4. The legacy of William Carey, pioneer Christian missionary

Who was William Carey?

Missionaries in the past who shaped today's global outreach efforts

The fourth of a dozen mini-essays in Engage magazine

William Carey was a pioneer English missionary who went to India in 1793. He had been a bi-vocational Particular Baptist pastor who earned part of his living by making and repairing shoes. Carey's reading of A Voyage Round the World by James Cook changed all that. In the book, published in 1777, Captain Cook described in detail the diverse cultures he encountered on several Pacific islands where people knew nothing of the Christian Gospel. The book awakened in Carey a conviction that Christians had the obligation to go and teach and preach the Gospel to those who had never heard it.

When he could not get his denominational leaders to embrace the idea of sending missionaries, Carey organized friends into a missionary sending and supporting group and wound up being its first missionary recruit. Carey spent the last four decades of his life in India as a Christian evangelist, Bible translator, social reformer, anthropologist, and educator.

What of Carey's legacy endures for us today?

Some world missions organizations focus tightly on one or two specific areas of ministry. For instance, some focus on relief and development. Others occupy themselves solely with Scripture distribution. A few minister exclusively to children. Some concentrate on gospel radio broadcasting.

On the other hand, there are mission boards, including that of the Church of the Nazarene, whose holistic philosophy pushes them to do a wide spectrum of programs and activities. In terms of missionary strategy, holistic means ministry that takes into account the whole person -- not only spiritually but also physically, emotionally, socially, artistically, and intellectually.

Such holistic ministry can be seen in what William Carey did during his 40 years in India. A pioneer Baptist missionary in the early 1800s, Carey launched a variety of ministries and activities.

Carey had left his native England to go to India in response to Jesus' Great Commission. He wanted India to come to Christ. Thus, he plunged into open-air evangelism and into Bible translation projects for several of India's languages. Seven years would pass, however, before William Carey had his first Indian convert. When the breakthrough finally came, Carey added discipleship and church planting to his evangelistic efforts.

Carey's focus was never limited to just trying to "save souls." He wanted the people of India to be all that God had created them to be. So, during his four decades in India, Carey fiercely battled social evils like the caste system, infanticide, discrimination against females, and the practice of burning widows alive on the funeral pyres of their late husbands.

Carey, who was largely self-educated, founded a university in India as well as starting primary and secondary schools. His holistic approach also drove him to spend time and energy on things like horticulture, agriculture, and economic development.

Carey certainly lived out a motto he expressed in a sermon he preached even before he went to India: "Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God." Carey did attempt great things for God! One must wonder where he found the time to learn about and then get involved in the wide range of holistic ministries that he initiated.

For Carey, the gospel was a transformative force for all of life: spiritually, socially, culturally, intellectually, and even economically. This thought led him to form a holistic missionary strategy that makes people point back to him as a model for cross-cultural missionary activity today. Indeed, for more than 200 years, William Carey's holistic approach has set the tone for missionaries and world missionary organizations.

People often call William Carey "the father of the modern missionary movement." They do not give him that title because he was the very first Protestant missionary. He was not. Others had been going out from Western Europe for 150 years before Carey set sail for India. That title is ascribed to Carey largely because he was a pacesetter for the holistic way missionary work today is done around the world.

Discussion questions

  1. What inspired William Carey to become a missionary, and how did he organize his missionary sending and supporting group?
  2. What does "holistic ministry" mean, and how does it relate to William Carey's approach to missionary work?
  3. William Carey wasn't the first Christian missionary. So, why is he often called "the father of the modern missionary movement"? What does this title signify about his legacy?
  4. What should aspiring missionaries today learn from William Carey's legacy and approach to cross-cultural missionary activity?
  5. What might be some challenges missionaries face today that Carey did not encounter in his time?

    -- Howard Culbertson,

More mini-essays in the "Doing missions well" series

The tragic fire in Carey's print shop destroying countless hours of work

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