“Young man, sit down! When God pleases to convert those who have never heard of Jesus Christ, He'll do it without consulting you or me.” This comment seems unlikely to drive an amazing missionary career and to inspire a young man to impact a significant foreign nation with the Gospel. But it did. The rebuke was made by Dr. John C. Ryland, who was chairing a meeting which William Carey was attending. Carey ought to have listened to the rebuke, because Dr Ryland was the leader who had baptised him.
The problem for William Carey (1761-1834) was that, while working in his shoe repair business, he had made a map of the world hung on the wall of his shoe shop. He also began to jot down facts and figures about the countries on the map. As he did that he began to feel that something should be done to take the good news of Jesus Christ to the world that he looked at on the map. That is why he had raised the issue in the meeting with Dr Ryland. He was asking for advice as to what they should do about the problem. Hence the put-down reply by the doctor.
An Unsuitable Candidate?
Carey was a hugely unsuitable missionary candidate on the surface. He “was born in a forgotten village in the dullest period of the dullest of all centuries. His family was poor, and he was poorly educated. A skin affliction made him sensitive to outdoor work, so he apprenticed to a nearby shoemaker. When he didn't do well at cobbling, he opened a school to supplement his income. That didn't go well either...A terrible disease took the life of his baby daughter and left Carey bald for life. He was called to pastor a small church, but he had trouble being ordained because of his boring sermons” (Morgan). So he returned to the shoe business to make a living.
Carey insisted that each generation of Christians was responsible for taking the Gospel to the world in which they lived. His reward for that was scorn from some preachers and the title of "miserable enthusiast.” But Carey had three relevant and critical qualities.
Endurance, Study and Linguistics
Firstly, Carey was a marathon man who did not give up. Before dying, knowing a book about him was planned, Carey said: “If one should think it worth his while to write my life, I will give you a criterion by which you may judge of its correctness. If he gives me credit for being a plodder, he will describe me justly. Anything beyond this will be too much. I can plod. I can persevere in any definite pursuit. To this I owe everything.”
Secondly, he studied the topic of world evangelism. Out of that came a book, published on May 12th, 1792: “An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians, to use means for the Conversion of the Heathens in which the Religious State of the Different Nations of the World, the Success of Former Undertakings, and the Practicability of Further Undertakings, are Considered.”
The title alone is remarkable for a failed preacher - even if it is unlikely today to be an Amazon bestseller. The book led to the formation of a missionary society and to funds being collected.
Thirdly, he was good at languages. Although he had only an elementary education, by the time he was in his teens he could read the Bible in 6 languages. This was to become a key part of his ministry.
Investing His Talent
Carey used these three qualities and sailed to India, launching the modern era of missions. There he translated the Bible into Bengali, Oriya, Marathi, Hindi, Assamese and Sanskrit, as well as portions into 29 other languages! He contributed to literature, education, literacy, agriculture, outlawing infanticide and more. He became Professor of Oriental Languages at Fort William College in Calcutta. He used his talents to become a publisher and his press printed Bibles in 40 languages and dialects for over 300 million people. This man’s obedience and perseverance was used to impact the lives of literally millions of people.
He took what he had, laid it on God’s altar, and lit the fire by refusing to “sit down” and ignore a burning question: “Who will reach the lost in India if I don't go?”
So what can we learn from a life of overcoming such setbacks?
Despite his remarkable achievements has life had another side, one which is more or less inseparable from any effective missionary’s life. It is that of the battles and struggles that Carey faced. In short, he was never far from the battle that we call spiritual warfare.
Any effective missionary is going to face a spiritual enemy, the devil, who wants either to remove him or at least incapacitate him. A quick survey of his life shows at least three important areas of spiritual warfare.
His first wife, Dorothy, suffered a nervous breakdown early in their time in India from which she never recovered. John Marshman, a close colleague, wrote how Carey worked on his studies and translations “while an insane wife, frequently wrought up to a state of most distressing excitement, was in the next room”. “Several friends and colleagues had urged Carey to commit Dorothy to an asylum. But he recoiled at the thought and took the responsibility to keep her within the family home, even though the children were exposed to her rages.” Dorothy Carey died in 1807. At the same time, some are highly critical of Carey’s role as a father. “Carey’s performance in the arena of family life has most marred his image. In Carey’s own day, people questioned his seeming insensitivity to family concerns.” Family is an area of intense spiritual warfare – and sometimes of failure – in a missionary’s life.
2. Attacks on His Work.
On 11th March 1812 there was a fire in his print shop while Carey was away. “The fire completely destroyed the building, the presses, many Bibles, and the precious manuscripts, dictionaries and grammars, including much of Carey's translation of Sanskrit literature and a polyglot dictionary of Sanskrit and related languages.
When he returned and was told of the tragic loss, he showed no sign of despair or impatience. Instead, he knelt and thanked God that he still had the strength to do the work over again.” He is reported to have said that just as a man taking a journey for the second time knows the road better, so the second time for these translations would be better than the first. “Before his death, he had duplicated and even improved on his earlier achievements. In Carey's lifetime, the mission printed and distributed the Bible in whole or part in 44 languages and dialects.”
3. Mission Team Relationships.
“Internal dissent and resentment was growing within the Missionary Society as its numbers grew, the older missionaries died, and they were replaced by less experienced men. Some new missionaries arrived who were unwilling to live in the communal fashion that had developed, one going so far as to demand ‘a separate house, stable and servants’. Their differences proved irreconcilable, and Carey formally severed ties with the missionary society he had founded.” The younger workers did not embrace the principles upon which his missionary community had been formed, “including communal living, financial self-reliance, and the training of indigenous ministers.”
William Carey’s teaching, translations, writings and publications, his educational establishments and influence in social reform made a massive difference to many, many lives. But to achieve that he had to battle through waves of discouragement and spiritual warfare. Missionary life is no different today; it has that hidden side of spiritual warfare. That is why prayer warriors and member care supporters are so much a part of a missionary’s success – or failure.
Failed teacher and preacher. Told to sit down and shut up. But he went. The result was that William Carey became the father of modern missions for the English speaking churches.
What’s my excuse? Failure though we may feel, do not doubt that God can and wishes to use us!
For those of us on the mission field, how can we prepare well for potential spiritual battles, particularly in these areas of family, relationships and our work?