More on William Carey

The series that is appearing periodically on this blog entitled “Eminent Christians” began with William Carey. Here is another brief take on his life. When Claudius Buchanan (1766-1815) went out to India in 1796 as an Anglican missionary, he was reluctant at first to have anything to do with William Carey (1761-1834) and the other Baptist missionaries who were already there. But John Newton, upon hearing of his attitude, promptly wrote to Buchanan, who had been converted under his ministry, a gentle letter of reproof in which he stated:

“It is easy for you... to look down upon men who have given themselves to the Lord, and are bearing the burden and heat of the day. I do not look for miracles; but if God were to work one in our day, I should not wonder if it were in favour of Dr. Carey.”

Carey’s early years

The man of whom Newton spoke with such admiration had been born in very humble circumstances in 1761 in a tiny village called Paulerspury in Northamptonshire. His father, Edmund, was the schoolmaster of Paulerspury and the parish clerk of the local Anglican church. As such, Carey was regularly in church week by week and gained what he later described as a “considerable acquaintance” with the Scriptures. But, as he also noted, he knew next to nothing of “real experimental religion” till he was fourteen.

Also living in Paulerspury was William’s uncle, Peter Carey. Peter Carey had served with General James Wolfe in Canada, and, after the capture of Quebec in 1759, had returned to Paulerspury to take up the occupation of gardener. His tales of Canada instilled in William an interest for far-off lands. Moreover, Peter implanted in the young boy a love of gardening. Years later, when Carey was established in India, he was continually asking his friends and correspondents for seeds and roots to plant in his garden at Serampore. For instance, in a letter to his friend John Sutcliff he gently chided his friend for not taking his request for seeds seriously:

“I have written for some works of science, which I hope you will send. I think your best way is to send my list of roots, seeds, etc., to some nurseryman of note in London, with orders to ship them on the Providence, directed to me. Were you to give a penny a day to a boy to gather seeds of cowslips, violets, daisies, crowfoots, etc., and to dig up the roots of bluebells, etc., after they have done flowering, you might fill me a box every quarter of a year; and surely some neighbours would send a few snowdrops, crocuses, etc., and other trifles. All your weeks, even your nettles and thistles, are taken the greatest care of by me here. The American friends are twenty times more communicative than the English in this respect; indeed, though you cannot buy a little cabbage seed here under about £2.2s., yet I have never been able to extort an ounce, or a quart of kidney beans, from all the friends in England. Do try to mend a little.”

As a young boy, Carey eagerly wanted to emulate his uncle and become a gardener. But a painful shin disease prevented him from spending any length of time in the full sun. So his father apprenticed him to a shoemaker in Piddington, a nearby village. This apprenticeship was to have truly significant consequences for William’s future. One of his fellow-apprentices, John Warr, was a Christian. Warr was a Congregationalist and Carey’s upbringing had given him a contempt for Dissenters, but in time, as Warr persistently shared his faith with Carey, Carey was won for Christ.

Becoming Baptist and mission-minded

Carey’s subsequent study of the Scriptures convinced him of the Baptist position, and in 1783 he was baptized by John Ryland, Jr. in the river Nene at Northampton, after the two had walked down from the vestry of Castle hill church, the church which Philip Doddridge had once pastored.

Around the time of his baptism, Carey came across recently published accounts of Captain James Cook’s voyages of discovery in the south Pacific. Many years later, Carey said of his reading of this volume:

“Reading Cook’s Voyages was the first thing that engaged my mind to think of missions.

Through the account of Cook’s Voyages, Carey’s eyes were opened to wider horizons than the fields of Northamptonshire. But it was the Scriptures which taught him of the deep spiritual needs of those who lived far beyond those fields.

Preaching and pastoring

A year or so before his baptism Carey had been preaching regularly at the Congregational Church in Hackleton. In the years immediately following his baptism, Carey also began to preach in other neighbouring villages such as Earls Barton, Moulton, and his own home village, Paulerspury. The Moulton Church eventually called Carey to be their pastor in 1786, and in August of 1787, he was ordained. The three pastors officiating at his ordination were Ryland Jr., Andrew Fuller, and John Sutcliff, who, in the years to come, would become his closest friends.

After two years of pastoring at Moulton, Carey moved to Harvey Lane Baptist Church in Leicester, where he served up until he left for India in 1793. Carey’s pastorates at Moulton and Leicester brought him into close contact with the pastors and churches of the Northamptonshire Association. In this ambit Carey first voiced his convictions regarding the commission given by Christ to the Church in Matthew 28:19-20. Despite some hesitation, and even opposition, on the part of his pastoral colleagues, Carey’s convictions eventually won the day.

The result was the formation of the Baptist Missionary Society, with Carey as its first missionary. Carey’s convictions were crystallized in An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians, to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens, which was published in 1792. This treatise is divided into five sections. Section I discusses the implication of Matthew 28:19-20, and convincingly demonstrates that the commission to “make disciples of all nations” was binding on the Church for all time. Section II outlines the history of missions since the Apostolic era, while the third section of the treatise surveys the state of the world in Carey’s own day. Section IV answers objections to sending out of missionaries, and in the fifth and final section Carey indicates some immediate practical steps which could be taken. It is important to note that heading the list of these steps is fervent, united prayer. The book played a key role in the inception of the modern missionary era, and, as Ernest A. Payne has observed, “may rightly be regarded as a landmark in Christian history.” Moreover, Payne goes on to note, the Enquiry has a message for today, for “it presents in terse and unadorned fashion the gist of the unanswerable argument that there still rests upon Christians the obligation to use all the means at their disposal for the conversion of unbelievers, wherever they may be.”


Carey left for India in June of 1793; he never returned to his native England. The first six years, largely spent in northern Bengal, were years of both frustration and preparation. There were no genuine conversions among the Indians, and because financial resources were sometimes so meagre, Carey was forced to take the post of a manager of an indigo factory. Furthermore, Carey’s missionary colleague, John Thomas (1757-1801), fell into debt and proved to be more of a hindrance than a help. And on top of all this, Carey’s wife, Dorothy (1756-1807), became wholly insane.

Yet, despite these potentially debilitating events, Carey put his initial years in India to good use, acquiring a substantial grasp of Bengali, learning how to preach to Hindus and Muslims, and making the name of Christ known throughout much of Bengal.

In 1799, Carey was joined by Joshua Marshman (1768-1837) and William Ward (1769-1823). Locating their mission centre at Serampore in southern Bengal, “the Serampore Trio” evangelized, established churches, and in particular, translated the Scriptures. Carey was thoroughly convinced that effective evangelism in India necessitated the translation of the Scriptures into the many languages and dialects of the Indian sub-continent. By the time of Carey’s death in 1834, the Serampore fraternity had been responsible for the translation of the entire Bible and portions of it into thirty-four languages. While the translations were far from perfect, the work done by Carey and his colleagues was, as Stephen Neill has judged, “an astounding achievement.”

Before Carey’s death, he left instructions that there be inscribed on his tombstone the following couplet from Isaac Watts in addition to his name and the dates of his birth and death:

“A wretched, poor and helpless worm, On thy kind arms I fall.”