William Carey’s “Deathless Sermon”

William Carey’s famous sermon of May 1792, preached on Isaiah 54:2-3, is not extant. What we do know of the sermon is that it consisted of two parts. The tradition is that the two parts were summed up by two phrases in this order: “Expect great things from God” and “Attempt great things for God.” A number of years ago, however, Dr. Christopher Smith showed that the original summary of these phrases was “Expect great things” and “Attempt great things.” The traditional summary with its suffixes referring to God was a later interpretation of the meaning of this shorter two-phrase summary. See “The Spirit and Letter of Carey’s Catalytic Watchword: A Study in the Transmission of Baptist Tradition”, The Baptist Quarterly, 33 (1989-1990), 226-237.

I was reminded of Smith’s excellent study while recently perusing William Staughton, comp., The Baptist Mission in India (Philadelphia, 1811)—Staughton was one of the founders of the missionary society that sent Carey to India. In the narrative that Staughton compiled Carey’s famous sermon is summarily mentioned as consisting of two exhortations, “Expect great things—Attempt great things” (page 15).

This six-word watchword was a challenge to many in Carey’s day and is an ongoing challenge to the present-day Church. Human strength and human schemes will fail in the expansion of God’s kingdom. It must be God’s work. Thus, the need to pray and “expect great things” from him. But to sit blithely by and wait for God to act without us is equally wrong-headed. We must pray, and then, trusting in God completely, get going and “attempt great things.”