William Carey, Cultural Transformer
William Carey encountered religious practices that involved torture in India. For one ritual, two iron hooks were plunged through the back flesh of one who followed the false god Jagannath. Then ropes were connected to the hooks and the devotee was hoisted some 40 feet in the air, where he would be spun around. The hooks ripped through a devotee’s flesh on occasion and sent him plummeting to his death. Locals engaged in the practice hoping that it would atone for their sins. Grieved by such self-destructive idolatry, Carey began to combat it by spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ. As the Lord caused many Indians to see the truth, they turned from such rituals.1
Carey’s humble background did not foreshadow such impact for God’s kingdom. Born in 1761 in England, he was educated at home by his father until he was 14. Though he became a cobbler’s apprentice, his conversion and growing involvement in church turned his heart toward the ministry. Accordingly, he studied theology, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew on his own, eventually mastering more than 20 languages. When he came across the Journal of Captain Cook’s Last Voyage, he devoured it and later said it “was the first thing to engage my mind to think of missions.”2 And quite an engagement it was. Beginning in 1793, he devoted the remainder of his life to missions work in India, where he traveled before missions work was officially allowed. As the first of the modern Protestant missions movement, he shared the gospel with great impact on the culture as well as upon individuals.3
The India he encountered needed the gospel desperately. The nation was crippled by the caste system, infanticide, child marriages, corruption, and the practice of widow burning (called satī). So while the core of his work was to preach Christ as the only means of salvation, his ministry extended far beyond the pulpit. For instance, appalled at a young widow’s agreement to be burned on her husband’s funeral pyre, he invested years in denouncing the practice to locals and asking the British government to outlaw it. In 1829, the Hindu rite was banned, and Carey deserved much of the credit.4
He and his missionary partners also educated the illiterate and established scores of schools for pupils of both sexes. He eventually became professor of oriental languages at Calcutta’s Fort William College, an honor for a man with no university degrees. Many of India’s finest students studied under Carey’s godly influence and discovered the Redeemer whom he served.5
Indeed, Carey saw education, astronomy, economics, political theory, social reform, agriculture, and literature as his platforms to demonstrate the superiority of a Christian worldview.6 In each area, the missionary left a lasting mark on India.
Two years after he completed the eighth revision of his Bengali translation of the New Testament, Carey died in 1834. His humility remained a distinctive feature to his death. Responding to the words of a friend, he said, “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 Savior.”7
Timothy George, Faithful Witness: The Life and Mission of William Carey (Birmingham, AL: New Hope, 1991), 126.
Michael A. G. Haykin, One Heart and One Soul: John Sutcliff of Olney, His Friends and His Times (Darlington, England: Evangelical Press, 1994), 184.
See Terry G. Carter, ed., The Journal and Selected Letters of William Carey (Macon, GA: Smyth and Helwys, 2000), 129-191.
Thomas J. Nettles, The Baptists: Key People Involved in Forming a Baptist Identity, vol. 1 (Fearn, Scotland: Mentor, 2005), 302-304.