English pastor and preacher William Carey (1761-1834) was one of the foremost Christian missionaries in early 19th-century India. He has often been lauded as the “father of modern missions” thanks to his creation of the Particular Baptist Society for the Propagation of the Gospel Amongst the Heathen (now BMS World Mission), as well as his pioneering work among the people of Serampore. He helped establish the Serampore College, as well as helped fight the ancient customs of infanticide and sati. He lived and worked in India for 41 years, and never returned to his native England.
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The Early Years
William Carey was born on August 17, 1761, in the village of Paulerspury, Northamptonshire, England. He was the son of weavers, Edmund and Elizabeth Carey. Apart from working as a weaver, the elder Carey was a devout Anglican who served as a schoolmaster and parish clerk.
Carey’s interest in science and languages began in his youth. He was interested in and studied botany, and even taught himself Latin and Greek. Because of his family’s poverty, Carey’s parents could not afford to send him to college. He became an apprentice to a local shoemaker named Thomas Old, and later married Thomas’s sister-in-law, Dorothy Plackett.
Carey became the official cobbler when Thomas Old died. It was also during this time that he became involved with Particular Baptists. He met several of the most prominent Particular Baptists of the day, including Andrew Fuller, John Ryland, and John Sutcliff. By 1783, he was already baptized and became an official member of the Particular Baptists congregation.
He served as a pastor of a Baptist church, as well as a schoolmaster in Moulton, a village in Northamptonshire, in 1785. He also served as a pastor of the Harvey Lane Baptist Church in the city of Leicester.
Carey has always been interested in preaching God’s word to others. He published a short book entitled, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens, in 1792. Apart from this book, he also spread the zeal for missionary work through preaching. It was during this time that he created the quote, “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God. “
In the same year, he and his Baptist colleagues founded the Particular Baptist Society for the Propagation of the Gospel Amongst the Heathen. The group’s first order of business was to raise funds for the planned mission to India. Dr. John Thomas, an English surgeon and missionary who had a stint in India, later joined them. The members of the group agreed that John Thomas and William Carey would set sail to India and that they would support their missionary efforts.
The Missionary in Calcutta and Serampore
William Carey and his family (along with Dr. Thomas, his wife, and his daughter) set sail from England to Calcutta in the spring of 1793. Carey’s wife Dorothy, her sister Kitty, and the couple’s three sons accompanied him to India. Dorothy, who gave birth before they sailed to India, agreed to come with him with great hesitation and trepidation.
The Careys experienced multiple difficulties during their first few years in India. Money was constantly a problem in their household. Apart from working as a missionary, he also had to look for more work to supplement his income. He had to move his family again and again so he could work and support them.
It was illegal for Baptist missionaries to preach in areas controlled by British authorities. This made it harder for Carey to find a foothold as a missionary in eastern India. To Carey’s dismay, Thomas deserted the mission sometime later.
A series of illnesses added to the Careys’ miserable life in India. His 5-year-old son Peter succumbed to dysentery, while William himself contracted malaria. Dorothy had been unwilling to come with him to India and was ill-suited in her role as a missionary’s wife. The stress of William’s illness, her son’s death, and her longing for home finally took its toll and led to her nervous breakdown. Dorothy was increasingly violent and paranoid that her husband was conducting affairs with other women, so her husband was forced to confine her in a room for the rest of her life to contain her violent rages.
It was not until late 1799 when things became a little bit better. Carey and his family relocated to Danish-held Serampore, a settlement near Calcutta. Because Serampore was held by the Danes, it was now legal for Carey to proselytize.
Carey was able to secure a position as a teacher at Fort William College. Thanks to this teaching position and the help of fellow missionaries, his finances finally improved.
He baptized his first convert, an Indian named Krishna Pal, in 1800. Seven years after his arrival in the subcontinent, William finally baptized Krishna Pal, his first Indian convert.
He published the New Testament in Bengali in 1801 with the help of his friend and printer, William Ward. This was the very first edition of a portion of the Bible translated in Bengali. In the years that followed, Carey and several Brahmin scholars (pandit/pundit) translated the Bible into different languages of India. These include Hindi, Sanskrit, Marathi, Assamese, and other Indian languages and dialects.
Carey sought the help of the British Governor-General in abolishing the customs of infant sacrifice and sati (widows who self-immolate on their husband’s funeral pyre).
Carey, along with fellow Baptist missionaries Willliam Ward and Joshua Marshman, established the Serampore College in 1818. The school was open to anyone who wanted to train as ministers, as well as those who want to study arts and sciences. His keen interest in botany finally paid off in 1820 when he established the Agri Horticultural Society of India. The organization still exists today and is located on Alipore Road in Calcutta (Kolkata).
Last Years in India
William Carey was forced to cut ties with the Society he founded after several disagreements with the new secretary, John Dyer. He left the mission compound and moved to the Serampore College grounds instead. There he spent his days teaching his students and preaching. He also continued to revise the Bengali Bible he translated so many years ago.
He died in Serampore on June 9, 1834. William Carey spent 41 years in the subcontinent, never returning to his native England during his lifetime.
William Carey and his wife Dorothy had five sons (Felix, William, Peter, Jabez, and Jonathan) as well as two daughters (Ann Eliza and Lucy). His daughters both died in England when they were still infants. His 5-year-old son Peter died in India due to dysentery.
Dorothy Carey became ill with fever and died on December 8, 1807. William later married a Danish woman named Charlotte Emilia Rumohr on May 9, 1808. Unlike Dorothy, the 46-year old Rumohr was Carey’s intellectual equal. The marriage was happy overall, and she became a surrogate mother to Carey’s younger children. She died in 1821, 13 years after they were married.
At the age of 62, Carey surprised fellow missionaries when he married a 45-year-old widow named Grace Hughes. What Grace lacked in intellectual capacity or refinement, she made up with caring for William during his last years on earth.
William Carey’s Legacy
William Carey is often called the “father of modern missions.” He is also lauded for his efforts in the abolishment of the customs of infanticide and sati. The Serampore College was established thanks to the efforts of the Serampore Trio (Carey, Ward, and Marshman).
Although he only had an estimated 700 converts, he is still best remembered for putting the Bible into the hands of ordinary Bengalis, Assamese, Marathis, and other people in India.
The genus Careya was also named after William Carey. These flowering plants are native to India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Bhutan, and Malaysia (except Borneo). These plants can also be found in the Andaman Islands.
Carey co-founded the Particular Baptist Society for the Propagation of the Gospel Amongst the Heathen in 1792. The organization changed its name to BMS World Mission, and it still carries out Christian missions all over the world.
Picture: Unknown author – William Carey: The Shoemaker Who Became the Founder of Modern Missions; John Brown Myers; London 1887, Public Domain, Link
Mangalwadi, Vishal, and Ruth Mangalwadi. The Legacy of William Carey: A Model for the Transformation of a Culture. Crossway Books, 1999.
Wayland, Francis, et al. Memoir of William Carey, D.D. Jackson and Walford, 1836.
“William Carey.” Christian History | Learn the History of Christianity & the Church, Christian History, 30 July 2019, https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/missionaries/william-carey.html.