This article looks at William Carey and mission history. The Baptist Missionary Society is discussed as well as mission in India.

Source: Reformed Perspective, 1993. 4 pages.

William Carey – Pioneer of Modern mission

William Carey worked as a missionary in India for 40 years, from 1793 until his death in 1834 at age 73. The 200th anniversary of his arrival in India is being remembered in the world of Protestant mission because of the important place he occupies in modern missionary history. His prominence is such that he is generally called “the father of modern mission.”

In a sense this title is inappropriate. Protestant missionary activity had not been lacking in the centuries before Carey. The Dutch had been doing missionary work in their South-East-Asian possessions ever since the 17th century, and by that time Americans, Englishmen, and Dutchmen were also beginning to bring the Gospel to the natives of the Americas and the West Indies. In addition, there was the widespread missionary activity of the German pietists and the Moravians in the 18th century. Carey was able to build on much of that work.

In another sense, however, the title is correct. For one thing, the great 19th-century wave of world-wide mission, in which practically all protestant countries participated, began with Carey. His Enquiry, a book on mission he published in 1792, had a strong impact at home and abroad. His Baptist Missionary Society, formed in the same year, was followed within a very short period by the establishment of Missionary and Bible Societies in practically every other western country. The English example was obviously an important stimulus to missionary activity elsewhere. So were the stirring letters and reports Carey wrote about his work in India. And the character of that work provides the second justification for calling Carey the father of modern mission. It was the method he followed, and the innovations he introduced, that distinguished his work from that of his predecessors and set the tone for the modern approach.

Cobbler, Teacher, and Preacher🔗

Before we talk about that work, some biographical notes will be provided. William Carey, born in 1761, was the son of a weaver and started his working life as a cobbler's apprentice. He was intelligent, and used whatever free time he had for study. A linguistic genius (as well as a lover of the natural sciences), he learned Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, Dutch, and Italian while he was still in England. Later, in India, he would add Bengali, Sanskrit, and various other Indian languages and dialects.

In Carey's youth much of England was affected by the evangelical revival, which was led by the Wesley brothers and George Whitefield. Carey became acquainted with these revival movements. He also read works by the Presbyterian theologian Jonathan Edwards, the leader of the Great Awakening in America and one of those who stimulated the work of mission among natives. Although born into the Anglican Church, Carey soon began to attend the services of non-conformist groups, and even to lead Bible studies for them, and in 1783 he became a member of the Calvinist Baptist Church at Northampton. Three years later he was appointed a minister. By this time he had married, and since the ministerial salary was not sufficient to support a family, he kept his shoemaker's job, and also continued working as a school teacher, a position he had acquired in 1785. Meanwhile his studies continued unabated.

Expect Great Things from God…🔗

The revival movements, in England as elsewhere, stressed the need for spreading the gospel. Carey's own interest in mission began when he read The Last Voyage of Captain Cook, the biography of the great English explorer who had lost his life in 1779 on the island of Hawaii. Aware that the people whose lands Cook had explored were without hope and without God, the desire arose in him to go out and do missionary work.

It took much effort to get support from the local ministers. Although there was sympathy, it was generally felt that the financial and physical obstacles were too many, and that the language barriers would be too great. Carey responded with the publication of his Enquiry into the obligations of Christians to use means for the conversion of the heathens – a book that would touch Christian consciences throughout the protestant world. Shortly later, at a meeting of Baptist ministers, he gave his famous sermon on Isaiah 54:2,

Enlarge the place of your tent… hold not back, lengthen your cords, and strengthen your stakes, with the recurring message that he would follow throughout his life: Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.

Resistance continued, but Carey refused to let matters rest, and in October 1792 the Missionary Society was at last established. It began with only 14 members and a budget of just over 13 pounds sterling, but the search for a mission field began nevertheless. The choice fell upon India. Support increased, and in 1793 Carey and his family departed. This, incidentally, was at the height of the French Revolution's Reign of Terror. It is striking that history's largest missionary wave, one that involved much of Europe and North America, began in the dark years of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.


In 1793 the English East India Company still frowned upon missionary work, and the Carey family had to travel to India on a Danish ship. Forced to provide for himself and his family, Carey accepted a job as supervisor at an indigo plant in Bengal. The salary was quite high, so that he could forego financial assistance from England, and the work enabled him to become proficient in the Bengali language. He had much free time, which he employed in preaching and evangelizing, continuing his language studies, and working at the Bengali Bible translation.

Because of his work at the factory, Carey had been able to register himself as a businessman and so escaped the censorship of the East India Company. But when in 1799 five missionary helpers from England tried to join him, they failed to get the Company's permission to settle. Because the government of Denmark welcomed missionaries in its colonies, Carey and his colleagues moved to the Danish settlement of Serampore, not far from Calcutta, It was in this busy commercial centre that in the beginning of 1800 they set up their mission post. Soon a church opened, as well as schools. One missionary and his wife added a boarding school for the children of European functionaries and wealthy Indians. The money earned in that way became one of the supports of the mission post. Later it would be supplemented by the profits of the mission printing press, and by Carey's salary as a lecturer.

Although there was progress, especially in the matter of Bible translation, the missionaries experienced many disappointments and much grief. Shortly after their arrival in India one of Carey's four sons had died. His wife, who had come along to India only reluctantly, became mentally ill and would die in 1807. Three of the five new missionaries succumbed to illness within two years of their arrival. And for the first seven years Carey saw no fruit on his work. No one in India had believed the Gospel, and in Serampore, where Moravian missionaries had worked for years without apparent result, he again met with much indifference.

The turning point came at the end of the first year in the new settlement, when the first Indian was converted. In spite of persecution, others followed, Hindus and Muslims. In years to come, Carey and his fellow-workers would more and more use the help of these natives in preaching, teaching, and translating.

On Behalf of India🔗

Reliance on natives of India wherever possible was one of the ways in which Carey's work differed from that of most of the earlier missionaries. The approach was followed the more easily because of his genuine interest in India, its people, and its civilization. Carey never attempted to anglicize or westernize the country. From the very beginning he tried to get to know and enhance India's culture, and to understand the thought processes of its people, convinced that he would make little progress in his missionary work if he did not know what moved high- and low-caste Hindus as well as Muslims. His language and literature studies helped in these efforts. Having mastered Bengali, he turned to the study of Sanskrit, India's ancient classical language. He soon began to publish Indian literary and religious works, in the original and in translation.

His knowledge of Indian languages and literature was such that in 1801 the Governor General of India appointed him to the Chair of Bengali at the newly established Fort William College at Calcutta. Within a year Carey became professor of Sanskrit as well. Both posts he would hold for 30 years. Since there were no grammars, dictionaries, or textbooks, he had to create them himself. One of the first books he introduced at the College was his Bengali New Testament. His professorship provided golden opportunities to speak about his faith and his life's work with future English administrators and with the children of high-class Indians.

The Bengali New Testament, which would go through many editions, was Carey's first translation. It had been printed on the mission post's own presses and published by its own publishing company, and was distributed widely. When it appeared, however, that high-caste Indians ignored the book because it was written in the common tongue, Carey translated the entire Bible into classical Sanskrit as well. Translations in still other languages followed. More and more Carey enjoyed the help of his colleagues and of Indian scholars in this work of Bible translation, but he himself remained in control throughout.


Carey's work at Serampore continued after his appointment at Calcutta. An important consequence of that appointment was, however, that now all of India could become his parish. Occasionally there was still resistance, but in principle the East India Company had accepted Carey the missionary, and in 1813 the Company's charter was amended in such a way that missionary activity was openly allowed in India. With his colleagues Carey could now set to work on the set up of a network of mission posts which would stretch from India proper to Burma and Indonesia.

Schools had been established from the first, as far as possible under Indian teachers. Convinced that the missionary work should shift more and more to the Indians, Carey made plans also for their theological training, and in 1821 the Serampore College was established. Under the King of Denmark's royal charter, granted in 1827, the College developed into the first degree granting institution in all of Asia. It still exists as a seminary and an arts and science college.

Social Reforms🔗

Carey, as we saw, did whatever he could to understand and enhance India's culture. This does not mean that he ever compromised the Gospel message. Nor does it mean that he was afraid to criticize Indian customs where necessary. For one thing, converts had to renounce the caste system, as well as the hatred between Hindus and Muslims. All Christians were to be equal and brothers in Christ.

Carey also protested against what were perhaps the two most atrocious Indian customs – the sacrifice of children to the goddess of the Ganges River, and “suttee,” the burning of widows on their husbands' funeral pyres. Because of Carey's knowledge of Sanskrit, the governor of India asked him to investigate the origin of these practices. When he could prove to the satisfaction of leading Hindus that the customs were later accretions and did not appear in the original sacred books, the government felt free to pass regulations forbidding them.

On a different level was Carey's work in agriculture and horticulture. He had always had a passion for plants and gardening, and at the mission station in Serempore he managed to set up a five acre botanical garden containing Indian and English plants, shrubs, and trees. In course of time his botanical interests led him to propose the establishment of an Agricultural Society in India to help bring about agricultural and horticultural improvements. His accomplishments were recognized at home when in 1823 he was awarded a fellowship in the Linnaean Society in London. Shortly before his death, he was elected President of the Indian Agricultural Society and became a member of a government committee dealing with reforestation and forest maintenance.

A New Approach🔗

As I mentioned at the beginning, Carey's approach to mission is one of the reasons why he has been called “the father of modern mission.” The character of his work should have become clear from the foregoing, but by way of conclusion I will summarize the main elements.

  • Firstly, he stressed the local translation, printing and publication, and the widespread distribution of the Bible, an ongoing affair which in his own days led to the appearance of complete Bible translations in six Indian languages as well as numerous New Testaments and Bible fragments in a variety of other Indian languages and dialects.

  • Secondly, he attempted to get to know the people of the country, their culture, their traditions, and their way of looking at the world. In the process he made important contributions to their culture, and helped preserve their literature.
    In addition, there were the social and economic reforms he helped introduce.

  • Thirdly, and connected with the foregoing, he set up an extensive network of Christian elementary schools, introduced post-elementary schooling (in the European sciences but also in Indian history and literature), and began the training of native clergy.

  • Fourthly, he made it his goal to spread the Gospel as widely as possible, within India but also in neighbouring countries (Burma, Indonesia), and established local churches as soon as possible.

  • And finally, he insisted upon the independence of the Indian Church, which had connections with the English Baptist Church but was not controlled by it.

    His ideal was, he once wrote, “…the forming of our native brethren to usefulness, fostering every kind of genius, and cherishing every gift and grace in them; in this respect we can scarcely be too lavish in our attention to their improvement. It is only by means of native preachers we can hope for the universal spread of the Gospel through this immense Continent.”

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