William Carey

4 minute read

“Expect great things from God, attempt great things for God.”

So the story goes that a young British cobbler named William Carey (1761-1834), intent on seeing his church become more involved in missions work to unreached people, stood up in a church service and implored the leaders to take spreading the gospel more seriously.

“Sit down young man,” piped up an elder in the church. “If God wants to convert the heathens, he can do it without your help.”

But the “father of modern missions” was undeterred. In 1792, Carey wrote the influential treatise, “Enquiry into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens,” where he argued that obstacles typically named as impediments to overseas missionary endeavors could be surmounted. Those obstacles included distance, barbarism of the people, dangers involved, difficulty of raising support, and language barrier.

Educating the People

When Carey arrived in India in 1793, he came to a country whose caste system kept millions of people poor and uneducated. Widow burning, forced female illiteracy, and female infanticide were commonplace. Carey believed that these ills and many others could be eliminated if the people embraced the gospel. Education became the best means to that end.

Carey pioneered the idea of lending libraries in India, began the first printing press, and founded the country’s first university in Serampore, one that exists to this day. He wrote the first Sanskrit dictionary for scholars as well as grammars for various Indian languages, and he translated some of the great religious Indian classics into English. Carey was so proficient in the indigenous languages that he became a professor of Bengali, Sanskrit, and Marathi at a civil servants’ training college less than a decade after arriving in India.

Carey Loved God’s Word

Despite all his energy spent across various disciplines, Carey’s true love was the Bible. He began each day reading a chapter from Scripture and then reading the same chapter in six other languages. In this way, Carey continued to educate himself not only in God’s Word but in the languages necessary for his missionary endeavors.

By 1824, Carey had supervised six complete and twenty-four partial translations of the Bible. However, small portions of the Bible were translated into over 200 Indian dialects too. Among them, the Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati, Oriya, Marathi, and Sanskrit translations were his own.

For his Sanskrit Bible, in particular, Carey relied extensively on the King James Bible. Similar turns of phrase, syntax, and clauses that mirror each other almost exactly are proof that Carey considered the King James Bible a classic of English literature; it was a fitting template upon which to develop a Sanskrit Bible, a language that was at the heart of so many Indian dialects.

A Lasting Legacy

Carey spent forty years in India without ever taking a furlough. Because he plunged so deeply into Hindu culture, Carey spurred on social transformation and linguistic renaissance in India. During his time in India, though, Carey saw relatively few converts to Christianity. Some estimates are around 700, quite a small number in a country with tens of millions of people. Yet, Carey’s pioneering efforts laid the foundation for future generations of missionaries to India and inspired countless other missionaries to dozens of countries around the world, including Hudson Taylor, David Livingstone, and Adoniram Judson.

Among the words Carey spoke on his deathbed were these: “Do not speak of Dr. Carey, speak of Dr. Carey’s Savior.” This perfectly expresses the heart of William Carey and the legacy he left behind.