In a humble cottage in the little English village of Paulerspury, in the latter half of the eighteenth century, lived a weaver and his wife. To that lowly couple was born, August 17, 1761, a son who was to become famous as "the father and founder of modern missions." William Carey was his name.
When William was about six years old the family moved and his father became schoolmaster and parish clerk. He was upright and faithful in the performance of his duties, and was respected and esteemed by his neighbors.
Young William attended his father's school and was a studious lad. At night he would go over his sums before he went to sleep. He was an ardent lover of nature and his room was filled with birds' eggs, insects, and botanical specimen. For reading matter he preferred books of science, history, stories of travel, and the like.
When the time came for him to earn his own living, he first attempted farming, and then turned to shoemaking, an occupation which, Coleridge said, has "given the world a larger number of eminent men than any other handicraft."
In a commentary belonging to his master he saw some Greek letters, and wondered what they meant. Determined to find out, he visited a poor man in his native town whom he knew to have been well educated, and from him received his first Greek lesson.
Young Carey was still unconverted. Lying was a common sin with him. At one time, having used some money belonging to his master, and intending to lie about it, his conscience so troubled him that he promised God that if He would "help him through" with this wrong act, he would abandon all sin thereafter. But the theft and the deception were found out and he was filled with shame.
Through the efforts of a fellow-apprentice, a Dissenter's son, Carey began to feel convicted of his sins. He then became very zealous, trying by works of righteousness to obtain God's favor. But at last he saw the fruitlessness of all this. He saw fully his sinful condition, and was converted.
He desired all the spiritual help obtainable, and listened to the preaching of able ministers whenever he could do so. A book — "Help to Zion's Travelers," fell into his hands and was read with great delight.
While still quite young he made an occasional attempt at preaching in a humble meetinghouse. His hearers were humble people and were well pleased with his efforts. He said afterward, "Being ignorant, they sometimes applauded, to my great injury."
He was united, when less than twenty years of age, to Dorothy Placket[t]; but the marriage was not congenial. She was predisposed to mental disease, and had little sympathy for the great work to which God had called her husband. But the nobility of his character was displayed in the tenderness he always manifested toward her.
Mr. Carey at this time was a stranger to temporal prosperity. He was carrying on a business in shoemaking, but the profits were small. Then sorrow came, in the death of his little daughter. He himself was stricken with a fever from the effects of which he did not fully recover for a long time, and they were almost at the point of starvation. A younger brother and a few friends came to their assistance, and they moved to another village where Mr. Carey continued his shoemaking, and also taught an evening school.
From this time on he preached more frequently and in 1791 he was formally set apart for the ministry. In the old church-book at Olney the following interesting item was recorded:
"August 10, Church Meeting. This evening our brother, William Carey, was called to the work of the ministry, and sent out by the Church to preach the Gospel wherever God, in His providence, might call him."
The first pastorate was at Moulton where he received about 10 pounds a year. He tried to supplement this meager salary by school-teaching, but being obliged to give up his school, he again tried shoemaking. Once every two weeks he walked to Northampton to deliver the boots he had made, and returned with a new stock of leather.
But his life was not to be spent in shoemaking. Thoughts of the heathen world and plans for its evangelization were already filling his mind. On the wall of his shop hung a large map he himself had drawn, showing each nation known at that time. On the map were written whatever facts he had read concerning these nations.
The first time Carey openly suggested the idea of foreign missionary work he was repulsed by a senior minister who said, "Young man, sit down. When God pleases to convert the heathen He will do it without your aid or mine." Others, however, encouraged him to continue his studies on the subject. The burden for the souls in heathen darkness never lifted from his heart, and in 1791 he urged the association of ministers to consider the question at once. Some interest was aroused, but no definite steps were taken.
The next year Carey was one of the preachers at the meeting of the association. From Isaiah 54:2,3 he drew two striking thoughts — "Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God." These words have lived through the years and have become a famous missionary motto. The fire of Carey's zeal kindled in other hearts and a missionary society was formed soon afterward. Carey published "An inquiry into obligations of Christians to use means for the conversion of the heathen in which the religious state of the different nations of the world, the success of former undertakings, and the practicability of further undertakings, are considered."
The next step to be taken by the little society was the decision as to the field in which laborers should commence, and the selection of the missionaries. Their attention was directed to a Mr. Thomas who had returned to England after spending several years in India as a surgeon. While there he had also put forth considerable effort to spread the Gospel. He was selected as one of the first missionaries to be sent by the new society.
After reading the account given by Mr. Thomas of conditions in India, Andrew Fuller, Secretary of the Society, remarked that there was a gold mine in India, but it seemed almost as deep as the center of the earth. "Who will venture to explore it?" he asked. Carey's reply came instantly — "I will venture to go down, but remember that you must hold the ropes." His offer was accepted and plans were made for him to accompany Mr. Thomas.
Carey's congregation was saddened at the thought of the departure of their beloved pastor, yet they dared not try to hinder his going where God called him. "We have been praying," one of the members said, "for the spread of Christ's kingdom among the heathen, and now God requires of us the first sacrifice to accomplish it."
"A great door and effectual is opened unto me, and there are many adversaries," wrote Paul the apostle. And William Carey might well have said the same. Immediately after their selection by the missionary society, Mr. Carey and Mr. Thomas began to make preparation to leave, but many were the difficulties they found in their way.
The greatest trial to Mr. Carey was his wife's persistent refusal to go with him. His entreaties were in vain, and the thought of a long separation was very hard to bear. His son Felix chose to accompany him, and together they left home. He wrote from Ryde, to Mrs. Carey:
"If I had all the world, I would freely give it all to have you and the dear children with me; but the sense of duty is so strong as to overpower all other considerations. I could not turn back without guilt on my soul. ...Tell my dear children I love them dearly and pray for them constantly. Be assured I love you most affectionately."
Another difficulty presented itself when the East India Company refused to give them permission to enter India. They decided to go without a license and boarded a boat, but a letter was sent to the captain, warning him not to take them, and they were compelled to go ashore. Every plan seemed thwarted, but they were undaunted, and very soon their courage and faith were rewarded. A Danish ship, they found, was soon to sail, and to their great delight they were able to engage passage at a very reasonable rate.
Mrs. Carey was again entreated to accompany her husband and this time consented, on condition that her sister might go with her. They sailed June 13, 1793.
The hardships already encountered had in no wise cooled Carey's ardor. Eager to preach as soon as possible, he spent his time during the voyage studying Bengali, and when nearing India he wrote:
"Africa is but a little way from England, Madagascar but a little farther. South America and all the numerous and large islands in the India and China seas, I hope, will not be passed over. A large field opens on every side. Oh, that many laborers may be thrust out into the vineyard of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that the Gentiles may come to the knowledge of the truth as it is in Him."
After a tiresome, stormy voyage they landed in Calcutta, November 9, and began at once to experience the hardships of life in a foreign land. Living in ease was no part of Carey's plan. "A missionary must be one of the companions and equals of the people to whom he is sent,"' he had written, and to this principle he adhered.
The trials were severe. It was hard to find a suitable place for the establishing of the mission, and in the meantime he wrote: "I am in a strange land alone, with no Christian friend, a large family, and nothing to supply their wants." Sickness came into the family. But he did not turn back. "All my friends are but one," he wrote; "I rejoice, however, that He is all sufficient, and can supply all my wants, temporal and spiritual ... Bless God, I feel peace within, and rejoice in having undertaken the work. I anxiously desire the time when I shall so far know the language, as to preach in earnest to these poor people."
In the marshy jungles near the Bay of Bengal was some land that could be secured free of rent, and in his extremity, Carey decided to locate there. An English gentleman offered him a bungalow where his family might live until he could build a house for them. But this place did not prove suitable for missionary work and God opened up something better. A Christian man, Mr. Udny, offered him a position as superintendent of an indigo factory at Mudnabatty. Mr. Thomas was offered a like position and they gratefully accepted the kind offers.
The experience obtained there proved invaluable in Carey's later work, and the salary he received supplied the needs of his family. But above all other advantages was this — it gave him abundant opportunity for the missionary work which he loved more than all else. In his factory were ninety native workmen to whom he gave Christian instruction, with Mr. Udny's full approval. Two hundred villages were within reach and from one to another he went, on Sunday, preaching in Bengali. His work gave him much leisure, which he spent in translating the Bible, realizing the importance of having God's Word in the language of the people. He also prepared a small grammar.
A wooden printing-press was presented to the mission by Mr. Udny, and when this was installed in one of the rooms at the factory, the wondering natives thought it must be the "idol of the Europeans."
In the midst of the work Mr. Carey was stricken with fever. After some time he recovered, but one dear little boy was taken from the family circle. The customs and superstitions of the people occasioned some difficulties concerning his burial. The father's mention of it is touching:
"When my dear little boy died I could not prevail upon any one to make a coffin, though we had carpenters in our own employ. With difficulty I engaged four Musselmans to dig a grave for him. No one would undertake it alone, and therefore many of them went together, that they might all have an equal share of shame. We went seven or eight miles for two persons to carry him to the grave, but in vain, and my wife and I had agreed to do it ourselves, when a lad who had lost caste and our 'mater' (a servant who performs the most menial offices) were induced to relieve us of this painful service."
At the end of five years the indigo factory had to be abandoned and soon the day came for the establishment of a permanent mission.
From the first, Carey believed that a missionary's life should be one of self-denial, and he never altered his views on this point. In a letter to Mr. Fuller in which he asked for more workers, he made this suggestion: "I recommend all living together in a number of little straw houses, forming a line or square, and having nothing of our own, but all general stock."
New missionaries arrived in 1799. They went at once to the Danish settlement, as the East India Company was hostile to missionary work. Colonel Bie, the governor, gave them a cordial welcome, inviting them to settle on Danish territory, and so Serampore became the home of the mission.
Among the new missionaries were Joshua Marshman and William Ward, whose names will always be associated with that of Carey.
Of the early church it is recorded — "All that believed were together, and had all things common," and the same description might be given of the mission at Serampore. Of the life of the missionaries we have a pleasant glimpse in this quotation from Mr. Ward's journal:
"About six o'clock we rise: Brother Carey to his garden; Brother Marshman to his school at seven; Brother Brunsdon, Felix, and I to the printing office. At eight the bell rings for family worship; we assemble, sing, read, and pray. Breakfast. Afterward, Brother Carey goes to the translation, or reading proofs; Brother Marshman, to school; and the rest, to the printing office. Our compositor having left us, we do without, we print two half-sheets of 2000 each week; have five pressmen, one folder, and one binder. At twelve o'clock we take a luncheon; then most of us shave and bathe, read and sleep before dinner, which we have at three. After dinner we deliver our thoughts on a text or question, this we find to be very profitable. Brother and Sister Marshman keep their schools till after two. In the afternoon, if business be done in the office, I read and try to talk Bengali with the Brahmans. We drink tea about seven, and have a little or no supper. We have Bengali preaching' once or twice in the week, and on Thursday evening we have an experience meeting. On Saturday evening we meet to compose differences and transact business, after prayer, which is always immediately after tea. Felix is very useful in the office; William goes to school, and part of the day learns to bind. We meet two hours before breakfast on the first Monday in the month, and each one prays for the salvation of the Bengal heathen. At night we unite our prayers for the universal spread of the Gospel."
From a set of resolutions formulated five years later, we make these brief extracts, which give us an idea of the spirit of these noble missionaries:
"We can never make sacrifices too great, when the eternal salvation of souls is the object, except, indeed, we sacrifice the commands of Christ."
"Prayer, secret, fervent, believing prayer, lies at the root of all personal godliness."
"Let us give ourselves up unreservedly to this glorious cause. Let us never think that our time, our gifts, our strength, our families, or even the clothes we wear, are our own. Let us sanctify them all to God and His cause... Let us forever shut out the idea of laying up a dowry for ourselves or our children. If we give up the resolution which was formed on the subject of private trade, when we first united at Serampore, the Mission is from that hour a lost cause... No private family ever enjoyed a greater portion of happiness, even in the most prosperous gale of worldly prosperity, than we have done since we proposed to have all things in common... If we are enabled to persevere in the same principles, we may hope that multitudes of converted souls will have reason to bless God to all eternity for sending His Gospel into this country."
Seven years Carey toiled on without witnessing a single native conversion, but the seed was taking root to spring up and bear fruit "in due season." One day Krishnu Pal, a carpenter, having dislocated his arm, came to Mr.Thomas for surgical help. He had heard something about the Gospel and realized his sinful condition. "I am a great sinner! a great sinner am I! save me, Sahib, save me!" His desire for salvation was genuine and he was converted.
December 28, 1800, Carey had the pleasure of baptizing his own son, Felix; then for the first time, the baptismal service was spoken in Bengali, as Krishnu Pal thus publicly professed his faith in Christ. Later in the day the Lord's Supper was celebrated in Bengali. The hearts of the missionaries rejoiced with joy unspeakable over this soul turned from darkness to light.
Krishnu Pal composed a hymn, the first stanza of which has been translated thus:
"Oh thou, my soul, forget no more
The Friend, who all thy misery bore:
Let every idol be forgot,
But, oh, my soul, forget Him not."
This first convert remained steadfast. Three years after his conversion, Mr. Carey wrote regarding a missionary journey, "Krishnu Pal accompanied me and rejoiced my heart."
Early in the nineteenth century Fort Williams College was established in Calcutta for the purpose of teaching English civilians the languages and customs of India. Carey's translation of the New Testament attracted attention to his proficiency in the vernaculars, and he was offered a position as teacher of Bengali in the new college. He accepted only on condition that the position should not interfere with his missionary duties. He was later chosen teacher of Sanskrit and Mahratta and kept the position until a few years before his death.
As the faithful missionaries continued their work, other natives were added to their Christian church; and opposition arose. But God definitely answered prayer and the enemy's plans were thwarted.
The first Christian marriage ceremony among the converts took place in 1803. The same year, an acre of land was purchased and set apart as a cemetery, and soon a convert who had been of low caste died. The body was placed in a plain coffin, covered with white muslin, and Mr. Marshman, Felix Carey, a Brahman convert, and a Mohammedan convert carried it to the cemetery. Thus another effort was made to loosen the bonds of caste.
In 1807 Mrs. Carey died, after having been violently insane for several years. In spite of her affliction, Carey's love and tenderness toward her never ceased.
Later he was united in marriage to Miss Charlotte Rumohr, a Danish lady, in whom he found a loving companion and the Mission a true helper.
A severe blow to all the missionaries was the Serampore fire, in which the printing office was entirely destroyed. Manuscripts and printed Bibles were burned, the type that had been made at the cost of so much labor was reduced to a mass of lead, and the work of years seemed lost. The financial loss also was great, but undaunted, they cleared away the ruins and began anew. When the news reached England, Christians at once rallied to the help of the missionaries, and in a short time funds sufficient to replace the loss were forwarded to Serampore. The type was recast, and a month after the fire, two editions of the New Testament went to press.
"Attempt great things for God, expect great things from God," was Carey's motto, and all through his long life he carried it out. Among the "great things" attempted and accomplished was the translation of the Scriptures, or portions of them, into the numerous vernaculars. Some of these translations Carey only supervised, while many of them he made himself. When he was correcting the last sheet of the eighth edition of the Bengali New Testament, he said, "'My work is done. I have nothing more to do but to wait the will of God." During his life the entire Scriptures were published in Bengali, Sanskrit, Hindi, Orissa, and Mahratta, and portions in thirty more dialects.
It was partly owing to Carey's efforts that the awful custom of sacrificing children in the "sacred'' rivers was done away with.
During the early years of Carey's life as a missionary he witnessed the burning of a widow on her husband's funeral pyre. He protested against the ceremony and warned those taking part in it that he would surely bear witness against it at God's judgment bar. And when, after many years, the proclamation abolishing this horrible practice of "suttee" [sati] was issued, he at once put aside his preparations for the Sunday services and set about the translating and printing of it. The proclamation was ready for distribution Sunday evening.
Through all the forty-one uninterrupted years of Carey's missionary career, his zeal was unabated. But at last his strength failed — the end was drawing near.
On one occasion, when Alexander Duff visited him, the conversation was about Carey's work, until he whispered, "Pray." Mr. Duff prayed and then started to leave the room. But Carey's feeble voice called him back. "Mr. Duff," he said, "you have been speaking about Dr. Carey, Dr. Carey; when I am gone, say nothing about Dr. Carey — speak about Dr. Carey's Savior."
One of his fellow-missionaries wrote of him, "He is ripe for glory and already dead to all that belongs to life."
On the morning of June 9, 1834, his earthly life ended. The next morning a long procession of sincere mourners wended their way to the cemetery. A heavy rain seemed to intensify the sadness of the occasion. But as the procession stopped at the grave, the rain ceased and the sun shone out in all its glory, bringing thoughts of that glad day when the dead in Christ shall rise, and sorrow and death shall be forever banished.
The last resting-place of the venerable missionary was marked only by a simple epitaph of his own composing:
Born, August 17, 1761
Died, June 9, 1834
"A wretched, poor, and helpless worm,
On Thy kind arms I fall."
Forty-one years in India! Reader, the field still needs workers. And the promise is — "He that reapeth receiveth wages, and gathereth fruit unto life eternal."
Copied for WholesomeWords.org from Hearts Aflame by Florence Huntington Jensen. Waukesha, Wisc.: Metropolitan Church Assn., ©1932.
More Information on William Carey