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"A Goodly Heritage" (4): William Carey 1761-1834

R W Cargill, St Monans

"The father and founder of modern missions."

"Cobbler by trade; scholar, linguist and missionary by God’s training."

"The man who said, ’Expect great things from God - attempt great things for God’."

These are some descriptions of William Carey of India.

He was born into a weaver’s family in a small village near Northampton on 17th August, 1761. As a teenager he developed two main interests – exploring nature around him in the countryside, and reading tales of adventure. He was nicknamed "Columbus" by his friends after his favourite author.

When he was 17 he was apprenticed to a shoemaker at Hackleton along with John Warr, a devout young Christian. Affected by Warr’s concern and his spiritual sincerity, he agreed to attend some services at the Dissenters’ Church where the Word of God was preached with warmth and conviction. Eventually he abandoned his own self-righteousness, was truly converted to Christ, and joined the local Congregational Church. There he married Dorothy Plackett in 1781. She was a devoted wife, though she never shared his great missionary passion, in fact she had a mental illness which dogged the rest of her life.

The newly converted Carey walked five miles to Olney where the teaching of the "Particular Baptists" helped him grow in Christ. He was baptised on 5th October, 1783. Two years later he moved to Moulton to become a schoolmaster, and then a pastor to a small congregation there. His missionary interest was stirred by reading the Last Voyage of Captain Cook, an adventure from nearer his own time than Columbus. But to him it was more than an adventure story - it was a revelation of human need! An avid reader, by now he had grasped Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Italian, and was learning Dutch and French. His cobbler’s shop became known as "Carey’s College", for he never sat at his bench without some book in front of him.

The more he read the Bible and studied, the more convinced he was that "the peoples of the world need Christ". He read, he made notes, he constructed a large globe of the world out of scraps of leather. One day, in the quietness of his workplace he read: "If it be the duty of all men to believe the Gospel...then it be the duty of those who are entrusted with the Gospel to endeavour to make it known among all nations". Carey sobbed out, "Here am I; send me!". The text which compelled him was: "Thy Redeemer...The God of the whole earth shall he be called" (Is 54.5).

His passion for reaching lost souls increased. Often during a geography lesson in his school he pointed to a map of the world and exclaimed, "The people living in these areas are lost, hundreds of millions of them, not knowing the blessed Saviour!". When a neighbour suggested that he preached too often and neglected his shoemaking, he replied, "My real business is to preach the gospel…I cobble shoes to pay expenses."

However, to his dismay he found that others did not share his concerns. When he proposed a discussion on: "Whether the command given to the apostles to teach all nations was not obligatory…to the end of the world, seeing that the accompanying promise was of equal extent", an older minister shouted, "Young man, sit down: when God pleases to covert the heathen, He will do it without your aid or mine."

On 2nd October, 1792, Carey preached a memorable sermon from Isaiah 54.2-3, summarising it with the words, "Expect great things from God - attempt great things for God". Out of this came the first missionary society in England. Through reports from Mr Thomas, a surgeon with the East India Company, India became his focus. Thomas had started some gospel work there, and was keen to get help from home. At one of the meetings someone said, "There is a gold mine in India, but it seems almost as deep as the centre of the earth. Who will venture to explore it?" Said Carey, "I will venture to go down, but remember that you must hold the ropes."

But it was not a simple matter to get to India. The only way was by the shipping of the East India Company which, even more than the religious establishment, was unsympathetic to missionary endeavour. Also his wife did not want to go with him. After some weeks’ delay through a failed attempt to get on a British ship, he obtained passage in the Danish ship Kron Princessa Maria, and now his wife, with their five children, was willing to go. They arrived in Calcutta in November, 1793 and for seven years moved from place to place while learning the language, experiencing poverty and rejection, fevers and bereavement. Dorothy and two of his children had severe dysentery; five-year-old Peter died and no one would dig his grave. In 1800 he moved to Serampore, a Danish settlement, where he found better acceptance than in the British sector. Dorothy died in 1807. He then married a Danish lady, Charlotte, who had been first European lady to be baptised in India. She died in 1821, and in 1823 he married Grace Hughes.

The difficulties did not hinder him from language study, starting schools, taking missionary tours, and most important to him, translating the New Testament. To support his family he found employment for a time supervising an indigo factory. He was able to set up a printing press in one of its corners. In 1801 Carey was able to say, "I have lived to see the Bible translated into Bengali, and the whole New Testament printed". By 1806, he with others proposed translations into fifteen other languages. Competent local men were employed under their guidance and supervision, so that in the space of 25 years, translations of portions of the Old and New Testaments had been made in 40 different dialects. What a secure foundation for future work in India!

His printing work was innovative. First he improved the native paper which had been prone to insect attack, then he imported a 12 HP steam engine to drive the paper mill. But in 1812 they had a fire which raged for three days. Many manuscripts and materials were destroyed, the result of many years of painstaking work. However, Carey rescued the metal, matrices and punches from the debris, and within two months the printers were again at work. He preached the next Lord’s Day from the text, "Be still, and know that I am God" (Ps 46.10). He wrote, "Travelling a road the second time, however painful it may be, is usually done with greater ease and certainty than when we travel it for the first time". A later report tells of 99,000 volumes being printed in nine years, or 31,000,000 pages of Old and New Testaments. And this was early 19th century India, with a steam-driven printing press!

Seven years of patient preaching and much discouragement passed until he saw his first convert, Krishnu. He had come to the mission with a dislocated shoulder, and their kindness impressed him. He kept coming until one day he cried out, "I am a great sinner! Save me, Sahib!" They pointed him to Christ who alone could save him. He was later baptised, along with Carey’s son Felix, age 15, and he became a faithful servant of God among his own people.

William Carey was eventually honoured by the British authorities in India. He established the first poor schools and a leper hospital. He developed agriculture and made seminal studies in the local flora and fauna, and minerals. Due to his influence, horrible practices like child sacrifice to the River Ganges, and suttee, the immolation of a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre, were banned. He earned a doctorate, and due to his great linguistic abilities he was awarded a professorship at the Government College at Fort William, with a salary of £1,500 p.a. He accepted on condition that all of it be used to further the work of the mission.

Of all the remarkable qualities of this servant of God his perseverance and hard work stand out, but equally so do his humility and devotion to Christ. At a dinner one day a military general ventured to ask, "Was not William Carey once a shoemaker?" He overheard the question and replied, "No, sir, only a cobbler". During his last illness, he said to his friend, "Mr Duff, you have been saying much about Dr Carey and his work. After I am gone, please speak not of Dr Carey, but rather of my wonderful Saviour."

He explicitly requested that on his gravestone only his name, the dates of his birth and his death be engraved, and two lines from a hymn:

A wretched, poor and helpless worm,
On Thy kind arms I fall.

He died at sunrise, 9th June, 1834.

To be continued.


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