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It is impossible! It cannot be done! Do not be ridiculous – what difference can one person make?”
Have you ever encountered these reactions? Anyone who embarks on a challenging enterprise – especially those determined to end legal abortions, eradicate pornography, establish a Christian school or Christian Teacher Training College, stop the ongoing slave trade in Sudan, work for national Reformation and Revival or evangelize a Muslim nation – will encounter those people who seem to believe that they have “the gift of criticism” and “a ministry of discouragement!”
Should Christians be Involved in Social and Political Issues?
Then there are those who maintain that Christians should not even be involved in social issues at all! When you tell them of the abortion holocaust or the pornography plague they mutter that “all we can do is pray”, “just preach the Gospel” and “it is a sign of the last days!”
We suspect that such attitudes are often motivated more by laziness and cowardice or a selfish desire to shirk responsibility and hard work than anything else. Certainly those people who resort to such superficial excuses are being disobedient to the clear commands of Scripture: “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Luke 10:27); “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37); “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves” (Proverbs 31:8); “Rescue those being led away to death” (Proverbs 24:11); “Make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19); “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and does not do it, sins” (James 4:17).
Those who maintain that Christians should not be involved in social or political issues display their ignorance of both the Bible and Church history. Over 70% of the Bible deals with social, political and national issues. Abraham used military force to rescue Lot and his family from the four kings (Gen. 14). God raised up Joseph to be Prime Minister of Egypt (Gen. 41). Samuel, Nathan, Elisha, Isaiah, Ezra – in fact almost all of the prophets – were heavily involved in politics as advisors to kings and exerted a godly influence on national affairs. Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah and John the Baptist publicly confronted and rebuked wicked rulers. King David was described as “a man after God’s own heart” (Acts 13:22). Daniel and Mordecai became prime ministers in pagan Babylonian and Persian governments – yet without compromise. God raised up Deborah and Queen Esther to national leadership positions. Joshua, Gideon and Nehemiah also held senior political positions.
“I looked for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand before Me in the gap on behalf of the land so that I would not have to destroy it...” Ezekiel 22:30
Those who maintain that Christians should not be involved in political and social issues are not only ignoring the Word of God but also showing their ignorance of Church history.
Slavery and Human Sacrifice
Before the advent of Christianity every culture practised slavery and human sacrifice. In the Roman Empire abortion, infanticide and the abandonment of unwanted babies was legal and commonplace. The Aztec Empire in Mexico, the Inca Empire in Peru and the Mayan Empire in Central America engaged in slavery, ritual rapes and mass human sacrifices. Slaves were marched up the stairs of the pyramid type temples. At the top a priest would rip out their beating hearts – one by one. There were over 80,000 human skulls on the skull racks of just one of King Montezuma’s many temples. Only the advent of Christianity introduced a respect for the sanctity of life and ended the rampant infanticide and human sacrifice.
Similarly, slavery was eradicated as a result of the tireless efforts of Christians such as William Wilberforce and David Livingstone. The whole concept of charity was a Christian innovation, as were hospitals (hence the universal healing symbol of a cross to represent hospitals.)
But of course these monumental achievements were not easily achieved. Every victory for life and liberty was only accomplished by much sacrifice and ingenuity over many, many years of hard work.
If you sometimes feel overwhelmed by the immensity of the task before you, or discouraged by a seemingly never-ending series of obstacles and opposition, frustrations and failures – take heart! The man whom God used to launch the modern missionary movement faced all this and much, much more.
Launching a Reformation
Undereducated, underfunded and underestimated, William Carey seemed to have everything against him. He was brought up in abject poverty and never had the benefit of high school. He had a thirst for knowledge, read widely and had a keen interest in nature. Carey’s formal education ended in junior school. Yet, at age 12 Carey taught himself Latin. Then he went on to master – on his own – Greek, Hebrew, French and Dutch! He eventually became professor of Bengali, Sanskrit and Marathi at the prestigious Fort William College in Calcutta (where the civil servants were trained). Carey and his co-workers, William Ward and Joshua and Hanna Marshman, started over 100 Christian schools for over 8,000 Indian children of all castes and launched the first Christian College in Asia – at Serampore. This college continues to this day! Carey finally succeeded in translating the Bible into 6 languages, and New Testaments and Gospels into 29 other languages!
Carey’s achievements are all the more astounding when you consider that his bold project to plant the Gospel among the Hindus in India was completely illegal! By an act of the British Parliament it was illegal for any missionary to work in India. For the first 20 years, Carey’s mission to India had to be carried out with ingenuity and circumspection, based under Danish protection in the small Danish colony of Serampore. At last the British Parliament – under pressure from evangelical Members of Parliament such as William Wilberforce – reversed its policy and compelled the British East India Company to allow missionaries in India.
Passion and Principle
Sometimes his students in England saw him in tears while teaching geography. Carey would point to various places on the map and cry “And these are pagans! Pagans! ”Carey was considered a radical in his day. He boycotted sugar because he was intensely opposed to slavery and sugar from the West Indies was produced with slave labour. Carey also took the extremely unpopular stand of supporting the American War of Independence against Britain.
Insanity and Disease
He was also subjected to vicious criticism and gossip. Under the extreme heat and in abject poverty, initially with daily dangers from snakes, crocodiles and tigers in a remote and mosquito-ridden jungle house, Carey’s wife, Dorothy, went insane. She would rant and rave about the imaginary unfaithfulness of her husband and on several occasions attacked him with a knife. She was diagnosed insane and had to be physically restrained with chains for the last 12 years of her life. The Careys also lost their 5-year-old son, Peter, who died of dysentery in 1794. Every family member suffered from malaria, dysentery and other tropical diseases – frequently.
Debt and Discouragement
Carey’s first co-worker, John Thomas, squandered all their money and bankrupted the mission, forcing William to work on a plantation to provide for his malnourished family. In their first seven months in India the Careys had to move home five times! And although Carey frequently wrote home, to family and mission society – it was 17 months before they received their first letters! One of these first letters from the Society criticised Carey for being “swallowed up in the pursuits of a merchant!”
Toil Amidst Turmoil
Somehow, while often sick, holding down a full time secular job, surrounded by domestic turmoil, with an insane wife screaming from the next room, Carey mastered Bengali and Sanskrit and by 1797, the New Testament was translated into Bengali and ready for printing! Carey had also established several schools and was preaching regularly in Bengali. However, after seven years of tireless toil in India, Carey still did not have a single convert!
Persistence and Productivity
How did William Carey manage to maintain such a productive schedule while having to endure all these crushing disappointments, the endless distractions, the undeserved criticisms, the physical ailments and the heart-breaking tragedies? How did he manage to persevere and to keep on keeping on without even the encouragement of a single convert to justify all his effort and sacrifice? To understand what motivated this most remarkable man we need to look at what inspired him in the first place.
A Vision of Victory
One of the most influential sermons in world history was preached on 31 May 1792, by William Carey in Northampton, England. Carey’s sermon literally sparked the greatest century of Christian advance. It marked the entry of the English-speaking world into missions. Since that time English speakers have made up 80% of the Protestant missionary work force.
The Sermon that Launched the Greatest Century of Missions
The text of this historic sermon was Isaiah 54:2-3:
“Enlarge the place of your tent and let them stretch out the curtains of your dwellings. Do not spare, lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes! For you shall expand to the right and to the left and your descendants will inherit the nations, and make desolate cities inhabited.”
The theme of his sermon was summarised as: “Expect great things from God! Attempt great things for God!”
Rebuked for Missionary Zeal
Yet, riveting as the sermon was, the result was initially indecision. Carey was considered “an enthusiast” (a fanatic) and an embarrassment – because “he had a bee in his bonnet about missions.” One story recounts how an older pastor rebuked Carey for his missionary zeal: “Young man, sit down! Sit down. You are an enthusiast! When God pleases to convert the heathen He will do it without your help or mine!”
The Prototype Mission Society
But Carey persisted until, five months later, 12 Reformed Baptist ministers formed the “Particular (Calvinist) Baptist Society for Propagating the Gospel among the Heathen.” Their first collection from these pastors amounted to thirteen pounds, two shillings and sixpence.
What inspired Carey’s landmark book “An Enquiry into the Obligation of Christians to use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens” and this prototype pioneer missionary society was his eschatology of victory. William Carey was a Post-millennialist who believed that God who commanded His Church to “make disciples of all nations” would ensure that the Great Commission would ultimately be fulfilled.
“The work, to which God has set His hands, will infallibly prosper... We only want men and money to fill this country with the knowledge of Christ. We are neither working at uncertainty nor afraid for the result.... He must reign until satan has not an inch of territory!”
Time and again, in the face of crushing defeats, disappointments, diseases and disasters, Carey reiterated his unwavering optimistic eschatology: “There are great difficulties on every hand, and more are looming ahead. Therefore we must go forward.”
“God’s cause will triumph!”
Carey’s faith was most certainly vindicated. The years of hard work and wholehearted sacrifice were graciously rewarded by God. Carey’s ministry literally transformed India.
The Horrors of Hinduism
When Carey stepped ashore at Calcutta on 11 November, 1793, India was in a terribly degraded state. If an infant was sick, it was assumed that he was under the influence of an evil spirit. The custom was to expose sick infants to the elements – perhaps hanging them up in a basket. Near Malda, Carey found the remains of a baby that had been offered as a sacrifice to be eaten alive by white ants. At the Sagar Mela where the Ganges river flows into the sea, Carey witnessed how mothers threw their babies into the sea to drown, or to be devoured by crocodiles. This the Hindus regarded as “a holy sacrifice” to the “Mother Ganges”!
Carey undertook thorough research into the numbers, nature and reasons for the infanticide and published his reports. He presented several petitions to the government until, in 1802, infanticide was outlawed. This marked the first time that the British government interfered directly with religious practice in India. It set a precedent for the abolition of other practices.
Hinduism had an extremely low view of women. It was often stated “In Hinduism there is no salvation for women until she be reborn a man.” Her only hope lay in serving men in complete subjection. Many female babies were smothered, strangled or drowned at birth. Girls were married as young as 4 years old! Widows were perceived as bad omens who had brought about the deaths of their husbands. Widows were also seen as an economic liability. Bereaved widows had to shave off all their hair, remove all jewellery and were forbidden to remarry – but a widow was required to cohabit (niyogo) with her deceased husband’s nearest male relative. Tremendous pressure was exerted on the widow to submit to Sati or immolation – to be burned alive on the funeral pyre of her husband. Amongst the Weaver (Kories) caste, widows were buried alive.
Because of the Hindu practice of Sati, children who had lost their father would also lose their mother and be orphaned at the same time. The Hindu practice of polygamy compounded the problem. On one occasion Carey documented 33 wives of one man burned alive at his funeral. On another occasion an 11-year-old widow was burned on the funeral pyre of her husband!
Lepers were rejected by their families and society and burned alive. Hinduism taught that only a violent and fiery end could purify the body and ensure transmitigation into a healthy new existence. Euthanasia was also widely practised on those afflicted by other sicknesses. The infirm were regularly carried out to the riverside and left exposed to cold and heat, crocodiles or insects.
Carey fought against these and many other evils – including child prostitution, slavery and the caste system. He publicly criticised the government for inaction and passivity in the face of murder. He organised public debates and spoke out and wrote often on these atrocities. At first he met with official indifference. The Indian Supreme Court in 1805, ruled that Sati had religious sanction and could not be questioned.
A Pioneer for Freedom
Carey established the first newspaper ever printed in an oriental language, the Samachar Darpan and the English language newspaper Friends of India. Carey pioneered mass communications in India, launching the social reform movement, because he believed that: “Above all forms of truth and faith, Christianity seeks free discussion.”
Carey was the first man to stand up against the brutal murders and widespread oppression of women through female infanticide, child marriage, polygamy, enforced female illiteracy, widow burning and forced euthanasia. He conducted systematic research and published his writings to raise public protest in both Bengal and England.
Transforming a Nation
Carey educated and influenced a whole generation of civil servants through his lectures at Fort William College. He fought against the idea that a woman’s life ceases to be valuable after her husband’s death. He undermined the oppression and exploitation of women by providing women with education. He opened the first schools for girls.
Education was a major emphasis of his mission. Carey wrote in 1805 that his chief objective was “the forming of our Indian brethren to usefulness, fostering every kind of genius, and cherishing every gift and grace in them; in this respect we can scarcely be too lavish in our attention to their improvement. It is only by means of native preachers that we can hope for the universal spread of the Gospel through this immense continent.”
In 1800, Carey was invited to lecture on Bengali, Sanskrit and Marathi at Fort William College. In 1806, he was made a Professor. In 1818, he and his colleagues launched Serampore College which taught Theology, Botany, Zoology, Sanskrit, Arabic and English literature. Carey produced a 1,000 page Sanskrit Grammar. William Ward produced a book on Manners and Customs of the Hindus.
Working for Reformation
It was Carey’s relentless battle against Sati – for 25 years – which finally led to the famous Edict in 1829, banning widow burning.
Carey was also the first man who led the campaign for a humane treatment for leprosy and ended the practice of burning lepers alive.
Carey certainly had a comprehensive view of the Great Commission. He ministered to body, mind and spirit. Carey introduced the idea of Savings Banks to India and made investment, industry, commerce and economic development possible. He founded the Agric–Horticultural Society in the 1820s (30 years before the Royal Agricultural Society was established in England)! He introduced the steam engine to India. He pioneered the idea of lending libraries in India. He persuaded his friends in England to ship out tons of books to regenerate and reform India.
A Pioneer for Scientific Advance and Conservation
Carey also introduced the study of Astronomy into India. He saw that the prevalent astrology with its fatalism, superstitious fears and inability to manage time had terribly destructive consequences. Hinduism’s astrology makes us subjects – with our lives determined by the stars. However, the Christian science of astronomy sets us free to be rulers – to devise calendars, identify directions, study geography and better plan our lives and work.
Carey was the first man in India to write essays on forestry. Fifty years before the government made its first attempts at forest conservation, Carey was already practising conservation, planting and cultivating timber. He understood that God had made man responsible for the earth. Carey was also a botanist who cultivated beautiful gardens such as the Serampore Gardens and the Calcutta Botanical Gardens.
He frequently lectured on science, botany and zoology because he believed that “all Thy works praise Thee, O Lord.” He knew that nature is worthy of study. Carey pointed out that even the insects are worthy of attention – they are not souls in bondage but creatures with a God given purpose.
William Carey was also the father of print technology in India. He introduced the modern science of printing, built what was then the largest printing press in India and devised the fonts.
In 1812, a devastating fire destroyed Carey’s warehouse with his printing presses, 55,000 printed sheets, 1,200 reams of paper, whole sets of type for 14 languages and manuscripts for a Bengali dictionary, 2 grammar books and several Bible translations representing many years of work.
Even in the face of this catastrophe, Carey praised God that no lives had been lost and quoted Psalm 46: “Be still and know that the Lord is God.” He resolved to do better translations than the ones that were now ashes and consoled himself: “Every branch that beareth fruit, He purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit”; “The Lord has laid me low, that I might look more simply to Him”; “However vexing it may be, a road the second time travelled is usually taken with more confidence and ease than at the first,” declared Carey, He quoted Isaiah 61:1-4 and trusted God for better printing presses and more accurate translations – a “phoenix rising out of the ashes.”
Calamities and Conflicts
Not only was Carey hit by the fire, but there were deaths in each of the seven missionary families at Serampore. Carey himself had just buried a grandson. Carey also had to endure unjust and unbalanced criticisms from new young missionaries who actually split from the Serampore Mission, and slanderous accusations from the Mission Society in England, as well as an earthquake and a flood. One of his sons, Felix, caused much embarrassment when he backslid, adopted a lavish lifestyle and began drinking heavily. Ultimately, however, Felix came back to the Lord and became fully committed to the mission.
Yet despite the controversies, calamities and conflicts, William Carey’s monumental achievements outshine all his critics. He was a dedicated Christian whom God used in extraordinary ways to launch the greatest century of missionary advance, to translate the Scriptures into more languages than any other translator in history and to save literally millions of lives by his compassionate social action and tireless labours. He excelled as a missionary strategist. He was humble, hard-working, industrious and persistent, persevering for over 41 years in the field, without any furlough. Carey succeeded in producing and distributing over 200,000 Bibles, New Testaments or Gospels in 36 languages, in addition to many books and tracts.
We need to follow his example by ministering to body, mind and spirit and persevering through all disappointments and opposition with an unshakeable faith in God’s sovereign power.
“Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy. He who continually goes forth weeping, bearing seed for sowing, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.” Psalms 126:5-6
Dr. Peter Hammond
This article was adapted from a chapter of
The Greatest Century of Missions book
(224 pages with 200 photographs, pictures, charts and maps), available from: Christian Liberty Books, PO Box 358 Howard Place 7450,
Cape Town, South Africa,
Tel: 021-689-7478, Fax: 086-551-7490,