Seven Summits Worth Climbing in Church History: William Carey

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on B&H Academic Blog and is part of a series of theological biographies by Jason Duesing: Seven Summits Worth Climbing in Church History

“He keeps the grand end in view.” After arriving in India in September 1796, John Fountain used these words to describe his first impressions of William Carey (1761-1834). A missionary pioneer, organizer, catalyst, survivor, and inspiration, Carey lived 73 full years and changed the modern world. J. H. Kane argues that Carey’s missions tract, An Enquiry, was “a landmark in Christian history and deserves a place alongside Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses.” Carey’s nephew attributed much of Carey’s fruitful longevity to “invincible patience in labour, and uninterrupted constancy.” Carey would not agree with these assessments. In his words, if one were to “give me credit for being a plodder, he will describe me justly. Anything beyond this will be too much. I can plod.”

A missionary pioneer, organizer, catalyst, survivor, and inspiration, Carey lived 73 full years and changed the modern world.

Born in a small village to a devout Anglican family, Carey regularly attended church but experienced no major life transformation. By his teens he apprenticed as a shoemaker in a neighboring town, and through the persistent witness of his co-worker, John Warr, Carey saw his need for a Savior. Soon after his conversion, he left the Church of England and attended a Congregationalist church while intently reading and studying the Scriptures. When faced with the quandary of defending from the Bible his own infant baptism, Carey sought aid from John Ryland Sr., the pastor of College Lane Baptist Church in Northampton. In October 1783, Carey received believer’s baptism from the pastor’s son, John Ryland Jr. Shortly thereafter, another pastor encouraged Carey to preach for a small congregation while maintaining his shoemaking trade. By 1785, Carey accepted a vocational pastorate in Moulton. There he established a friendship with Baptist pastor Andrew Fuller of neighboring Kettering.

During this time Carey’s regular reading of the voyages of Captain James Cook opened his eyes to the world. In addition, Robert Hall Sr.’s Help to Zion’s Travellers, a doctrinal primer molded from the evangelical theology of Jonathan Edwards and distinct from the hyper-Calvinist climate in England among Baptists, helped shape Carey’s theological thinking more than any other book outside the Bible. With a theology that held the sovereignty of God in balance with the responsibility of man and a growing zeal to see the saving message of the Lord Jesus taken to the ends of the earth, Carey set out to organize his thoughts for accomplishing this task. After wrestling with the Great Commission in Matthew 28, Carey raised the notion of global evangelism at a minister’s meeting in 1785, but was told he “was a most miserable enthusiast for asking such a question.” Despite the discouragement, Carey continued his planning and, as Timothy George notes, his “concern for the unevangelized heathen in distant lands did not slacken his zeal to share the good news of Jesus Christ with sinners at home.”

In 1789, Carey went to pastor the Harvey Lane Church in Leicester. By May 1792 he published An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens, an argument that the Great Commission remained as a mandate for all churches. Nathan Finn argues that Carey’s Enquiry is merely the application of what he first learned from Robert Hall’s doctrinal primer to foreign missions. In the Enquiry, Carey answered common objections to the idea of cross-cultural evangelism as well as documenting, in great detail, the vast numbers of people outside of Christ. As Timothy George explains, “Carey’s statistics were more than mere numbers on a chart. They represented persons, persons made in the image of God and infinitely precious to Him.” At the next meeting of the Baptist Association, Carey preached a sermon from Isaiah 54 calling for the transmission of the gospel overseas, encouraging his hearers to “Expect great things. Attempt great things.” Lest one think the staid work of church association meetings, convention sermons, and denominational resolutions are a hindrance for gospel advance, consider that the launch of the most wide reaching missions movement began in a small free church association meeting following a sermon with the formal passing of a resolution that read, “Resolved, that a plan be prepared against the next Ministers’ meeting at Kettering, for forming a Baptist Society for propagating the Gospel among the Heathen.”

Lest one think the staid work of church association meetings, convention sermons, and denominational resolutions are a hindrance for gospel advance, consider that the launch of the most wide reaching missions movement began in a small free church association meeting following a sermon with the formal passing of a resolution.

In October 1792, the Baptist Missionary Society was formed and Carey stepped forward to join the first deployment to India. Of that day Fuller recounted, “Our undertaking to India really appeared to me, on its commencement, to be somewhat like a few men, who were deliberating about the importance of penetrating a deep mine, which had never before been explored. We had no one to guide us; and, while we were thus deliberating, Carey, as it were, said, ‘Well, I will go down if you will hold the rope.’ But before he went down, he, as it seemed to me, took an oath from each of us at the mouth of the pit to this effect, that while we lived we should never let go the rope.”  Carey made preparations to depart and when writing to his father, he resolved, “I have many sacrifices to make … But I have set my hand to the plough” (Luke 9:62).

Carey and family arrived in Bengal in November 1793 and endured immediate hardship. In October 1794, the Careys lost their five year old son, Peter, to illness, and this tragedy, along with other trials, wreaked havoc on both Careys, especially his wife. Paul Pease explains, “Over the past sixteen months Dorothy had suffered many hardships, hurts, losses, and fears: the sad and frantic farewells in England, the long voyage with a young baby, the culture shock of India, the uncertainty of the numerous moves, the humiliation and pain of dysentery, her sister left in Debhata, and now the death of her five year old son. It all became too much for her, and she seemed to retreat from all reality.” Further, the first seven years saw very little spiritual fruit. Writing to his sister in November 1798, Carey said, “No one expects me to write about experience, or any of the common topics of Religion; nor to say anything about the Doctrines of the Gospel, but News, and continual accounts of marvelous things are expected from me. I have however no news to send, and as everything here is the same, no Marvels …. at best we scarcely expect to be anything more than Pioneers to prepare the Way for those who coming after us may be more useful than we have been.” However, in 1799 Carey moved his family to Serampore and joined with two other missionaries, Joshua Marshman and William Ward. Known now as the Serampore Trio, the three established the Serampore Mission and, in 1800, saw their first convert. From there the legacy of the “Father of Modern Missions” grew chiefly through Bible translation and as the trailblazer for scores of future missionaries.

George notes that Carey stands most clearly in the Reformation tradition in his confidence in the Scriptures and lifelong labor to see their translation into 40 distinct languages. Carey’s plan to evangelize India was simply: “Preach the gospel, translate the Bible, and establish schools. Proclamation, translation, education.” Haykin notes that even though some have argued that the title “Father of Modern Missions” is not accurate, in the end there is no denying that Carey had a titanic influence. Nathan Finn reminds that Carey “was keenly aware that he was in continuity with a movement that had already commenced, even entitling the second chapter of his Enquiry ‘a short Review of former Undertakings for the Conversion of the Heathen.’” In the end Carey clearly was “the first to create a missions-sending agency and to be sent in an organized and formal manner.” William Carey died in 1834 leaving instructions that his tombstone read, “A wretched, poor, and helpless worm, On thy kind arms I fall.” Despite world-reaching legacy and fame, Carey departed in faithfulness, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of his faith (Heb 12:2). He kept the grand end in view.

Further Reading:

  • Center for the Study of the Life and Work of William Carey:
  • Daniel L. Akin. Ten Who Changed the World. B&H, 2012.
  • Michael A. G. Haykin. “Just before Judson: The Significance of Carey’s Life, Thought, and Ministry,” in Adoniram Judson. B&H Academic, 2012.
  • Timothy George. Faithful Witness: The Life and Mission of William Carey. New Hope, 1991.
  • Brian Stanley. The History of the Baptist Missionary Society 1792-1992. T&T Clark, 1992.
  • Daniel Webber. William Carey and the Missionary Vision. Banner of Truth, 2005.