At a meeting of Baptist leaders in the late 1700s, a newly ordained minister stood to argue for the value of overseas missions. He was abruptly interrupted by an older minister who said, “Young man, sit down! You are an enthusiast. When God pleases to convert the heathen, he’ll do it without consulting you or me.” That such an attitude is inconceivable today is largely due to the subsequent efforts of that young man, William Carey.
Carey was raised in the obscure, rural village of Paulerpury, in the middle of England. He apprenticed in a local cobbler’s shop, where the nominal Anglican was converted. He enthusiastically took up the faith, and though little educated, the young convert borrowed a Greek grammar and proceeded to teach himself New Testament Greek.
When his master died, he took up shoemaking in nearby Hackleton, where he met and married Dorothy Plackett, who soon gave birth to a daughter. But the apprentice cobbler’s life was hard—the child died at age 2—and his pay was insufficient. Carey’s family sunk into poverty and stayed there even after he took over the business.
“I can plod,” he wrote later, “I can persevere to any definite pursuit.” All the while, he continued his language studies, adding Hebrew and Latin, and became a preacher with the Particular Baptists. He also continued pursuing his lifelong interest in international affairs, especially the religious life of other cultures.
Carey was impressed with early Moravian missionaries and was increasingly dismayed at his fellow Protestants’ lack of missions interest. In response, he penned An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens. He argued that Jesus’ Great Commission applied to all Christians of all times, and he castigated fellow believers of his day for ignoring it: “Multitudes sit at ease and give themselves no concern about the far greater part of their fellow sinners, who to this day, are lost in ignorance and idolatry.”
Carey didn’t stop there: in 1792 he organized a missionary society, and at its inaugural meeting preached a sermon with the call, “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God!” Within a year, Carey, John Thomas (a former surgeon), and Carey’s family (which now included three boys, and another child on the way) were on a ship headed for India.
Stranger in a Strange Land
Thomas and Carey had grossly underestimated what it would cost to live in India, and Carey’s early years there were miserable. When Thomas deserted the enterprise, Carey was forced to move his family repeatedly as he sought employment that could sustain them. Illness racked the family, and loneliness and regret set it: “I am in a strange land,” he wrote, “no Christian friend, a large family, and nothing to supply their wants.” But he also retained hope: “Well, I have God, and his word is sure.”
He learned Bengali with the help of a pundit, and in a few weeks began translating the Bible into Bengali and preaching to small gatherings.
When Carey himself contracted malaria, and then his 5-year-old Peter died of dysentery, it became too much for his wife, Dorothy, whose mental health deteriorated rapidly. She suffered delusions, accusing Carey of adultery and threatening him with a knife. She eventually had to be confined to a room and physically restrained.
“This is indeed the valley of the shadow of death to me,” Carey wrote, though characteristically added, “But I rejoice that I am here notwithstanding; and God is here.”
Gift of Tongues
In October 1799, things finally turned. He was invited to locate in a Danish settlement in Serampore, near Calcutta. He was now under the protection of the Danes, who permitted him to preach legally (in the British-controlled areas of India, all of Carey’s missionary work had been illegal).
Carey was joined by William Ward, a printer, and Joshua and Hanna Marshman, teachers. Mission finances increased considerably as Ward began securing government printing contracts, the Marshmans opened schools for children, and Carey began teaching at Fort William College in Calcutta.
In December 1800, after seven years of missionary labor, Carey baptized his first convert, Krishna Pal, and two months later, he published his first Bengali New Testament. With this and subsequent editions, Carey and his colleagues laid the foundation for the study of modern Bengali, which up to this time had been an “unsettled dialect.”
Carey continued to expect great things; over the next 28 years, he and his pundits translated the entire Bible into India’s major languages: Bengali, Oriya, Marathi, Hindi, Assamese, and Sanskrit and parts of 209 other languages and dialects.
He also sought social reform in India, including the abolition of infanticide, widow burning (sati), and assisted suicide. He and the Marshmans founded Serampore College in 1818, a divinity school for Indians, which today offers theological and liberal arts education for some 2,500 students.
By the time Carey died, he had spent 41 years in India without a furlough. His mission could count only some 700 converts in a nation of millions, but he had laid an impressive foundation of Bible translations, education, and social reform.
His greatest legacy was in the worldwide missionary movement of the nineteenth century that he inspired. Missionaries like Adoniram Judson, Hudson Taylor, and David Livingstone, among thousands of others, were impressed not only by Carey’s example, but by his words “Expect great things; attempt great things.” The history of nineteenth-century Protestant missions is in many ways an extended commentary on the phrase.