Anyone who has aspired to be a missionary can recite word-for-word Jesus’ Great Commission, “Go ye, therefore, and make disciples of all nations,” (Mathews 28:19). Yet not all who have responded to this stirring call have done so with such single mindedness as William Carey. More than any other individual in modern history he stirred the imagination of the Christian world and showed by his own humble example what could and should be done to bring a lost world to Christ. His humble example inspired others to follow in his steps. Although he faced many oppressive trials during his forty-year missionary career, he demonstrated dogged determination to succeed and he never gave up. And yet, William Carey, an impoverished English shoemaker, was an unlikely candidate for greatness. Who was this man and how did he gain the title “The Father of Modern Missions”? 

Carey’s Birth and Early Years

William Carey was born in 1761 in a village called Paulerspury in Northamptonshire, England. He was the oldest son of Edmund Carey, a weaver and later a parish clerk and village school master. Edmund sought to bring up his children in a God-fearing way. They were nurtured in Pilgrim’s Progress, daily Bible drill and strict church attendance. The Carey family attended the Church of England. William was bred in this atmosphere and activity. Furthermore, his childhood interests lay in sea travel, botany and nature. He went to school at the age of 6 and completed formal education at the age of 12.

William was tenacious at habits of acquiring knowledge and often persevered against all odds. He was able to learn other languages such as Latin, Greek, and Hebrew with little effort. After his schooling days he went into gardening, which was his passion. But the summer of 1775 changed everything. William developed a rash all over his body. This was attributed to his working in the sun. His father decided a new career for him in shoemaking. William was attached to Clarke Nichols for a seven-year apprenticeship. 

His Conversion and Marriage

It was during this apprenticeship, at the age of 18, that William was converted. William met John Warr, another apprentice who was a dissenter (i.e. a Protestant who refused to practice his religion under the Church of England). John laboured for William’s conversion. These two had unending arguments, most of which William won. However, the truths he was hearing were having an impact upon his life. Eventually, William began to attend John’s church. This added to the ministry that brought about his conversion. William’s conversion may have been but the conversion of one boy, but its implications on world missions was to be astounding.

On Sunday 10th July, 1781, William married Dorothy Plackett, a sister to his employer, an illiterate lady who was 5 years older than him. They had a daughter named Ann. In 1783 William and Ann suffered from a severe fever. This fever led to the death of Ann and left him with a bald head.

His Call to the Ministry

During the fever period just referred to, William became a lay preacher in a Baptist church and later, on 5th October 1783, he was baptised by John Ryland in the Nene River. In those days, to become a Baptist one was to accept reproach. William willingly accepted that. William also led his two sisters, Mary and Ann, to the Lord. As a Baptist, he came under the influence of Evangelical men, like Thomas Scott and Andrew Fuller.

In 1784, William, at a Hackleton meeting house, participated in discussion concerning the churchman’s obligation to evangelise not just in his parish but the entire world. He found himself drawn more and more to the idea that the Great Commission did indeed require churchmen to spread Christ to the entire world. No longer could rigid Calvinism dismiss all efforts at missionary work in other countries as useless because God had already chosen his elect. He was, however, in no position to do anything but debate the proposition. Due to financial problems, he took up a job as a teacher at Moulton. It was during this time when his philosophy of mission’s began to take shape.

The first spark was when William read and taught about the voyages of Captain James Cook. Cook had written about the heathen world, which had not yet been evangelised. This was reinforced when William read a treatise by Andrew Fuller, a Baptist pastor, entitled “The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptance.” Fuller had complained that extreme Calvinism had vanquished human responsibility towards the un-churched. He added that good men could not simply sit back and assume God would select those who would get salvation. The apostles had not done that!

William wondered why the Great Commission had not continued after the apostles and their followers. In the meantime, a Baptist congregation at Moulton called him to be their pastor in August 1787. It was an old congregation which was almost dying. William turned it round and he was overjoyed to see people being converted.

William was invited to attend a Baptist Association of Pastors meeting. As it was his first time, he was asked to propose a theme for the discussion. He proposed “The Great Commission according to Mathew 28:19, whether or not it was binding to all succeeding ministers to the end of the world.” One elderly Pastor (Ryland Senior) sat him down with the words “If God wants to convert the heathen he will do it without consulting you or me.” William did not argue though he wanted to protest. He decided to pursue this issue by publishing an eighty-seven page treatise in 1792, whose title was “An Enquiry into the obligation of Christians to use means for the conversion of the Heathens.” He presented a case for foreign missions and sought to deflect the argument dramatising the impracticality of sending missionaries to foreign lands.

Later, William was called to pastor a bigger church at Leicester. During another Baptist Association of Pastors’ meeting, William challenged the group of ministers from Isaiah 54:2,3 and uttered these now famous words “Expect great things from God, and attempt great things for God.” This was to be his motto throughout his life, and this was exactly what he did. It was not an easy task to change the perceptions of the ministers concerning missions. By the grace of God, William succeeded in persuading the ministers, and so, the first Baptist Missionary Society was formed in 1792 at Kettering, with Andrew Fuller as Secretary. 

The Missionary to India

The work of the mission board was to mobilise resources for the cause of missions and to support the missionaries by all possible means. The first mission field was India. The first missionary to be considered was John Thomas, a doctor who had lived in India before. William Carey offered himself to the society as a suitable companion to John Thomas and was accepted. William’s decision did not go unchallenged, however. His church, his father and his wife opposed his decision. But all this opposition never changed William’s decision.

The society commissioned John and William as missionaries to India. Their first trip was not successful as they did not have enough money and lacked license to travel to India. The delay was providential. William’s wife changed her mind during this interval and decided to accompany her husband to India.

On 13th June, 1793, after obtaining more funds, William set sail for India. It was a dangerous voyage. He arrived in India on 19th November. The time of his arrival in India was not favourable for mission work. There was hostility to missions work, especially by the East India Company. For fear of deportation, William moved into the interior with his family.

The idealistic view of missions work rapidly faded as William went through difficult times, with his wife and children becoming ill and as he ran out of funds. Providence did not leave him and his family to perish. God provided for him through an East India company official, a Mr Short, who took pity on them and welcomed them into his home.

Later, William moved 300 miles (about 480km) north of Calcutta where he became a foreman in an Indigo factory. To be effective in his missions work, William continued to learn Bengali which he had started to do during his voyage to India. He spent most of his spare time in learning the language. The factory was equally a choice language school and a field of evangelisation.

Dorothy’s health and mental stability steadily declined. In 1794, their son, Peter, died. William passed through a traumatic period. The Hindus and Moslems could not help him to bury his son. This made the mental illness of his wife worse and she never recovered from it. William continued with his purpose in India, though facing this distressing family situation. Apart from learning Bengali he also learnt Sanskrit, Hindi and other Indian languages.

In 1797, William finished translating the New Testament into Bengali. But there was no convert and William felt the pinch of this upon his soul. It was about this time that he wrote, “We’ve been labouring here four years in overgrown wilderness. We have been breaking up ground, rooting out the trunk and most poisonous weeds and sowing the good seed. Only a little return, as yet appears, but the wise husband man waits for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience over it.”

In the spring of 1799, William travelled to Calcutta. He was troubled by what he saw of the communities along the rivers. On the routes that led down to the river, he saw helpless people abandoned. The old and sick were simply left to starve to death. Those were not the only barbaric things he saw. He witnessed in horror, the burning of a widow together with her dead husband—called ‘sati’ (or suttee). This was a common Hindu practice of setting widows alight with their late husbands’ remains. Another horrific practice, that he came across, was that of sacrificing babies. After seeing this, William campaigned long and hard for the abolition of sati and infant sacrifice. Eventually he succeeded, but it was after many years.

The Arrival of Helpers

William’s wish was to be useful in laying the foundation of Christ’s church in India. In due season, he completed translating the Holy Bible. He needed to have it printed, but he had problems in doing so. Thankfully, towards the end of 1799, other missionaries arrived in India and settled at Serampore, a Danish colony. These were Joshua Marshman (1768–1837) and William Ward (1769–1823). They sought to persuade Carey to join them. After initially refusing, he later accepted. William moved to Serampore and so began one of the most famous partnerships in the whole history of the Christian church, broken only by the death of Ward in 1823. He told Ward that since he came to India he had never made a convert but God had allowed him to translate the Bible in Bengali and to learn both Sanskrit and Hindi. That was how William laid the foundation for the missionary work in India and other surrounding nations. The first Bengali Bible was printed in Serampore.

The newly arrived missionaries at Serampore immediately established a church. William preached three or four times on Sunday. His son, Felix, preached for the first time in a village on 21st October 1800. On 28th December of that year, Serampore had its first convert baptised by Felix Carey. His name was Krishna Pal, a Hindu. He was followed by others. The missionaries at Serampore continued planting other churches in the surrounding areas which they left in the hands of the locals. They also printed tracts in local languages. For many years, William, due to his knowledge of Eastern languages, was appointed Oriental Professor at Fort William College, Calcutta. Other than his preaching ministry there, he also supported the missions work at Serampore from the salary he drew as professor.

The story of William Carey should challenge every Christian. When he heard the call to missions, from the beginning, he did not look back. He knew that God would do great things even through him. He never doubted the promises of God. Though faced with many challenges, he knew that the Lord was his shepherd. The missions work at Serampore was successful in many ways. Many people were converted, the Bengali Bible was printed and the message of Christ spread even beyond the Indian borders into China. There were trials as well. William was widowed twice. His son, Felix, was also widowed twice and lost his children in a calamity. William believed from the beginning that God would do greater things. He never gave up. Indeed, he attempted great things for God.

William saw missionary work as a five-pronged work, advanced with equal attention being directed to each of the five elements:

  1. The widespread preaching of the gospel by every possible means;
  2. The support of preaching by the distribution of the Bible in languages of the country;
  3. The establishment at the earliest possible moment of a church;
  4. A profound study of the background and thought of the non-Christian peoples;
  5. The training at the earliest possible moment of an indigenous ministry.

William Carey died on 9th July 1834, at Serampore. At that time 18 strategic mission stations had been established. Carey never returned to his native England. He requested that a simple inscription be marked on his grave, “A wretched, poor and helpless worm, on Thy kind arms I fall.” 

Lessons from the Life and Ministry of William Carey

  1. Carey never gave up. It took years before the man saw a convert. We have a lot to learn from his tenacity.
  2. Carey learnt a lot from the lives of David Brainerd (1718–1747) and John Elliot (1604–1690). They were both missionaries to the native Indians of North America. We all can learn something from this—that is, the inspiration we get from the lives of others.
  3. Carey produced many publications, in many languages, using the principle of “little by little”. We need such plodders today.
  4. Carey was motivated by the fact that the heathen, without Christ, perish everlastingly. This made Carey achieve what he did. He did this in spite of the distances involved, the danger of being killed, and the problem of supplies. To Carey, the answer to all this was teamwork and corporate prayer. 


  1. Kane, H. J. (1977). Global view of Christian Mission. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
  2. Mbewe, C. (2004). William Carey, the Father of Modern Missions. Lusaka: Evergreen Publishers.
  3. Neill, S. (1990). History of Christian Missions. London: Penguin Books.
  4. Wellman, S. (1980). William Carey, Father of Modern Missions. OH: Barbour Publishing Inc.