William Carey was born in Purey, Northamptonshire, England on August 17, 1761.
His mental aptitude and capacity was revealed when he was six years old, when he would work out arithmetic problems mentally. He voraciously read books on such tedious subjects in natural history about plants and insects. As a child he completed whatever he set out to do, never letting difficulties stop or slow his endeavors.
Mr. Carey was raised in an Episcopalian home, with both his father and grandfather serving as clerks on the official Church of England. As such, Carey grew up abhorring and hating anyone that dissented from their beloved church.
At the age of 14 (1775), he was apprenticed as a shoemaker, but he continued every chance he had in continuing to study. Looking for books he could study, he found a small box of books the shoemaker had. In it was a commentary on the New Testament that had Greek words in it. This caused him to want to know Greek, so he found a weaver in the town, who had been educated to work in medicine, that knew a little bit about Greek from his early years, and was able to give William some help to get started.
At the age of 18 (1779), he was saved and converted to being a Baptist. He immediately poured every effort into mastering Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, and several other languages without any help. He had an extremely rare ability at learning foreign languages, and possibly the greatest that has ever existed.
He was baptized in the Nen River by Dr. Ryland, on October 5, 1783, who noted the event in his diary calling Carey “a poor journeyman shoemaker.”
His interest in travel for missionary work came from reading about the voyages of Captain Cook and the doomed condition of those in heathen lands. The idea totally consumed him, and even though it was considered utterly crazy to attempt such a work, he worked long and hard to overcome the many obstacles that blocked him from going. The power of God was at work in his heart and he could not leave the call alone.
He preached for three and a half years in a little community in Barton, walking six miles each way to do so.
William Carey had a little shoe shop in the little village of Moulton. Mr. Carey was a very withdrawn, bashful, awkward, quiet short little man. He worked on shoes, always with a book in front of him. He was prematurely bald and rarely said anything, but all the while he worked on shoes he was being trained to become someone God needed to open the Scriptures to people all over the world, like no other person has ever been so equipped or able to do. He not only was busy learning from books, but was learning to survive the most humble work among society, and to live with the very least provisions a person can have and thus personally understanding the great privations of the masses of Hindu people.
“The future is as bright as the promises of God”—William Carey
One day, Pastor Andrew Fuller came to his shop, and was very surprised at what was there! William had pasted several sheets of paper together and put them on the wall, where he had drawn the boundaries of the known nations of the world. In the blank areas he had added notes about what he had learned about each country’s religion and population.
In 1784, at an association meeting of pastors in Nottingham, it was recommended that a Monthly Concert of Prayer be made for the spread of the gospel to the distant parts of the globe. Three years later, at the same meetings, Carey timidly asked if the churches of Christ had done all they ought for the heathen nations? John Ryland, Sr., rebuked him, saying “Young man, sit down; when God pleases to convert the heathen world, He will do it without your help or mine either!”
On Aug 1, 1787 he was ordained as pastor of a church at Moulton. The sermon for the occasion was preached by Andrew Fuller. He was paid $75 a year there as minister, and he had a wife and two children to support on that meager salary.
While fighting to stay alive, and seeking to carry his duties as minister, a friend have him a large volume of Dutch sermons. He took the book with renewed vigor, borrowing a Dutch grammar and dictionary, and soon presented the friend with a translation of one of the sermons.
In 1789 he became pastor of a church in Leicester. He worked tirelessly among those in the congregation and also zealously pursued plans for reaching the heathen in foreign lands.
He wrote a booklet entitled: “An Inquiry into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen.” But having written it, he did not have the means to publish it. A deacon learned of the need, and presented Mr. Carey with the money to do so, and it was finally published in 1791. This became a tool that was able to convince his friends to turn their attention to reaching the lost in distant lands.
Enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of thine habitations: spare not, lengthen thy cords, and strengthen thy stakes; For thou shalt break forth on the right hand and on the left; and thy seed shall inherit the Gentiles, and make the desolate cities to be inhabited (Isaiah 54:2-3).
On May 30, 1792, Rev. Carey preached from Isaiah 54:2-3, stating that there are two divisions to his sermon: “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.” The sermon brought great conviction upon those attending the Association Meeting at Nottingham, and their need to make an effort to win the ignorant enemies of the Savior. The sermon was an outpouring of frustration after years of quiet prayer and constant belittling and scorn. The son of the one who publically rebuked him at a meeting, Dr. John Ryland, Jr., said: “If all the people had lifted up their voices and wept as the children of Israel did at Boachim, I should not have wondered at the effect; it would only have seemed proportionate to the cause, so clearly did he prove the criminality of our supineness in the cause of God.” But even after the powerful message, the ministers hesitated to do anything. Finally, Mr. Carey was unable to hold himself back any longer and he implored in utter anguish Mr. Fuller: “And are you, after all, going again to do nothing?” This brought a resolution that at the next minister’s meeting, a society be organized for the spreading of the gospel to the heathen.
On October 2, 1792, at the church Andrew Fuller pastored in Kettering, a Baptist Missionary Society was formed. There were only 12 ministers, and their resources were extremely limited. On top of their limited abilities, they had the government to contend with and no knowledge of any land that would accept anything they might be able to attempt. Carey’s persistent earnestness prevailed. Although the society is credited as being the first of its kind ever established, this is not true, because Baptists have always had a deep interest in missions, but usually have to conduct such efforts in “secret” meetings.
Rev. Carey had to face every possible obstacle in his missionary endeavor, including the deep resentment of his wife, and her refusal to go with him. Raising sufficient funds was a real problem, as well as getting permission of the government to go.
A Baptist surgeon that worked in India at that time was in England, looking for a fellow worker to go back with him to India. The surgeon, Dr. John Thomas, had used his work as a means to try to reach the natives, but all activity was controlled by the British East India Company that banned all missionary activity and did all they could to protect the idols and idolatry of India. The new Baptist Missionary Society decided to back the two men and they got passage on a ship to go there together. They were denied passage on the first ship they boarded, since Carey did not have a license to go. Although very discouraged, they did find a Danish ship that would take the men. But to Carey’s surprise, his wife decided to go with their three week old child, but insisted they also take her sister. The fare was £600 but they could only raise £300. The agent finally agreed to let them board with the much reduced sum, due to the work of Dr. Thomas and the generosity of the agent. The ship set sail on June 13, 1793.
The trip at sea lasted five months, and finally on Nov. 11, 1793, they arrived at Calcutta, and being on a foreign ship, their arrival was not reported, nor were they noticed, so they were able to go on shore without any added grief!
With all Carey had to endure to just get to India, proved just the beginning of his trials. He arrived with a large family and no means of support. Although William Carey had worked long and hard at learning the Bengali language on the ship, he still had much to learn, but could not dedicate his attention wholly to language studies. Upon reaching India, he began almost immediately to go and do the work for which he had come, that of explaining the gospel.
Dr. Thomas was not that big a help, being too free with the little money they did have, and he soon exhausted their funds and the little property they had brought with them. This left with absolutely nothing.
William’s wife was not at all supportive, and even after having walked for a dozen or more miles to do his work, he would come home to a very bitter and vindictive wife and her sister, who blamed him for bringing them there to starve.
A native noticed their plight and kept them from starving to death, and Carey decided that these distractions were too much. He decided to borrow money and move where land could be gotten from the government rent free, and where he could build huts for his family and grow food to eat. Once he raised the funds, they got in a boat, but the trip nearly exhausted their funds. When Carey saw a European walking along the river, he approached the unsaved man with his whole family and told him their plight. The man, though not at all sympathetic with Carey’s endeavor, offered his house for six months or whatever they needed.
Carey went right to work clearing away the jungle on the other side of the river, and soon had huts raised for his family. Even in those gloomy circumstances, Carey was full of hope. His only concern was the amount of time that was being taken away from his primary goal of preaching the gospel. He was able to provision his family with food by using a gun, and hunting the abundant wild animals and birds. He also went to work cultivating a little farm, but regretted the time spent on such activities.
They did not stay long in this unhealthy region, but a friend of Dr. Thomas had Carey appointed the superintendent of an indigo factory in Malda, where they had originally planned to go. This gave him a reason to be in the country, and a salary of £240 per year. On Sundays he would preach to the employees, and during the week he would make trips to surrounding villages to preach. Through strict economy, he was able to devote a third of the income to missionary endeavors. For five years God prudentially provided this job.
The local was unhealthy and fever at one time threatened his life. Two of his children were lost to dysentery, and this caused his wife to go mad, and she had to be kept restrained till she passed away.
In 1799, William Ward and Joshua Marshman tried join up with Pastor Carey, but they were returned to England by the ship captain, after he found out they were really going to be missionaries.
Mr. Carey decided to make Serampore his home, where he could have the two men join him. Serampore was just 15 miles from Calcutta, and out of reach of the oppressive British government. It was instead a Danish settlement and the Kings of Denmark and were in sympathy with missionary endeavors. The three men became known as the Serampore Trio.
Together they established 26 churches and 126 schools with 10,000 students enrolled! On top of the massive translation work they did, they established a medical mission, savings bank, seminary, girl’s school, and a Bengali newspaper.
But Pastor Carey’s work was not limited just to evangelism and church planting, it also carried over into seeking to improve the agriculture of the area, and he conducted extensive agricultural experiments. He also established the Agricultural and Horticultural Society of India in 1820.
Col. Bie, the Danish governor of Serampore received Mr. Carey and his co-workers with generous kindness and protected them for many years against the powerful British governors. As the King of Denmark heard of the character and untiring work of Carey became a firm friend and supporter.
At Serampore, the missionaries set up printing presses and a large boarding school, and then later founded a college. They were constantly preaching and Carey in particular went to work learning the languages of the country like no other man has ever been able to do. He was soon the most educated man of the country.
In 1801, when the British set up a college in Calcutta to teach the Bengal language to the Englishmen there to work for the government, Dr. Carey was the only man qualified to teach the language correctly, and so Mr. Carey accepted the appointment as a professor in Fort William.
In 1821, the King of Denmark, Frederick VI sent them a gold medal of appreciation and gave an endowment to their college of the rent of a royal house.
In Dec. 1829, Dr. Carey was able to see an act passed that he had worked long and hard for, that abolished the burning of widows with the bodies of their dead husbands. It was decided to print the act in both English and Bengal at the same time. Every day two widows were being murdered by the heathen customs of Hinduism. So when Carey got the order to do the translation work, he started the translation and did not do his preaching on that Sunday, but instead spent the day translating, completing the work by nightfall. That new law was published using the polished Bengali of the great Baptist missionary.
In 1845, the King’s successor ceded the town of Serampore to the British government, but put in the treaty an article confirming the Danish charter of the Serampore Baptist College.
After his wife died, he married another woman in India, and after she died a third wife in India.
Dr. Carey would carefully consider a decision to be made and thoroughly investigate the matter before reaching the decision which then became absolutely final. Nothing would dissuade him from fulfilling what he decided to do. Some decisions took 20 years to carry out, but he would never forget them, and labored constantly to carry them out. He was one that took the idea of fulfilling Christian vows as seriously as Scripture enjoins us to do. When we give our word, we must fulfill it.
In the forty years he spent in India, he was personally involved in the translation of the Scriptures into 24 different languages in India and surrounding regions. Before he died there had been 212,000 copies of Scriptures issued from Serampore in 40 different languages. This made the Scriptures available to a third of the population of the world! His work is still used today, and accepted as standards.
He also wrote grammars and dictionaries of Bengali, Mahratta, Sanskrit and other languages.
From 1801 to 1830 he was a professor at Fort William College in Calcutta.
His final sickness found him anxious to go home to be with his Savior. He died on June 9, 1834, being 73 years old.
In preparation for his death, William Carey ordered his tombstone to say:
“A guilty, weak, and helpless worm,
Rev. A. H. Burlingham, “Baptists and Missions.” C. A. Jenkens, editor, Baptist Doctrines (Watertown, Wisconsin: Roger Williams Heritage Archives, 1890; 2003), pp. 361-366.
William Cathcart, The Baptist Encyclopedia (), pp. 182-184. Very comprehensive overview of life, and drawing of Mr. Carey.
M. Fackler, “Carey, William.” Editors: J. D. Douglas, Philip Wesley Comfort and Donald Mitchell, Who's Who in Christian History (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1997, c1992). Has a more secular short bio.
J. M. Cramp, Baptist History: From the Foundation of the Christian Church to the Close of the Eighteenth Century (Watertown, Wisconsin: Roger Williams Heritage Archives, 1871; 2003), p. 438. Gives year of publication of Carey’s booklet.
William Landels, Baptist Worthies (Watertown, Wisconsin: Roger Williams Heritage Archives, 1883; 2003), 159-196. An excellent and detailed account of “William Carey, the Linguist.”
Clarence Larkin, Why I Am a Baptist (Watertown, Wisconsin: Roger Williams Heritage Archives, 1902; 2003), p. 18. Mentions length of service in India and the number of Bibles printed.
Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories, Includes Music and Index. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications, 1982), p. 137. Has Anglican Bishop’s anti-missions quote.
Kenneth W. Osbeck, Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions, Includes Indexes. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications, 1990), p. 389. Has note regarding Carey’s initial efforts to carry the gospel to heathen people.
J. W. Porter, The World's Debt to the Baptists (Watertown, Wisconsin: Roger Williams Heritage Archives, 1914; 2003), pp. 108-115, 133, 134.
Charles H. Spurgeon Spurgeon's Sermons, electronic ed. (Albany, OR: Ages Software, 1998), Vol. 12, No. 710, “The Great White Throne.”
John D. W. Watts, Word Biblical Commentary: Isaiah 34-66 (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002), vol. 24, p. 240.
Warren W. Wiersbe, With the Word Bible Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997, c1991), Is 37:1. Used Carey’s quote about the future.
Roger William Heritage Archives Editors, Baptist Biographies (Watertown, Wisconsin: Roger Williams Heritage Archives, 2003; 2003), “Carey, William.”