Protestant Profiles #20: William Carey

William Carey (1761–1834)


Born: Paulerspery, Northamptonshire, England
Role: “Father of Modern Missions,” Bible translator, educator, social reformer, founder of Baptist Missionary Society, author
Emphases: The urgency of mission to unreached people of the world; translation of the Bible into local languages; role of God’s Spirit in missions
Protested against: Anti-missionary Hypercalvinism; barbaric Indian customs;

While other Protestant groups – such as the Moravians – deserve credit for their earlier involvement in pioneering world missions, William Carey’s life and ministry in many ways represent a turning point in the history of missions in English Christianity and Baptist churches in particular (pun intended).

Following his marriage just shy of his 20th birthday, the third decade of Carey’s life was full of eventful developments. In his early twenties he became a Baptist, receiving believer’s baptism in 1783. A couple of years later he was pastoring a Baptist church and at around 30 he was ordained as a minister of this movement of churches.

Somewhere during this time he also became interested in the plight of unevangelised peoples around the world. He steadily became more and more convinced of the urgent need for European Christians and well-established churches to bring the gospel to regions that lacked the saving news of Jesus. He was moved to compose his famous pamphlet An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens, published in 1792, to urge his fellow Christians to take the appropriate actions in response to the gospel needs around the world.

The lore around Carey suggests he faced strong opposition from Baptists of a more ‘high’ or ‘hyper’ Calvinist bent when making these initial appeals in favour of world mission. A well-respected Particular Baptist minister is reported to have told Carey a few years earlier at a minister’s meeting:
“”Young man, sit down; when God pleases to convert the heathen, he will do it without your aid and mine.”

Despite this attitude, Carey pressed on with his convictions and eventually won over many prominent Baptists for the cause of world missions, including the man who is accused of making the above remark. The “Particular Baptist Society for Propagating the Gospel among the Heathen” was founded by Carey and others a few months after the publication of his Enquiry. It later became the Baptist Missionary Society and continues to work around the world to this day.

Around a year later, Carey himself went to India with a view to sharing the gospel to the unevangelised peoples of that region. He needed to find ways to be financially self-supporting, while mastering the local languages and beginning to evangelise and translate the Bible. He lived and ministered in a colonial settlement named Serampore, which was under the control of the Danish government. More than three decades of ministry in Serampore (without ever returning to England) saw far less converts than Carey had hoped for (around 700 Indians, but about the same number again of mixed race or European converts), but he had managed to translate the Bible into six Indian languages (and made partial translations into nearly thirty more local languages).

Carey’s time in India made a number of positive contributions to Indian society – encouraging a blossoming of Bengali literature; establishing educational institutions and using his influence with the British East India Company to push for the outlawing of child sacrifices and sati (the Hindu practice of burning widows alive with their husband’s corpse on a funeral pyre).

He experienced a great deal of personal suffering during this period too. He lost two wives and several children in India and at one point lost a considerable amount of his literary work due to a fire accident. He also had to struggle with the slowness of the evangelistic work and conflict he experienced with the missionary society back in England.

Carey died in Serampore in 1834, aged 72. His contribution to world missions and to Christianity in India was enormous and his motto “Expect great things from God, attempt great things for God” has been an inspiration to many to follow his example of faith. His heart to reach the unreached with the gospel of Jesus was a natural outworking of the principles of the Reformation.

The Methodists and revivalists we have looked at over the last month emphasised the need for widespread evangelism – Carey and the other 19th century missionaries we’ll look at in coming weeks understood the need to go beyond evangelising their immediate neighbours and countrymen.

Some have questioned the impact of Carey’s ministry choices on his family life (see for instance), a subject that often arises when considering the lives of missionaries from this period. There is no profitability in attempting to remove the warts from the portraits of our Christian heroes and the men and women heading into such uncharted territory were bound to make mistakes (including some serious ones). But as we grapple with the enormous challenge of world evangelisation and international church planting that lies before the 21st century church, a life such as Carey provides us with a great opportunity to both learn from his example and evaluate his approach in light of Scripture and the lessons learned from subsequent missions history.

While we must carefully consider a range of factors when it comes to the impact of our ministry decisions, at the end of the day, we need more daring evangelicals who are willing to “expect great things from God and attempt great things from God” like William Carey, rather than less.

You can read his “Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens” here.


“William Carey” wikipedia

B. Stanley, “CAREY, William” Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals.


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