According to the world’s measures, William Carey never should have amounted to much. Born into a family of weavers by trade, William Carey had no formal schooling past the age of 12 and was apprenticed to a shoemaker at age 16. These are surprising beginnings for the man who would later be dubbed “The Father of Modern Missions.” Carey’s story is a compelling demonstration of the power of vision and the calling of God.
God had equipped Carey with a gift for languages and motivation to learn. During his training as a shoemaker, he taught himself Greek and studied the New Testament. Carey began preaching at a small church—a two hour walk from home—in his early twenties. He was intrigued by geography and travel, tales of exploratory expeditions and adventures. During this season of his life he supplemented his income as a school teacher, and was moved to tears while teaching about unreached nations. His passion for foreign missions was emerging.
Around age 25, at a meeting for Baptist ministers, Carey voiced his concern for foreign missions. His idea that the Church was somehow responsible to carry out the great commission was met with criticism and disdain from the other pastors. One emphatically exclaimed, “Sit down, young man! If God wants to evangelize the heathen, he’ll do it without your help, or mine!”
This response moved Carey to write his famous little book with the infamously long title, An Enquiry Into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens. Carey’s ability to challenge the Church’s missional blind-spot with a biblical philosophy of mission combined with his later personal work as a missionary—incorporating a wide variety of missionary tasks that future cross-cultural ministers would be influenced by—were monumental shifts in Christian culture at that time. This is why he is considered the “Father” of our current missionary era: he started a mission movement still impacting the world today.
Six years after Carey was told to “sit down,” the Baptist Missionary Society was formed. Carey immediately volunteered to go to India alongside their first recruit. Motivated to move past every obstacle by his call, Carey planned to set sail for India in 1792, leaving his reluctant wife and three youngest children at home in England. In the end, the whole family went, but it came at a high cost. Early on, one of his young sons died of dysentery, and his wife suffered a mental breakdown from which she would never recover.
One of Carey’s biographers writes that “Only the overpowering sense that he was accomplishing the will of God provided the staying power for Carey during his early years in India” (Ruth Tucker). After seven years of hard work, the name of Christ was becoming familiar in the whole region, but there were no converts.
At this time, Carey’s missionary team moved from Kolkata to Serampore, India, which marked a definite multiplication of opportunities for impact. It was here Carey discovered that preaching Christ crucified and risen was much more effective than coming against Hinduism.
Carey was ahead of his time in emphasizing contextualization, the planting of indigenous churches and training nationals. In an age of Western Imperialism, when many cultural traditions were written off as “heathen” and wrong, Carey greatly valued Indian culture and worked hard to instill that value in those who came to faith under his influence. At the same time, Carey supported efforts to end certain practices such as infanticide, child prostitution and widow burning. Carey believed that missionaries should be as self-sustaining as possible, and held multiple jobs within India during his time there.
Faced with the enormity of the task to reach all of India with the news of Jesus, Carey involved many people in the task, including his children (one son began studying Chinese to translate the Bible at the age of 13!). He urged women into the mission field in order to reach the women of India, and partnered with non-believers in translation work. As a team-player, Carey consistently called out the good qualities in other people and valued harmony.
Scripture was central to Carey’s philosophy of ministry, and he translated the complete Bible into six different languages, and sections into nearly 30 more. While his linguistic skills and quality of translation was lacking, this emphasis on translation would carry into the work of Protestant missionaries in the following century.
Carey was a pioneer with an apostolic drive to share Jesus in ways and places others wouldn’t even dream of. He attributed his success over four decades of missionary service to his ability to 1) not give up, and 2) hold unflinchingly to his vision: “I can plod. I can persevere in any definite pursuit. To this I owe everything.”
Biographical information gathered from From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions by Ruth Tucker and Great Leaders of the Christian Church, edited by John D. Woodbridge.