William Carey

The Father of Protestant Missions

Jesus' words in Matthew 28 include both a command and a promise. Jesus tells the twelve disciples to "go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." Then Jesus shares the promise: "And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."

In 1786, during a scheduled meeting of a rather small English Baptist ministerial association the chairman asked one of its newest members, William Carey, a part-time preacher, cobbler, and schoolteacher if he would like to propose a subject for discussion. Without hesitation, Carey suggested they discuss whether—seeing that the accompanying promise was of equal extent—the command given to the apostles to teach all nations was not binding on all succeeding ministers to the end of the world (Miller p. 32).

The chairman, not expecting such a radical idea, replied with a harsh rebuke: "Young man, sit down! You are an enthusiast. When God pleases to converse with heathen He'll do it without consulting you or me." (Miller, p. 32).

Carey sat down. But the idea he had proposed (considered even by his close friends as a "wild, impractical scheme") continued to occupy his mind and heart as a burden from the Lord. Seven years later, this unpretentious young man would embark with his wife and children for India never to return, and initiate one of the most recognized missionary careers in the history of the Church.

Early Life and Faith

Born in a small English village, Carey was the son and grandson of school teachers. At age 12 he had to interrupt his own schooling to help support the family, first as a gardener and then to be apprenticed to a shoemaker. Though his formal schooling was quite limited, from his earliest youth Carey showed great interest in reading and borrowed books on any subject from all who had them.

His fellow apprentice, John Warr, had recently begun following Jesus and enthusiastically shared his experience with his friend, encouraging him to attend a prayer meeting. Impressed by John's godly life, Carey began his own spiritual quest by attending the prayer service. There the Lord spoke to his heart and Carey also surrendered his life to Jesus. Then together, John and William led their employer to Jesus.

When Carey was 18, his master died and he transferred his apprenticeship to another shoemaker. At 20 he married Dorothy Plackett who was 5 years his senior and the sister of his new master's wife. She had not received the benefits of an education, however, and couldn't even sign her own name on the marriage certificate.

When his new master also died, Carey took over his business, his debts, and the care of his widow and their four children in addition to his own family. To augment his income, he opened an evening school. His spiritual life also grew, and soon with the aid of John Warr and some mutual friends, he founded a church.

Missionary Obligations

It was reading the stories of Captain Cook's travels that opened Carey's mind to the existence of other lands and peoples. The lives of David Brainard and John Eliot (missionaries to the Native Americans) gave him practical examples of cross-cultural communication. Growing in his Christian faith, he could only think of the spiritual needs of people who had never heard the gospel. He drew a large map of the world which he placed on the wall over his workbench, and filled in the names of countries and their populations, and began praying for the peoples there. He prayed that God would make it possible for him to do something about the fate of those who lived in spiritual darkness.

His preaching ministered to people, and more and more he was invited to take services, which implied his walking long distances. At the same time, he began to grow in his hunger for knowledge, including learning languages. One day in a borrowed commentary, he came across a script he had never seen before. Inquiring, he was told it was Greek, the original language of the New Testament. He acquired a Greek grammar, and taught himself the language while repairing shoes. He did the same with Hebrew, and within a few years showed his remarkable affinity for languages by teaching himself Latin, French, Italian, and Dutch while working at his cobbler's bench.

Thomas Gotch, a business colleague, recognized Carey's passion for study and decided to pay him what he earned mending shoes so that Carey could dedicate more time to his intellectual and spiritual growth.

About this time, hoping to arouse other Christians to the need of assuming their missionary obligations, Carey decided to write a pamphlet (entitled "An Enquiry"1) that would express his burden for the spread of the gospel. Eighty-seven pages in length, it was the result of eight years of thought, study, and composition, and was marked with a profound knowledge of geographical facts and racial conditions.

In it Carey laid bare his own soul. He showed how the command to go, as well as the promised companionship of Christ, applied equally to the apostolic church and the church of his century (Miller p. 36). It was a literary masterpiece, and has been called the "charter of modern missions," and "the distinct point of departure in the history of Christianity." This was the spark which fired into life the burning embers of missionary zeal that God had laid in Carey's soul.

As a result of the circulation of this pamphlet, in 1792, six years after having been told to sit down in that meeting of the ministerial association, he was asked to give one of the sermons at a meeting of the same association. He took as his text Isaiah 54:2,3, "Enlarge the place of thy tent… For thy seed shall inhabit the Gentiles…" He spoke pointedly and with passion. The fire of his thought was summed up in these ringing words,

Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God.

Before the meetings closed, the pastors passed a resolution to form a "Baptist Society for the Propagating of the Gospel among the Heathen."

Getting to India

Carey's original vision was to be a missionary in the island of Tahiti (inspired by Captain Cook's description). Then he and the other members of the missionary society met Dr. John Thomas, who had experience in India, spoke Bengali, and was looking for help. Carey and his friends felt that through this contact the Lord was leading them to return with Thomas and establish their mission in India.

As Carey planned his trip, he faced significant obstacles. His wife, Dorothy, was several months pregnant and did not want to go at all. She had never seen the ocean, was terrified of sailing on it, did not want to leave her family and friends. Furthermore, she was unwilling for her husband to go. As Carey agonized over the whole matter, the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:37 ("He that loves wife or child more than Me is not worthy of me…") led him to feel that he should go, even without his family. He wrote these thoughts to his father, who said Carey's decision was an utterly inane desire and "the folly of one mad" (Miller p. 43).

Financially, they weren't in much better shape. Their society had no money and it was soon discovered that John Thomas—full of enthusiasm and self-sacrifice for the Lord's work—was at the same time hopelessly irresponsible with regard to finances, and creditors in London were coming after him for his considerable debts.

In the midst of all these pressures, Carey could only seek the Lord. One by one the problems were resolved. Dorothy changed her mind after delivering their third son and said she would go if her sister, Kitty (who was willing), could accompany them. Sufficient funds were raised. Even Thomas worked out a solution with his creditors.

On June 13, 1793, the small party sailed on a Danish East India ship for Calcutta (now Kolkata)—a voyage of 5 months.

Before sailing, Carey met with the few but earnest members of the Baptist Society. In the meeting, India was likened to a gold mine "deep as the center of the earth." Even as Carey volunteered to explore the mine he implored the other members to "hold the ropes." Though it is Carey we remember today, and not the members of that Society, Carey's work would not have been possible without their support, which endured for 40 years.

First Years of Trial

When William Carey arrived with his family in Calcutta in November of 1793, the British East India Company had been functioning there for almost 200 years and was the dominant force in the land. The Company was not eager for Christian missionaries to enter the country. They felt that the sharing of a "new religion" could only cause a negative reaction among the Hindus and Muslims and complicate their commercial venture.

Dr. John Thomas, who had pled with Carey to accompany him back to India and aid him in his work, sought to help the family get established, but very soon his own financial problems forced him to invest his time as a physician to try and cover his considerable debts. The money they had all brought with them to supposedly support their needs for a year was gone in a matter of months. The irresponsibility of Thomas brought them close to starvation and this was just one of the difficulties they encountered.

For six years, the Careys moved from one place to another, seeking employment and a place to get established. The adjustment to the heat of the country and the difficulty of learning the Bengali language also proved obstacles to overcome. A flood once covered Carey's land with up to 20 feet of water. There was also a drought. Two new missionaries who came to help, died soon after they arrived.

Dorothy couldn't take the strain. She hadn't wanted to come in the first place. Culture shock gripped her. Nothing was familiar. Her sister married an English planter and left their home. The Careys' son Peter, passed and this proved to be the last straw for Dorothy. She sank into mental derangement, and never recovered.

After six years of faithful preaching, no Indian had come to Jesus. For a Hindu to receive Christ and be baptized would mean to be "thrown out of caste," to be cut off from family, and friends, and make all social contact difficult. A number of Europeans had come to Christ, but Carey's desire was to see Indians enter the Kingdom. The lack of conversions prompted criticism from the Home Committee. "Why aren't you seeing more fruit?" "Why are you wasting your time in economic employment?"

In these days, Carey wrote in his journal, "This is indeed, the Valley of the Shadow of Death to me…O, what would I give for a sympathetic friend to whom I might open my heart. But God is here, who not only has compassion but who can save to the uttermost" (Miller p. 61).

During these first years of incredible trial, Carey worked on two languages, Bengali and Hindustani. At the end of his first year, he was able to preach publicly in Bengali. Three years later (1797) he had finished the first draft of the New Testament in that language, and by 1800 he had completed a draft of a translation of the whole Bible, while working to support his family, having moved several times, and carrying on in the midst of his trials. Finding the Bengali language "rich, beautiful, and expressive" (Drewery p. 90), Carey revised the Bengali Old Testament five times and the New Testament eight times over his lifetime.

The East India Company's new Commercial Resident was outspokenly opposed to missions, would not permit village evangelism, and would not tolerate the printing of the gospel into native languages. Furthermore, a new ruling of the government prohibited the use or location of any printing press in Bengal outside of Calcutta. As a result, Carey decided to move his center of operations to the small Danish enclave, Serampore, situated on the Hooghli River, south of Calcutta. The Danes welcomed them, permitted them to preach, establish schools, and print the Scriptures in the native language.

The Serampore Trio

Carey's vision consisted of three goals:

  1. Preach the Gospel and found churches among the people of India.
  2. Bible translation (undoubtedly his greatest contribution).
  3. Train young men and women through the establishment of schools.

Added to these three main foci, however, we notice that over his 40 years of ministry, his social conscience pushed him to struggle against common practices such an infanticide, child marriages (girls as young as four years old), sati (widow burning), and the lack of education for girls (Mangalwadi pp 31ff). For recreation he developed a large botanical garden for which he received seeds from all over the world. Six months after getting settled in Serampore he had a list of 427 species of plants in his garden (Miller p. 142).

At this time other missionary families joined him, most notably William Ward and Joshua Marshman. Carey's vision was to form a community in which they would live and work together in harmony, sharing all they had with one another. These three (Carey, Marshman, and Ward) worked together for the rest of their lives, and are known today at the "Serampore Trio."

Carey supervised the translating, Ward was the printer, and Marshman was an educator, though both Ward and Marshman also participated when they could in translation work. "Each acted as a complement to the others so perfectly and harmoniously that their living together tripled their work power. They had one household in common in Serampore until death, and stood by one another inseparably in weal and woe, during years of severe trial" (Miller, p. 75).

Even when the missionary community grew to 19 people they shared a common table, made decisions by majority vote, and forbade work for private gain. Each put anything they earned into a common stock and withdrew only what they needed. Any surplus (at times, considerable) went into the expenses of the mission. Every Saturday evening they met together for prayer and to discuss family concerns. At these meetings they would deal with any differences of opinion that had arisen during the week and allocate duties for the next seven days (Drewery pp. 111, 122).

Carey was of such a mild temperament, he was not effective as a disciplinarian of his family. Dorothy's mental state put her totally out of involvement. As a result, other members of the community , especially William Ward and Hannah Marshman, drew near to Carey's four sons and were a great help to them.

Through his study of Bengali and Hindustani, Carey came to the conclusion that the most important language to learn was Sanskrit. This language was to India what Latin was to Europe, and is the mother language of Bengali. Carey wrote to an English friend, 'I am learning the Sanskrit language which with only the helps to be procured here is perhaps the hardest language in the world" (Miller p. 63).

By April of 1796 (2 ½ years after arriving) he had been sufficiently fluent in Sanskrit to be comparing the Mahabarata, one of the two great Vedic epics, with Homer's Iliad! "In order to be able to read fluently in the language, he translated a Sanskrit grammar and dictionary into English, and compiled his own Sanskrit/Bengali/English dictionary" (Drewery p. 90).

First Indian Christians

In 1800, the missionaries were overjoyed when the first native Indians confessed Christ and were baptized. Though it caused a riot among the Hindus, the Christians received civil protection. The baptism was attended by the Governor, a number of Europeans, as well as a sprinkling of Hindus and Muslims. The next year the Bengali New Testament came off the press, the first book ever printed in that language. A copy was sent to the Kings of England and of Denmark, as well as the Earl of Spencer, who gave a large donation for the publication of the Old Testament.

That same year Carey received an invitation to be Professor of Oriental Languages at Fort William College in Calcutta, an institution founded to prepare young clerks of the East India Company who came out from England, a remarkable achievement for one who had had only six years of formal schooling and had resided in India only seven years! His generous salary was the major financial resource for the mission.

Carey concentrated his translation work on Sanskrit and its derivatives, such as Bengalli, Hindustani, Marathi, Telinga, Kurmata, Orissa, Punjabee, Kashneera, Gujeratee, Nepalese, and Assam languages. He published grammars in all of them to aid other linguists. He collected material for a universal dictionary of the Oriental languages derived from the Sanskrit. At the time of Carey's death, the entire Scriptures or parts of them had been translated into forty languages or dialects, including Chinese and the native language of Afghanistan. The Serampore Trio did many of them, but they used national linguists as well. More than 31,000,000 pages of the Old and New Testaments passed through the presses (Miller p. 116).

In 1807, his wife Dorothy died. He had loved her for many years and to the end treated her with the greatest affection and respect. Friends had wanted him to place her in an institution, but he refused. Following her death, he married Lady Charlotte Rumohr, of a noble family of Denmark who had come to the settlement. A linguist in her own right, she was a great help to him and helped to fill his loneliness.

Five years later, in 1812, a great fire roared through the print shop destroying precious type and manuscripts, including Carey's dictionary of Sanskrit and its Indian cognates. Carey responded: "I wish to be still and know that the Lord He is God, and to bow to His will in everything. He will no doubt bring good out of this evil and make it promote His interests, but at present the providence is exceedingly dark" (Miller p. 117).

As the years went by the Trio began to establish schools, for both boys and girls, open to all including "outcastes" and Eurasians. By 1817, there were 45 schools. The culmination of their educational effort was the founding of Serampore College for training Christian workers.

Final Words

Missiologists have struggled with William's decision to begin a missionary career in the light of Dorothy's attitude and lack of preparedness for missionary service. We have noticed that she did not feel called as a missionary nor did she desire to leave her familiar context. She had only just learned to read. Carey was living in a different time, age and culture; no contemporary missionary society would have accepted Carey's domestic situation. But what are we to make of the call Carey felt on his life? Carey did what he felt God was calling them to do and Dorothy, faithful to her Lord and her husband, accompanied him. Each did what they could. He became a hero and she lived and died a martyr for a cause to which she was not committed.

William Carey died in 1834, two months before his 73 birthday. At his death, one writer referred to him as "the very foremost name of our times in the whole Christian world" (Miller p. 152). Today, he is considered the father of modern protestant missions.

Just before Carey passed, he was visited by the young Scots missionary educator, Alexander Duff. During their visit, Duff spent significant time talking about Carey's long and famed missionary life until the dying man whispered, "Pray." When Duff had finished praying, Carey spoke to him solemnly yet graciously. "Mr. Duff," Carey said. "You have been speaking about Dr. Carey, Dr. Carey. When I am gone say nothing about Dr. Carey—speak about Dr. Carey's Savior" (Miller p. 148).

I close with Carey's own words:

I have rejoiced that God has given me this great favor 'to preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.' I would not change my station for all the societies in England, much as I prize them. Nor indeed for all the wealth of the world. May I but be useful in laying the foundation for the Church of Christ in India. I desire no greater reward and can receive no higher honor (Miller p. 152).


Drewery, Mary. William Carey. A Biography. Zondervan, 1978.

Farquhar, J.N. Modern Religious movements in India. NY: Macmillan, 1951

Mangalwadi, Vishal and ruth. The Legacy of William Carey. A Model for the Transformation of a Culture. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1999.

Miller, Basil. William Carey, Cobbler to Missionary. Zondervan, 1952.

1Not given to snappy titles, Carey's pamphlet actually carried the longish name of: An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of Heathen in which the Religious State of the different Nations of the World, the Success of Former Undertakings, and the Practical Ability of further undertakings are Considered.



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