William Carey: Keeping the Grand End in View

by Jason G. Duesing June 22, 2021

“He keeps the grand end in view.”

After arriving in India in September 1796, John Fountain used these words to describe his first impressions of William Carey (1761-1834).[1] A missionary pioneer, organizer, catalyst, survivor, and inspiration, Carey lived 73 full years and changed the modern world. J. H. Kane argues that Carey’s missions tract, An Enquiry, was “a landmark in Christian history and deserves a place alongside Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses.” Carey would not agree with this assessment. In his words, if one were to “give me credit for being a plodder, he will describe me justly. Anything beyond this will be too much. I can plod.”[2]

Born in a small village to a devout Anglican family, Carey regularly attended church but experienced no major life transformation. By his teens he apprenticed as a shoemaker in a neighboring town and through the persistent witness of his co-worker, John Warr, Carey saw his need for a Savior. Soon after his conversion, he left the Church of England and attended a Congregationalist church while intently reading and studying the Scriptures. When faced with the quandary of defending from the Bible his own infant baptism, Carey sought aid from John Ryland Sr., the pastor of College Lane Baptist Church in Northampton. In October 1783, Carey received believer’s baptism from the pastor’s son, John Ryland Jr. Shortly thereafter, another pastor encouraged Carey to preach for a small congregation while maintaining his shoemaking trade. By 1785, Carey accepted a vocational pastorate in Moulton. There he established a friendship with Baptist pastor Andrew Fuller of neighboring Kettering.

During this time, Carey’s regular reading of the voyages of Captain James Cook opened his eyes to the world. In addition, Robert Hall Sr.’s Help to Zion’s Travellers, a doctrinal primer molded from the evangelical theology of Jonathan Edwards and distinct from the hyper-Calvinist climate in England among Baptists, helped shape Carey’s theological thinking more than any other book outside the Bible. With a theology that held the sovereignty of God in balance with the responsibility of man and a growing zeal to see the saving message of the Lord Jesus taken to the ends of the earth, Carey set out to organize his thoughts for accomplishing this task. After wrestling with the Great Commission in Matthew 28, Carey raised the notion of global evangelism at a minister’s meeting in 1785, but was told he “was a most miserable enthusiast for asking such a question.” Despite the discouragement, Carey continued to plod.

In 1789, Carey went to pastor the Harvey Lane Church in Leicester. By May 1792 he published An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens, an argument that the Great Commission remained as a mandate for all churches. This was novel in Carey’s day for the accepted understanding was that the Great Commission was fulfilled by the Apostles and no longer applicable to believers. Carey, instead, read the text plainly and applied what he first learned from Robert Hall’s doctrinal primer to foreign missions. In the Enquiry, Carey answered common objections to the idea of cross-cultural evangelism as well as documenting, in detail, the vast numbers of people outside of Christ.

At the next meeting of the Baptist Association, Carey preached a sermon from Isaiah 54 calling for the transmission of the gospel overseas, encouraging his hearers to “Expect great things. Attempt great things.” Lest one think the staid work of church business meetings are a hindrance for gospel advance, consider that the launch of the most wide-reaching missions movement began in a small free church association meeting following a sermon with the formal passing of a resolution that read, “Resolved, that a plan be prepared against the next Ministers’ meeting at Kettering, for forming a Baptist Society for propagating the Gospel among the Heathen.”

In October 1792, the Baptist Missionary Society was formed, and Carey stepped forward to join the first deployment to India. Of that day Fuller recounted, “Our undertaking to India really appeared to me…to be somewhat like a few men, who were deliberating about the importance of penetrating a deep mine…We had no one to guide us; and, while we were thus deliberating, Carey, as it were, said, ‘Well, I will go down if you will hold the rope.’”[3]

Carey and family arrived in Bengal in November 1793 and endured immediate hardship. In October 1794, the Careys lost their five-year-old son, Peter, to illness, and this tragedy, along with other trials, wreaked havoc on both Careys, especially his wife. Further, the first seven years saw very little spiritual fruit. Writing to his sister in November 1798, Carey said, “No one expects me to write about experience…nor to say anything about the Doctrines of the Gospel, but News, and continual accounts of marvelous things are expected from me. I have however no news to send, and as everything here is the same, no Marvels… at best we scarcely expect to be anything more than Pioneers to prepare the Way for those who, coming after us, may be more useful than we have been.”[4] However, in 1799 Carey moved his family to Serampore and joined with two other missionaries, Joshua Marshman and William Ward. Known now as the Serampore Trio, the three established the Serampore Mission and, in 1800, saw their first convert.

While Carey’s legacy grew from there through Bible translation and as the trailblazer for scores of future missionaries, he also impacted the culture and country where he lived. In one instance, Carey writes first about observing the practice of suttee [sati], wherein the wife will cast herself on the funeral pyre of her dead husband. In April 1799, Carey wrote “As I was returning from Calcutta I saw … a Woman burning herself with the corpse of her husband, for the first time in my life …. I asked [the people assembled] what they were met for. They told me to burn the body of a dead man. I inquired if his Wife would die with him, they answered yes, and pointed to the Woman …. I asked them if this was the woman’s choice, or if she were brought to it by an improper influence? They answered that it was perfectly voluntary. I talked till reasoning was no use, and then began to explain with all my might against what they were doing, telling them it was a shocking Murder…But she in the most calm manner mounted the Pile, and danced on it with her hands extended as if in the utmost tranquility of spirit.”[5]

But Carey did not give up his advocacy and in December 1829, he wrote, “On the 4th of this month a regulation was passed by The Governor General in Council to forbid the burning or burying alive of Hindu Widows with their husbands. This is a matter of utmost importance and calls for our loudest thanks.”[6]

Studying the life and ministry of William Carey is a wonderful way to encourage present and future Christians in their service to the churches of God. Indeed, the proper study of the history of Christianity leads one to see the work of God to preserve and expand his church (Matthew 16:18) from generation to generation. God’s plan is bigger than, although it certainly involves, individualized ministries, but as the life of Carey shows, our Lord has designated his churches as the vehicles to carry out the Great Commission. There is no Carey and modern missions movement if a group of cooperating churches did not gather to send him.

Studying church history this way allows the reader to see that the barometer of faithfulness in Christian ministry is judged not by what one may bring as an individual to the work of the kingdom, but rather what one contributes as a servant in the churches of the kingdom, whether known or in obscurity. If the study of church history does anything, it should lead one joyfully to see the churches of God as more important than himself (Philippians 2:3).

William Carey died in 1834, leaving instructions on his tombstone that read, “A wretched, poor, and helpless worm, On thy kind arms I fall.” Despite world-reaching legacy and fame, Carey departed in faithfulness, looking to Jesus, the head of all churches, and the founder and perfecter of his faith (Hebrews 12:2). Carey kept the grand end in view.


[1] “From Mr. Fountain to Mr. Fuller,” November 8, 1796, in Eustace Carey, Memoir of William Carey, D.D. (Jackson and Walford, 1836), 286.

[2] E. Carey, Memoir, 623.

[3] Joseph Belcher, ed., The Complete Works of Rev. Andrew Fuller, Vol. 1 (American Baptist Publication Society, 1845), 68.

[4] “William Carey to Ann Hobson,” November 27, 1798 in Timothy D. Whelan, Baptist Autographs in the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, 1741-1845 (Mercer, 2009), 91-92.

[5] William Carey to Ryland, Mudnabati, April 1, 1799, in Terry G. Carter, ed. The Journal and Selected Letters of William Carey (Smyth & Helwys, 2000), 79-80.

[6] William Carey to Sisters, Dec. 17, 1829, Serampore, in ibid., 84.