The Roman Catholic Church had always been sending missionaries to the ends of the earth, ever since Jesus himself sent the first disciples out to all the nations. But the Protestant churches, newly formed in the 16th and 17th centuries after disagreements with the Catholic church, did not right away take up this missionary task. William Carey was one of the first to challenge the Protestant churches to obey this command of Jesus, and his story is truly one of the greatest in the history of missions. It is told here briefly in this piece adapted from a chapter in 100 Bible Verses that Changed the World, by William and Randy Peterson, 2001.
William Carey seemed to be an average youngster in Paulersbury, England. He became apprenticed to a shoemaker as a teenager and married before he was twenty. Though he had only a basic education, he soon became a lay preacher in a small nonconformist church eight miles from his home.
He didn’t appear to be talented. He couldn’t manage his shoemaking business, and he didn’t seem gifted as a preacher. When the local schoolteacher quit, Carey volunteered. But he didn’t do well at teaching either. “He would frequently smile at his incompetency,” his sister wrote later.
Then Carey discovered his true talent. He could learn languages easily. In a short time he could master Greek, Hebrew, Latin, or whatever language he decided to learn. Unfortunately, there were no jobs in his little village for foreign language experts.
Carey was also fascinated by faraway places, and he loved maps. Hanging in his room was a large map to which he attached sheets of paper containing information about each country. He looked up at that map often when he was fixing shoes or writing a sermon. He dreamed of going to distant lands, not to see the sights, but to proclaim the Good News of salvation in Christ Jesus.
William Carey couldn’t understand why Christians weren’t trying to preach the gospel in all those countries that he saw on his map. Carey would always bring this up at meetings, and was always told to be quiet. One Baptist leader tried to put him in his place by saying, “Young man, sit down. When God pleases to save the heathen, he can do it without your aid or mine.” Carey spoke up at a meeting of Baptist ministers, but the chairman rebuffed him. “You are a miserable enthusiast,” he was told; “Nothing can be done before another Pentecost.”
Once he was ordained, Carey decided to keep pressing his concern. In 1792 he wrote a paper entitled “An Enquiry into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen.” Three weeks later he preached a breakthrough sermon to his fellow ministers on Isaiah 54:2 (“Enlarge the place of thy tent”), urging them to catch a wider vision, to develop bolder programs, to dwell in the bigger world. Then he said, “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.”
The ministers took no action on Carey’s appeal. Toward the end of the business meeting, Carey grabbed the arm of the pastor next to him and said in too loud a voice, “Is nothing again going to be done?” That got action. Before the meeting was adjourned, a motion was passed “forming a Baptist Society for propagating the Gospel among the Heathens.”
Soon Carey himself was set apart for missionary work in India. A fellow pastor said, “There is a gold mine in India, but it seems almost as deep as the center of the earth.” Carey responded, “I will venture down, but remember that you must hold the ropes.” The church would pay his way to India, but no more support was provided. He had to support his family by farming, along with the work of being an untrained missionary. He was a missionary pioneer in uncharted territory, figuring it out as he went.
Carey arrived in India in 1793 and served there until his death in 1834. He supported his family by raising indigo, and went to work learning the languages of the area. It was not just one language he had to learn, but India is a land of many languages and dialects, and Carey learned dozens. Because he mastered languages easily, he made possible the translation of the entire Bible into six languages, parts of the Bible into twenty-nine more, and the development of seven grammars and three dictionaries. Under his direction the Serampore Press “rendered the Bible accessible to more than three hundred million people.” It was an amazing achievement. Carey also stimulated the formation of many mission societies and boards in subsequent decades, so it is little wonder that he is known as the father of modern missions.
But Carey did more. He served as professor of Oriental languages at Fort William College in Calcutta. He became one of the outstanding amateur horticulturists of his time, bringing many improvements to the agriculture of India, and was given an honorary doctorate by the Horticultural Society of London. Carey was also active in Indian politics where he fought for human rights. In 1829, after protesting the practice for years, he helped end the burning alive of widows after their husbands died, and the drowning of unwanted children in India.
William Carey, the seemingly untalented cobbler of Paulersbury, England, helped fulfill the prophecy that inspired him; enlarging the place of God’s tent, and making it big enough for India to climb inside.
Isaiah 54:2 — Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, and strengthen your stakes.
Matthew 28:18-20 — (The Great Commission) Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Acts 1:8 — (Jesus said), “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Merciful Father, your kindness caused the light of the Gospel to shine among us. Extend your mercy now, we pray, to all the people of the world who do not have hope in Jesus Christ, that your salvation may be made known to them also and that all hearts would turn to you; through Jesus Christ, your Son our Lord. Amen.
–Lutheran Book of Worship, 1978, page 45