John Stott once defined evangelicals as Gospel people and Bible people. No one has embodied these traits more fully than William Carey (17611834), an iconic figure among Baptists and evangelicals. A shoemaker by trade, Carey is often dubbed the “father of modern missions.” Today, when the missionary movement has lost much of its focus within wide sectors of the Church, Carey has some important lessons to impart.
When he left England for India in 1793, the odds were stacked against him. Apart from a few years in a village school, he had no formal education. He was shy, introverted, and insular. He had no financial resources. And, even though he was an ordained pastor, the Baptist bigwigs who led his denomination in London had no confidence in the cobbler-pastor and refused to support his plans.
But Carey would not be deterred. Through his study of the Bible, he had become convinced that he and his fellow Christians were obliged to carry the message of Jesus Christ to those who had never heard it. Carey was a Calvinist but not a hyper-Calvinist. He believed that God wanted all people to hear the message of Christ and that he had ordained “the use of means” to carry out that purpose. Against others who argued that the missionary mandate had been fulfilled long ago in the apostolic age, Carey said that the Great Commission had no statute of limitations.
And so, on June 13, 1793, William Carey, his wife Dorothy, and their four childrenincluding a nursing infantsailed from Dover on a Danish ship headed for India. Carey never saw his homeland again. He would spend the rest of his life in India as a pastor, teacher, evangelist, linguist, agriculturalist, journalist, botanist, social activist, and correspondent with some of the world’s leading political and religious figures. His fame seemed not to have corrupted his soul. When he died in his seventy-third year, he requested that a couplet from one of his favorite hymns by Isaac Watts be inscribed in the stone slab that would mark his grave. Though the words have faded with time, their traces can still be seen today: “A wretched, poor, and helpless worm, on thy kind arms I fall.”
Carey knew that it was important to communicate the Gospel in ways that spoke to the total setting of the people to whom it was addressed. Today, this is what we call “contextualization.” Carey experimented with new methods and used hitherto untried approaches. The planting of indigenous churches and the training of national pastors were two key elements in his strategy for evangelization. Realizing that male missionaries would have limited access to female hearers in the Hindu and Muslim cultures, he supported the training of “Bible women” who were often able to break through the gender barrier and minister effectively.
Carey had great respect for the antiquity and beauty of the cultural legacy he encountered. Indeed, his translations and critical editions of the ancient Hindu classics contributed to what has been called an “Indian Renaissance.” One of his greatest contributions as a Christian witness was to translate the Bible into Bengali and many other languages and dialects of the East.
He refused to divorce conversion from discipleship. He stressed both the propositional and the incarnational aspects of the Gospel. He pointed out that Jesus had given food to hungry people on the same occasion that he presented himself to them as the Bread of Life (see Jn 6). Carey would have agreed with E. Stanley Jones, a twentieth-century Methodist missionary to India: A soul without a body is a ghost; a body without a soul is a corpse. The Gospel is addressed to living persons, soul and body, in all of their broken humanity and need for wholeness.
While Carey never lost sight of the individual, he also applied the Christian message to the sinful social structures of his day. He was a reformer as well as an evangelist. He denounced slavery and supported the efforts of William Wilberforce and others to have it abolished within the British Empire. He urged legislation to curb the inhumane practices of sati and infanticide. He detested the wanton destruction wrought by war and prayed for peace among the nations of the world.
The modern quest for Christian unity was born on the mission field. Missionaries, perhaps more than any others, felt the incongruity of presenting to the world “the seamless robe of Jesus in a patchwork of garishly conflicting patterns and denominational fabrics.” Throughout the nineteenth century, advocates for the world mission enterprise often found Jesus’s prayer in John 17:21 an important text linking ecumenism and mission. Here, as elsewhere, William Carey was a visionary leader who saw beyond the limits of his own age toward a new horizon.
In 1806, Carey surveyed the growing competition of the various missionary societies which had sprung up since the founding of his own Baptist effort fourteen years earlier. He called for a coordinated strategy for world evangelization. “Would it not be possible,” he wrote, “to have a general association of all denominations of Christians, from the four corners of the world, held about once every ten years?” He called for the first such conference to take place in the year 1810. A century later, in 1910, his dream became a reality with the International Missionary Conference in Edinburgh.
What would Carey think about contemporary ecumenical efforts today? No doubt, he would still lament the scandal of Christian division. He would ask, as Pope John Paul II did in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint, “How can we proclaim the Gospel of reconciliation without at the same time being committed to working for reconciliation between Christians?” (UUS, 98).
But Carey would be wary, I think, of an ecumenical theology that too easily morphs into syncretism and relativism, one that has lost the distinctiveness of the Gospel. Carey is a corrective to ecumenism by dilution even as he is a model for another approach to Gospel-based unity among Christians today. His vision resonates with the maxim made famous by the Puritan Richard Baxter and also quoted by Pope John XXIII at the opening of Vatican Council II: In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.
Timothy George is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and chair of the Doctrine and Christian Unity Commission of the Baptist World Alliance. He is the author of Faithful Witness: The Life and Mission of William Carey, originally published in 1991. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.