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Turning points in church history: William Carey

1 July 2010 | by John Legg

William Carey, the father of modern missions?

On 2 October 1792 twelve Baptist pastors, meeting in Kettering, resolved to form ‘The Particular Baptist Society for the Propagation of the Gospel amongst the Heathen’, the first of many similar ventures. William Carey, the inspiration behind this, has generally been known as ‘the father of modern missions’. How far is this justified?

Carey’s preparation

Carey, born in 1761, was converted at the age of seventeen. He soon began to preach, combining a lay-pastorate with shoe-making and teaching to support his family. Inspired by reading about Captain Cook’s voyages of exploration, he made a chart for his schoolroom so that he could display the religious state of all the nations of the world. A visitor saw him moved to tears as he pointed to various lands, saying, ‘And these are pagans, pagans!’ He also met with brethren such as Andrew Fuller, John Ryland (Jnr) and John Sutcliffe in the Northamptonshire Baptist Association. There, since 1784, much prayer had been made for the conquest of the world by the gospel. Carey, however, was aware that more than prayer was needed. He put his research into a book, which he would entitle An Enquiry into the Obligation of Christians to use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens. He proposed the formation of a society to work out a plan and the ‘means’ to implement it and defray the expense, pre-eminently prayer.

Before this could be published Carey, now minister in Leicester, was given the responsibility of preaching at the Association’s Quarterly Meeting in Nottingham in May 1792. The text was Isaiah 54:2-3, especially ‘lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes’. His two memorable headings were, ‘Expect great things; attempt great things’ – in that order; Carey knew that God’s initiative must come first. Although those present were moved, next morning it appeared, as Carey complained to Fuller, that ‘nothing again (was) going to be done’. In the event, moved by Carey’s distress, before leaving they resolved to prepare a plan to form a society, such as Carey had proposed, at their next meeting.

The founding of the Particular Baptist Society

At Kettering in October they formally resolved to establish the Society. On the face of it this was ridiculous. They were, in the words of Carey’s great-grandson, ‘pastors of obscure little village causes’, men ‘of no fame and of scantiest salaries’. They had little support and much discouragement from the leading Baptist ministers in London. They pledged a total of £13 2s 6d, while Carey gave the proceeds from the sale of his book! Fuller became secretary and devoted the rest of his life to the Society, travelling hundreds of miles and raising thousands of pounds. Carey, with his colleague, the experienced and gifted, but erratic and unreliable surgeon, John Thomas, sailed for India on 13 June 1793, arriving in Calcutta on 11 November. He never saw England or Andrew Fuller again.

Carey had to wait until the end of 1800 to see the first Indian convert, Krishna Pal (see New Christian Hymns 176). However, by the time of Carey’s death in 1834, twenty-six gospel churches with eighteen mission centres, had been established, manned by fifty workers, over half of them Indian. The Bible had been translated into six languages, with a further twenty-three New Testaments, all done by Carey himself. Meanwhile, in Britain, the non-denominational Missionary Society (later the largely Congregational London Missionary Society) was formed in 1795, followed in 1799 by the evangelical Anglican Church Missionary Society, both inspired by Carey’s example. Between 1792 and 1834 thirteen British missionary societies came into existence. Modern missions had truly begun. But was Carey mainly responsible? According to Bishop Stephen Neill’s A History of Christian Missions, Carey ‘stood, and was conscious of standing, in a noble succession, as the heir of many pioneers in the past. Yet his work does represent a turning-point; it marks the entry of the English-speaking world into the missionary enterprise’. In what ways was this true?

Preparation

The great American theologian and preacher, Jonathan Edwards, who published David Brainerd’s wonderful journal, which inspired Carey and his friends, also, by his theology, helped free them from the shackles of hyper-Calvinism. The Particular Baptists had been especially badly affected by this teaching, which hamstrung evangelism. When Edwards’ ideas reached Britain, they sparked off a new awareness of our responsibility both to pray and preach, seen especially in Fuller’s important book, The Gospel Worthy of all Acceptation. In 1784, a Scottish Presbyterian minister, John Erskine, sent John Ryland a copy of Edwards’ 1748 call for concerted prayer for revival (The Humble Attempt) which he passed on to Fuller and Sutcliffe. As a result, by 1789 many prayer meetings were in existence in various places and different denominations. All this spurred Carey on to take action at home and then overseas.

What about the Moravians?

Surely Zinzendorf’s followers were first in the field of non-state-sponsored missions? (An exciting description of their work is to be found in the May/June issue.) Carey to his friends read from their reports, especially the notice of 135 on their missionary roll. He said, ‘See what the Moravians are daring… Can not we Baptists at least attempt something in fealty to the same Lord?’ However, although the Moravians provided wonderful inspiration by their example of zeal and self-sacrifice, their influence was limited. They were actually outside the mainstream of European Christianity and were not strictly orthodox in their beliefs, both on the inerrancy of the Scriptures and on the cross. Their gory ‘blood and wounds theology’ largely ignored the spiritual element of the cross. In addition, they were not Calvinistic, which cut them off from most of the Congregationalists (Independents), Baptists and evangelical Anglicans. The word ‘Particular’ in the title of the Baptist Society was very important; these were Calvinistic Baptists, not General Baptists.

Carey’s distinctive stress

What, then, was the crucial difference in Carey’s approach?  David Bogue (1750-1825), the Independent minister at Gosport, Hampshire preaching in London, appealed for the gospel to be preached to ‘millions of our fellow-creatures… still sitting in darkness’. He asked for a plan to do this and for prayers to accompany it, commenting that such a plan and such prayers, ‘if unaccompanied with exertions to carry the plan into execution, are nothing better than hypocrisy’. The difference with Carey and his friends was that they both made a plan and then exerted themselves to carry it out. According to the great historian of missions, Kenneth Scott Latourette, Carey ‘seems to have been the first… to propose that Christians take concrete steps to bring their gospel to all the human race’ (italics mine). Carey combined correct doctrine, spirituality (especially prayer) and practical, sacrificial godliness. Earlier Christians had relied on the state to provide protection and finance; even the Moravians had a rich nobleman behind them. These twelve poor pastors, with the gospel and the Holy Spirit, went ahead in faith and God did wonders.

Conclusions

We must conclude that God’s time had come. He harnessed the energy loosed by the eighteenth-century evangelical awakening, brought about the recovery of evangelical Calvinism and raised up the men, whose very smallness and poverty demonstrated that this was the work of God, to His glory. Contrary to much modern teaching, far from being a hindrance to evangelism and missionary work, evangelical Calvinism is the best possible seedbed for them. Almost all the early modern missionaries held to the doctrines of sovereign grace. Praying for missions is absolutely necessary, but not enough. Making practical plans is not unspiritual or carnal, as some think. Such planning, entered into in conscious dependence on the Holy Spirit, is what God blessed at the inception of the modern missionary movement. And what applies overseas, applies at home also.

John Legg is a member of the editorial board of The Evangelical Magazine.

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