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In this article, I will be reflecting on the life and ministry of the Father of Modern Missions, William Carey, and will offer some lessons that we can learn from his example.
William Carey was the oldest of 5 children and was born in 1761 in Northampton in England. Carey had a very sharp mind, but because his father could not afford his continuing education, he had to drop out of school and work as a shoemaker’s apprentice. He became a Christian through his interactions with his shoemaker colleague John Warr, and eventually during a conversation with a man called William Law when Carey was 18. Describing his conversion experience, he said, “I felt ruined and helpless and then I put my faith in the pardon and salvation of Jesus Christ.”
Carey married Dorothy, who had a chronic mental illness which Carey found out only after he got married to her. The family was blessed with a daughter, who died in infancy and pushed Dorothy further into depression. Carey grew as a scholar and theologian while he worked at his cobbler’s shed, learning Greek and Hebrew while making shoes. And he continued to make shoes even after he was appointed as the pastor of Moulton Church in 1785.
It was in 1786 that at a pastor’s meeting, Carey was told that God would convert the unbelievers without any help from Carey or anyone else. In the following year, Carey wrote a manuscript called “An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens,” in which he explained why the church was obliged to take the gospel to unreached lands. He believed in the sovereignty of God in salvation, and he also believed that God has called his church to be witnesses of the gospel and so they ought to go out with the gospel message.
In 1792 Carey preached from Isaiah 54:2,3 at a Baptist Pastors Association, in which he first uttered the famous word, “Expect great things from God, attempt great things for God.” Carey was ambitious, but it was an ambition based on the trust in God’s sovereignly to do whatever needs to be done.
And Carey not only believed that Christians ought to go, but he himself also went as part of the church-planting team to India. Carey arrived as a thirty-year-old young man in 1793. After a few months, he took up a job at an indigo factory. And since he now had a source of income, he interestingly asked the supporters in England to stop their support. Carey had to manage his time between the factory, preaching, studying the Bengali language, and, Bible translation for him to be effective in all these areas.
Two years later, the personal tragedy in Carey’s life continued. his son Peter passed away, and this was too much of a shock for Dorothy to recover from. Her mental state was so bad that for twelve years (till her death), she had to be confined to her house for the sake of her safety and the safety of the people around her.
In the midst of struggles at home, setbacks at work, and the volume of work that he was engaged in, Carey preached in Bengali every day. And do you know how many converts he had after seven years? Zero. After seven years, the first convert was a man named Krishna Paul, and after that more and more people gradually came to faith. Carey knew that this was not happening at a speed like other parts of the world, but he was not discouraged. He knew that it is God who saves, and so his job was to keep working hard at proclaiming the gospel, and to thank him when he does save some. And so, he faithfully kept working.
He certainly had an illustrious life, and his accomplishments are many. To list a few, Carey was instrumental in the translation of the Bible into 40 Indian languages, helped start more than 100 schools which were open to children of all castes, founded the Serampore University, had a hand in establishing the first Savings Bank in India, played a role in the eventual abolition of sati, started both an English newspaper and a Bengali newspaper, and wrote 132 books on subjects that even included botany and the Social Sciences.
One of the reasons he was able to do so much work was that he didn’t do all the work. Instead, he had Brothers working alongside him. It is interesting to know what Carey’s perspective is about all that he had done in his life. In a letter he wrote, “I can plod. I can persevere in any definite pursuit. To this I owe everything.” The way he did it was consistent hard work over a long time.
And when his race was run, here are the words he wanted as his memorial: “A wretched, poor, and helpless worm, On Thy kind arms I fall.” Here was a man who never graduated from the gospel. He knew he was a sinner. He knew God was his Saviour. Friends, like Carey, let us hold to the biblical teaching that God does indeed use us as means for evangelism and missions. Let us work to encourage and send people as missionaries—to India, and beyond. If God makes it plain to us, like Carey, let us go to places which need a healthy church. If God so calls us, like Carey, let us work towards preparing resources for Christians. Like Carey, let us not toil alone and compete with one another. Instead, let us partner together, and work to raise men to help shoulder our responsibilities. Let us also be men who plod—who work consistently for the long haul. And finally, let us never graduate from the gospel. Let us keep reminding ourselves of God’s amazing grace which saved wretches like us.