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Rev. Kortering is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.

Carey Leaves England for India


William Carey is known as the “Father of Modern Missions.” There are especially two reasons for this. First, he was one of the first pastors to heed the call to leave the comforts of a church home and to labor in a foreign land. He became a catalyst for foreign missions. Second, in his own work in foreign missions he developed a method of labor that others could emulate. Considering that this was pioneer work, work that was without a role model, it is quite remarkable that Carey could adapt to his adverse circumstances and set forth a methodology that benefited the church for years to come. In this article we will focus on the circumstances in his life that afforded him the opportunity to be among the first to leave his homeland to serve the Lord as a foreign missionary.

Carey was born on August 17, 1761 in Paulerspury, Northamptonshire, the midlands of England. His father, Edmund, was a weaver who worked on a loom in the family room of his house. This was part of the cottage industry of the day, which would soon be replaced by the industrial revolution. The family was very poor, and since his father was appointed head of the Charity School, Carey learned basic reading there. He advanced his knowledge of the created world by tramping through the woods and taking specimens to his room. He read every book that was shared with him, including, later, Captain Cook’s Voyages. He listened intently to the travel escapades of his Uncle Peter, who had served in the British army and now returned home from his world travels. His horizons were broadened through such exposure.

At 14 years of age Carey apprenticed as a cobbler, and this trade provided his necessary income until 28 years of age. At 19 years of age, Carey married his master’s sister-in-law Dorothy. Before long, he found himself responsible for the financial support not only of his own family, a wife and three children, but also of his master’s widow and children.

During these years of shoe-making, Carey developed an interest in religious works. John Ware, an associate with him in the trade, witnessed much to Carey and put him in touch with good books. The Church of England had for some time been dominated by formal religion and precious little serious faith. That gave rise to the “Dissenters,” a group of preachers and pastors who met apart from the church for spiritual refreshment. This was the time of William Law, who was used by God to quicken spiritual interest; John Wesley, who was fervent in his preaching; and George Whitefield, who later traveled to America and began the Great Awakening, which in turn influenced Jonathan Edwards. The embers of spiritual renewal began to glow. Carey experienced a true sense of conversion and sought out the Dissenters for fellowship.

For a long time the Church of England did not take kindly to the activity of the Dissenters. Some time before, John Bunyan spent 12 years in the Bedford jail. Already in 1688, with the Act of Toleration, the Dissenters had been granted freedom of worship, but the real enforcement of it was always tenuous. In 1719 Parliament passed a bill forbidding anyone to teach if he had ever attended a “Dissenting” meeting, with three months in jail as penalty for violation. So in the days of Carey, there was always fear and persecution associated with worship apart from the Church of England.

In 1764 six Particular Baptist Churches formed an Association. By 1782 they had expanded into the region where Carey lived, and he attended one of their meetings in Olney. Andrew Fuller was his favorite preacher. Carey could accept John Bunyan’s position on baptism, which did not make membership conditioned on one’s stand on sprinkling or immersion. He settled in his own mind on believer’s baptism and submitted to his own baptism in October 1783.

As Carey continued his own study, he was led to believe that God had called him to pastor a church. He took up this responsibility in 1785 at Moulton in a Particular Baptist Church, which he served for four years. During this time he grew much in his understanding of the Scriptures. He even learned the original languages. His personal development included a better understanding of missions. He had a burden for lost sinners and articulated mission principles based on a theology for missions. He included many of these concepts in his preaching.

In April 1789 Carey, at 28 years of age, had opportunity to take up a trial-period in the ministry from a larger city church in Leicester. He was formally ordained in 1791. This was a Particular Baptist Church following the London Confession of 1644. He now had opportunity to serve as a leader in mission work. During this time he preached a moving sermon on Isaiah 54:2, 3: “Enlarge Thy Tents.” Out of that sermon came the famous statement, “Expect great things; attempt great things.”

Andrew Fuller’s book “The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation” was printed and distributed at that time. This book set forth the need to call sinners to repentance and faith. Carey added his voice: “Then it is the duty of the church to bring the gospel call to them.” The result was the formation of the Baptist Society for Propagating the Gospel Among the Heathen.

You may ask, Why did Carey focus on such a society instead of working with the church with a view to mission work? In subsequent years, especially among the Reformed churches, a better understanding was reached regarding the role of the church in missions. Among the Particular Baptist Churches, an independent form of church government was practiced. They formed associations, but looked askance at the idea of a federal church, a denomination with strong ties between local congregations. Besides this, the Particular Baptist Churches had among them hyper-Calvinists who firmly believed that it was not the duty of the church to send ministers to foreign lands for the purpose of saving the souls of the heathen. Besides this bad theology, they understood the “Great Commission” of Matthew 28 to relate only to the apostles, by whose work in missions to the world the mandate has already been fulfilled.

Such were the obstacles that had to be overcome by the “Father of Modern Missions.”

Carey did so in two ways.

First, he himself learned from those who had gone before him in doing mission work. Carey is known as the Father of modern missions, not the father of all missions. He studied avidly whatever books he could find in the libraries that were at hand. Carey had precious little formal education, but he is a refreshing example of a self-educated man. He developed with amazing skill and clarity the biblical theology of missions. He focused on all the important passages from Genesis through Revelation that related to bringing the gospel, not only to the Jews, but also to the Gentiles. He researched the history of missions to learn from the apostles, from the church fathers of the early Christian church, from the role of the Reformers in missions, and finally from the influence of the Pietists in Germany, especially of the Moravians, who set forth the five fundamental principles of missions that Carey took with him to India.

First, church and school go together. The ability to read God’s Word is basic to Christian nurture and growth. Second, the Scriptures must be made available in the common language of the people. Ziegenbalg translated all the New Testament and much of the Old into the Tamil language before his death in 1719. Third, communicating the gospel requires an accurate knowledge of the customs and religion of the people. Fourth, the missionary must confront the lost with the claims of Christ and pray for the definite and personal conversion of every person encountered. And fifth, an indigenous church with its own indigenous ministry must come into being as soon as possible. (Faithful Witness, by Timothy George.)

Two missionaries had a tremendous effect upon Carey. They were, interestingly, John Eliot and David Brainerd, who served as pioneering missionaries among the American Indians. Eliot had accompanied John Winthrop, governor of New England, in 1631. What impressed Carey about Eliot was his piety, his prayer life, and his zeal to preach the gospel. They shared in common a firm hatred of the slavery of Africans. Eliot modeled for Carey his role as preacher, translator, agricultural reformer, organizer of churches, and caregiver for the poor. David Brainerd was Yale-educated and converted in the Great Awakening through the preaching of George Whitefield. He labored under the auspices of the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge. It was the account of Brainerd’s life’s work, written by Jonathan Edwards, that moved Carey so much. He carried it with him to India and made reference to it repeatedly in his journals. The writings of Brainerd inspired in Carey a real burden for the lost.

Second, Carey bravely set forth his own convictions about the need to do missionary work among the heathen by publishing his work entitled, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens. This work is usually referred to simply as “The Inquiry.”

We can appreciate the fact that this publication had an impact similar to the nailing of Luther’s 95 Theses. Carey was fully aware that it would be like a lightening-rod that would attract high-voltage opposition. It is quite an amazing work, because it is the fruit of years of careful and methodical development of his argument. It begins with Scripture to argue that the Great Commission was not completed by the apostles, because the “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world” is Christ’s comfort for the church, which obeys His command all the way till the end of the world. It is a rare combination of the biblical theology of missions, the history of missions, the need for missions, and suggestions based on the Bible as to how this commission of Jesus ought to be carried out among heathen people in a foreign culture. He concluded with an exposition of Scripture that demonstrated that it is the duty of every Christian to care about the salvation of his neighbor.

The publishing of this book had a twofold effect. First, his opponents became more vocal, and their hostility towards missions polarized the church. And, second, it moved many to consider the church’s duty to obey Christ’s command to be busy in mission work.

Carey was a Calvinist. He affirmed without reservation what Andrew Fuller called “the discriminating doctrines of grace.” These are the well-known Five Points of Calvinism, or the doctrines of grace. Within the Particular Baptist Church, however, there were some who saw these doctrines as a hindrance to mission work. A controversy revolved around this question, “Is it the duty of poor unconverted sinners who hear the gospel preached and published, to believe in Jesus Christ?” Those who answered it in the negative saw no need for promiscuous preaching of the gospel. This divided the church over the need for mission outreach. Carey and others concluded that natural inability did not negate the duty of the church to address the gospel to them.

Andrew Fuller was convinced of this.

There was no contradiction between the universal obligation of all who hear the gospel to believe in Christ and the sovereign decision of God to save those whom He has chosen. The failure to believe stemmed not from any physical or “natural inability,” but rather from a “moral inability” which was the result of a perverted human will. Jonathan Edwards’s distinction between natural and moral ability was the key which unlocked the mystery of divine sovereignty and human responsibility for Fuller. (The Church Awakes, by Timothy George.)

Many of the leaders of the church had come a long way from the day when Carey first proposed the need for mission work and one of his listeners said to him, “Young man, sit down. When God pleases to convert the heathen he will do it without your aid or mine.” That had stunned young Carey. After many years of study and maturity, he was now ready; and the Mission Society was ready to be formally organized and to send out a missionary. Those who had a heart for missions responded with joy and thanksgiving for Carey, who was able to express their heartfelt desire and to propose a way of obedience in doing missions. The Particular Baptist Society for the Propagation of the Gospel among the Heathen began to collect money for this venture.

Within one year, things were in place for Carey to leave for India.

John Thomas, who had already served in Bengal, India, approached the society to offer his availability as missionary to India. He needed a companion. Carey offered his services. His companions in ministry were both shocked and excited.

Farewell services were held in various churches. But one thing was disappointing: Dorothy, Carey’s wife, refused to accompany him. Expecting her fourth child, she saw the burden too great. Carey could not turn back. He decided to take with him their firstborn, and he proposed that Dorothy come to India a year later. Under the providence of God, however, Carey’s departure was delayed. Shipping was interrupted by a war between France and Britain. During that time Carey, with the help of John Thomas, convinced Dorothy, who had now delivered her child, to join them. In due time they left England together, never to return.

It took five months of treacherous sailing for them to get the first glimpse of Calcutta, their field of labor.