William Carey - Getting the Gospel Out

William Carey, born in 1761 was a baptist shoemaker. According to Timothy George's biography Faithful Witness - the life and mission of William Carey (IVP 1992), he is "universally recognized as the father of modern missions." Nearly 32 years of age, in 1793 William Carey set out from England for India inaugurating the modern period of world mission. For the next 41 years he lived and worked in India and never saw England again, dying in 1834. So what lessons has William Carey for us as we now face a missionary situation in the West generally and in Britain in particular? Here are three out of many.


Good People can be Wrong

First, Carey believed that good people could be wrong. Bishop Ryle, another church leader from a previous century - this time from the second half of the 19th century - was also clear on this. Ryle said: "great ministers may make great mistakes". He cited the apostle Paul publicly criticizing the apostle Peter when he "withstood him to his face" in Antioch because Peter gave in to the Judaizers (Gal 2. 11-16). Ryle says, "Peter, without doubt, was one of the greatest in the company of the apostles … and yet here this very Peter ... plainly falls into a great mistake." Ryle goes on to say, "it is all meant to teach us that the apostles themselves, when not writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, were at times liable to err." So were believers in Old Testament times liable to err and so have been believers in post-apostolic church history:

"The early fathers were zealous according to their knowledge and ready to die for Christ. But ... nearly all sowed the seeds of many superstitions. The Reformers were honoured instruments in the hand of God for reviving the cause of truth on earth. Yet hardly one of them can be named who did not make some great mistake."

Ryle concluded: "We are far too ready to think, that because some great minister or some learned man says a thing - or because our own minister, whom we love, says a thing - it must be right, without examining whether it is in Scripture or not." For Carey's part he seems to have been worried about one of the things the Reformers said and which others had followed. Carey saw this as leading to a resistance to mission. For in Europe there had been (and still is) a tradition against "going out" to evangelise. But how can this be when you think about the Great Commission of Jesus at the end of Matthew's gospel? The risen Jesus Christ is there reported as saying:

"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age" (Mat 28.18-20).

The answer is that many in Europe at this time did not think the Commission any longer relevant. They thought it was binding only on the apostles.


Luther and Calvin

Here is Luther writing two centuries earlier: "that the apostles entered strange houses and preached was because they had a command and were for this purpose appointed, called and sent, namely that they should preach everywhere, as Christ had said, 'Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.' After that, however, no one again received such a general apostolic command, but every bishop or pastor has his own particular parish." And here is Calvin in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 12.28:

"For the Lord created the apostles, that they might spread the gospel throughout the whole world, and he did not assign to each of them certain limits or parishes, but would have them, wherever they went, to discharge the office of ambassadors among all nations and languages. In this respect there is a difference between them and pastors, who are, in a manner, tied to their particular churches. For the pastor has not a commission to preach the gospel over the whole world, but to take care of the church that has been committed to his charge."

Of course, these men believed the gospel should spread somehow. Indeed, they saw the ripple effect of persecution and dispersal. As people were persecuted, Christians would share their faith in new situations. But there was no planned strategy for the conversion of men and women through "going out". Christian workers were confined to their parishes. So when Wesley treated "the world as his parish" and went around Britain preaching and evangelizing in other people's parishes, we can understand the opposition.


30 May 1792

However, then came William Carey. On 30 May 1792 he was preaching to a group of ministers in Nottingham. He challenged them with this slogan: "expect great things (from God); attempt great things (for God)." That was a catalyst for an amazing century and a half of Christian missionary work. For he then in the same year (1792) published his booklet, An enquiry into the obligations of Christians to use means for the conversion of the heathen. He referred in it to the Great Commission of Jesus to go into all the world making disciples. The first section of Carey's booklet was entitled, "An Enquiry whether the Commission given by our Lord to his disciples be not still binding on us." Carey was horrified at the lack of zeal and concern for the pagan world in his own generation. So he took direct issue with ...

"… an opinion existing in the minds of some, that because the apostles were extraordinary officers and have no proper successors, and because many things which were right for them to do would be unwarranted for us, therefore it may not be immediately binding on us to execute the Commission, though it was so upon them."

Carey was insistent. Christ's command was as binding on men in his day as it was on the apostles in their day. Otherwise the command to baptize should be seen as restricted to the apostles, and the promise of the presence of Jesus "to the very end of the age" should also not apply to us. This legacy of "non-evangelism" is, it seems, still with us and is deep-rooted in Europe.


The Holy Spirit uses "Means"

Secondly, William Carey realized that Christians do have to take initiatives in evangelism. He believed in the use of "means". The title of his little booklet was "An enquiry into the obligations of Christians to use means for the conversion of the heathen." Christians do have to plan, think and strategize for getting the gospel out. Some people think that all you have to do in an age of confusion and denial, is simply "preach the truth". That is vital, absolutely necessary and non-negotiable. But it is obvious from the Acts of the Apostles that Paul was led by the Holy Spirit to be strategic as well as faithful. He went, for example, to key urban areas to start his mission work. He realized that he had to plan for getting his message heard. So we today, as it is put in our JPC foundation document, not only have to "maintain" but also to "promulgate" biblical and evangelical truth. It is possible to be so committed to "maintaining" the truth against error that you never "promulgate" it and end up with a dead orthodoxy. Equally, if you spend all your energies in planning the promulgation without maintenance of the truth, you can find yourself before long with nothing to preach except a religious version of political correctness. Carey both maintained and promulgated the truth of God's word; and he used "means" in his obedience. He did not just sit back passively waiting for something to happen.

Risking Prison

Thirdly, Carey upheld the law but when necessary risked prison by breaking the rules - the rules when the local authorities were forbidding evangelism. The East India Company had authority in India at the end of the 18th century. But they did not want missionaries evangelizing local Indians. They seem to have thought that this might upset the Indians and be bad for business! Carey, therefore, had to enter India as an "illegal alien". Let me give you the account from Timothy George's biography of Carey of his arrival in India after many months at sea:

"Every one on board was anxious for landfall. Yet no one in the missionary party had a permit to enter the country. Before disembarking the commander of every vessel was required to submit an affidavit stating that he carried no contraband or unlicensed passengers. To avoid this danger, the missionaries, with the connivance of Captain Christmas, transferred to a small fishing boat, called a pansi, which carried them from the mouth of the estuary up the Hooghly River towards Calcutta. On November 14 the Calcutta Gazette announced the arrival of the Kron Princessa Maria, her only cargo, "Sundries." Three days before, the missionaries had slipped into the vast city unnoticed and unmolested by the company officials."

So began an amazing period of church growth and world evangelism not only through Carey's work (in particular as a linguist) in India but as others followed his example. Carey made mistakes (as good men do). God, however, used him in remarkable ways. How we should thank God, therefore, for his life and his strategy of "first pray then use means" to get the gospel out.

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