Turning Points in the Expansion of Christianity. Chapter 7: William Carey

We reviewed Alice Ott’s book here and praised it as “a masterpiece, perhaps the most important mission book of our time.” Professor Alice Ott presents 12 great events—turning points—which changed Christian history forever. Today we review Chapter 7, the story of William Carey. Before William Carey, the Protestant Church endured a 275-year mission ice age. We wrote about it here. In 1792 Carey wrote An Enquiry into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen (1792). This was Carey’s proposal to establish mission agencies, using an easy-to-assemble instruction manual. Carey and his friends formed the Baptist Mission Society that same year, 1792. Carey and his family sailed for India the next year. But Carey had changed the world before he sailed, having written a do-it-yourself guide for others to follow. Here is the key paragraph in Carey’s Enquiry:

Suppose a company of serious Christians, ministers and private persons, were to form themselves into a society, and make a number of rules respecting the regulation of the plan, and the persons who are to be employed as missionaries, the means of defraying the expense, etc., etc. This society must consist of persons whose hearts are in the work, men of serious religion, and possessing a spirit of perseverance; there must be a determination not to admit any person who is not of this description, or to retain him longer than he answers to it.[1]

Alice Ott writes:

In many respects, William Carey (1761-1834) seemed an unlikely candidate to launch a mission movement. “My parents were poor and unable to do much for me,” he wrote. But William Carey exhibited an unusual degree of persistence when he put his mind to something. “I can plod,” he told his nephew, Eustace Carey. “To this I owe everything.” In his Enquiry, Carey persuasively rebutted the theological objection to mission that was weighty in his day, that is, God would convert the heathen without any human effort. “This form of hyper-Calvinism had clear anti-missionary implications.”[2] At a meeting of the Northamptonshire Baptist Association in September 1785, William Carey (at 24 years of age) suggested a topic for discussion, whether the command given to the apostles to ‘teach all nations’ found in Matthew 28 and elsewhere was still binding on Christians today. John Ryland Sr. dismissed the question out of hand, with a stern rebuke that may well be apocryphal: “Young man, sit down. When God pleases to convert the heathen, he will do it without your aid or mine!” Ott writes, “Even if the rebuke is not authentic, it does reflect the predominant hyper-Calvinist theology within his denomination.”[3]

This theological objection had to be overcome, as Carey attempted to do in his phrase “the Use of Means,” that is, the establishing of mission agencies. Carey stated boldly, “We must not be contented with praying, without exerting ourselves in the use of means for the obtaining of those things we pray for.”[4] This phrase, “the use of means,” can be said to contain the essence of Carey’s Enquiry. He sailed for India in 1793. Look at the timeline below. There had been no Protestant mission agencies in the forty years prior to William Carey’s Enquiry. But 31 mission agencies formed in the forty years after its publication.

With the publication of William Carey’s Enquiry in 1792 a more effective and biblical operating system gained considerable acceptance, despite ecclesiastical hesitation or resistance. Andrew Walls referred to Carey’s new operating system as “the fortunate subversion of the church.”[5] In 1795 the London Missionary Society (LMS) formed. The next year the LMS sent thirty men and six women as missionaries to Tahiti. The Protestant mission ice age began to end. Carey changed the world before he sailed for India.

[1] William Carey, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens, Pre-1801 Imprint Collection (Library of Congress), ed. (Leicester: Baptist Missionary Society London; reprinted by Ann Ireland, 1792); ibid. 81-82. Note that a member could be ousted from the society for failing to qualify, even after he had joined. In other words Carey foresees a screening process to get in, and if a member fails to keep his pledge, he or she can be removed from the group. All mission societies organize themselves in this way.

[2] Alice T. Ott, Turning Points in the Expansion of Christianity : From Pentecost to the Present (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2021). 138

[3] Ibid. 139

[4] Carey, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens. 80

[5] Andrew F. Walls, “The Fortunate Subversion of the Church,” in The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996).