Rev. Kortering is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches. Previous article in this series: January 1, 2009, p. 156.

His Labors in India

The struggles that William Carey faced in England in trying to convince others that God had a work for him in India prepared him for the far more difficult work God had for him to do there. During their five month voyage, Carey began his study of the Bengali language, with the help of Thomas, his colleague, who had labored in India before and motivated him to return with him. The captain of the ship was kind to Carey and his family and even allowed him to conduct public worship services on the Lord’s Day. Carey’s mind was sharpened through his regular debate with an old Frenchman, Barnard by name, who was a Deist and who challenged Carey’s beliefs at every turn. Carey had time to read the Bible devotionally, and to prepare his soul for future trials. Even Dorothy, his wife, settled down somewhat when the ship passed the cape of South Africa.

Carey had hoped that they would stop there, so that he would have time to enjoy fellowship with the Dutch Christians and to send notice back to England of their progress, but this was not to be. After encountering a horrific storm that persuaded him that all would be lost at sea, Carey learned anew the mercies of the Lord, and he bravely pressed on with renewed courage.

Let me give you a few snapshots of the difficulties he faced upon his arrival in India on November 19, 1793.

Politics made necessary their illegal entry into the country. The East India Company opposed any mission work in India because they saw it as a threat to their profit margin. Because of this, the Careys boarded the ship illegally, with the help of the captain, who sympathized with their goal. Upon arrival, the captain of each ship had to submit an affidavit stating he carried no contraband or unlicensed passengers on his ship. To enable him to do this, the captain helped the missionary families disembark the ship and board a small fishing boat prior to their entering Calcutta.

Thomas was acquainted with this territory, so it did not take long before they were swallowed up in the jungle. Thomas had kept his family in Calcutta in affluence, so upon his return he settled down with them. He even used, for his own comforts, most of the resources that the churches had provided. Carey’s seclusion, however, forced him to struggle in the malaria infested regions and in poverty of the worst sort for a few months. His soul was tried almost to the point of despair. He learned to wait upon Jehovah.

Then God moved Mr. Short, of the East India Company, to offer Carey a job in an indigo factory in Malda. And Thomas repented of his mistreatment of the Careys, and the two were reconciled. For almost eight years Carey turned his manual work to an advantage for his missionary calling.

In 1795 Carey established a small Baptist church in Malda. The membership numbered only four—his own family—though many local Bengali people attended and the gospel became known to others. Yet, during this time, Carey could not claim one convert. He used the factory as an opportunity to learn the local language and began his important work of translating the Bible.

The hardships of the first eight years took a toll on his family. Sickness bore down on them. Carey suffered malaria with violent vomiting and dysentery. Their son, little five-year-old Peter, died of the fever. Dorothy had constant bouts with depression and mental hysteria, and sank into the horrible abyss of mental breakdown, from which she never recovered. Even the subsequent birth of a son, Jonathan, did not lift her spirits. When the child was three months old, Carey wrote home, “My poor wife must be considered as insane, and is the occasion of great sorrow.”

To add even more misery to this man of God, his home church accused him of forsaking his missionary calling and seeking after filthy lucre when he took up the work at the indigo factory. But during all these eight years he was putting down roots for a foreign mission work, an indigenous church. The real opportunity to form a permanent work in this unforgiving land came in 1800, when the door of opportunity opened in Serampore. There he would labor for the next 34 years, until his death.

New missionaries had arrived from England, and in order to avoid further conflict with the East India Company, the mission relocated in the Danish territory of Serampore, near Calcutta. The providence of God brought together the Serampore trio, William Carey, Joshua Marshman, and William Ward. Carey describes his co-laborers thus: “Brother Ward is the very man we wanted…. He enters into the work with his whole soul. I have much pleasure in him . . . . Brother Marshman is a prodigy of diligence and prudence, as is also his wife . . .” (quoted from Drewery’s, William Carey).

In view of the shared presence of dangers, disease, and death, the three organized life within the community after the pattern of the early Christian church. Each family had its own apartment but labored together in the common eating hall, the chapel, the building that housed the printing operation and the boarding school. Funds earned were placed in a common treasury.

A disciplined life-style prevailed: they arose at 6 a.m. for personal devotions; they had breakfast at 8 a.m.; and twice-daily devotions were conducted in the chapel. The main meal was served at 3 p.m. Late afternoons and evenings were for preaching expeditions, prayer meetings, and instruction for inquirers.

The families helped each other. With Dorothy Carey incapacitated, Hannah Marshman not only helped with the boarding school, but also filled in as mother to the Carey children.

The three men drew up a covenant in 1804 whereby they committed each other to this work:

1. To set an infinite value on men’s souls.

2. To acquaint ourselves with the snares which hold the minds of the people.

3. To abstain from whatever deepens India’s prejudice against the gospel.

4. To watch for every chance of doing the people good.

5. To preach “Christ crucified” as the grand means of conversions.

6. To esteem and treat Indians always as our equals.

7. To guard and build up “the hosts that may be gathered.”

8. To cultivate the spiritual gifts of the Indians, ever pressing upon them their missionary obligation, since only Indians can win India for Christ.

9. To labor unceasingly in biblical translation.

10. To be instant in the nurture of personal religion.

11. To give ourselves without reserve to the Cause, not counting even the clothes we wear our own.

God blessed the work of these men in the Serampore compound. We will enumerate those blessings briefly.

First, we mention the translation of the Bible and its publication as the lifelong achievement of Carey and his associates. Carey was a capable linguist and possessed the gifts necessary for this crucial work. It began on the way to India as Thomas taught him Bengali. At every event in his life, he interacted with the people to hear them speak and learn from their use of the language. Every morning Carey began his day by reading a chapter of the Bible in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Dutch, French, English, and the local dialects of India as he learned them. He took it seriously, as he wrote to his friend Felix enroute to Burma in 1807:

With respect to the Burman language, let this occupy your most precious time and your most anxious solicitude. Do not be content with acquiring the language superficially, but make it your own, root and branch. To become fluent in it, you must attentively listen, with prying curiosity, into the forms of speech, the construction and accents of the natives” (Cox, History of the Baptist Missionary Society).

Through his efforts at translation work he was able to make the Bible available in the common language of the people, 40 languages and dialects, with special emphasis on Bengali for both Old and New Testament. Most translations went through many editions. He describes his involvement as:

I never suffer a single word, or a single mode of construction to pass without examining it, and seeing through it: I read every proof-sheet twice or thrice myself, and correct every letter with my own hand. Bro. Marshman and I compose with the Greek or Hebrew, and Bro Ward reads every sheet. Three of the translations, viz. Bengalee, Hindoosthance, and Sangskrit, I translate with my own hand…. I constantly avail myself of the help of the most learned natives, and should think it criminal not to do so, but I do not commit my judgment to any one” (quoted from a letter by Carey to Andrew Fuller).

William Ward had accompanied him from England to serve as the printer for such projects. Money for these projects came from both England and America. With the written Word of God, evangelization increased. Timothy George gives us this account in his book Faithful Witness:

The translation of the Bible into the language of the people was a powerful tool of evangelization. Marshman referred to the first 2000 copies of the Bengali New Testament as 2000 missionaries. One of the copies of this first edition made its way to the distant city of Dacca. When the missionaries finally established a work there some 17 years later, they discovered several villages of Hindu peasants who had abandoned the worship of idols. They were waiting for a teacher who would explain to them the faith they had learned from the frayed pages of a little book preserved in a wooden box in one of their villages. The book was Carey’s Bengali New Testament.

Second, we must explain how education became a key role in the mission enterprise. One of the guiding principles of their work was to include education as the means to help people read and to train local men to function as missionaries to their own people. This came about in the establishing of schools all during Carey’s missionary labors. Already at Mudnabatty in 1798, 21 children were involved in reading parts of the Scriptures, singing of hymns, learning to write. From this beginning came schools for local children, boarding schools for missionary children, and girls’ schools. A manual for teachers was published in 1816. This adapted the methodology of the British reformer Joseph Lancaster to the schools of India. By 1817 the Baptist missionaries had opened 103 schools with an average attendance of 6,703 pupils.

Because of this valuable experience, Carey was appointed a tutor at Fort William College in Calcutta. This school catered to the cultural elite, such as civil servants, who needed a person proficient in Bengali. The Serampore Three were not sure if Carey ought to commit to this work. Eventually they consented, and Carey worked his way into this level of education.

By God’s providence this experience contributed to the mission work. All the money he earned was placed in the mission treasury. This language instruction helped him be more proficient for his Bible translation. Carey used this contact with the school to reach out to others in Calcutta, which led to a mission station in Calcutta.

His involvement in the school contributed also to the British government recognizing his labors in Serampore, when they drove out the Danes. Carey and his mission work were no longer a threat to them but became accepted.

Eventually his experience at William College contributed to his founding of the Serampore College in 1818. This school became the means for training local Indian youth to do mission work in their own land.

Third, Carey learned how to hold to biblical principles in the area of Christian social life without direct conflict with the government. This is important for missions. He learned this already in England, where his sensitive soul could not accept the horrible trade of human life in slavery. Though he saw this as abhorrent and unacceptable as a Christian, he did not openly confront the government. He resorted to preaching the gospel to his congregations and allowing the Holy Spirit to work in the hearts of the people.

This was critical to his labor in India. He was confronted with the horrible practice of infant sacrifice (deformed or unwanted infants, especially girls, were hung in the trees to be devoured by white ants, or in other places thrown in the river to be eaten by alligators). He confronted abortion; euthanasia by abandoning the dying on the edge of the Ganges; sati, which is the burning of the surviving widow on the pyre of her expired husband; and the caste system, by which the “undesirables” were made outcasts from society and left to survive and die on the streets. Carefully he addressed these issues, not by public confrontation of government officials, but by instruction in the schools and by preaching in the churches. Eventually this had an impact upon the Christians within the heathen society.

Finally, Carey learned to deal with personal and family issues while serving God in missions under very adverse circumstances. It is unfair to judge Carey’s behavior by today’s standards. This is done especially with regard to Carey’s persistence in going to India over the objections of his wife. As we noted, she became insane and was unable to function as a missionary’s wife. We can appreciate that Carey had so much at stake that not going to India would have destroyed him. It became one or the other. There is no indication Carey did not love his wife or care for her properly. All indications are that Dorothy suffered deep mental illness.

Nor should he be criticized for marrying Charlotte Rumohr within a few months of the death of Dorothy. He recognized in her what Dorothy could not give him, a wife, a mother, an assistant in his translation work. Hence he enjoyed thirteen years of marriage with Charlotte. Upon her death, took yet one more wife, Grace Hughes, seventeen years younger than he, who met his needs in his old age. It would be severely judgmental on our part if we would fail to balance the commitment to work in such adverse circumstances with the obvious need he had for a helper meet for him.

To me, the ultimate reward for his family struggles came when two of his sons, Jabez and William, continued in the work that Carey began. Even out of a home so sorely tried, God raised up successors from Carey’s own flesh.

Carey had to deal with controversy over his doctrinal positions as liberalism began to gain more and more influence. His missionary methods also were called into question by the “younger generation.” After the death of his beloved friend, Andrew Fuller, some of these differences even led to a parting of the ways when the Baptist Missionary Society began a competing work in Calcutta. This grieved Carey as he saw this new work departing from the historic gospel of the Reformed faith. He pressed on with greater determination. Carey’s conviction prevailed in the Serampore mission that “Jesus Christ is the only medium through which man can approach God.” Pluralism was rejected by Carey. This sets a good standard for present day missions.

“Carey spent the last month of his life writing, preaching, receiving visitors, and walking through his lovely garden. . . .Just at the crack of dawn, 5:30 a.m., on June 9, 1834, Carey died in his 73rd year.” A young missionary from Scotland, John Leechman, witnessed his burial and wrote,

And now what shall we do? God has taken up our Elijah to heaven. He has taken our master from our head today. But we must not be discouraged. The God of missions lives forever. His Cause must go on. The gates of death, the removal of the most eminent, will not impede its progress, nor prevent its success. Come: we have something also to do than mourn and be dispirited. With our departed leader all is well. He has finished his course gloriously. But the work now descends on us. Oh, for a double portion of the divine Spirit” (quoted from Faithful Witness, by Timothy George).

May God raise up, among us, men like William Carey, the Father of Modern Missions.