William Carey was born in the village of Paulerspury, 10 miles south of Northampton, on the 7th August 1761. He was one of the most extraordinary Baptists ever to have lived. William Carey is sometimes called the ‘father of modern missions’ but this can be misleading. He had a passion to bring the kingdom of God into every area of life. As a young man he earned his coin as a cobbler but he loved books and he studied the New Testament. He was converted at the age of 18 after long discussions with a fellow apprentice.
This short article about William Carey is indebted to the excellent book The Legacy of William Carey: A Model for the Transformation of a Culture by Vishal & Ruth Mangalwadi.
In 1781 Carey met and married Dorothy Plackett. The Careys knew grinding poverty for their early years together. Their first child died, and Carey was left almost bald after a serious illness. In 1785, they moved to Moulton where Carey became a schoolmaster. He taught himself several languages and later became the Baptist pastor in the village, while continuing as schoolmaster and cobbler. Carey was now developing a deep desire to do missionary work and preach the gospel to the Hindu followers of Shiva, Kali and Yellamma. In June 1793, Carey set sail for India with his wife and four children. He never returned to England.
At first life was very tough for the Carey family. They lived for several years in a remote and mosquito-ridden jungle house. The heat was unbearable and there were the daily dangers of snakes, crocodiles and tigers. Tragically Dorothy went mad. She would rant and rave about William’s imagined adulteries with other women. On several occasions she attacked her husband with a knife and for the last 12 years of her life she had to be physically restrained with chains. She died in 1807.
What was it like to live in India at the end of the 18th century? Traditional Hindu society was very conservative. There was a rigid caste system and Brahmin men were worshipped as gods. At the very bottom of the caste system were the ‘untouchables’. These were men, women and children who were cursed from birth. Their immoral conduct in previous lives was the explanation for their misery and oppression. This is the Hindu doctrine of karma.
Indian babies were sometimes sacrificed to the gods. Every winter at the place where the sea and the River Hooghly meet, hundreds of children were pushed down the mud-banks into the sea to be either drowned or devoured by crocodiles. Their mothers had made vows to the Hindu gods. Lepers were often buried or burned alive. Hindu belief asserted that a violent death would guarantee a better rebirth. Widows were subjected to a terrible plight. They were either burned to death (sati) or buried alive. Some Hindus asserted that their bad karma had brought about the deaths of their husbands.
Girls were also married at very young ages. The last census of the 19th century revealed that, in and around Calcutta alone, there were ten thousand widows under the age of four, and more than fifty thousand between the ages of five and nine. All these child widows were victims of child marriage. Women and girls were not educated at all and were kept in extreme ignorance.
Polygamy was also a common practice. Sometimes fifty women were given to one Brahmin man. This was a society where a few men were pampered and worshipped as gods and millions of ‘inferior beings’ were treated as slaves and outcastes. Wives were expected to worship their husbands as gods.
We must also add that Carey was horrified to see that three-fifths of the country had been allowed to become an uncultivated jungle abandoned to tigers, killer bees and snakes. There was also widespread usury (high rates of interest – between 36 and 72 per cent).
And into this darkness, William Carey brought the good news of the kingdom of God. Carey had studied his Bible carefully. He knew that Jesus had a tremendous love for widows, lepers and children. Carey dedicated his life to bringing the good news to the whole creation (Mark 16:15). He had a holistic understanding of the gospel. He struggled against sati and the hatred of women. Thanks to him, sati was abolished in 1829. Thanks to his younger co-workers women were legally allowed to remarry in 1856. Eventually child marriage was outlawed in 1929.
Carey set up many Christian schools that educated girls and untouchables. He introduced the idea of low interest savings banks to India, to fight the all-pervasive evil of usury and he campaigned for the humane treatment of lepers. He struggled against human sacrifice and prevented the murder of many innocent children.
Carey founded India’s Agri-Horticultural Society in the 1820’s, thirty years before the Royal Agricultural Society was established in England. He wrote some of the earliest essays on forest management and conservation. He wrote concerning this – “If the Gospel flourishes in India, the wilderness will, in every respect, become a fruitful field.”
He introduced the study of astronomy to India. He was deeply opposed to the fatalism and superstitious fear caused by astrology. He developed a wonderful arboretum in his garden and encouraged the study of Botany. Carey promulgated the biblical view that “All your works praise you, O Lord.” He believed that the world has been declared very good by God (Gen 1:31). It is not an illusion to be shunned, but a subject worthy of human study. He frequently lectured on science and he emphasised that even lowly insects are not souls in bondage, but creatures worthy of our attention. Carey was also passionate about poetry; he even wrote poems in Bengali!
The cobbler turned missionary also introduced the steam engine to India and was a pioneer of the Protestant church in India and the translator and/or publisher of the Bible into forty different Indian languages.
Carey had his warts; he wasn’t perfect. One close friend, Joshua Marshman, was appalled by the way he neglected his four sons. When he first met the boys in 1800, aged 4, 7, 12 and 15, they were wild, undisciplined, and ignorant. Carey was often too busy in his garden delighting in the flowers, shrubs and trees!
Carey was a culture shaper. He transformed both peoples’ lives and the Indian culture. When he died in 1834, many Hindus praised him and celebrated the many positive contributions that Carey had made to public life.