William Carey 1761-1834

Carey's portraitExpect great things from God; attempt great things for God.

Industrialist, economist, medical humanitarian, media pioneer, educator, botanist and Christian missionary.

William Carey was born on 17th August 1761 in the village of Paulespury, Northamptonshire. His parents, Elizabeth and Edmund were weavers by trade. When William was six years old, his father was appointed parish clerk and schoolmaster. This meant William had a basic education and the chance to acquire books. He was a bright lad with an excellent memory and a gift for languages. His parents were devout Anglicans, but when William became apprenticed to a shoemaker, his fellow apprentice persuaded him to become a Baptist. This was his ‘road to Damascus’; from then on his conscience was awakened and he desired only to follow Christ.

William became a shoemaker and he and his wife Dorothy lived in the village of Moulton, Northamptonshire – his house is now a small museum. Dorothy had had little education, and was unable to share either William’s quest for knowledge or his religious zeal.  William was a multi-tasker: while making shoes he also learned several languages, and longed to convert the millions of ‘heathens’ world-wide to Christianity.  He was ordained in 1787, and in 1789 became the pastor of Harvey Lane Baptist Church, Leicester. Here he met other influential humanitarian men with whom he discussed topical issues and common interests. Other Baptist ministers also had William’s desire to propagate the gospel among the heathen, and, in 1792 – what became the Baptist Missionary Society – was formed at Kettering, Northamptonshire. It was then that William Carey, with a Dr John Thomas – recently returned from Bengal , became the first Baptist missionaries to India.

At that time William and Dorothy had three boys. Dorothy was expecting her fourth child when William told her that he had been chosen to go to Calcutta as a missionary. Initially Dorothy refused to go, but was later reluctantly persuaded to leave with her husband and now four boys: Felix seven, William six, Peter four and baby Jabez.

The family reached Calcutta in 1793 after five hazardous months at sea. The governing British East India Company did not want missionaries to upset the status quo they then enjoyed, so the Carey family had to reach Calcutta covertly. In the first few months, they suffered disease, extreme poverty, loneliness, problems learning the language, and the upheaval of four moves.

William had acquired some land in the tiger-infested Sunderbans, where he attempted to be self-sufficient. Fortunately, in 1794, he was offered the job of superintendent at an Indigo plant at Mudnabatti, north of Calcutta. With a salaried job, and a house for his family, William could concentrate on his missionary activities.  However, no converts were made, Dorothy became mentally ill, and the couple lost their son Peter to dysentery. It was at this time that Jonathon, their fifth son was born.

The year 1800 brought good news. More missionaries had been sent out to help William and they were able to settle in Serampore, a Danish province two hours by boat from Calcutta. They purchased suitable premises, and started the mission Carey had dreamed of. With his fellow missionaries, Ward and Marshman, education was given to both British and native children (boys and girls), a successful printing press was established, and William began translating the Bible into Bengali. The Mission was now tolerated by the government, and soon William was appointed as Professor of Bengali at the prestigious Fort William College in Calcutta. In 1801 they baptised their first Indian convert.

Over the next twenty years the Mission had sufficient funds to build a magnificent college, where eventually eastern literature, western sciences and Biblical learning were combined. Serampore College continues to train Christians for the mission field to this day. In spite of some serious setbacks, the Mission thrived, and soon the brethren were sending missionaries all over India and abroad. Felix was sent to Burma, Jabez to Indonesia, and William to Katwa. Only Jonathon resisted the mission field and became a successful lawyer.

On the domestic front, Dorothy died in 1807 having suffered mental illness for twelve years. William then enjoyed a happy marriage with a Danish aristocrat called Lady Charlotte Emily Von Rumohr. He was heart-broken when she died in 1821, one year before he lost his eldest son Felix. He remarried Grace Hughes in 1822 and she looked after him in his declining years.

On June 9th 1834, William Carey, DD died aged seventy three. He had risen from a humble shoemaker to become a distinguished College professor, whose assistance was sought by the Governors-General in India. His work sowed the seeds of reform both in the religion and the social conditions of that sub-continent. Not only did he translate the Bible into twenty four languages and dialects, but was instrumental in the abolition of widow-burning and the slave trade and responsible for introducing modern agricultural practices to West Bengal. William Carey founded the Agro-Horticultural Society of India and became a member of the prestigious Linnaean Society. Failures and disappointments only strengthened his resolve, he never wasted a moment of time and perseverance was his watchword.

Theological students in the Carey Chapel Serampore, West Bengal