William Carey: The Morning Star of Modern Missions

Brad Klassen | February 21, 2018

Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Matthew 28:19-20

Today, most Christians would agree—at least in principle—that obedience to Christ entails some kind of involvement in global missions. Whether going, enabling, or praying, Christians must recognize Jesus’ Great Commission as prescriptive for them. Such an understanding, however, has not always been so widely held.

William Carey was the man whom God used almost single-handedly to bring the Great Commission back to the forefront of the church’s thinking. Commonly recognized today as “the father of modern missions,” Carey came on the scene during a period of evangelical lethargy. Paralyzed by hyper-Calvinism and a general apathy towards the lost, most churches in England believed that if God wanted to save sinners, he did not need the participation of men.

Carey ascended to such an important historical status from the lowliest of ranks. He was a commoner, born into a poor family in an obscure town in England. He received only a mediocre grade school education and, for the most part, was self-taught. He never attended a seminary, nor did he take one class of post-secondary education. In fact, for the first half of his missionary life he was ridiculed by the leaders of his denomination. So when God used Carey to ignite the fire of the modern missions movement, He equally used him to humble the wise.

Carey’s Early Years

Carey was born on August 17, 1761 in Paulerspury, England. His family was poor but hard-working. The village school he attended was adequate for instilling the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic, but any advancement in knowledge came as a result of his own curiosity.

He loved reading the journals of explorers who were at that time charting the western and southern regions of the world. He was also fascinated with language. But his capacity to absorb information and his penchant for self-discipline combined with his cold Anglican upbringing to produce a strong sense of self-sufficiency.

He learned the trade of shoemaking early in life. It was not a glamorous vocation by any stretch, but there were few other options. Yet as God would have it, it was through his tenure as an apprentice that another young cobbler, John Warr, presented the gospel to him. In 1779, when Carey was 17 years old, he cast himself into the arms of a merciful God and had his wretched self-righteousness exchanged for the glorious righteousness Jesus Christ.

After His Conversion

As many new Christians do, he struggled for some time after his conversion with assurance of salvation. This struggle, which was quite pronounced, served him well for it drove him to the Bible. He resolved early on to make himself “a man of the Book.” As he studied it he became increasingly enthralled with its beauty. The Bible soon came to have preeminence to the point where he could not think of existence without it. For the rest of his life he would be driven by the conviction that the Bible—and the Bible in its entirety—is the authoritative, necessary, sufficient, and infallible word of God.

It is this conviction that propelled him for the rest of his life. He desperately wanted others to see the glorious things that he found in the Bible. As his love for this Book grew, so did his love for language. At the age of 18 he began to teach himself Hebrew and Greek—the original languages of the Old and New Testaments—so that he might gain a more precise understanding of the biblical text.

But Carey also continued to read the journals of the great explorers, particularly those by the famous British explorer Captain James Cook. The Captain’s descriptions of the practices of the tribes in the South Pacific opened Carey’s eyes to the sin and misery of the un-evangelized people of the southern hemisphere.

His Early Pastorate

In 1785, Carey was asked to serve as a pastor in a very poor church in the village of Moulton. It was a place of very humble beginnings for any pastor. His salary would be less than the pay of a local farm laborer, so he would have to continue his work as a cobbler to supplement his income. Yet it was here where the roots of an idea that would change a country and awaken worldwide movements would take hold.

He ministered to the Baptist church in this village for four years. He was ordained during this time, in 1787, at 26 years of age. His philosophy of ministry was comprehensive: “Preaching, though a great part, is not all of our employ. We must maintain the character of a teacher, bishop, and over-looker in the chimney corner as well as in the pulpit.” He emphasized the importance not only of weekly pulpit proclamation, but also of daily personal shepherding—a commitment that he would take with him for the rest of his life.

During this pastorate Carey studied the lives of John Elliott and David Brainerd. These two missionaries to Native Americans—along with the apostle Paul—became Carey’s role models. He was driven to begin compiling detailed statistics about the populations of countries and tribes unreached by the gospel. It was said that the world atlas was his other bible, and he would sometimes be moved to tears simply by looking at it.

An Inquiry and Appeal

In 1789, Carey was called to pastor another church in Leicester. During his ministry there Carey’s passion for missions developed into a fire that could not be extinguished. Armed with Scripture in one hand and his statistics in the other, he could no longer be silent.

He began working on a pamphlet that he entitled An Inquiry into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen. He desired that this 87-page booklet, which he hoped would be distributed broadly among pastors and their congregations, would awaken churches from spiritual apathy towards evangelism and convince them that God’s sovereignty is not diminished through his use of human means in the spreading of the gospel. The pamphlet presented a detailed exposition of Matthew 28:19-20 and a thorough response to the objections to evangelism and missions commonly espoused in his day.

Carey’s pamphlet was revolutionary. It was the first theology of missions ever known to have been published. The statistics he produced were overwhelming. Apathy on the part of the church was culpable; there was no justification for inaction.

The publication of Carey’s pamphlet in early 1792 was followed by his preaching of a sermon to a group of pastors in Nottingham in May of that same year. The sermon was later dubbed “The Deathless Sermon” because of a phrase which Carey coined to describe what must be the church’s enduring approach to missions: “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.” The motto reflected what Carey believed about the necessary order of the missionary endeavor. Christian faith must express itself first in great expectation from and trust in God. Only then should such expectation result in great effort. To attempt great effort and then expect great things would be tantamount to manipulation. For the effort to remain God-centered, faith must precede action.

A Missionary Society Develops

Carey’s plea to the pastors almost went unheeded. At the last minute, when Carey was at wit’s end over their persistent inaction, his friend, Andrew Fuller, came to Carey’s side. Now there were two, and soon there were more. By the end of the pastors’ meeting a resolution was passed: “Resolved, that a plan be prepared against the next ministers’ meeting at Kettering, for forming a Baptist Society for propagating the Gospel among the Heathens.”

Later that year, in October of 1792, this Baptist fellowship of pastors met in Nottingham to form the very first English mission organization, “The Particular Baptist Society for the Propagation of the Gospel amongst the Heathen.” The society was relatively small and poor, but they were united. They were a band of brothers now convinced of the need to advance missions around the world. They started with a meager sum of 13 British sterling pounds—the equivalent of about $1,120 in today’s US currency. Outside observers laughed at the start of a missionary society with such a measly amount. But these men never looked back.

Ministry in India

William Carey, at the age of 33, was commissioned as one of the society’s first missionaries. On June 13, 1793, Carey and his young family left the shores of Great Britain to embark on the five-month trip to India. He would never see his homeland again.

Carey’s commitment to the centrality of the word of God resulted in the drive to learn the language of the people who needed this word. By 1795, about eighteen months after his arrival, Carey could already preach in the Bengali tongue for about 30 minutes at a time. By 1796, less than three years after his arrival, he was also able to converse in Hindi and Hindustani.

Yet while he made tremendous progress in language acquisition during these early years, discouragement threatened him the entire way. Illness, loneliness, opposition, and the absence of conversions were constant thorns in his flesh. But Carey’s convictions in the sovereignty of God, the lordship of Christ, and the truthfulness of his commission would not allow him to concede.

On March 5, 1801, Carey received into his hands the first-fruit of his labor—the first edition of the New Testament ever printed in the Bengali language. This was nothing short of remarkable; it had only taken seven years!

Initially, Carey had established the goal of translating the entire Bible into Bengali before he died. But now, by the age of 40, he had already completed the New Testament. He began to see firsthand what God does through those who expected and attempted great things for His glory. The beloved Scriptures in just one of India’s languages was not enough. There were dozens of languages with thousands upon thousands of native speakers who had never heard the gospel in their tongue. Carey now determined to establish a translation and missionary training center that would target these languages and even ones beyond India.

With this new target in sight he put his hand to the plow. By 1812, nineteen years after his arrival, the missionary station at had grown remarkably. The buildings Carey and his colleagues developed housed a vast printing shop complete with printing presses that printed and bound Bibles, tracts, and other Christian books. It employed dozens of nationals working on new dictionaries and grammar books which had never before been written. The mission station even had its own paper mill to produce the right kind of paper for Bibles and manufactured its own ink for the presses. And the word of God was not returning void. By this time 11 Indian churches had been planted, averaging over 30 members in each location. Carey and his colleagues had trained twenty Indian evangelists and pastors who were taking the gospel to their own people and shepherding them as well.

The End of Carey’s Life

Fast forward to the year 1834. Carey is now 73 and at the end of his life. Forty years after he first set foot in India, eighteen missionary posts had been established all over the country for evangelization, distribution of the Scriptures, and church planting. They were staffed with fifty missionary units—half of those being trained Indian natives. The New Testament was now being printed in over thirty Indian languages.

The impact was felt far beyond India. As a result of Carey’s exhortation and example, fourteen missionary societies had been established in Carey’s homeland since he first helped establish the first some forty years earlier. The church in Britain was now becoming a great missionary-sending powerhouse.

Carey knew the source of this success. The word of God—properly exposited to the Christians back home, and translated and distributed in the language of the Indians—was doing everything. But if success could be connected to any human quality, Carey believed it was connected to hard work and faithfulness. Of himself Carey said, “I can plod and persevere, that is my only genius. I can persevere in any definite pursuit. To this I owe everything.” Wise words. The mission field doesn’t need high IQ. It needs faithful plodders committed to the word of God.

After forty years in India, Carey passed away peacefully in his home. He never once returned to his homeland. As he prepared to leave this world, he insisted that his gravestone contain only his name, date of birth, date of death, and a simple statement taken from a hymn composed by Isaac Watts. The stanza from the hymn represented all that Carey believed.

“A guilty, weak and helpless worm; on thy kind arms I fall; Be thou my strength and righteousness, my Jesus and my all.”

May God raise up a new generation of missionaries in the line of William Carey.


Brad Klassen avatar
Brad Klassen joined the seminary faculty in 2013. He serves as an associate professor of Bible exposition.

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