William Carey (missionary)

William Carey

Missionary to India
Born (1761-08-17)17 August 1761
Paulerspury, England
Died 9 June 1834(1834-06-09) (aged 72)
Serampore, India

William Carey (17 August 1761 – 9 June 1834) was a British missionary, a Particular Baptist minister, a translator and an activist. He also opened the first University in Serampore (India) offering degrees.[1][2]

He is known as the "father of modern missions."[2]

His essay, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens, led to the founding of the Baptist Missionary Society.[3][4] He went to Kolkata (India) in 1793, but was forced to leave the British Indian territory by non-Baptist missionaries.[3] He joined the Baptist missionaries in the Danish colony of Frederiksnagar in India (Serampore), and there he lived with people ravaged by extreme poverty and diseases.[5] He translated the Bible into Bengali, Oriya, Assamese, Arabic, Hindi and Sanskrit.[3]

William Carey has been called a social reformer and illustrious Christian missionary,[6] as well as a "colonial ideologue with prejudice, hyperbole and concealed racism" by those who disagree with him.[7][8]

Early life

William Carey's motto on a hanging in St. James Church, Paulerspury, Northamptonshire, where Carey attended as a boy
Engraved plaque in St. James Church, Paulerspury, Northamptonshire, where Carey attended as a boy

William Carey, the oldest of five children, was born to Edmund and Elizabeth Carey, who were weavers by trade,in the hamlet of Pury End in the village of Paulerspury, Northamptonshire.[9][10] William was raised in the Church of England; when he was six, his father was appointed the parish clerk and village schoolmaster. As a child he was naturally inquisitive and keenly interested in the natural sciences, particularly botany. He possessed a natural gift for language, teaching himself Latin.

At the age of 14, Carey's father apprenticed him to a cordwainer in the nearby village of Piddington, Northamptonshire.[11] His master, Clarke Nichols, was a churchman like himself, but another apprentice, John Warr, was a Dissenter. Through his influence Carey would eventually leave the Church of England and join with other Dissenters to form a small Congregational church in nearby Hackleton. While apprenticed to Nichols, he also taught himself Greek with the help of a local villager who had a college education.

When Nichols died in 1779, Carey went to work for the local shoemaker, Thomas Old; he married Old's sister-in-law Dorothy Plackett in 1781 in the Church of St. John the Baptist, Piddington. Unlike William, Dorothy was illiterate; her signature in the marriage register is a crude cross. William and Dorothy Carey had seven children, five sons and two daughters; both girls died in infancy, as well as son Peter, who died at the age of 5. Thomas Old himself died soon afterward, and Carey took over his business, during which time he taught himself Hebrew, Italian, Dutch, and French, often reading while working on his shoes.

Carey acknowledged his humble origins and referred to himself as a cobbler (one who repairs shoes). However, the local community often knew him by the higher status of a shoemaker. John Brown Myers entitled his biography of Carey William Carey the Shoemaker Who Became the Father and Founder of Modern Missions.

Founding of the Baptist Missionary Society

Detail from wall hanging depicting William Carey's life, in Carey Baptist Church, Moulton, Northamptonshire, UK

Carey became involved with a local association of Particular Baptists that had recently formed, where he became acquainted with men such as John Ryland, John Sutcliff, and Andrew Fuller, who would become his close friends in later years. They invited him to preach in their church in the nearby village of Earls Barton every other Sunday. On 5 October 1783, William Carey was baptised by Ryland and committed himself to the Baptist denomination.

In 1785, Carey was appointed the schoolmaster for the village of Moulton. He was also invited to serve as pastor to the local Baptist church. During this time he read Jonathan Edwards' Account of the Life of the Late Rev. David Brainerd and the journals of the explorer James Cook, and became deeply concerned with propagating the Christian Gospel throughout the world. John Eliot (c. 1604 – 21 May 1690), Puritan missionary in New England, along with David Brainerd (1718–47) and the Apostle Paul himself, became the "canonized heroes" and "enkindlers" of Carey.[12]

Carey's friend Andrew Fuller had previously written an influential pamphlet in 1781 titled "The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation," answering the hyper-Calvinist belief then prevalent in the Baptist churches, that all men were not responsible to believe the Gospel. At a ministers' meeting in 1787, Carey raised the question of whether it was the duty of all Christians to spread the Gospel throughout the world. John Collett Ryland is said to have retorted: "Young man, sit down; when God pleases to convert the heathen, he will do it without your aid and mine." Ryland's son John, however, disputed that his father made this statement.[13][14]

In 1789 Carey became the full-time pastor of Harvey Lane Baptist Church in Leicester. Three years later in 1792 he published his groundbreaking missionary manifesto, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens. This short book consists of five parts. The first part is a theological justification for missionary activity, arguing that the command of Jesus to make disciples of all the world (Matthew 28:18–20) remains binding on Christians.

That there are thousands in our own land as far from God as possible, I readily grant, and that this ought to excite us to ten-fold diligence in our work, and in attempts to spread divine knowledge amongst them is a certain fact; but that it ought to supersede all attempts to spread the gospel in foreign parts seems to want proof. – William Carey, Sect I[15]

The second part outlines a history of missionary activity, beginning with the early Church and ending with David Brainerd and John Wesley.

BEFORE the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ the whole world were either heathens, or jews; and both, as to the body of them were enemies to the gospel. – William Carey, Sect II[15]

Part 3 comprises 26 pages of tables, listing area, population, and religion statistics for every country in the world. Carey had compiled these figures during his years as a schoolteacher. The fourth part answers objections to sending missionaries, such as difficulty learning the language or danger to life. Finally, the fifth part calls for the formation by the Baptist denomination of a missionary society and describes the practical means by which it could be supported. Carey's seminal pamphlet outlines his basis for missions: Christian obligation, wise use of available resources, and accurate information.

It is true all the reward is of mere grace, but it is nevertheless encouraging; what a treasure, what an harvest must await such characters as PAUL, and ELLIOT, and BRAINERD, and others, who have given themselves wholly to the work of the Lord. What a heaven will it be to see the many myriads of poor heathens, of Britons amongst the rest, who by their labours have been brought to the knowledge of God. – William Carey, Sect V[15]

Carey later preached a pro-missionary sermon (the so-called Deathless Sermon), using Isaiah 54:2–3 as his text, in which he repeatedly used the epigram which has become his most famous quotation:

Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.

Carey finally overcame the resistance to missionary effort, and the Particular Baptist Society for the Propagation of the Gospel Amongst the Heathen (subsequently known as the Baptist Missionary Society and since 2000 as BMS World Mission) was founded in October 1792, including Carey, Andrew Fuller, John Ryland, and John Sutcliff as charter members. They then concerned themselves with practical matters such as raising funds, as well as deciding where they would direct their efforts. A medical missionary, Dr. John Thomas, had been in Calcutta and was currently in England raising funds; they agreed to support him and that Carey would accompany him to India.

Missionary life in India

Carey, his eldest son Felix, Thomas and his wife and daughter sailed from London aboard an English ship in April 1793. Dorothy Carey had refused to leave England, being pregnant with their fourth son and having never been more than a few miles from home; but before they left they asked her again to come with them and she gave consent, with the knowledge that her sister Kitty would help her give birth. En route they were delayed at the Isle of Wight, at which time the captain of the ship received word that he endangered his command if he conveyed the missionaries to Calcutta, as their unauthorised journey violated the trade monopoly of the British East India Company. He decided to sail without them, and they were delayed until June when Thomas found a Danish captain willing to offer them passage. In the meantime, Carey's wife, who had by now given birth, agreed to accompany him provided her sister came as well. They landed at Calcutta in November.[16]

During the first year in Calcutta, the missionaries sought means to support themselves and a place to establish their mission. They also began to learn the Bengali language to communicate with others. A friend of Thomas owned two indigo factories and needed managers, so Carey moved with his family north to Midnapore. During the six years that Carey managed the indigo plant, he completed the first revision of his Bengali New Testament and began formulating the principles upon which his missionary community would be formed, including communal living, financial self-reliance, and the training of indigenous ministers. His son Peter died of dysentery, which, along with other causes of stress, resulted in Dorothy suffering a nervous breakdown from which she never recovered.[16]

Meanwhile, the missionary society had begun sending more missionaries to India. The first to arrive was John Fountain, who arrived in Midnapore and began teaching school. He was followed by William Ward, a printer; Joshua Marshman, a schoolteacher; David Brunsdon, one of Marshman's students; and William Grant, who died three weeks after his arrival. Because the East India Company was still hostile to missionaries, they settled in the Danish colony at Serampore and were joined there by Carey on 10 January 1800.[16]

Late Indian period

Once settled in Serampore, the mission bought a house large enough to accommodate all of their families and a school, which was to be their principal means of support. Ward set up a print shop with a secondhand press Carey had acquired and began the task of printing the Bible in Bengali. In August 1800 Fountain died of dysentery. By the end of that year, the mission had their first convert, a Hindu named Krishna Pal. They had also earned the goodwill of the local Danish government and Richard Wellesley, then Governor-General of India.

The conversion of Hindus to Christianity posed a new question for the missionaries concerning whether it was appropriate for converts to retain their caste. In 1802, the daughter of Krishna Pal, a Sudra, married a Brahmin. This wedding was a public demonstration that the church repudiated the caste distinctions.

Brunsdon and Thomas died in 1801. The same year, the Governor-General founded Fort William, a college intended to educate civil servants. He offered Carey the position of professor of Bengali. Carey's colleagues at the college included pundits, whom he could consult to correct his Bengali testament. He also wrote grammars of Bengali and Sanskrit, and began a translation of the Bible into Sanskrit. He also used his influence with the Governor-General to help put a stop to the practices of infant sacrifice and suttee, after consulting with the pundits and determining that they had no basis in the Hindu sacred writings (although the latter would not be abolished until 1829). Dorothy Carey gave birth to Jim Carey. Then later she died in 1807. Due to her debilitating mental breakdown, she had long since ceased to be an able member of the mission, and her condition was an additional burden to it. John Marshman wrote how Carey worked away on his studies and translations, "…while an insane wife, frequently wrought up to a state of most distressing excitement, was in the next room…".

Later that same year Carey made the following entry in his diary: "Tuesday, Dec. 8, 1807. This evening Mrs. Carey died of the fever under which she has languished some time. Her death was a very easy one; but there was no appearance of returning reason, nor any thing that could cast a dawn of hope or light on her state."[17]

Several friends and colleagues had urged William to commit Dorothy to an asylum. But he recoiled at the thought of the treatment she might receive in such a place and took the responsibility to keep her within the family home, even though the children were exposed to her rages.[18]

In 1808 Carey remarried; his new wife Charlotte Rhumohr, a Danish member of his church was, unlike Dorothy, Carey's intellectual equal. They were married for 13 years until her death.

From the printing press at the mission came translations of the Bible in Bengali, Sanskrit, and other major languages and dialects. Many of these languages had never been printed before; William Ward had to create punches for the type by hand. Carey had begun translating literature and sacred writings from the original Sanskrit into English to make them accessible to his own countryman. On 11 March 1812, a fire in the print shop caused £10,000 in damages and lost work. Amongst the losses were many irreplaceable manuscripts, including much of Carey's translation of Sanskrit literature and a polyglot dictionary of Sanskrit and related languages, which would have been a seminal philological work had it been completed. However, the press itself and the punches were saved, and the mission was able to continue printing in six months. In Carey's lifetime, the mission printed and distributed the Bible in whole or part in 44 languages and dialects.

Also, in 1812, Adoniram Judson an American Congregational missionary en route to India studied the scriptures on baptism in preparation for a meeting with Carey. His studies led him to become a Baptist. Carey's urging of American Baptists to take over support for Judson's mission, led to the foundation in 1814 of the first American Baptist Mission board, the General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States of America for Foreign Missions, later commonly known as the Triennial Convention. Most American Baptist denominations of today are directly or indirectly descended from this convention.

Serampore College

In 1818, the mission founded Serampore College to train indigenous ministers for the growing church and to provide education in the arts and sciences to anyone regardless of caste or country. The King of Denmark granted a royal charter in 1827 that made the college a degree-granting institution, the first in Asia.[19]

In 1820 Carey founded the Agri Horticultural Society of India at Alipore, Kolkata, supporting his enthusiasm for botany.

Carey's second wife, Charlotte, died in 1821, followed by his eldest son Felix. In 1823 he married a third time, to a widow named Grace Hughes.

Internal dissent and resentment was growing within the Missionary Society as its numbers grew, the older missionaries died, and they were replaced by less experienced men. Some new missionaries arrived who were not willing to live in the communal fashion that had developed, one going so far as to demand "a separate house, stable and servants." Unused to the rigorous work ethic of Carey, Ward, and Marshman, the new missionaries thought their seniors – particularly Marshman – to be somewhat dictatorial, assigning them work not to their liking.

Andrew Fuller, who had been secretary of the Society in England, had died in 1815, and his successor, John Dyer, was a bureaucrat who attempted to reorganise the Society along business lines and manage every detail of the Serampore mission from England. Their differences proved to be irreconcilable, and Carey formally severed ties with the missionary society he had founded, leaving the mission property and moving onto the college grounds. He lived a quiet life until his death in 1834, revising his Bengali Bible, preaching, and teaching students. The couch on which he died, on 9 June 1834, is now housed at Regent's Park College, the Baptist hall of the University of Oxford.


Much of what is known about William Carey's missionary life in India is from missionary reports sent to Britain. Historians such as Comaroffs, Thorne, Van der Veer and Pennington note that the representation of India in these reports must be examined in their context and with care for its evangelical and colonial ideology.[7] The reports by Carey were conditioned by his background, personal factors and his own religious beliefs. The polemic notes and observations of Carey, and his colleague William Ward, were in a community suffering from extreme poverty and epidemics, and they constructed a view of Indian culture and Hinduism in light of their missionary goals.[7][21] These reports were by those who had declared their conviction in foreign missionary work, and the letters describe experiences of foreigners who were resented by both the natives as well the British colonial officials and competing Christian groups. Their accounts of culture and Hinduism were forged in impoverished Bengal (modern West Bengal and Bangladesh) that was physically, politically and spiritually difficult.[7] Pennigton summarizes the accounts reported by Carey and his colleagues as follows,

Plagued with anxieties and fears about their own health, regularly reminded of colleagues who had lost their lives or reason, uncertain of their own social location, and preaching to crowds whose reactions ranged from indifference to amusement to hostility, missionaries found expression for their darker misigivings in their production of what is surely part of their speckled legacy: a fabricated Hinduism crazed by blood-lust and devoted to the service of devils. – Brian Pennington[7]

William Carey recommended that British people in India must learn and interpret Sanskrit in a manner "compatible with colonial aims".[22] Carey wrote, "To gain the ear of those who are thus deceived, it is necessary for them to believe that the speaker has a superior knowledge of the subject. In these circumstances, knowledge of Sanskrit is valuable."[22] Carey lacked understanding and respect for Indian culture, writes Rao,[8] describing Indian music as "disgusting" and bringing to mind practices dishonorable to God. Such prejudices affected the literature authored by Carey and colleagues.[8]

Family history

Biographies of Carey, such as those by F.D. Walker[23] and J.B. Myers, only allude to Carey's distress caused by the mental illness and subsequent breakdown suffered by his wife, Dorothy, in the early years of their ministry in India. More recently, Beck's biography of Dorothy Carey paints a more detailed picture: William Carey uprooted his family from all that was familiar and sought to settle them in one of the most unlikely and difficult cultures in the world for an uneducated eighteenth century English peasant woman. Faced with enormous difficulties in adjusting to all of this change, she failed to make the adjustment emotionally and ultimately, mentally, and her husband seemed to be unable to help her through all of this because he just did not know what to do about it.[24] Carey even wrote to his sisters in England on 5 October 1795, that "I have been for some time past in danger of losing my life. Jealousy is the great evil that haunts her mind."[25]

Dorothy's mental breakdown ("at the same time William Carey was baptizing his first Indian convert and his son Felix, his wife was forcefully confined to her room, raving with madness"[26]) led inevitably to other family problems. Joshua Marshman was appalled by the neglect with which Carey looked after his four boys when he first met them in 1800. Aged 4, 7, 12 and 15, they were unmannered, undisciplined, and even uneducated.


Besides Iain Murray's study, The Puritan Hope,[27] less attention has been paid in Carey's numerous biographies to his postmillennial eschatology as expressed in his major missionary manifesto, notably not even in Bruce J. Nichols' article "The Theology of William Carey."[28] Carey was a Calvinist and a postmillennialist. Even the two dissertations which discuss his achievements (by Oussoren[29] and Potts[30]) ignore large areas of his theology. Neither mention his eschatological views, which played a major role in his missionary zeal.[31] One exception, found in James Beck's biography of his first wife,[24] mentions his personal optimism in the chapter on "Attitudes Towards the Future," but not his optimistic perspective on world missions, which he derived from postmillennial theology.[32]


Carey has at least nine schools named after him: William Carey Christian School (WCCS) in Sydney, NSW, William Carey International University in Pasadena, California, Carey Theological College in Vancouver, British Columbia, Carey Baptist College in Auckland, New Zealand, Carey Baptist Grammar School in Melbourne, Victoria, Carey College in Colombo, Sri Lanka and William Carey University, Hattiesburg, Mississippi. William Carey Academy of Chittagong, Bangladesh teaches both Bangladeshi and expatriate children, from Kindergarten to grade 12. William Carey Memorial School,(A Co-ed English Medium) Serampore, Hooghly.

Legacy and Influence

William Carey has been referred to as the "father of modern missions" and was a significant influence to the Protestant missionary movement of the 19th century. . An English Medium School named William Carey International School was established on 17 August 2008 at 70-D/1, Indira Road, Tejgaon, Dhaka 1215, Bangladesh. It is largely known that Joseph Carey Merrick, "The Elephant Man" was given the middle name "Carey" by his mother, Mary Jane Merrick (née Potterton),a Baptist, after William Carey.

By the time Carey died, he had spent 41 years in India without a furlough. His mission could count only some 700 converts in a nation of millions, but he had laid an impressive foundation of Bible translations, education, and social reform.[33]


St James Church in Paulerspury, Northamptonshire, where Carey was christened and attended as a boy, has a William Carey display. Carey Baptist Church in Moulton, Northamptonshire, also has a display of artefacts related to William Carey, as well as the nearby cottage where he lived.[34] Harvey Lane Baptist Church in Leicester, the last church in England where Carey served before he left for India, was destroyed by a fire in 1921. Carey's nearby cottage had served as a 'Memories of Carey' museum from 1915 until it was destroyed to make way for a new road system in 1968.[35] The artefacts from the museum were given to Central Baptist Church in Charles Street, Leicester. The Angus Library and Archive in Oxford holds the largest single collection of Carey letters as well as numerous artefacts such as his Bible and the sign from his cordwainer shop.


Carey is honoured with a feast day in the Calendar of Saints of some churches of the Anglican Communion on 19 October.


See also


  1. "Northants celebrates 250th anniversary of William Carey". BBC News. 18 August 2011. Retrieved 7 November 2016.
  2. 1 2 Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity Vol. 2 p. 306
  3. 1 2 3 William Carey British missionary Encyclopædia Britannica
  4. William Carey, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens (1792; repr., London: Carey Kingsgate Press, 1961)
  5. Brian K. Pennington (2005), Was Hinduism Invented?: Britons, Indians, and the Colonial Construction, pp. 72-74, Oxford University Press
  6. Vishal Mangalwadi (1999), The Legacy of William Carey: A Model for the Transformation of a Culture, pp. 61-67, ISBN 978-1581341126
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 Brian K. Pennington (2005), Was Hinduism Invented?: Britons, Indians, and the Colonial Construction, pp. 76-77, Oxford University Press
  8. 1 2 3 V Rao (2007), Contemporary Education, pp. 17-18, ISBN 978-8131302736
  9. "Paulerspury: Pury End". The Carey Experience. Retrieved 9 July 2016.
  10. "William Carey's Historical Wall - Carey Road, Pury End, Northamptonshire, UK". UK Historical Markers. Waymarking.com. Retrieved 9 July 2016. Includes image of memorial stone
  11. "Glimpses #45: William Carey's Amazing Mission". Christian History Institute. Archived from the original on 5 February 2008. Retrieved 11 February 2008.
  12. Carpenter, John, (2002) "New England Puritans: The Grandparents of Modern Protestant Missions," Fides et Historia 30.4, 529.
  13. Walker, F Deaville (nd) [1925], William Carey. Missionary Pioneer and Statesman (repr. ed.), Chicago: Moody Press, p. 54, n.1.
  14. Brian Stanley, The History of the Baptist Missionary Society 1792–1992 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1992), 6–7.
  15. 1 2 3 William Carey (1792), AN ENQUIRY INTO THE OBLIGATIONS OF CHRISTIANS, TO USE MEANS FOR THE CONVERSION OF THE HEATHENS reprinted London: Carey Kingsgate Press, 1961
  16. 1 2 3 "Note from the preparer of this etext_ I have had to insert a view comments mainly in regards to adjustments to fonts to allow".
  17. William Carey's Less-than-Perfect Family Life, ChristianHistory.net, Issue 36, 10/01/1992
  18. Timothy George, The Life and Mission of William Carey, IVP, p. 158
  19. The Senate of Serampore College
  20. IPNI.  Carey.
  21. Robert Eric Frykenberg and Alaine M. Low (2003), Christians and Missionaries in India, pp. 156-157, ISBN 978-0802839565
  22. 1 2 Silvia Nagy (2010), Colonization Or Globalization?: Postcolonial Explorations of Imperial Expansion, p. 62, ISBN 978-073-91-31763
  23. Frank Deauville Walker, William Carey (1925, repr. Chicago: Moody Press, 1980). ISBN 0-8024-9562-1.
  24. 1 2 Beck, James R. Dorothy Carey: The Tragic and Untold Story of Mrs. William Carey. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1992. ISBN 0-8010-1030-6.
  25. "Dorothy's Devastating Delusions," Christian History & Biography, 1 October 1992.
  26. Book Review — Dorothy Carey: The Tragic And Untold Story Of Mrs. William Carey Archived 15 September 2006 at the Wayback Machine.
  27. Iain H. Murray, The Puritan Hope. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1975. ISBN 0-85151-037-X.
  28. "The Theology of William Carey," Evangelical Review of Theology 17 (1993): 369–80.
  29. Aalbertinus Hermen Oussoren, William Carey, Especially his Missionary Principles (Diss.: Freie Universität Amsterdam), (Leiden: A. W. Sijthoff, 1945).
  30. E. Daniels Potts. British Baptist Missionaries in India 1793–1837: The History of Serampore and its Missions, (Cambridge: University Press, 1967).
  31. D. James Kennedy, "William Carey: Texts That Have Changed Lives": "It was the belief of these men that there was going to be ushered in by the proclamation of the Gospel a glorious golden age of Gospel submission on the part of the heathen. It is very interesting to note that theologically that is what is known as 'postmillennialism,' a view which is not very popular today, but was the view that animated all the men who were involved in the early missionary enterprise."
  32. Thomas Schirrmacher, William Carey, Postmillennialism and the Theology of World Missions
  33. "William Carey". Retrieved 7 November 2016.
  34. Cooper, Matthew. "The Carey Experience". Retrieved 7 November 2016.
  35. http://www.leicester.gov.uk/your-council-services/lc/growth-and-history/blueplaques/blueplaquespeople/williamcarey/
  36. Rao, Goparaju Sambasiva (1994). Language Change: Lexical Diffusion and Literacy. Academic Foundation. pp. 48 and 49. ISBN 9788171880577. Archived from the original on 7 December 2014.
  37. Carey, William (1805). A Grammar of the Marathi Language. Serampur [sic]: Serampore Mission Press. ISBN 9781108056311.


Further reading

Cule, W.E. - The Bells of Moulton, The Carey Press, 1942 (Children's biography)

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