Carey became a member of the first team sent out by the new Society he inspired and established with a group of faithful friends. For the next several decades, this Society funded Carey’s work. All of these opportunities—and countless more—came about because of the sovereign hand of the Lord. Once again, we see the triad of Desire, Opportunity, and Gifting weave together in the missionary assignment of William Carey, “the Father of Modern Missions.”
William Carey (1761–1834) is one of the most widely known missionaries in the history of Christianity. He’s often referred to as “The Father of Modern Missions,” a moniker that reflects his influence on generations of missionaries.
In 1792, he published An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens. Clunky title aside, the book had a simple goal: Carey wanted to respond to Hyper Calvinists who were against taking the gospel to the nations. On the contrary, Carey said, local churches have the obligation to employ means as they engage global evangelistic efforts.
Carey first traveled to Calcutta the next year, and he served in India until his death more than 40 years later. Along with William Ward and Joshua Marshman, Carey established the first institution in Serampore that conferred theological degrees. He also personally translated the Bible into Bengali, Assamese, Hindi, Marathi, Oriya, and Sanskrit.
Let’s examine his calling to this fruitful ministry.
From his earliest years, Carey had a heart for the nations. His sister recalled that his early prayers included pleas for those who didn’t yet have access to the gospel. He knew that his life belonged to God. He wrote about this in An Enquiry:
A Christian minister is a person who in a peculiar sense is not his own; he is the servant of God, and therefore ought to be wholly devoted to him. By entering on that sacred office he solemnly undertakes to be always engaged, as much as possible, in the Lord’s work, and not to choose his own pleasure, or employment, or pursue the ministry as a something that is to subserve his own ends, or interests, or as a kind of bye-work. He engages to go where God pleases, and to do, or endure what he sees fit to command, or call him to, in the exercise of his function. He virtually bids farewell to friends, pleasures, and comforts, and stands in readiness to endure the greatest sufferings in the work of his Lord, and Master.
If you want more about Carey’s desire to see the gospel spread among the unreached, then you should read An Enquiry. He began the book by answering a question that might sound curious to us: Does the Great Commission still apply to the church more than 1,700 years later? He proceeded to lay out a brief history of Christian Missions alongside modern anthropological statistics. The book ends with a survey of what work could be done and the means by which Christians could pursue that work. Carey concluded, “Surely it is worthwhile to lay ourselves out with all our might, in promoting the cause, and kingdom of Christ.”
But Carey didn’t just write books. He leveraged his relationships and resources to form the English Missionary Society. It’s no coincidence that the Society formed so quickly after the publication of An Enquiry. Originally, Carey wanted to go to Tahiti or West Africa. But then he met John Thomas, a missionary who ventured to India in the 1780s but had to return after he mismanaged finances. Thomas convinced Carey and the rest of the Society’s membership to send missionaries to India. Seemingly convinced that he’d corrected his financial misdeeds, the Society agreed to send him as its first missionary. Shortly after, they agreed to send Carey as its second.
One member of the Society was the pastor Andrew Fuller. He reflected on these early decisions, “We saw here a gold mine in India, but it was as deep as the centre of the earth. Who will venture to explore it?”
Carey had an answer to Fuller’s question: he would go down, if others would “hold the ropes.”
Carey had a problem with Hyper-Calvinists because he held to genuine Calvinistic theology. He believed the Lord would open a door to India if He willed. And the Lord really did need to open a door. After all, anyone who travelled to Bengal without permission from the East India Company risked imprisonment and a fine—or both. Once, while on a trip to London, Carey asked John Newton what he should do if the Company refused his entrance to Bengal. Newton replied it’s possible to “conclude that the Lord has nothing there for you to accomplish. But if He have, no power on earth can hinder you.”
It’s true now as it was then: misunderstanding God’s sovereignty discourages missionaries, churches, and agencies who desire to enter a specific location only for the authorities to close the door. If Carey had been “called” to India, surely the Lord would open the door. Over the course of the current pandemic, I find this to be tremendously encouraging. Friends, if the Lord has work for us around the world, then no earthly power can stop us. If a missionary’s assignment consists of desire, opportunity, and gifting, then we patiently wait for these three things to come together. If they don’t, then we can rest in the fact that it was not, in fact, our “calling.”