On the 11th of November 1793, a Danish cargo ship, the Kron Princessa Maria docked in Calcutta. Amongst its passengers was a 32-year-old cobbler-cum-Baptist pastor from the East Midlands by the name of William Carey. Few could have foreseen the immense contribution this man would make to the spiritual life of the land he would come to call home, primarily, but by no means exclusively, through providing its people with God’s Word in their own tongues.
Making disciples of all nations
From childhood, Carey had displayed a keen interest in life overseas, and following his conversion in 1779, God placed an intense concern in his heart for the souls of those living in foreign lands. He was instrumental in the formation in 1792 of what would subsequently be known as the Baptist Missionary Society, and for this reason alone he has long been regarded as ‘the father of modern missions’.
At first, he had no intention of going on the mission field himself, believing that he was called to oversee the work of the society from home whilst continuing in his role as pastor of Harvey Lane Baptist Church in Leicester. However, a friend told him that India was a veritable goldmine for the gospel, if only someone would be willing to work it for Christ. Carey, an exceptionally gifted linguist, found the lure of such spiritual riches too great to resist, so together with his wife, her sister and their four sons, he left England in June 1793, never to return.
‘Very distressing disappointments’
William Carey arrived in India brimming with enthusiasm for the task set before him, but was almost immediately confronted with a bewildering array of obstacles, threatening to derail the venture and demoralise him. Funds were limited, and the financial difficulties he faced compelled him to tent-make which meant he had far less time than he had hoped to devote himself to preaching, teaching, language-learning and translating. His wife, Dorothy, was miserable in her new environment, and her homesickness, coupled with the tragic death of their five-year-old son Peter from fever, triggered in her a mental breakdown from which she never recovered.
To make matters worse, the British East India Company, which controlled Calcutta, resented the ‘intrusion’ of missionaries into its territory and actively sought to hinder Carey’s endeavours. For a man who harboured such a burning desire for the salvation of ‘pagans’, it must have been a devastating blow for him to have to report that after almost seven years in India he knew of no native who had turned to Christ.
Thankfully, things improved significantly with the arrival of eight new missionaries in late 1799; chief amongst them Joshua Marshman and William Ward from England. They settled in Serampore, fourteen miles inland from Calcutta, which was under Danish control since the Danes actively supported Christian missions in their territories. Carey decided to join them there at the beginning of 1800, and he, Marshman and Ward proved to be a formidable team in the cause of the gospel.
With their help, Carey was able to translate the whole Bible into six languages and the New Testament into a further twenty-three. By 1804, forty natives had been baptised, and in 1806 he was appointed Professor of Bengali and Sanskrit at Fort William College, Calcutta, which gave him a comfortable income to invest in the work. However, in 1812, disaster struck. Carey’s printing house in Serampore caught fire, and the printing presses, paper and all of his unfinished manuscripts were destroyed. He exclaimed, ‘In one night the labours of years are consumed.’
Running with perseverance
In his book, Christian Missionaries, Owen Milton says of Carey’s life in India, ‘Everything was a constant struggle … gains were hard won, and maintained by even greater endeavour.’ Paul Pease writes in Travel with William Carey, ‘Any lesser man would have given up and gone home.’ Yet Carey remained in India until his death in 1834, and the benefits of his legacy are still being reaped today. How was he able to manifest such remarkable resilience in the face of such unrelenting adversity?
His sister said that he was by nature a doggedly determined man, who wouldn’t rest until he’d finished what he’d started, but natural stamina alone cannot adequately explain the astonishing ability he possessed to continue his work in India when everything seemed against him. Carey revealed his ‘secret’ in the following words:
When I first left England, my hope of the conversion of the heathen was very strong, but, among so many obstacles, it would entirely die away, unless upheld of God.
His resilience was not manmade, but divinely bestowed.
God used two means to feed the supernatural ability to persevere which he planted in Carey’s soul: the first being experience. The journey from England to India had been arduous; they were buffeted by one storm after another, and their arrival was much delayed as a result. Carey wrote:
I hope I have learned the necessity of bearing up in the things of God against wind and tide, when there is occasion, as we have done in our voyage.
The second means God used to feed Carey’s resilience is the doctrine of his sovereignty so clearly set forth in Scripture. The knowledge that God is in control of all things proved Carey’s greatest incentive to persevere; it convinced him that the obstacles he faced wouldn’t destroy his work. He wrote:
The work to which God sets his hands will infallibly prosper … my faith, fixed on that sure word, would rise above all obstacles and overcome every trial.
It also assured him that God would use the setbacks which seemed to threaten the work to advance it, and to sanctify him. The destruction of the printing house actually won Carey and his team a place in the hearts of many locals, and Carey confessed, ‘The Lord has laid me low, that I might look more simply to him.’
Carey was not left unaffected by the trials and tribulations he encountered in India – he admitted that ‘my … troubles are sometimes too heavy for me,’ – but his pain and discomfort did not overwhelm him because he clung to the truth of God’s sovereignty. He said, ‘I am distressed, yet supported.’
We too can expect to contend with many obstacles and troubles which make their mark as we seek to make Christ known each day, but as we look to God and meditate on his sovereignty, we can be, like Carey, ‘hard-pressed … yet not crushed … perplexed but not in despair … struck down, but not destroyed’ (2 Cor. 4:8-9).