William Carey was a poor Northamptonshire shoemaker who is better known today as the ‘father of modern missions’. Despite his humble origins he was an intelligent though uneducated man, who taught himself several languages, acquired skills as a craftsman, and became a schoolmaster and a Baptist minister by the time he was 25.
His studies lead to him becoming convinced that the mandate to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:20) was binding not merely on the original 11 but on all subsequent disciples of Jesus. In support of this argument he published in 1792 his influential essay An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens, a powerful apologetic which challenged the received wisdom that God was perfectly capable of saving unbelievers without the help of his followers. This discussion led to the foundation of a mission society which later became BMS World Mission.
Despite his bad health, low social standing, and rejection by the British authorities in Calcutta which forced him to move inland to live and work in a Danish colony, he was a determined plodder who achieved a great deal simply by working hard and keeping going. Yet he was also a man of faith, and his maxim “Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God.” continues to be popular.
Many of the attitudes and values pioneered in the mission field by Carey have formed the bedrock of missionary practice over the last two centuries, such as:
- Campaigning against cultural practices that harm people such as the caste system, suttee and child sacrifice;
- Establishing educational establishments to help people out of poverty;
- Language and culture acquisition as a means to sharing the gospel in a relevant way;
- Bible translation and printing as a means of propagating the word of God;
- Promoting agricultural development to improve people’s quality of life.
However, one practice of Carey’s which has remained largely unemulated by subsequent generations of mission workers is his willingness to support himself financially. Carey worked for a living, earning money from planting indigo while also translating the Bible into a number of Asian languages for the first time. The practice of mission workers taking employment to support themselves is only recently taking off again.
Hard-working and modest, one of Carey’s actions towards the end of his life indicates the quality of his character. When disputes within the mission he had founded proved to be irreconcilable, rather than become dictatorial and contend with those who disagreed with him, he walked away, leaving the mission and continuing his work independently.
Among his great legacy to the world of missions, one that stands out is the words that he and some friends wrote together in the founding statement of their mission society. They echo his wholehearted service for God and stand as a challenge to the values of mission workers to this day:
“Let us give unreservedly to this glorious cause. Let us never think that our time, or gifts, our strength, our families or even the clothes we wear are our own.”