The Life of William Carey

Introduction brief life history

This essay aims to explore and discuss the life of the renowned theologian and religious missionary William Carey. Carey is one of the most important missionary figures of the 18th and 19th century thanks to his work in areas such as India. The aim of the essay it briefly outline Carey’s life, and to look at the theological marks he made. There will be an emphasis on the gifts and fruit of the Holy Spirit that Carey received in his life, as well as the positive and negative lessons he learned throughout his mission. This will be concluded by looking at how these factors can influence our life and ministry today.

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Firstly, there will be a brief outline of Carey’s life. Carey was born in 1761 in Paulersbury, Northamptonshire on the 7th of August. This boy grey up to be known as the father of modern missions, and devoted his entire life to the service of God.[1] During this early life Carey earned a living as a cobbler, but was eventually converted at the age of 18 due to his love of the New Testament. Carey was eventually ordained in 1787 and was renowned for his linguistic talents – he was able to speak French, Hebrew, Italian and Dutch. Soon Carey realized his desire to become a missionary and teach the gospel to the ‘heathen’ in other countries. With his wife Dorothy Plackett whom he married in 1781 and his four children, Carey set sail for India in 1793.

Carey’s early years in India were extremely tough, particularly after he was left by his associate John Thomas. Carey was in a society and culture he didn’t know, moving about from place to place. His family became ill and eventually one of his children died. Despite this, his aim in India was to preach his ‘Deathless Sermon’ as outlined in his 1792 book ‘The Enquiry’.

Although times continued to be extremely hard for Carey in this harsh environment, he achieved much during his forty years in India. He is praised for his translations of the Bible and other scriptures into languages such as Bengali and Sanskrit, amongst forty other languages. His translations have helped Christianity to spread into far-reaching areas across the world.[2]

Carey’s missionary work was based on his book ‘The Enquiry’, but also left a lasting impression the form of the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit, as well as the lessons he learned in his forty years in India. The rest of this essay will look at these issues, to help try and understand what Carey’s work has brought to Christian life and ministry in the modern world.

Gifts of the Holy Spirit in his life

As Carey himself pointed out, the gifts of the Holy Spirit given to a person must not be used to ‘magnify’ the one you has them, but to glorify Jesus and put forth his message within the world. As supposed ‘gifts’ from the Holy Spirit, William Carey was blessed with an astounding aptitude for languages. This was his primary gift of the Holy Spirit that allowed him to fulfill his calling as a missionary.[3]

This gift is often known as the ‘gift of tongues’, and allowed Carey to translate the Bible into a huge variety of languages, reaching an audience that had never previously had the opportunity to fully understand the Bible. [4]

It was in 1799 that this gift came to the fore, when Carey was invited to locate to a Danish settlement near Calcutta. He was legally allowed to preach here and in the British-controlled areas of India, making his work legal for the first time. It was during this time that Carey converted his first Indians, baptizing Krishna Pal in 1800, as well as publishing his Bengali New Testament. Not only did this signify the beginning of the massive translation of the Bible into many languages, but also laid the basis for the Bengali language which had previously been seen as somewhat of an unsettled language.

Another of his gifts was the ability to preach the mission within India, and therefore bring about social reform, which will be mentioned more in the fruits of the Holy Spirit section.

Carey’s gift of preaching came from his book ‘The Enquiry’, which allowed him to bring sinners towards Christ and identify with non-believers so that they may be converted to the mission.[5] Although much of this language used such as ‘heathens’ may seem politically incorrect now, during these times Carey was helping to change and expand the Christian world like almost no-one else had for hundreds of years.

Carey was obsessed with reaching out to those who seemed unreachable, and his sermons reflected this. His book is a hugely valuable tool and is still used by many missionaries today to guide their work in foreign lands. His ability to support himself through the toughest of times and to contextualize himself to alien situations meant that Carey was able to spread the word of God everywhere to all people, using his gift of tongues to further understanding.[6]

Carey was also adamant that training locals to help teach the Gospel and setting up schools was vital to help educate and promote his missionary work throughout India and other lands. Once the locals could teach other locals and all could read for themselves, the task of conversion and salvation would be made all the more easy. These are the gifts that Carey used to become a renowned missionary. The next section will look at how these gifts produced the fruits of the Holy Spirit that would carry his work forward.

Fruit of the Holy Spirit in his life

Carey’s gifts of the Holy Spirit brought about fruitful results, often referred to as the ‘Fruits of the Holy Spirit’. Of course, one of the greatest fruits of Carey’s gifts is the creation of his book ‘The Enquiry’. Also, his translation of the Bible into over forty languages is one of the greatest triumphs and achievements of any missionary throughout Christian history. It is only through his passion for theology and his gift of tongues that Carey was able to complete this.

However, the fruits of the Holy Spirit in Carey’s life went beyond the published works he created and translation to move towards social reform within India. He could not have achieved such rates of conversion – hundreds of millions in India – unless he had put in place a social and educational network to be able to sustain and support the conversion.

His plans were extremely well thought out, and he works on his missiology well before he even came to India. It is this planned infrastructure that was one of the biggest successes of his missionary work.

Not only this, but Carey, helped to rid India of a number of barbaric practices including child marriage, and re-established order in the country. When he arrived three fifths of India was wild jungle, and massive financial problems. Carey brought good to the misfortunate in India, and struggled against the hatred of women and child marriage. His efforts paid off and the teachings he passed on meant that many of these practices were outlawed over the next 100 years. He helped to prevent human sacrifices and helped many children, orphans and widows to create new and fulfilling lives.[7]

Carey’s fruits of the Holy Spirit were also in a literal form, as he had a great interest in botany and plant cultivation. He helped to found the Agri-Horticultural Society of India in the 1820’s, and wrote many of the earliest essays on forest management and plant conservation. Carey also helped to introduce cultivation of coffee and gave prizes for the best cultivators and growers. He introduced European fruits to the region, and created better conditions and methods for growing indigenous fruits. His own garden was renowned for its beauty and quality, and sometimes he even neglected spending time with his children in favour of tending his wonderful garden, such was his passion for the subject.[8]

After all these great gifts and the fruits of his labour, William Carey learned much about life, both in a positive and negative sense. The next section will look at the lessons he learned throughout his life.

Positive and Negative lessons learned in his life

Although Carey was praised for his missionary work, he clearly learned that the price to pay for this was a lack of time and commitment for his wife and children. Many people commented that his children seemed highly neglected, and were wild and undisciplined. His family accompanied him during these harsh times, and this eventually led to the death of his son Peter through ill health. His wife became insane after this and even tried to kill him, and it was somewhat of a relief when she eventually passed.[9]

Carey also had great troubles with communication, and despite being poor was seen by the Missionary Society as being money hungry. Therefore, his relations with them diminished. Carey also learnt that not every missionary is a good one, after his abandonment by Thomas. Thomas was a suspect character but Carey had no choice but to trust him. However, he eventually took off with the money given to them for missionary work, leaving Carey in a horrible situation that would take him many years to financially recover from. Despite this, Carey learnt that the best way to live his life and be successful in his mission was to never stop evangelizing. He never lost sight of his target to win souls and convert people, which he did with remarkable success. Also, Carey learned that he must trust in God fully in all situations, and this was evident during the hard times after Thomas’ abandonment and the eventual death of his son and insanity of his wife. Carey trusted in God to see him through this period, and eventually things did get better for him. The most positive message of Carey’s life is to trust in God and also to continually read the scripture to gain knowledge. Carey always continued to study and learn throughout his life, which helped in his quest to encourage others to do the same. The last section of this essay will examine how his achievements can be used in mission work today.

Conclusion – Application of his life, gifts and lessons learned to our life and ministry

Carey came from an unremarkable and humble background, but he became a remarkable man. His gift of tongues meant that he produced some of the most significant and widespread translations of the Bible ever seen, as well as helping to formalize the language of Bengali in India. This gift combined with his scholarly works and absolute devotion to God meant that he was hugely productive in converting souls and changing attitudes and laws in India during his 40 years there.

Carey can be particularly praised for his commitment to literacy and education, which should be at the forefront of any modern mission in the developing world. By creating schools and improving literacy Carey not only provided a better future for many people in India, but he also made it easier to put his message across by allowing people to read his translated Bible works.[10]

His other works on cultivation and agriculture are also significant, not to mention the fact he introduced the steam engine to India as well as other new technologies of the time. Carey was all-round innovator who was devoted to his work, which is certainly a lesson that the modern mission should take to heart. As put by J.D. Freeman, the church:

“…Owes more to William Carey and his mission than to any other man or movement since the days of Paul. He gave her a new horizon, kindled within her a new life and soul. Upon the trellis of the Mission Enterprise, the Church’s vine has run over the wall. It has given her a southern exposure, through which she has felt at her heart the thrill of a new vitality, while bearing on her outmost branches a burden of precious fruit for the vintage of the skies.”[11]

Overall, the main message to take from William Carey’s life is that the modern mission should be prepared for hard times, but should not waver from its mission. The importance of education and understanding the issues within the foreign environment are crucial, as are an unwavering devotion to God and scripture. Whilst not everyone will have the linguistic or scholarly gifts of Carey, devotion and the desire to reach out to the troubled and poor in other countries through education and understanding is crucial to successful Christian missionary work in the modern world.


Alban, D, Woods, R H and Daigle-Williamson, M (2005) The Writings of William Carey: Journalism as Mission in a Modern Age. Mission Studies, 22(1), pp. 85-113.

Baxter, J (2003) Gifts of the Spirit, Kregel Publications.

Carey, E and Chaplin, J (1837) Memoir of William Carey, D, D.: Late Missionary to Bengal, Professor of Oriental Languages in the College of Fort William, Calcultta, Canfield and Robins, 1837, digitized 11 Jun 2007.

Carey, W (2004) An Enquiry Into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens, Kessinger Publishing.

Farwell, M E (1888) The Life of William Carey, Chicago: Women’s Presbyterian Board of Missions of the Northwest.

Harrison, E M (1954) Giants of the Missionary Trail – William Carey: The Cobbler Who Turned Discoverer, Fairfax Baptist Temple. Excerpts available at:

McDannell, K (2007) Faithful Witness: The Life and Mission of William Carey. Available at:

Parker, A K (1914) A Conversation That Might Have Occurred between Dr. William Carey and the Rev. Adoniram Judson, Serampore, India, September, 1812. The Biblical World, 43(5), pp. 305-30.

Roques, M (2007) William Carey. Available at:

Smith, G (1922) The Life of William Carey, London: J.M Dent and Sons.


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