William Carey (1761-1834)

Christians who Changed their World

This is part of an on-going series of articles about largely unknown Christians who had an enormous impact on society by faithfully living out their biblical worldview in various areas of life.

In the 1700s, the Indian subcontinent was divided into a large number of independent states. European countries had established colonies at a number of locations around the region, but by far the most important colonial power was not a nation but a company.

The British East India Company had been granted a royal monopoly to trade in the “East Indies” (later expanded to include virtually all of Asia) in 1600. In 1612, the Mughal Emperor allowed them to set up business in Gujrat. Over the rest of the century the company expanded to become arguably the most important power in the subcontinent, operating across the boundaries of kingdoms and even setting up its own army to defend its interests. In the second half of the eighteenth century, the Company began to rule much of India outright in what became known as the Raj.

The Company was not particularly concerned about religious or educational matters; in fact, keeping the Indian peoples divided by religion, ethnicity, language, and caste suited their purposes of maximizing profits. Introducing Christian missionaries into India could prove to be disruptive, and so the Company did not allow them into its territories.

Missions to India opened up largely due to the work of Charles Grant. Grant had gone to India as part of the Company’s military, but rose through the ranks to be put in charge of trade in Bengal and then to become part of the Company’s board of trade. After losing two children to smallpox, Grant experienced a religious conversion. As a result, he began to see India as desperately in need of the kind of social and moral reform that Christianity could bring, including an end to infanticide, sati (i.e. burning widows to death on their husbands’ funeral pyres), burning lepers, and a host of other social ills.

Grant returned to England and became a Member of Parliament. He joined the Clapham sect with William Wilberforce, and together they worked in Parliament to force the East India Company to accept missionaries in India as a condition for the renewal of the Company charter.

The most important missionary to go to India in the wake of this decision was William Carey. The son of weavers, Carey was apprenticed to a cobbler and eventually inherited a shoemaking business from his master. As an apprentice, Carey taught himself Latin and, with the help of a local vicar, Greek; as a shoemaker he learned Hebrew, Italian, French, and Dutch.

A fellow apprentice influenced Carey to become a Dissenter from the Church of England. He eventually became a Particular Baptist and, influenced by the writings of Jonathan Edwards, picked up a passion for missions. In 1789, Carey became a full time pastor and worked very hard to overcome the hyper-Calvinism of the Baptists of the day, who were very resistant to the idea of missions and evangelism. In 1792, he spearheaded the founding of the Particular Baptist Society for the Propagation of the Gospel amongst the Heathen (later called the Baptist Missionary Society). The following year he left England for India.

It is impossible in a brief article to even begin to cover all aspects of the work of Carey and his companions. Just looking at Carey himself, he made important contributions to botanical knowledge, as well as promoting agriculture and forestry in India. He taught astronomy in an effort to move India beyond the fatalism found in astrology. He fought for moral reforms such as women’s rights, including education for girls and an end to sati, medical treatment for lepers, and the abolition of the caste system among converts to Christianity. He brought the steam engine to India and encouraged local blacksmiths to copy it. He set up the first banking system in India as well.

Impressive though this list is, all of these fade to insignificance compared to Carey’s multifaceted work in education. He studied and mastered several Indian languages and translated classical Indian literature for the first time into English.  He eventually became a professor of Bengali, Sanskrit, and Marathi at Fort William College in Calcutta. His studies enabled him to produce the first Sanskrit dictionary, opening the language to European scholars.

Carey’s work was not simply scholarly, however. He brought the first printing press to India and developed typefaces for Indian languages. From there, he supervised the translation of all or part of the Bible into 44 different Indian languages. In the process, he also established the first newspaper in Asia and the first lending libraries in India using books imported from England.

With his companions Joshua Marshman and William Ward, Carey began the process of learning the hundreds of dialects spoken in India and reducing them to 73 written languages, complete with grammars and dictionaries. His work enabled Bengali to emerge as the major literary language of India. As a result, Carey is often considered the father of the Indian Renaissance in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Other missionaries such as John Borthwick Gilchrist (1759-1841) virtually created modern Hindi and Urdu out of the jumble of dialects of Hindustani.

Carey wasn’t only involved with printing, however. He set up schools for all castes, breaking the Brahman monopoly on learning, and was instrumental in founding the first college in Asia at Serampore. The language of the college was Bengali: Indian families wanted their children to learn just enough English to get jobs, but no more, and Carey was more interested in producing educated Indians than English speaking workers for the Company.

And that goal, which was very much in keeping with the attitudes of the English missionaries, set them at odds with the Company. Even though the Company had to accept the missionaries, they were never happy about having them in India. It was in the Company’s interests to preserve the status quo in the subcontinent, and they feared the disruption Christian conversions would cause. But the attitude of the missionaries toward the Indians and the Company was an even more serious threat to the Raj.

The goal of Carey and the other missionaries was to improve the lives of the Indian people in a comprehensive way: they worked to end social practices that destroyed lives, brought science, technology, and economic development, and provided education in Western learning, all of which they saw as flowing out of their Christian faith. And they knew that over time, this would transform India.

In other words, rather than being a tool of the colonial powers, the missionaries saw their responsibility as empowering the Indian people. Later missionaries and their supporters such as Charles Trevelyan (1807-1886) and Lord Macauley (1800-1859) were very explicit that with education and cultural reform, the Indian people would develop institutions of self-government and would become independent of Britain and the Company. Much as Benjamin Rush had seen republican self-government as an outworking of biblical principles, so Carey and the other missionaries to India saw their work in promoting the biblical worldview as leading to the emergence of India as a modern, self-governing nation.

Carey is considered the father of modern missions; his linguistic and educational work, inspired by his biblical worldview, made him also the father of the Indian Renaissance in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For Carey, education in all subjects was inseparable from true Christianity since Christianity is a comprehensive worldview that is vitally concerned with all of life. As a result of this broad vision of the Gospel, Carey helped lay the groundwork for modern India.



Dr. Glenn Sunshine is a professor of history at Central Connecticut State University and a Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

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