Should Baptists Care About Social Concerns? William Ward Believed So (PART ONE)

By J. Ryan West

A growing conversation has emerged within Baptist life surrounding the believer’s responsibility concerning the poor, the neglected, and other social issues. In fact, Tuesday was set apart by many leading evangelicals such as Louie Giglio and Andy Stanley to raise awareness concerning sex trafficking, forced labor, and other forms of modern-day slavery. An individual can read about the End It Movement and find ways to become involved if one is inclined to do so. Such calls for action, however, raise fundamental concerns for many within the Baptist fold. Questions abound as to whether believers should engage in actions such as helping the poor or pursuing social justice for the oppressed. Or, should Christians simply share the gospel and make an eternal difference by saving souls? To be fully informed, believers must consider these issues from several angles, including Scriptural teaching and historical inquiry. Many authors have made convincing arguments from Scripture regarding this topic including Russell Moore and Tim Keller. One perspective that is rarely addressed is the historical perspective. How have Baptists handled this issue in the past?

For a helpful case study, one should look to William Ward (1769-1823). William Ward was one of the famous Serampore Trio in Bengal India and a leading missiologist in his day. During his twenty-plus years as a missionary, he encountered atrocities that were horrific. Infanticide, euthanasia of the elderly, beheadings to placate Hindu gods, and widespread prostitution were commonplace. His approach to undermine such evils was two-fold. He sought to take appropriate action and to ensure that the gospel permeated all of India’s society. These two forms of response were based on a fundamental conviction: lasting social change would occur only when the gospel took root within a culture.

The best source for understanding Ward’s mentality, which undergirded this approach, comes from his Farewell Letters (1821). Originally, these letters were sermons that he delivered while on a three-year preaching tour of America and Britain. Eventually, he rewrote his manuscripts as if sending them as letters to various recipients. Letter VI offered insight to his view of social action in relation to gospel proclamation. His preached it to “awaken in the minds of benevolent females in Britain and America…which will ultimately secure an amelioration of their [oppressed Indian women] condition” (63).[1] Through preaching this sermon, Ward expected Christian women to respond to the message with benevolence and action. By raising awareness concerning the abuse of women in India, Ward believed he would “ultimately secure an amelioration” of their suffering. Allowing Indian women to continue as prisoners and slaves would be unimaginable in Ward’s mind once he preached this sermon (69). Throughout this book of letters, Ward’s emotions leap off of the page and readers cannot help but imagine how deeply his words must have pricked his audience. After offering a gruesome account of families killing women by burying their mothers alive, he urged the women of Britain and America to unite and make the case of Indian women their common cause (81-82). Thus, Ward called for significant action to affect horrific social issues in India.

Part two will be posted tomorrow.

[1] All references are taken from William Ward, Farewell Letters to a Few Friends in Britain and America, on Returning to Bengal in 1821, 2nd edition, (London: S. & R. Bentley, 1821).


J. Ryan West (PhD Candidate, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the LoveLoud National Coordinator at the North American Mission Board. He assists Southern Baptist churches and educational institutions throughout the United States and Canada in establishing and conducting gospel-centered ministries of mercy to proclaim Christ while meeting human needs in significant and sustainable ways.  Also, he was tasked recently as an Assistant Editor for The Andrew Fuller Works Project, a fifteen-volume series to be published by Walter de Gruyter.