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One man on a mission

30 August 2011

The 250th birthday of William Carey, described as the first modern missionary, falls this year. Stephen Tomkins examines his life and legacy

AS WILLIAM CAREY sailed with his reluctant family to Bengal in 1793, something remarkable happened in British church history. Mission to non-Christian peoples turned with extraordinary speed from the work of a small number of individuals into a national passion.

A year before sailing, Carey had co-founded the Baptist Missionary Society (BMS). The only comparable existing organisation was the Church of England’s 91-year-old Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, and even that had been more concerned with providing An­glican churches for British colonists than converting foreigners.

And yet, in the same decade, there appeared the London Missionary Society (also Carey’s initiative), the Edinburgh Missionary Society, the Glasgow Society for Foreign Mis­sions, and the Church Missionary Society. Fifty years later, these societies, com­bined with the later Wesleyan Mis­sion­ary Society, had 2500 evangelists in the field, not including wives and families.

Carey is sometimes called the first modern missionary, although this is unfair, given the activities of the mis­sions of Roman Catholics, Pietists, Moravians, and others. What he did do was jump-start the phenomenon that was the British missionary move­ment. And, crucially, he set the ex­ample of doing this through individual preaching, while establish­ment Christians such as William Wilberforce were thinking in terms of mission through colonialism.

When the Clapham Sect were colonising Sierra Leone for the sake of “Christianity, civilisation, and the abolition of the slave trade”, Carey operated independently of the co­lonial government, against its wishes and against its laws.

CAREY’s parents had been North­amp­tonshire weavers, but when he was six his father became the parish clerk and school­master. So, although the young Carey was not uneducated, he none the less became a shoemaker.

Among little else, he shares with John Henry Newman the fact that both were won for Evangelical Chris­tianity by the Revd Thomas Scott of Olney. Carey was brought up in the Church of England, but joined the Baptist Church at the age of 22, in 1783. He preached as well as cobbled, and he taught himself Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, discovering an extra­ordinary gift for languages which was to distinguish his missionary career in India.

The experience that first fired Carey’s missionary purpose was read­ing, in 1785, about Captain Cook’s voyages of Pacific exploration. This is of immense significance in under­standing the missionary zeitgeist of the 1790s.

With Cook’s journeys, Britain be­came the first empire with a literal reach. Advances in maritime tech­nology, navigation, and nutrition, meant that, as Carey urged in his missionary manifesto An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians, “Men can now sail with as much certainty through the Great South Sea as they can through the Mediterranean, or any lesser Sea. Yea, and providence seems in a manner to invite us to the trial.”

The Navy gave Britain an un­rivalled global scope, both commer­cially and militarily. Once Britain could send its soldiers, traders, farmers, and criminals all over the earth, it was, for those who took their faith seriously, about time they sent its gospel, too.

IT WAS also a significant time in the history of Evangelicalism, which, now half a century old, was deeply rooted enough to look beyond its native shores. Evangelicals were by no means unique in believing in the exclusive­ness of Christianity and the reality of eternal punishment, in theory, but they were more likely to take them seriously.

Their urbane and reasonable op­ponents, such as the Revd Sydney Smith, looked upon the non-Christian world with spiritual optim­ism and political caution. In contrast, Evangelicals such as Carey were used to preaching passionately that their fellow English people were damned sinners — trampling political respec­tability and social deference in the process. Evangelicals were already trained in the mindset and arts of mission, of which other British Chris­tians had no experience.

The first obstacle that Carey en­countered came from fellow believers. Carey was a Calvinistic Baptist, and, his hyper-Calvinistic colleagues were scandalised at the prospect of inter­ference in matters of divine election. “Young man, sit down!” cried the chairman, John Ryland, at a meeting of local pastors. “When God chooses to convert the heathen, he will do it without your aid or mine!”

But Carey’s missionary path could not be be diverted. And, before long, he set sail for India with his wife, Dorothy, his children, and a fellow missionary.

IF CAREY’s story is one of pioneer determination and heroism, Dorothy’s is one of tragedy. She had married Carey when she was 24, when he was simply the village shoemaker — be­fore his conversion, let alone his interest in India.

IF CAREY’s story is one of pioneer determination and heroism, Dorothy’s is one of tragedy. She had married Carey when she was 24, when he was simply the village shoemaker — be­fore his conversion, let alone his interest in India.

She was far from convinced by his calling, hated the idea of leaving home for ever, and, initially, refused to go. At this, Carey planned to take their eldest son and leave the rest of the family to the charity of the BMS. After their first attempt to sail fell through, she was finally persuaded by Carey’s friends that if she stayed, “her family would be dispersed and divided for ever — she would repent of it as long as she lived.”

Their first months in India were difficult and frightening; their funds quickly ran out, and they struggled to settle. Finally, Carey obtained a position as manager of an indigo factory.

He formed a church with his fellow missionaries, set to work learning Indian languages and Indian ways of life, and preached and translated the Bible. They sometimes faced violence, and were often insulted by the crowds who gathered to hear their preaching. Naturally, they struggled to make their alien metaphysical concepts understood in the languages that they were learning.

Carey appealed for, and received, new missionaries from England, and they started a school that taught practical housekeeping skills to local women.

ONE significant obstacle they faced was the East India Company. Its inter­ests in India were purely commercial, and it opposed any attempt to convert Indians, as it felt that this was liable to disturb the population and disrupt trade. As the ambassador Lord Ma­cartney assured the Chinese, in 1793: “The British never attempt to disturb or dispute the worship or tenets of others.”

Months before the Careys arrived, the East India Company had defeated an attempt by the Clapham Sect, sup­ported by the Home Secretary, to change their charter to one obliging them to appoint chaplains, teachers, and missionaries for the “religious and moral improvement of the Indians”, as well as for the colonists. In the wake of this tussle, Carey had to pay the company a huge bond to ensure “inoffensive be­haviour”.

In 1800, the missionaries were forced to move to Serampore, in Danish India, because the East India Company refused to let new BMS arrivals live in its ter­ritory. At home, Smith com­plained in The Edin­burgh Review that “a nest of consecrated cobblers” were to “preach the natives into an insurrection”.

Dorothy, meanwhile, suffered from dysentery for eight months after their arrival, and then her five-year-old son died of malaria. At this point, she started to ex­perience problems, emo­tionally and mentally. She sur­vived 14 years in India, but was, in Carey’s words, “totally de­ranged . . . as wret­ched as insanity can make her”, before dying of a fever.

Most Carey biographers have seen her as a millstone around his neck — one of the many trials besetting his heroic mis­sion. But he had gone by choice, and fulfilled his own calling, while she was there against her will. It is debatable who was a millstone to whom.

KRISHNA PAL was Carey’s first Hindu convert. He was a car­penter who came to the mission to have his dis­located shoulder fixed, took away a tract, and returned for Bible studies. He was baptised in 1800. This meant that there were seven years of sowing before the first harvest, but, over the next 21 years, they baptised 1400 adults.

Carey translated the Bible into six languages, and parts of it into 29 others. He wrote grammars and dictionaries for six lan­guages, and worked on a polyglot diction­ary, destroyed in a fire.

Even while his mission was illegal, he was employed by the East India Company as Professor of Sanskrit, Marathi, and Bengali. He was an avid botanist, and several Indian plants have been named after him.

Carey was not generally interested in trying to conform Indian culture to European norms, but he did cam­paign against suttee, the burning of widows, and was instrumental in its being outlawed in 1829. He taught that Indian Christians must renounce the caste system, and was also keen on what he called “the form­ing of our native brethren to useful­ness”, and passing on the mission to Indian believers as soon as possible.

He founded a secular college in Serampore (which continues today) to teach Christian and Hindu stu­dents “Eastern Literature and Euro­pean Science”. He respectfully engaged with Indian culture, and courted criticism by translating the Hindu epic Ramayana into English.

By 1817, the Baptists had founded 103 free schools, which taught Chris­tianity alongside the three Rs.

CAREY’s approach, said Bishop Stephen Neill, the Anglican his­torian of mis­sions, was “extra­ordinarily in­depen­dent and modern”. His Baptist ecclesiology allowed him easily and quickly to start new branches of an inter­national communion, which looked to no foreign hierarchy.

He had a genuine respect for Indian people and their culture, and told his son: “Cultivate the utmost friendship and cordiality with them, as your equals, and never let Euro­pean pride or superiority be felt by the natives in the mission-house in Rangoon.”

Where he is a less edifying ex­emplar is in the experience of his wife. Dorothy is a reminder that those who are called to make sacrifices for their faith sometimes end up making more of a sacrifice on behalf of others than they do for themselves.

Stephen Tomkins is contributing editor of Ship of Fools (www.shipoffools.com) and deputy editor of Third Way.

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