He was born poor but lived so others could become rich. He was born in anonymity and died famous throughout the world. William Carey, whose 250th birthday was just last month, was the son of a school teacher and he himself repaired shoes in the tiny English village of Paulesbury. Young Carey met Christ while a teenager and almost immediately his heart burned for the lost. In an era where the missionary enterprise of the church had been lost, William Carey found a calling to take the gospel overseas. After becoming a pastor, this brilliant man asked a gathering of ministers Whether the command given to the apostles to teach all nations was not binding on all succeeding ministers to the end of the world. . . In other words, Carey asked why the church of England had no heart to take the gospel to those who had never heard. An older gentleman in the congregation blurted out,
Young man, sit down, you are an enthusiast: when God pleases to convert the heathen, He will do it without your aid or mine.
Carey was not deterred. He left his comfortable life in England for India in 1793 in response to the call of God to evangelize those who had never heard the gospel. Five months later, Carey arrived in India and he never went home. The father of modern missions stayed 41 years until his death at age 73. Along the way, Carey founded churches, translated and printed the Scriptures into 40 languages and worked for social reform among the Indians.
William Carey didn’t go to Urbana. He didn’t read material from Operation Mobilization. In fact, there were no missions conferences, there were no prayer letters, summer missions, or career missionaries. William Carey simply studied the Bible and he couldn’t ignore what he saw. Everywhere he looked he found God’s mandate to mission, to evangelism! So he wrote a short book with a long title: An Enquiry Into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen. The book caused a stir but it led to the formation of England’s first foreign missionary organization, with William Carey as their first missionary. Before leaving for India, Carey preached his most famous sermon, Expect Great Things From God. Attempt Great Things for God. William Carey had both great expectations and great aspirations and he endured over four decades of suffering in India for the cause of Christ. The fruit of his ministry endures to this day.
What does William Carey have to teach us on the 250th anniversary of his birth?
First, Carey was willing to pray. And prayer led him to his life’s calling. In his cobbler’s shop he took some spare leather, made a globe of the world and began to pray over the whole world. Finally he said, If it be the duty of all men to believe the gospel… then it be the duty of those who are entrusted with the gospel to endeavor to make it known among all nations. Carey cried out, Here am I; send me!
Second, Carey was willing to plod in ministry. What do you think happened when this British shoemaker landed in India? Did multitudes of Hindus flock to him eager to hear the gospel? Hardly. Carey labored seven years before he saw his first conversion to Christ! Once he was asked how he persevered in such a difficult environment. He said, I can plod. And plod he did. His story is a tale of triumph and tragedy. His first wife lost her sanity, in part due to the deprivations of life in India. At one point he lost 12 months of translation work due to a fire in his printing office. (Twelve months! How did you feel the last time you lost a single document on your computer?) Bitterly disappointed Carey wrote, I wish to be still and know that the Lord He is God, and to bow to His will in everything. He will no doubt bring good out of this evil and make it promote His interests, but at present the providence is exceedingly dark.
Third, Carey was willing to see. As he saw the plight of the Indians, he understood that evangelism means more than evangelism. Carey’s goal was to win Indians to Christ. But he didn’t show up in India and present the gospel in a vacuum. He understood the gospel to be a society-shaping, world-changing force. Accordingly he worked in other areas of Indian life. He watched the de-forestation practices of the natives and worked to prevent the 18th century equivalent of clear-cutting. He was horrified at some of the practices of the local Hindus. One custom was to burn to death a husband’s wife (or wives) upon his own funeral pyres. This allowed his wealth to be passed directly to his sons. Over 500 such widows had been recently burned in the area where Carey worked! This missionary labored for 30 years to make this practice illegal. He also surveyed and helped abolish the practice of throwing babies into the Ganges River during an annual festival at the Island of Saugor. Each year hundreds (thousands?) of families would offer a child to the gods. With Carey’s help the practice was outlawed.
Fourth, William Carey was willing to use the gifts God had given him. There is no question that this uneducated shoemaker was a gifted linguist. By the time he was 21, Carey had mastered Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Italian. He was moving on to Dutch and French. Once in India, he employed his gift for languages to translate the Scriptures. If nothing else, we learn from him that when God calls us to himself he will use the gifts he has already given us to glorify his name.
Fifth, Carey was willing to stick to his strategy. He knew his calling and he refused distraction. His aim was threefold: to preach the gospel in the people’s native tongue, to translate the Scriptures into the local dialect, and to start schools to educate the young. His vision kept him on course for four decades while a thousand distractions threatened to take him on a detour.
By the time William Carey died, the doors of modern missions had been flung wide open. Carey was a world-renowned linguist and something of a celebrity back in England. The former shoemaker was unmoved by his notoriety. He cared only for Christ and the work of spreading his kingdom. While on his deathbed, Carey was visited by a missionary named Alexander Duff. The young Duff sat next to Carey’s bed and whispered effusive praise into the dying missionary’s ear. Duff reviewed Carey’s faithfulness, his accomplishments, and his missionary success. As Alexander Duff got up to leave he heard the feeble voice of the famous missionary. Mr. Duff, you have been speaking about ‘Dr. Carey’, ‘Dr. Carey’. When I am gone say nothing about ‘Dr. Carey’—speak about Dr. Carey’s Saviour.
A few days later William Carey died. He wrote the epitaph for his own gravestone.
Born August 17, 1761: Died—
“A wretched, poor and helpless worm,
On Thy kindness I fall.”