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“Such a man as Carey is more to me than bishop or archbishop: he is an apostle.” This was the estimate that the evangelical Anglican John Newton once expressed about the Baptist missionary William Carey at the close of the eighteenth century. A blog post as recent as this year has a similar take on Carey: there he is described as “the man whom God used almost single-handedly to bring the Great Commission back to the forefront of the church’s thinking.”
The missionary’s opinion of himself was quite different, however. Carey was quite conscious that he did not merit being decked out with a halo like a medieval saint, something that evangelical tradition—following Newton’s lead?—has done. When he came to die in 1834, he gave explicit instructions that on his tombstone were to be placed the following words drawn from a hymn by Isaac Watts: “A wretched, poor, and helpless worm, / On Thy kind arms I fall.” Human fallenness and thus the need for an ardent reliance on the Holy Spirit were constant themes in all that Carey wrote throughout his life.
Ardent, Active Zeal
Carey also knew he was not the first European Christian to go into the foreign missions field. In his landmark treatise An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians, to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen (1792), Carey penned a mini-history of missions and noted the key role that the Moravians had played. “None of the moderns,” he wrote, “have equalled the Moravian Brethren in this good work” of evangelism and missions.
Although the First Great Awakening had its major impact on the English-speaking transatlantic world, its immediate origins lay to some degree in the German-speaking Moravian community at Herrnhut in Saxony. This community, led by Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, had initiated an around-the-clock prayer meeting that led to what Moravian historians later called their Pentecost on August 13, 1727. And within five years this community was led into crosscultural missions as Moravian missionaries went to the West Indies. For more than a hundred years, the prayer meeting at Herrnhut continued without a break, empowering this community’s missionary movement.
Moravian missionaries went out literally to the four corners of the earth: after the West Indies in 1732, they went to Greenland in 1733; to Lapland and the colony of Georgia in 1734; to Surinam in 1735; to South Africa in 1737; to Algeria in 1739; to the Native Americans, Sri Lanka, and Romania in 1740; and to Persia in 1747.
Looking back on this amazing outburst of missionary energy, William Wilberforce said of the Moravians:
They are a body who have perhaps excelled all mankind in solid and unequivocal proofs of the love of Christ and of ardent, active zeal in his service. It is a zeal tempered with prudence, softened with meekness and supported by a courage which no danger can intimidate and a quiet certainty no hardship can exhaust.
Expect Great Things
Among the Moravian mission settlements was one established in 1776 at Serampore in eastern India. Regretfully, by 1792, the mission was closed, and the missionaries returned to Germany. But it was in this very year that what came to be called the Baptist Missionary Society was founded in England, and in 1793 it sent William Carey and his family to India. Carey would eventually end up in Serampore in 1800, where he was joined by William Ward and Joshua Marshman, the three men forming what came to be called the Serampore Trio. It is vital to note that just as the Moravian missionary movement was grounded in prayer, so was this mission of the English Baptists.
Inspired by a book of Jonathan Edwards—An Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God’s People in Extraordinary Prayer for the Revival of Religion and the Advancement of Christ’s Kingdom on Earth (1747)—a number of Baptist leaders, including Andrew Fuller of Kettering and John Sutcliff of Olney, had issued a call to their churches in the Northamptonshire Association in the summer of 1784 to devote an hour on the first Monday evening of every month to pray for the revival of their churches, many of which were moribund or in decline. Despite the remarkable revival that had been going on at that point for some fifty years among the Anglicans in England and Wales, many Calvinistic Baptist churches had been basically untouched by it. This was due largely to the distrust that the Baptists had for the Anglicans—many of the Baptist leaders had, after all, been imprisoned at the behest of state church authorities in the previous century—and also for the presence of hyper-Calvinism that was regnant in a number of these Baptist communities.
In this call to prayer, which God graciously did use to bring revival to Calvinistic Baptist ranks at the close of the eighteenth century, was this ardent request: “Let the whole interest of Redeemer be affectionately remembered, and the spread of the gospel to the most distant parts of the habitable globe be the object of your most fervent requests.” As these Baptist men and women in the English Midlands prayed for the spread of the gospel, God gave them a vision for crosscultural evangelism. They began to “expect great things” from God, as Carey would put it in a famous sermon he preached in 1792 on Isaiah 54:1–3, in which he pleaded the case of foreign missions.
A Little Band of Brothers
James Davison Hunter has argued in a recent work, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (2010), that the “great man of history” view, namely, that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men” is wrong. Rather, “the key actor in history is not individual genius but rather the network [of individuals and friends] and the new institutions that are created out of those networks.” This is certainly true of Christianity: collegiality is ever central to times of spiritual blessing in its history.
One of Andrew Fuller’s close friends, Christopher Anderson, a Scottish Baptist leader, put it this way with regard to the circle of friends around Carey:
In order to much good being done, co-operation, the result of undissembled love, is absolutely necessary. . . . Such a union in modern times existed in [Andrew] Fuller, [John] Sutcliff, [Samuel] Pearce, [William] Carey, and [John] Ryland. They were men of self-denying habits, dead to the world, to fame, and to popular applause, of deep and extensive views of divine truth, and they had such an extended idea of what the Kingdom of Christ ought to have been . . . that they . . . vowed and prayed, and gave themselves no rest.
Carey’s friendship with a number of like-minded Baptist pastors—named here by Anderson—was indispensable to the transformative impact of his life. These men took the time to think and reflect together as well as to encourage one another and pray together. An aversion to the same errors, a love for the same authors—Jonathan Edwards, for example—coupled with a concern for the cause of Christ at home and abroad, bound these men together in a friendship that was a significant catalyst for both revival and mission.
With no friends in high places and virtually no financial reserves, this small group of men—at one point Anderson called them “a little band of brothers”—became convinced that the Christian faith was not meant for Westerners alone. They thus formed the Baptist Missionary Society and sent Carey (and later others) to India and Southeast Asia, and then, in the years that followed, others to the West Indies and West Africa.
The Lord Is Doing Great Things
Carey’s 1792 sermon mentioned above had two sections to it that were summed up by these watchwords: “expect great things” and “attempt great things.” The formation of the Baptist Missionary Society was only the first of a number of important missionary enterprises formed in this remarkable era. There was, for example, the interdenominational London Missionary Society (1795), the Anglican Church Missionary Society (1799), and the Wesleyan Missionary Society (1813), to name but three, who began to fulfill Carey’s call to “attempt great things” for God and His glory.
What lessons, then, can we learn from this early era in the modern missionary movement? First, the Moravians and the Baptists around Carey remind us that without prayer, nothing can be accomplished for the expansion of God’s kingdom. With Carey, we must reach that point where we experientially confess, as he once said, that “if a temple is raised for God in the heathen world, it will be by” the Spirit of God.
Second, we need to be gripped by a passionate activism to win the lost even as the eighteenth-century Moravians and English Baptists were. Though Carey often reproached himself for his indolence, he was actually a hurricane of energy focused on winning the lost for Christ and advancing the kingdom of Christ. In the words of David Kingdon, Carey and his band of brothers knew that they were debtors to grace, and they were thus willing to
hazard health and comfort to bring the gospel to heathen multitudes lost in darkness. They believed in the eternal punishment, not the annihilation, of the impenitent. They entertained no hopeful views of the salvific possibilities of general revelation, nor did they speculate that people could be saved apart from the proclamation of the gospel.
Finally, there was a profound catholicity that marked both the Moravians and the Baptist circle around Carey. They were well aware that they did not have the calling to build their own little kingdoms, and, as such, they networked with others of like mind, theology, and ethos. Thus, Thomas Scott, an Anglican minister, and John Newton, one of the founders of the Church Missionary Society, wrote in December 1814 to their mutual friend, the Baptist John Ryland Jr.:
I do most heartily rejoice in what your missionaries are doing in India. Theirs is the most regular and best conducted plan against the kingdom of darkness that modern times have shewn. . . . May all India be peopled with true Christians!—even though they be all Baptists. . . . The Lord is doing great things, and answering prayer everywhere.
And if we are wise in our own day, we too shall make common cause with those who share our commitment to the gospel.