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India is a blaze of colour and a cacophony of sound. It’s home to a variety of religions and institutions of higher learning. Serampore (Sree-raam-por) College is India’s oldest university and was first granted university status in 1829. That’s before any university was established in Australia or NZ. And what is truly amazing is [that] the man who started this college was a foreigner here, and only had a primary or elementary school education. But that didn’t stop him. He never let his poor or difficult background stand in his way of success.
He discovered he had an amazing gift for learning new languages. During his life he learned literally dozens of languages and dialects, and he used his incredible talent to achieve his life’s ambition and make a difference.
He translated the complete Bible into six languages, and portions of it into 29 other languages. He was a pioneer educator, social reformer, botanist, translator and linguist.
Although he had a brilliant intellect and was a high achiever and successful in so many ways, Carey only had one lifelong goal – to make a difference in other’s lives. Little is known about this remarkable man, but one of his famous inspirational quotes is still remembered today:
“I’m not afraid of failure; I’m afraid of succeeding at things that don’t matter.”
William Carey certainly made sure his life mattered. Although he knew disappointment, sadness and many trials, he knew that it was the journey that brought the motivation, fulfillment and meaning to life. He refused to allow his humble beginnings to block his ambitions or deter his success.
Join me as we journey around the world and follow his incredible life, and see how he changed his world. You’ll be inspired by this wildly successful man who started from nothing. It’s a rags-to-riches story – but not the riches you imagine.
On the 17th of August 1761, William Carey was born to Edmund and Elizabeth Carey, who were weavers by trade in the obscure, rural village of Paulerspury, in West Northamptonshire, England.
William was raised in the local St James Church of England, and when he was six, his father was appointed the parish clerk and village schoolmaster. Even at a young age, William hungered for historical and scientific knowledge, although he only had a formal education until the age of twelve.
Despite this setback, and even at a young age, his passion and thirst for knowledge, and determination drove him on. He was an avid and enthusiastic reader, and delighted in books of travel and adventure, and had a special interest in botany or the study of plants, and crowded his room with many various specimens. He made frequent excursions into the woods and across the fields, always on the alert to discover and identify a new bird, animal or plant.
After leaving school, Carey worked for two years in the fields. However, his health did not permit him to continue in agricultural work, and so by the age of fourteen, his father apprenticed him to the local cobbler’s shop as a cordwainer, an old English name for a shoemaker.
A co-apprentice in shoemaking, John Warr, often discussed faith and the Bible with William while they were working on the shoes. To find out more about the Bible, at the age of seventeen, William borrowed a Greek grammar and proceeded to teach himself New Testament Greek.
William found he had a natural gift for languages, and added the study of Hebrew to the Latin and Greek he had already mastered. He also developed an interest in international affairs, and especially the religious life of other cultures.
When the master cobbler died, William took up shoemaking in nearby Hackleton, where he met and married Dorothy Plackett on 10 June 1781. In time, Dorothy gave birth to a daughter. But the apprentice cobbler’s life was hard, and the money was insufficient. Carey’s family sunk into poverty and then sadness when the young child died at the age of 2.
While working as a shoemaker, Carey also became a preacher with the local group of Christians called the Particular Baptists, who held a Bible-based system of beliefs. He was impressed with the early Moravian missionaries, a group of Bohemian Protestants, from what is now known as the present day Czech Republic.
They were one of the oldest Protestant denominations, and Bible believing Christians who had a passion for sharing their faith. As he saw the zeal of the Moravian missionaries, he was increasingly dismayed at his fellow English Christians’ lack of interest in overseas mission work.
From his local village, Carey frequently made preaching trips to the surrounding towns and laid the foundation for a number of churches. He quickly became one of the most well-known pastors within the Baptist association. But by 1792, just being the pastor of a local church was not enough for Carey.
He was convicted that he should organise the English Baptist Missionary Society. At a minister’s meeting, Carey stood up and proposed that the churches should partner with other local churches in the region to raise funds and send missionaries to Africa and India. His call was: “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God!”
CATCHING A VISION
A doctor by the name of John Thomas had been working in India, and had come back to England to raise funds, and met up with the society. He shared about the great need for the gospel among the people, and the opportunities for mission work.
Carey caught the vision and was convicted that he must go to India. He suggested that he go with Dr Thomas as the first missionary of their new missionary society and to set up a mission base in India. This marked the birth of the modern missionary movement.
Within a year, Dr John Thomas and William Carey and his family, set sail on a Danish ship headed for India.
During the voyage, William diligently began studying Bengali, the local language of Calcutta. After five months of sailing, John Thomas, William Carey and his family arrived in Calcutta, India in November of 1793.
As soon as they arrived in India, William and the other missionaries who had come with him sought out means of supporting themselves because they had greatly underestimated the cost of living in Calcutta and their funds from the Baptist Society were rapidly being spent.
TRIAL AND TRIBULATION IN INDIA
The early years were miserable. Dr Thomas deserted the enterprise, and Carey was forced to move the family repeatedly as he sought employment to sustain them. Illness racked the family as they were living in a marshy, malaria-ridden area outside of Calcutta, where there was also the threat of tiger attacks and snake bites, especially cobras.
Loneliness and regret set in, and Carey wrote: “I am in a strange land, no Christian friend, a large family, and nothing to supply their wants.” But he did retain his hope, and nothing could dampen his enthusiasm for sharing the gospel. He wrote: “Well, I have God, and His word is sure.”
Carey himself contracted malaria, and then his 5-year-old son Peter died of dysentery. It became too much for his wife, Dorothy, whose mental health deteriorated rapidly until her death in 1807. Carey wrote: “This is indeed the valley of the shadow of death to me. But I rejoice that I am here notwithstanding; and God is here.”
arey had great compassion for the people of India. He was deeply moved by the spirituality of the people around him. Carey found them to be devout and sincere in their search to know God, and the incredible sufferings the people were willing to endure in their constant quest for spiritual peace.
The following year, wanting to be self-sufficient, Carey removed himself from the Baptist society’s financial support. He became the floor manager at an indigo factory where they dyed cloth in the rich blue colour that Bengal was famous for.
Despite the tough times, Carey’s attitude remained resolute in his commitment to stay on in India. When he became proficient in Bengali with the help of a local pundit or experienced teacher, he started translating the Bible into Bengali and preaching to small local gatherings.
William’s greatest focus then became translating the Bible into the local languages and helping people become literate so that they could read God’s Word. In 1797 he completed a draft of the Bengali New Testament and began his first Bible translation.
Life was still extremely difficult for Carey and his family, but in 1799, Carey was joined by three other missionaries, Joshua and Hanna Marshman, who were teachers, and William Ward, a printer.
The group was forced to leave the British territory of Calcutta, because the British were afraid that the Baptist missionary work would cause public unrest among the Indians and jeopardize their trade in valuable Indian goods.
MOVE TO SERAMPORE
In October 1799, Carey and the others were invited by Ole Bie, who was the head of the Danish colony of Serampore, just 30 kms north of Calcutta on the Hooghly River. At this time, some other European countries, in addition to Britain, had taken control of some of the cities or regions of India for trade purposes.
Carey was now under the protection of the Danish Government, who permitted the British Baptists to preach and operate legally. The missionaries were looked upon more kindly than in those parts of India where the East India Company was still hostile towards foreigners and missionaries.
The group became known as the Serampore Trio. They founded the mission described by the English philanthropist William Wilberforce as “one of the chief glories” of the British nation.
Carey imported a secondhand printing press that became the very first printing press in India. His fellow missionary, Ward, being a printer by trade, quickly founded a printing house and soon began securing government printing contracts. During this time, Carey and his team continued translating the Bible into 44 local languages, developed multiple grammars and dictionaries and prepared a translation of three volumes of the Hindu epic poem Ramayana. By 1801, the first Bengali New Testament was printed.
The Semampore Trio also wished to introduce education to the local people from all levels of society. They collaborated with Indian translators, educators and craftsmen to build and open schools. The Marshmans, who were trained teachers, provided education to both the rich and poor, Hindus, Muslims and Christians.
In 1801, Carey began teaching at Fort William College in Calcutta. Using his amazing language skills, William became a Professor of Sanskrit and Bengali at the Fort William College.
William Carey was the author or compiler of works on 37 Indian languages. Carey worked on the Bengali dictionary for 30 years, with explanations for 80,000 words. He has been called the “father of Bengali prose” for his grammars, dictionaries, and translations.
During this time, Carey worked with the Marshmans to establish the Serampore College in 1818. Serampore College is one of India’s very first institutions of modern higher education.
Today Serampore College is still a university that offers theological and liberal arts in a wide range of courses, including Christian theology, natural sciences, geography and literature, for some 2,500 students.
William Carey also saw it as his duty to help improve the quality of life for the people of India. He felt that he needed to do something to serve the people in a tangible way. One major way was to help create jobs.
So Carey partnered with English businessmen to establish factories, which were responsible for creating thousands of jobs for the locals and transforming society. He also encouraged the use of local Indians as missionaries among their own people.
Carey continued to expect great things; over the next 28 years, he and his fellow teachers translated the entire Bible into India’s major languages, and parts of 209 other languages and dialects.
The Serampore Trio started 26 churches and 126 schools. They also opened medical missions, savings banks, a seminary, a girls’ school and a Bengali-language newspaper.
Carey also sought to achieve social reform in stopping widow burning, or sati (suttee). He was most outraged by the terrible practice of Sati, which was a traditional funeral custom where if a man died, his body would be burned, and his wife, or wives, would be thrown onto the burning pyre too.
Sati had been practiced for thousands of years in India, because at this time women were considered to have no value apart from their husbands. If a woman did not want to take part in the ceremony, she was often forced onto the burning pyre to die.
William Carey fought against this inhumane practice for more than thirty-five years until December 1829, when Sati was banned in the entire British Empire, including India. Carey was asked to translate the degree of Sati’s abolishment into Bengali. This decree finally severed this tradition from Indian culture.
In 1820, Carey also founded the Agricultural and Horticultural Society of India. His goal was to encourage a superior way of cultivation by using the best method of properly cropping the land, and rotations of crops.
He also wanted to introduce new and useful crops and plants, improve the implements of farming and the use of animal stock, and improve wastelands so that more land could be cultivated. The society is still functioning today, and it is known as the Agri Horticultural Society of India.
William Carey will be forever held in high honour as a true friend and benefactor of India. But his great work came with great suffering and sacrifice. Throughout his time and ministry in India, Carey suffered personal loss and faced opposition and resistance from businesses and the colonial government.
William Carey passed away peacefully on 9 June 1834, in Serampore, India and is buried in his adopted land and among the people that he loved. He was known as a man with a deep love for God and a deep love for the people of India, and his reputation spread right across India and around the world.
By the time Carey died in 1834, he had spent 41 years in India without a furlough back to his homeland, England. During his last illness, Carey said to a friend, “You have been saying much about Dr. Carey and his work. After I am gone, please speak not of Dr. Carey, but rather of my wonderful Saviour.”
His achievements are legendary, but perhaps his greatest legacy was in the worldwide missionary movement of the nineteenth century that he inspired. That is why William Carey is often called the Father of Modern Protestant Missions.
William Carey’s ministry sparked a new era in missions. One historian noted that his work was a turning-point; it marked the entry of the English-speaking world on a large scale into missionary endeavours.
Missionaries like Adoniram Judson to Burma, Hudson Taylor to China, and David Livingstone to Africa, among thousands of others, were impressed and inspired not only by Carey’s example, but by his words, “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.”
William Carey was a cobbler, an ordinary man from a small English village who believed in a God with whom all things are possible. His story is a wonderful testimony of his faith in God. One of his famous quotes explains his belief in God: “Expect great things from God, receive great things from God. Expect little from God, receive little from God.”
THE LOVE OF JESUS
Why did he leave his homeland, endur[ing] hardship and loss? Well, it was because William Carey had experienced the love of Jesus. His life was transformed, and he knew that he could not stand still; he must share the love of Jesus that he had found, with others.
The love of Jesus has a way of transforming the way we interact with everyone we meet, from our family members to total strangers. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus commands us to love one another the way He loves us.
In Matthew chapter 22 it records this,
“Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:37-39)
Now to genuinely love and care for those around us may seem a difficult and challenging concept. But this is what it means to really be a follower of Jesus, a Christian. But what does this mean in everyday life? Do we grit our teeth and show love even if it kills us? Am I supposed to love the person that I find annoying? Could it be that we are missing something?
Now here’s a radical thought: Could it be that the secret to loving is receiving? You give love by first receiving. The Bible tells us that:
“We love each other as a result of God loving us first.” (1 John 4:19)
William Carey knew and experienced this love from God. That’s what changed his life. And the Bible explains this in John 4:9-10 where it says.
“God showed how much He loved us by sending His only son into the world so that we might have eternal life through Him. This is real love. It is not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.”
So the secret to loving others is to know and experience God’s love. Many people tell us to love, but only God gives us the power to actually do so. This is what the Bible recommends,
“Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other” (1 John 4:11)
Our belief and commitment to Jesus is reflected in the things we do, no matter where we are, just as we see demonstrated in the life of William Carey. Our deeds are evidence of our real and trusting faith in God. Our future is only as bright as our belief in the promises of God.
Our words, our actions and our behaviour show that we have placed our confidence and trust in God. Our Faith is more than just intellectual knowledge.
Faith is something you do. It’s active, it’s not passive. Real faith involves making a commitment to trust in the promises of Jesus. Real faith shows up in your lifestyle. Your faith should change you and the things you do. Just as Carey said, “Expect great things from God, receive great things from God.”
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If you’ve enjoyed our journey to India with William Carey and our reflections on the amazing love that we receive from God, and how we can share this love with others, then be sure to join us again next week when we will share another of life’s journeys together. Until then, let’s pray to this great God who loves us, and ask for His blessing on us and our families.
Dear Heavenly Father, Thank you for the inspiring life of William Carey, who experienced your love and shared it with others. Lord, may that be our experience also. Thank you for loving us and accepting us just as we are, and then guiding us to be more like you. May we have the opportunity to share your wonderful love with others, just like William Carey did. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.