Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God! - William Carey
William Carey (1761-1834), the “father of modern missions,” was a lowly cobbler in England before he felt a call to translate the Bible into as many Indian languages as possible. It was not easy making the transition from shoemaker to missionary, however. Shortly after having been ordained to preach the gospel by the Particular Baptists, he spoke to a gathering of Baptist leaders about his concern for the lost and his desire that they would be able to read the Scriptures in their own heart language. At the gathering, Carey was confronted by a formidable leader in the association who said to him, “Young man, sit down! You are an enthusiast. When God pleases to convert the heathen, he will do it without consulting you or me!”
The very fact that such a lack of concern for the lost among Baptists, and all Protestants for that matter, is now largely outdated is due in no small part to Carey’s subsequent decades spent on the mission field demonstrating that God does indeed have a heart for the nations.
Like most missions biographies from the 18th and 19th centuries, much drama and loss accompanies Carey’s story. After arriving in India, he found that he had significantly underestimated how much it would cost to set up a mission there. For the first few years, he and his family (his wife Dorothy and four children) and a young British surgeon who had accompanied them suffered greatly. They were constantly on the move trying to find reasonably priced accommodations. Carey came down with malaria and soon after his five-year-old son, Peter, died of dysentery. Dorothy suffered a mental breakdown, and life seemed more like a “daily plod” in Carey’s words. Thomas, the surgeon who accompanied them, left to go home to England. "I am in a strange land," he wrote, "no Christian friend, a large family, and nothing to supply their wants." However, he also retained hope: "Nevertheless, I have God, and his word is sure."
Finally, seven years later, Carey baptized his first convert to the faith, a man by the name of Krishna Pal. Although he was given only a basic education in England, Carey had taught himself Koine Greek, Hebrew and Latin (not just basic stuff either, he became an excellent translator of the Scriptures). He also learned the local dialect, Bengali, from a man he paid to simply talk to him and do basic tasks around the home. He was a missionary, but his heart’s desire remained the translation of the Scriptures into the languages of India. This, he believed, would set the foundation for enduring Christian mission among the millions (now billions) of Indians. This he accomplished, translating the entire Bible into Bengali, along with the first Bengali dictionary and additional dictionaries in many of the Indian dialects.
Then, many years later, in 1812, disaster struck. Joshua Marshman, a missionary who had joined Carey’s work, entered a Calcutta classroom where Carey was teaching and said, “I can think of no easy way to break the news - the print shop burned to the ground last night.” Gone were his massive dictionary, two new grammar books, and a whole version of the Bible. Gone were sets of type for fourteen language dialects, over a thousand reams of paper, 55,000 printed sheets, along with Carey’s entire library. “The work of years, gone in a moment” he said. "This is indeed the valley of the shadow of death to me," he wrote, though characteristically adding, "but I rejoice that I am here notwithstanding; and God is here." Carey and his mission agency pressed on. “We are cast down, but never in despair,” he wrote. When news of the fire reached England, thousands of pounds were raised for the ministry. Hundreds of volunteers moved to India. The entire print shop was rebuilt and enlarged. Soon, complete Bibles, New Testaments, and separate books of the Bible were issued from the printing press in forty-four languages and dialects. God works in mysterious ways!
Along with Bible translation and gospel preaching, Carey sought social reform in India, including the abolition of infanticide, widow burning (sati), and assisted suicide. He and the Marshmans founded Serampore College in 1818, a divinity school for Indians, which today offers theological and liberal arts education for some 2,500 students.
Carey’s vision for a gospel mission in India bore much fruit. By the time he died, he had spent forty-one 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 translation, education, and social reform. The work was begun - it continues to this day.
Over the next few weeks I will be sharing some of these short biographies in my Jym Shorts articles. Our Missions Emphasis is still months away, but we will be focusing on Bible translation work, and I want to set a foundation for that emphasis in September with some of these stories. I hope you will be both motivated and encouraged by what you read.
Grace and peace,