Lessons from History part three: William Carey, ‘I can plod and persevere. That is my only genius.’

Is it impossible to serve effectively in the areas of training and discipleship if you also are taking some action to help with people’s physical needs?

Should we look at anyone who is taking deliberate and thoughtful action to help with what are considered social problems as necessarily being uninterested and ineffective in training and discipleship and evangelism? We are looking in this series of posts at church history and specifically at great leaders of the past to see if it is true that the two concerns are necessarily in competition. Today, we are looking at William Carey. 

It would be difficult to fault William Carey for failing to take evangelism and the spread of the gospel seriously. Few have taken it as seriously or done more to advance the cause of Christ.

In fact, Carey did so much that many call him the ‘father of modern missions.’

There was very little missionary zeal in his day, but because of Carey’s love for Christ, he had a great passion to take the gospel to the nations. S. Pearce Carey writes, “A few British souls had missionary vision and passion, though churches and denominations were on the whole either listless or afraid. The period’s lack of collective missionary achievement indicates the measure of the mountains of obstruction which Carey cast into the sea. Carey had to make the conditions in which his Society could be born. He could not merely apply the match to the tinder, for the tinder itself had to be prepared. When he woke to the missionary vision, he found to his amazement that most of his fellow Christians were fast asleep. He had to create the very desire which at length created the Mission; to provoke the demand which he himself would then supply. For ten years he resisted his contemporaries inertia and fought their belief to conquer ‘by the stubborn minority of one’ – ‘going at length against every dictate of common sense, every calculation of prudence, and all but universal opinion, because in the solitary sanctuary of his brooding soul an entreaty kept sounding from destitute heathendom.'”

Wow. I love that. What a challenge. And what a commitment to spreading the gospel!

William Carey not only spoke of taking the gospel to the nations, he actually did so. Again Pearce Carey comments, “The tireless evangelism of Carey and his colleagues led to more than 600 baptism within nineteen years of the establishment of their Serampore headquarters…The translation and printing achievement of Serampore was phenomenal. In a thirty-year period 212,000 items…were printed in forty languages. Indeed, the Serampore missionaries translated the Scriptures into so many languages…that their home detractors charged them with inventing the names of languages, then claiming to have mastered them and translated the Scriptures into them.”

One can easily see what led Sir John Kaye to say, “Never have men addressed themselves to the holy work of evangelisation in a purer spirit nor with more earnestness of purpose…”

It was William Carey’s devotion to God, His Word and truth that motivated his efforts. Pearce Carey notes, “As convinced Calvinists, Carey and his colleagues embraced and loved the doctrines of grace, holding to the Reformation and Puritan view of human depravity, God’s predestinating love, and the necessity of an irresistible work of the Holy Spirit to bring lost sinners to salvation. These same doctrines, to their mind, required them to publish the call of the Gospel with utmost zeal in every corner of God’s world.”

It is obvious William Carey could never be labeled as someone who was using pragmatic methods to advance the gospel.  “The great theological battle of Carey’s day concerned the use of ‘means.’ Would God use the efforts of Christians to spread the Gospel or would He save the lost in a direct manner, using great catastrophes and awakenings. Carey answered – God would work by the missionary efforts of His people. He was proved right, and once again in our day we need to learn the absolute necessity of evangelistic activism on the part of Christ’s churches.”

In his day, William Carey was criticized for many things. (This in fact is one of the sad lessons of his life. As someone has said, ‘The greatest trial of a missionary is often another missionary.) And yet, it would be difficult to question his commitment to training and discipleship and evangelism. But, at the same time, we must take note of the impact he made in other areas of society as well. Did William Carey’s commitment to training and discipleship and evangelism mean that he had not time or interest in these other areas as well?

Samuel Vincent writes, “The man who did so much for India, in agriculture, in horticulture and education: who as a professor, helped to train some of our noblest administrators, and, as a translator of Scripture, removed more difficulties out of the way of his successors than any other man of modern times; who led the Protestant nations into the heathen world, and anticipated and successfully adopted all missionary methods; this man, whose varied greatness as a philanthropist, scholar, missionary and saint is likely to become conspicuous in proportion as his age recedes, died as humble as a little child, having all his life conceived and steadily pursued aims far greater than Alexander, and probably as varied and beneficient as the aims of any man of whom we read in modern times.”

While it might be easy to read of Carey’s influence and overlook it, we must not.  We should linger here and ponder the various ways in which God used this man.  In their book, The Legacy of William Carey: A Model for Transforming Culture, Vishal and Ruth Mangalwadi help us do so by asking, “Who (Really) Was William Carey?”

They write,

“Imagine a quiz master at the finals of the All Indian Universities’ competition. He asks the best-informed Indian students, ‘Who was William Carey?’ All hands go up simultaneously. He decides to give everyone a chance to answer.”

They then go on to survey some of the various answers the students might give.

He was an industrialist.  “William Carey was the first Englishman to introduce the steam engine to India and the first to make indigenous paper for the publishing industry.”

He was an economist. “William Carey was a missionary…who introduced the idea of savings banks to India to fight the all-pervasive social evil of usury.”

He was a medical humanitarian.  “William Carey was the first man…who led the campaign for a humane treatment for leprosy patients.”

He was a media pioneer.  “Dr. William Carey was the father of print technology in India. He brought to India the modern science of printing and publishing and then taught and developed it.”

He was a translator and educator.  “Carey was a British cobbler . . . who became a professor of Bengali, Sanskrit, and Marathi at the Fort William College in Calcutta where civil servants were trained. Carey began dozens of schools for Indian children of all castes and launched the first college in Asia at Serampore, near Calcutta.”

He was an advocate for women’s rights.  “William Carey . . . was the first man to stand against both the ruthless murders and the widespread oppression of women . . . Carey opened schools for girls. When widows converted to Christianity, he arranged marriages for them rather than allowing them to be burned alive. It was Carey’s persistent 25 year battle against sati that finally led to Lord Bentinck’s famous edict in 1829, banning one of the most abominable of all religious practices in the world: widow-burning.”

He was a moral reformer and transformer of culture.  “Dr. William Carey was the father of the Indian Renaissance of the 19th and 20th centuries…His this-worldly spirituality with as strong an emphasis on justice and love for others as on love for God, marked the turning point of Indian culture from a downward to an upward trend.”

They conclude, “So who was William Carey?”

“William Carey was all of these things…Carey also pioneered the Protestant Church in India and translated or published the Bible in 40 different languages. He was an evangelist who used every available medium to illuminate the dark facets of India with the light of truth.”

While certainly a commitment to social kinds of causes may mean that someone is not as committed to training and evangelism and discipleship, we see from William Carey’s life, that it doesn’t necessarily mean so, at all. If every time someone speaks of deliberately and intentionally helping show the love of Christ to people in crisis through mercy ministries like schools and orphan homes and other projects we write off what they are saying as necessarily being a distraction from the real work of a missionary, then we wouldn’t have had much time for a man like William Carey either. While, we should stand up and speak about the importance of keeping training and evangelism and discipleship central, we need to be careful that as we do so, we don’t speak in such careless ways that if what we said was applied we would actually write off the work of great men like William Carey in the past.


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