William Carey: Father of Modern Missions
Missionary work is commonplace in churches today. Many Christians have gone on “short term” mission trips of a week or two. This is possible for one reason: the low cost of travel, both domestic and international. If you think about it, you can really go just about anywhere in the world within, say, 48 hours if you really need to and have the money. You just catch a plane to that part of the world, and then rent a smaller plane or helicopter to drop you off at the spot.
But things have not always been so. Fifty years ago, overseas mission work meant that you were going to be gone for at least several months. A hundred years ago, overseas mission work meant that you would probably be gone at least several years. And 200 years ago, overseas mission work meant that you stood a good chance of never coming back; yes, you would probably die and be buried wherever you did your mission work.
That was the situation facing William Carey (1761-1834). He is known as the Father of Modern Missions. [He is not the Father of Missions, but of Modern Protestant Missions, meaning roughly from 1800 on.] During his life time of over 200 years ago, Protestant mission work was rare, especially the mission work that he did: traveling to places which had limited contact with Westerners, like India. And India is where he chose to work. But that is getting ahead of the story.
Carey was born in England and grew up Episcopalian but became a Baptist when he was around twenty years old. He had an amazing ability to learn languages: he learned Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, and Dutch over a seven-year period. He developed a desire for overseas mission work and helped form the Baptist Missionary Society in 1792 (which still exists and sends missionaries to forty countries). The next year, he and John Thomas, a surgeon, were sent by the Society to India. At that time, the British East India Company controlled passage to India and they did not want missionaries going to India. But Thomas was able to get in since he was a surgeon, and Carey was able to get in after agreeing to supervise an indigo factory.
Once he became supervisor he ceased involvement with the missionary society. [I am not sure if it was at the initiation of the society or of Carey.] The factory closed in 1799 and Carey purchased a small indigo plantation elsewhere and moved to manage it. Now that he was his own boss, he decided to begin focusing on his mission work. Yet this time he ran into opposition from the Indian government. Therefore, in 1800 he moved to a Danish settlement. The Danes were welcoming of Carey’s mission work, and he began to utilize his special gift in languages.
In 1801 he and Thomas printed a Bengali New Testament. His language ability gained fame and he was soon asked to be professor of Oriental Languages at a new college in Calcutta, India, Fort William College. He held this position for thirty years and taught Bengali, Mahrati, and Sanskrit.
But it is his Bible translation work for which he is the most famous. Either by himself or with others, he translated the Bible or New Testament into twenty-six languages. It is estimated that, in the early 1800s, Carey had a hand in translating the Bible into languages for up to 1/3 of the earth’s population at that time.
And as a measure of his influence today, much of the information for this summary comes from the Center for the Life and Study of William Carey, D.D., located at William Carey University, a 2600-student university located in Mississippi.
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