alone without anyone from their family.  I’m pretty sure taking the son was also a means whereby Dorothy would be certain that William would return at some point so his son could get a proper English education.

William continued to work on convincing Dorothy to come, but to no avail.  When the day came to sail he got on the boat to leave with John Thomas, who was another missionary with the Baptists, and their son Felix.  They waved goodbye to one another on the deck of the ship not knowing if they would see one another ever again.

But before the ship left the port, John Thomas was stopped by the local authorities.  Apparently he had not cleared all of his debts and he would not be permitted to sail until all his creditors had been paid.  Imagine Dorothy’s surprise when her husband walked in the door that afternoon after that emotional goodbye.

This delay proved to be quite providential.  Over the next few weeks Dorothy Carey had her baby and after recovering realized she would regret having a divided family the rest of her life just because she was unwilling to leave her village.  She offered to go if William would also permit her younger sister Kitty to accompany them to help with running their home.  Carey gladly made the concession and eventually sailed for India to fulfill God’s call for him with his wife and family all together.  It was quite good that this happened because William Carey never left India the remainder of his life.  There probably would have been no return trip.

The family landed in Calcutta in 1794 and found the stress and pressure almost unbearable.  Carey’s mission agent had misappropriated a lot of their funds and put the family in terrific straits.  God provided relief through an English national who needed a manager for his indigo factory.  Carey took the job which enabled him to earn a living while learning the language and gave him a host of Indian nationals with whom he could converse and eventually share the gospel message.

Unfortunately the following year the Carey’s five year old son Peter becomes ill and dies suddenly.  The compound of grief, the stress of living in a different culture, and the hard living conditions all took their toll on Dorothy and she ended up having a breakdown which turned into a slow descent into insanity over the next decade.  Dorothy really never gets well ever again and at several points other missionaries who later joined Carey’s work urged him to have her committed to an institution.  William Carey never did this but chose to keep her at home even if at times she had to be locked in her room and tied down for her own safety.  As we think of all the language work and Bible translation that was accomplished by William Carey in the ensuing years, it must not be forgotten that much of this work was done at a table outside of Dorothy’s room where he would labor as he heard his wives moans and shrieks.  Initially Carey and others thought Dorothy might be afflicted with demon possession, but after much reading on psychological disorders he felt certain that a paranoid psychosis fit most of the symptoms she was displaying.

There are some who have questioned why Mr. Carey did not seek medical help for his wife.  First of all, there was little hope in the treatments that were available in that day and secondly the missionary community was not welcome and barely tolerated by the East India Trading Company who had charge of the region in which Carey and his team were working.  Perhaps bringing them into the picture might have led to the expulsion of he and the other missionaries.

In 1807 Dorothy finally died at age 51 following the complications of another illness.  She had never felt any calling to the mission field and yet she died after living a decade as a missionary’s wife.  In many regards Dorothy Carey died as a martyr.  Hers was a martyr’s sacrifice to serve Christ as the wife of one with a higher calling she did not share.  She gave up all security and any comforts she might have had in this life, to go to a place she didn’t want to live and lived in fear and deprivation. She was utterly broken and ill-suited for mission work, but out of loyalty to Christ, she followed her husband.  Although it was a cause she barely understood, she should be given credit along with her husband for their pioneering contribution to world missions. 

Lest anyone feel sorry for William Carey, less than 6 months later he was remarried to a woman who was his own age, strikingly beautiful, and intellectually and spiritually his soulmate.  His fellow missionaries were scandalized with the brevity of his grieving period but accepted Charlotte Carey in due course.  They spent the next 13 years working together in Bible translation work before she died.  Carey married a third wife who was significantly younger than he whom he said made the burdens of his old age and illnesses lighter.  She was to outlive Carey for many years.

William Carey did not work alone as a solo act.  In fact he had two other men, Joshua Marshman and William Ward, who with their families,  later joined him in the work he started.  It was their lifetime partnership and commitment to one another that allowed so much to be done.  Carey was not really a success until he had the help that released him to focus on his gifts in languages and education.  As a team they called themselves the “Serampore Trio”.  Through their combined efforts they managed to establish a college, publishing house, and did the many Bible translations.

Carey translated the Bible into 6 major Indian languages and portions of the scripture for another 29 languages.  This is a considerable achievement when you realize the depth of preparation it takes just to make a single translation.  Carey also translated other Bengali works such as some of their oral folklore and published them.  In many ways this helped Carey to know the people but also served to preserve some of their culture.  In time Carey became so knowledgeable in Indian languages he was appointed as professor of Sanskrit and Bengali at Ft. William College in Calcutta in 1801.  This teaching post offered many opportunities for ministry but also made him a respected person in an area that was not enthusiastic about having Christian missionaries present.

Biographer R. E. Hedland says that despite all the knowledge Carey had about Hebrew, Greek, and Indian languages, his own English composition was very poor with lots of mistakes in punctuation as is seen in his letters.  However, it should be remembered that our subject did not complete what we would consider a basic high school education.

Carey certainly was also involved in preaching the gospel in addition to translating the Bible.  He preached his first seven years without making a single Indian convert.  Eventually he had a breakthrough and a small congregation formed.  But Carey knew the reality of just how many people live in India and early on realized he must work on multiplication of preachers more than the addition of new Christians.  Towards this end, Carey’s team worked on establishing Bible colleges for the training of native pastors and evangelists as part of their strategy.

In addition to his Christian ministry, Carey’s influence also helped move India towards a ban on the practice of Sati which happened in 1829.  This was an ancient practice where a widow would be burned alive on her husband’s funeral pyre.  There were a variety of social and religious reasons why this form of self-immolation was practiced but it was a practice so ingrained that women were forced to participate even if they didn’t want to die.

Carey served an even 40 years on the mission field before he passed away in 1834 at the age of 73.  When he left England for the mission field he was virtually unknown but in his latter years he was a household name among Christians in Britain and America.  He was requested by publishers to write books on the spiritual life for his English reading audience but declined to do so because he felt it would draw attention to himself.  There was only one portrait ever done of William Carey.  The only reason he allowed it was because there was such a demand to know what he looked like by the public and because he was offered 800 pd. Sterling by the publisher which he donated all to the mission.  The engraving made from the portrait sold like wildfire in England.

William Carey’s mission inspired many others to follow in his path.  Three of his sons grew up to become missionaries and most notably he inspired America’s first missionary couple Adoniram and Ann Judson to go to Burma (present-day Myanmar) where they did similar translation work.  Carey’s work of Bible translation also inspired the formation of the British and Foreign Bible Society who developed an even broader ministry of literature evangelism.  Because of his contributions to society and higher learning, school children in India study about William Carey as part of their history courses.
Ft. Williams College in Serampore

Carey is generally thought of today as the Father of Modern Missions because of his influence in the development of Protestant missions of the last two centuries.  In many regards, his methods and practices defined how mission was done for several generations, but I wonder of Carey would agree with that assessment.  No doubt he, like all men, would appreciate some recognition for his labors.  But I think Carey would also be quick to point out that the only greatness he had was that he offered himself to a great Lord and was obedient to what he was called by him to do and this greatness can be had by anyone.
Carey is portrayed in feature film "Candle in the Darkness"

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