Willliam Carey (1761—1834) was a pioneering English missionary to India, gifted linguist, and Bible translator. He spent 41 years of his life in the foreign field without furlough. His passion for unsaved, unreached people inspired thousands of nineteenth-century missionaries like Hudson Taylor, David Livingstone, and Adoniram Judson to follow in his humble footsteps. William Carey is remembered today as the Father of Modern Protestant Missions.
Carey was born and raised in the rural Northamptonshire village of Paulerspury in central England. He was the oldest of five children born to Edmund Carey and Elizabeth Wells. His father was the parish clerk and village schoolmaster, granting Carey’s sharp intellect access to the world of books. William eventually taught himself Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Italian, French, Dutch, and many Indian dialects.
William began his early career as a shoemaker, apprenticing from age fourteen in the nearby village of Hackleton. During this time, he attended prayer meetings at a Congregationalist chapel. Although Carey had been baptized as an infant in the Anglican church, he eagerly converted to the Protestant faith at age 18. Two years later, in 1781, William married his wife, Dorothy Plackett. By then, he was running the local cobbler’s shop in Hackleton. The profession paid little, and the family fell into poverty. Their first child, a girl, died at age 2.
While still shoemaking, Carey took up school mastering and preaching in a local Particular (Calvinistic) Baptist church to supplement his meager income. In 1785, he accepted the pastorate of a Baptist church in Moulton, and in 1789 assumed the pastorate of Harvey Lane Baptist Church in Leicester. Two years later, in 1791, he was formally ordained by the Particular Baptists. The following year, he helped found the Baptist Missionary Society.
Influenced by accounts of early Moravian missionaries and the voyages of Captain James Cook, Carey’s interests increasingly turned to world missions. In 1792, he published a revolutionary brochure (An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens), urging Christians to wake up to the Great Commission and begin spreading the gospel beyond the confines of Europe. The pamphlet remains a classic statement of missions methodology and theology today. Around this time, Willliam Carey preached his famous sermon based on Isaiah 45:2–3, saying, “Expect great things from God; Attempt great things for God.”
The following year, in 1793, Carey and his family (which included three sons and his pregnant wife) sailed with missionary surgeon John Thomas to Bengal, India, as part of the missionary society’s first overseas delegation. Immediately, Carey began translating the Bible into Bengali and preaching in small villages. Conditions were deplorable initially, and after Thomas abandoned the operation, Carey struggled to keep his family fed and housed. He moved from place to place, searching for work. After William contracted malaria and his five-year-old son perished from dysentery, his wife Dorothy suffered a debilitating mental breakdown.
Despite passing through a personal “valley of the shadow of death,” Carey managed to translate the entire New Testament into Bengali in his first five years and visit some 200 villages. His support improved significantly in 1799 when he was invited to minister in a Danish settlement in Serampore, near Calcutta. He was joined by a small team of new missionaries, including two teachers and a printer. At this time, Carey became a professor of Sanskrit, Bengali, and Marathi at Fort William College in Calcutta, a position he maintained for the next 30 years.
Seven years after arriving in India, in December 1800, William Carey baptized his first convert to Christianity, Krishna Pal. Two months later, his first Bengali New Testament was published, and in 1809 his translation of the whole Bible in Bengali was published. Carey and his team’s achievements included the translation of the entire Bible into India’s major languages—Bengali, Oriya, Marathi, Hindi, Assamese, and Sanskrit. They translated parts of the Bible into various other languages and dialects, planted over 25 churches, founded 125 schools, organized medical missions, savings banks, and India’s first printing operation, paper mill, and steam engine.
William Carey’s missionary endeavors helped bring about social reforms such as the abolition of infanticide, assisted suicide, and widow burning or suttee, an ancient Hindu practice of putting every widow to death at the time of her husband’s funeral. In 1818, Carey founded Serampore College, a Christian seminary dedicated to training Indians for ministry to their own people. Today, this school offers theological and liberal arts education to approximately 2,500 students.
By current standards, William Carey’s total number of converts may seem minor. After more than four decades in India, his team saw only 700 converts. But his legacy produced a rippling movement that has since covered the globe, inspiring the foundation of mission societies and sparking Christian campaigns to “go into all the world and preach the gospel” (Mark 16:15).
Willliam Carey’s first wife, Dorothy, died in 1807. The couple had seven children, two of whom died as infants. Three of their boys, Felix, William, and Jabez, followed their father’s path, becoming missionaries. Carey remarried in 1808 to Charlotte Emilia Rumohr, the daughter of a Danish count. After she died in 1821, Carey married once more in 1823 to a widow named Grace Hughes. She outlived William.
In Serampore, India, on June 9, 1834, William Carey passed away at age 72. The humble message on his headstone reads, “A wretched, poor, and helpless worm, on Thy kind arms I fall.”
Here are some quotes from William Carey:
“Is not the commission of our Lord still binding upon us? Can we not do more than now we are doing?”
“Prayer—secret, fervent, believing prayer—lies at the root of all personal godliness.”
“I can plod. I can persevere in any definite pursuit. To this I owe everything.”
“The future is as bright as the promises of God.”