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William Carey, the Cobbler Who Gave India a Bible

by Thomas John Bach

William CareyEvery pioneer missionary, in whatever phase of the work he has been active, has had some part in making possible a page or a chapter of profound interest in the history of the church of Christ and of missions. But to one man, William Carey, was given such a significant ministry that he has rightly been called "the father of modern missions."

William Carey was born near Northampton, England, on August 17, 1761. The words of the Lord to Saint Peter, "Thou art ... thou shalt be" (John 1:42), may very well be applied to Carey. Not many missionaries have started their careers with so few advantages, or culminated their work with so much success for the glory of God and the good of man, as did William Carey.

When he was fourteen years of age, he became an apprentice in a shoe shop. He was converted at the age of eighteen, and affiliated himself with the local Baptist Church. At the age of twenty-six, he was ordained. His income as a preacher was so limited that he gained his subsistence by working as a shoemaker. In his spare moments he studied languages, biographies, and conditions of the heathen world. He acquired a fair knowledge of French, Dutch, Greek, Latin, and Hebrew.

In front of him, on his work bench, hung a map of the world which he himself had made. In the year 1786 he pleaded with other ministers of his denomination to take up work among the heathen, but was greatly grieved when the chairman reproved him by saying, "Sit down, young man. When it pleases God to convert the heathen, He will do it without your help or mine!"

A NEW ERA

It was on October 2, 1792, that Carey preached his memorable sermon, giving out the challenge: "Expect great things from God—attempt great things for God." The immediate result was the organization of the Baptist Missionary Society, which was the first Protestant missionary society in England. An amount equal to sixty-five dollars was received to start missionary work in India. After overcoming apparently insurmountable difficulties, Carey, at the age of thirty-two years, secured passage on a ship belonging to the Danish East India Company. He arrived in Serampore in 1793.

William Carey recognized the need of organization and administration of missions at home, as well as of effective work on the mission field. Accordingly, in 1795 he took the first and principal step in the organization of the London Missionary Society.

For more than seven years he labored faithfully in India without the joy of reporting to friends at home that he had won a single convert. His trials were many, the opposition great. His wife was an invalid for fourteen years. He buried some of his children in India. His printing establishment, together with manuscripts—the fruit of many years of labor—was once destroyed by fire. But patiently he continued preaching, writing, and living the gospel.

William Carey was like John Wycliffe, the "morning star of the Reformation," in his strong belief in the power of the Word of God in print. This man of God, once a cobbler, practically self-educated, void of selfish interests, translated the Word of God into forty different languages and dialects, and printed it as well.

After forty-one years of labor as a missionary to the people of India, he died and was buried at Serampore in 1834.

"Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord ... and their works do follow them."

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The minister who baptized William Carey said, thirty years later, concerning that event: "In 1783 I baptized a poor journeyman shoemaker, little thinking that before nine years had passed he would prove the first instrument in forming a society for sending missionaries to the heathen, but such was the case."

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William Carey was never ashamed of his origin, even after he became famous for his work in India.

"Was not William Carey once a shoemaker?" asked a general who was sitting at Lord Hastings' table.

Dr. Carey overheard the question and replied, "No, sir, only a cobbler."

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After hearing an account of the spiritual needs of India, the secretary of the meeting remarked: "There is a gold mine in India, but it seems almost as deep as the center of the earth. Who will venture to explore it?"

"I will venture to go down," said Carey, "but remember that you must hold the ropes."

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Members of Carey's congregation at Leicester were at first reluctant to let their pastor go to India. But, as one member remarked, "We have been praying for the spread of Christ's kingdom among the heathen, and now God requires us to make the first sacrifice to accomplish it."

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Carey's first Hindu convert was Krishnu Pal, and his baptism was an event not soon forgotten by those who witnessed it. Carey, stepping down into the water, first baptized his own son Felix, using English words. Then Krishnu Pal went down into the water and Carey baptized him, using Bengali words. Even the governor, impressed with the solemnity of the sacred ordinance and its significance for all of India, could not restrain his tears.

It was Krishnu Pal, that first convert after seven years of Carey's work, who wrote:

O thou my soul, forget no more,
The Friend who all thy sorrows bore.
Let every idol be forgot,
But, O my soul, forget Him not.

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Carey, who had used his influence against the Hindu custom of [sati] (burning of widows), was later asked to translate the decree which abolished that practice. Having made a careful translation, he then prayed: "I thank Thee, Father, for this surpassing sweet promise which Thou didst vouchsafe to me long ago, with its assurance of the ultimate banishment of all heathen devices and abominations, and of the ultimate winning of all hearts to Thy allegiance. Use Thine unworthy servant to speed the day of fulfillment, the day when all the benighted sons of men shall become the kingdoms of Thy dear Son."

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"What a treasure, what a harvest must await such as Paul and Eliot and Brainerd, who have given themselves wholly to God's work! What a heaven to see the myriads of the heathen who by their labors have been brought into the knowledge of God! Surely it is worth while to lay ourselves out with all our might in promoting Christ's kingdom!"—Carey, in The Enquiry.

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Shortly before Carey's death, he said to Alexander Duff:

"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."


Copied for WholesomeWords.org from Pioneer Missionaries for Christ and His Church by Thomas John Bach. Wheaton, Ill.: Van Kampen Press, ©1955.

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