Eminent Christians: 1. William Carey

A few weeks ago The Church Report listed what they considered to be “The 50 Most Influential Christians in America.” It is a surprising list, to say the least, both with regard to those who made the cut and those who did not! [See http://www.thechurchreport.com/content/view/823/32/]. Imbued with the conviction that the principles behind this list are awfully skewed, I have decided to draw up my own list. It is one that is taken from the entire realm of Church History. It will be called “Eminent Christians” and will appear from time to time in this blog. Our first figure is William Carey.

Carey is often called the “Father of modern missions.” This epithet is something of a misnomer since it was the early eighteenth-century German-speaking Moravians who were the pioneers in this regard. Yet, on the other hand, there is an appropriateness to the title, for Carey became the definitive inspiration for many nineteenth-century missionaries from the English-speaking world.

After his conversion in the late 1770s from nominal Anglicanism, Carey was gripped by the obligation lying upon his generation of English believers—who had the Scriptures in their own tongue and faithful ministers up and down the land to preach them—to share their riches with those from other nations who were not so blessed. He rightly recognized that many orthodox congregations of his day were squandering their heritage by keeping it bottled up, as it were, to themselves. Carey, though, was convinced by Scripture—passages like Matthew 28:19-20 and sections of Isaiah—that the gospel had to be taken to the nations and preached to all and sundry. Also influential in shaping his thought was the Christ-exalting theology of Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) and his remarkable friendship with the Baptist pastor Andrew Fuller (1754-1815), the most important Baptist theologian of that era.

There soon gathered around Carey a group of men of like conviction, including Fuller. It was out of this “band of brothers” that the Baptist Missionary Society was born which sent Carey and his family to India in 1793. It was a day of arduous travel and the voyage out from England took five months. They were at sea from June 13 to November 11. Not surprisingly, given the length of the voyage, Carey never returned to England.

He faced numerous challenges—both domestic (his wife Dorothy became insane within a few years of their arrival and his third son, Peter, died in 1794) and from the British rulers in India (the East India Company) as well as the challenge of witnessing to hardened idolaters. But he proved to be indefatigable in his calling, and during his forty years in India, Carey—and his key co-workers, William Ward (1769-1823) and Joshua Marshman (1768-1837)—translated or supervised the translation of the Scriptures into an astonishing thirty-four languages or dialects of the Indian sub-continent. A beachhead for the gospel was also established in Bengal, and for friends and supporters back in the British Isles Carey became something of a marvel. In the words of William Wilberforce (d.1833), the Christian politician, Carey’s mission was “one of the chief glories of our country.”

Carey, though, had a more realistic view of his achievements. “I can plod and persevere,” he once said of his work in India. In 1831, only three years before his death, he could write to his sisters in England: “I have no wish that anyone should write or say anything about me; let my memorial sleep with my body in the dust and at the last great day all the good or evil which belongs to my character will be fully known. My great concern now is to be found in Christ. His atoning sacrifice is all my hope.”

And when he came to die, he gave clear instructions that there was to be inscribed on his tombstone some words from a hymn by Isaac Watts (1674-1748): “A wretched, poor, and helpless worm, On Thy kind arms I fall.”