In the past several months, I have been able to learn and study more about the life of William Carey, who later became known as the ‘father of modern missions’. While on a trip to England in February, I had the opportunity to visit some of the places where Carey lived and worked, taking the little booklet Travel with William Carey by Day One Publications as my guide.
The world that William Carey grew up in was dominated by the British Empire and by discoveries, wars and trade. It was also a time of spiritual renewal and awakening, first under Jonathan Edwards in the United States and then also in Great Britain under John Wesley and others.
William Carey was born on 17 August 1761 in Pury End, on the outskirts of the little village of Paulerspury in Northamptonshire in the heart of England.
His parents Edmund and Elizabeth Carey were weavers by trade and thus quite poor. As a family, they were very committed to the Church of England. From their home in Pury End, it was about a 5-10 minute walk to St. James The Great Church, where Edmund, following his father’s footsteps, served as parish clerk.
This is the view of the church from the Careys’ home in Pury End:
Here is a closer view of the church building:
Inside the entrance of the church is the following memorial plaque:
Edmund Carey’s gravestone is just outside the entrance of the church:
Edmund Carey later also became the schoolmaster of the village, which also helped young William get an education until the age of twelve.
Already in his childhood and youth, William Carey was fascinated by nature, by exploring and by learning. His bedroom at home became a little zoo of various insects and other little animals and birds that he would find and then take care of and observe. His childhood friends knew who to ask if they found an unknown flower or insect. They also started calling William by the name of Columbus, as Carey was so fascinated by the life of the famous explorer.
After leaving school, William Carey started working in agriculture, but he had to stop this work, as he had a certain type of skin disease which meant that the sun was too hot and painful for him. Therefore, he became an apprentice of a cobbler instead.
At this stage of his youth, Carey did not have a heart for God. He says of himself that he was “addicted to swearing, lying, and unchaste conversation”. (1)
During this time as an apprentice of a cobbler, Carey had an experience which greatly affected him. Carey writes:
A circumstance which I always reflect on with a mixture of horror and gratitude occurred about this time, which, though greatly to my dishonour, I must relate. It being customary in that part of the country for apprentices to collect Christmas boxes [donations] from the tradesmen with whom their masters have dealings, I was permitted to collect these little sums. When I applied to an ironmonger, he gave me the choice of a shilling or a sixpence; I of course chose the shilling, and putting it in my pocket, went away. When I had got a few shillings my next care was to purchase some little articles for myself, I have forgotten what. But then, to my sorrow, I found that my shilling was a brass one. I paid for the things which I bought by using a shilling of my master’s. I now found that I had exceeded my stock by a few pence. I expected severe reproaches from my master, and therefore came to the resolution to declare strenuously that the bad money was his. I well remember the struggles of mind which I had on this occasion, and that I made this deliberate sin a matter of prayer to God as I passed over the fields towards home! I there promised that, if God would but get me clearly over this, or, in other words, help me through with the theft, I would certainly for the future leave off all evil practices; but this theft and consequent lying appeared to me so necessary that they could not be dispensed with. (2)
So what happened? Did God answer this prayer and help William Carey get through with his lie and with his theft? Carey continues:
A gracious God did not get me safe through. My master sent the other apprentice to investigate the matter. The ironmonger acknowledged the giving me the shilling, and I was therefore exposed to shame, reproach, and inward remorse, which preyed upon my mind for a considerable time. I at this time sought the Lord, perhaps much more earnestly than ever, but with shame and fear. I was quite ashamed to go out, and never, till I was assured that my conduct was not spread over the town, did I attend a place of worship. (3)
But the time came when Carey would attend church again – and much more frequently and earnestly than before. The other apprentice working with William Carey was Thomas Warr, who was known as a ‘dissenter’, i.e. someone who was not a member of the official Church of England. Carey and Warr had had many debates over religion, with Carey defending the Church of England, and Carey made sure that he always had the last word. But while this was the case, Carey had to be honest with himself and acknowledge that he did not have the better arguments…
An opportunity for earnest prayer – and fasting – would soon present itself, triggered by political events. In 1779, when Carey was 17 years of age, England was in a national crisis, being in a state of war with the United States, France and Spain. Facing these pressures, called for a national day of prayer and fasting. Since William Carey sympathised with the American colonists and knew that the Church of England did not, he decided to attend a special meeting at the dissenting church in Hackleton. The text of the sermon that was delivered at that church was the following:
Let us go forth therefore unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach. (Hebrews 13:13)
Carey took this as a sign that he should leave the official Church of England and join the dissenting church in Hackleton, which he then also did. Here in Hackleton, William Carey was converted and placed his faith in Jesus Christ alone for salvation.
William Carey became a faithful member of this church and was invited to preach there for the first time in 1781. The pulpit from which Carey preached is still on display in this church today:
In the same year, William Carey married Dorothy Placket in St. John the Baptist Church in the neighbouring village of Piddington. Sadly, their marriage would not be a happy marriage.
The following year, Carey also received an invitation to preach in a church in Olney, which he then also every two weeks.
When his master died, Carey continued as an independent cobbler. He also studied the New Testament more intensely and came to the conclusion that baptism is only for those people who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ and are following Him. At the age of 22, therefore, William Carey was baptised by immersion in the river Nene.
In 1785, William Carey moved to , where he became the pastor of a small .
The income he received as pastor was not sufficient for him to live on, so he also kept working as a cobbler in his home right next to the church.
working as a pastor and cobbler, Carey never lost his interest for the whole
world and the explorations that were made during his lifetime. As Carey learned
more about the world and its many peoples, God gave him a desire to reach those
who had never heard the gospel. One book, in particular, opened Carey's eyes to the great need for the gospel all over the world: The Last Voyage of Captain Cook.
The income he received as pastor was not sufficient for him to live on, so he also kept working as a cobbler in his home right next to the church.
|Carey's home in Moulton|
|Captain James Cook|
Captain James Cook was the British Christopher Columbus of the time. He made explorations in the South Seas around Australia and New Zealand and published the accounts of his voyages. In one of these publications, Cook made the pronouncement that he believed no one would ever bother introducing Christianity to these far-away peoples as there are no incentives of fame or fortune to do so.
Carey was shocked by such a statement and wanted to do something about it. And he started by praying for the islands that Cook has explored. And he started studying more about the situation of lost people, not only in the South Seas, but in all the world. He created his own globe with pieces of leather and a coloured world map of paper on which he also noted the information he was able to gain about different peoples and places in the world.
In 1788, Carey was invited to a meeting of church leaders in Northamptonshire. At this meeting, Carey was asked for his suggestion for a topic to be discussed at a future meeting. Carey’s response was that it would be worth looking into the matter “whether the command given to the Apostles, to teach all nations, was not obligatory on all succeeding ministers to the end of the world, seeing that the accompanying promise was of equal extent”. (4)
The prevailing view of the time among Christians was that the Great Commission given by Jesus Christ at the end of the Gospel of Matthew had already been fulfilled by the disciples. Others held to the hyper-Calvinist view that God will save those who He will without the help of man. That was also the view of John Ryland Senior, who rebuked William Carey with these now famous words:
“Young man sit down. When God pleases to convert the heathen, He will do it without your aid or mine.” (5)
But that would not stop Carey in pushing forward towards starting a missionary movement to the unreached peoples of the world. The same year, Carey met a businessman named Thomas Potts in Birmingham, with whom he was able to have a conversation about world missions. Potts was so impressed that he urged Carey to write a book with his thoughts and have it published. Seeing that Carey did not have the means to fund such a publication, Potts offered to pay for the printing costs and Carey started his work on the book.
In 1791, there was another meeting of the association of church leaders of Carey’s denomination which was held in this church in Clipston:
In the meantime, several other church leaders in the association had also caught on to Carey’s vision and delivered some excellent sermons on the topic of missions, but to Carey’s dismay, the meeting ended without any specific action being undertaken.
In 1792, William Carey published his book with the title An Enquiry Into the Obligations of Christians, to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens. In his little book, Carey argues compellingly that Christians have an obligation – namely, to be involved in world missions. Jesus Christ expects something from His followers, and what He expects is more than just mental assent or good desires.
In the same year, William Carey preached a sermon on the following Bible passage:
Enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of thine habitations: spare not, lengthen thy cords, and strengthen thy stakes; For thou shalt break forth on the right hand and on the left; and thy seed shall inherit the Gentiles, and make the desolate cities to be inhabited. (Isaiah 54:2-3)
Carey’s associates became convinced that something had to be done. On 2 October 1792, they formed the Particular Baptist Society for the Propagation of the Gospel among the Heathen, known today as BMS World Mission.
It soon became clear to Carey and to others that he was to be sent out to India as their first missionary. But this was not so clear to his wife Dorothy who refused to go at first. After some delays and some discussions and some concessions, Dorothy finally agreed to join her husband with the rest of their family on their mission to India. On 13 June 1793, their ship set sail for India, arriving in Calcutta on 11 November 1793.
Life and work in India was not easy – neither for William Carey nor for his wife Dorothy. Dorothy became insane and later had to be confined to her room after making attempts on her husband’s life. William Carey did not want to put her in an institution, but chose to take care of her at home, while at the same time continuing his mission work. In 1797 he completed the translation of the Bengali New Testament.
Two years later, Carey was joined by two other missionaries – Joshua Marshman and WilliamWard – who would prove a tremendous blessing to him and his work. Together, these three men became known as the Serampore Trio after the name of the town in which they were working.
With horror Carey witnessed a sati ceremony for the first time that year, in which a widow is burned alive alongside the corpse of her deceased husband.
These as well as other horrible practices such as child drowning were all too common in India at that time. Carey wanted to bring these practices to an end.
It was seven long years before Carey was able to baptise the first Indian convert to Christ, a man by the name of Krishna Pal. In the following 19 years, over 600 more people were baptised.
Towards the end of Carey’s life he had the joy of seeing the outlawing of the widow-burning practice of sati by the British government and he was commissioned to translate the law into Bengali.
William Carey died on 9 June 1834 in Serampore at the age of 72. Upon his request, the following words were written on his gravestone:
A wretched poor and helpless worm
On Thy kind arms I fall.
After having left England for India in 1793, Carey never returned to England. During his lifetime, God used him to bring about some remarkable accomplishments in India. Here are some:
- Starting a missionary movement in Great Britain that saw the founding of 13 mission organisations within 40 years after being sent out as a missionary
- Introducing the steam engine to India
- Founding the Agri-Horticultural Society of India
- Founding Serampore College (the oldest university in India to be in continuous operation)
- Producing three dictionaries for the languages Bengali, Marathi and Sanskrit
- Translating the Bible or parts of the Bible into 35 different languages
- Introducing the printing press to India
- Printing more than 212,00 Bibles and portions of the Bible in 40 different languages
Who would have thought that the cobbler from Paulerspury would be used by God – against all odds – to spread the truth and light of gospel to so many people in so many different ways!
In all of his work, William Carey’s hope and confidence was in the almighty God who had promised to be with him always. When we place our trust in God and show our dependence on Him, God can use the weakest person for His great glory!
In his famous sermon in 1792, William Carey summed his message up in this way:
Expect great things from God.
Attempt great things for God.
(1) Carey, Eustace (1836). Memoir of William Carey. London: Jackson and Walford, p. 8.
(2) Smith, George (1885). The Life of William Carey, D.D. - Shoemaker and Missionary. London: John Murray, p. 13f.
(3) Ibid., p. 14.
(4) Ibid., p. 31.
(5) Marshman, John Clark (1859). The Life and Times of Carey, Marshman, and Ward. London: Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans & Roberts, p. 10.