Desire, Opportunity, and Gifting in the Assignment of William Carey
Editor’s Note: This piece is part of a series that seeks to answer a single question: How have missionaries in the past understood “calling”? At Reaching & Teaching, we’re convinced that this topic is perennially misunderstood among Christians in general and missionaries in particular. It seems the present has fogged our perception, and so we’re looking to the past for clarity. You can read Ryan Robertson’s introductory piece here and the rest here.
William Carey (1761–1834) is one of the most widely known missionaries in the history of Christianity. He’s often referred to as “The Father of Modern Missions,” a moniker that reflects his influence on generations of missionaries.
In 1792, he published An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens. Clunky title aside, the book had a simple goal: Carey wanted to respond to Hyper Calvinists who were against taking the gospel to the nations. On the contrary, Carey said, local churches have the obligation to employ means as they engage global evangelistic efforts.
Carey first traveled to Calcutta the next year, and he served in India until his death more than 40 years later. Along with William Ward and Joshua Marshman, Carey established the first institution in Serampore that conferred theological degrees. He also personally translated the Bible into Bengali, Assamese, Hindi, Marathi, Oriya, and Sanskrit.
Let’s examine his calling to this fruitful ministry.
From his earliest years, Carey had a heart for the nations. His sister recalled that his early prayers included pleas for those who didn’t yet have access to the gospel. He knew that his life belonged to God. He wrote about this in An Enquiry:
A Christian minister is a person who in a peculiar sense is not his own; he is the servant of God, and therefore ought to be wholly devoted to him. By entering on that sacred office he solemnly undertakes to be always engaged, as much as possible, in the Lord’s work, and not to choose his own pleasure, or employment, or pursue the ministry as a something that is to subserve his own ends, or interests, or as a kind of bye-work. He engages to go where God pleases, and to do, or endure what he sees fit to command, or call him to, in the exercise of his function. He virtually bids farewell to friends, pleasures, and comforts, and stands in readiness to endure the greatest sufferings in the work of his Lord, and Master.
If you want more about Carey’s desire to see the gospel spread among the unreached, then you should read An Enquiry. He began the book by answering a question that might sound curious to us: Does the Great Commission still apply to the church more than 1,700 years later? He proceeded to lay out a brief history of Christian Missions alongside modern anthropological statistics. The book ends with a survey of what work could be done and the means by which Christians could pursue that work. Carey concluded, “Surely it is worthwhile to lay ourselves out with all our might, in promoting the cause, and kingdom of Christ.”
But Carey didn’t just write books. He leveraged his relationships and resources to form the English Missionary Society. It’s no coincidence that the Society formed so quickly after the publication of An Enquiry. Originally, Carey wanted to go to Tahiti or West Africa. But then he met John Thomas, a missionary who ventured to India in the 1780s but had to return after he mismanaged finances. Thomas convinced Carey and the rest of the Society’s membership to send missionaries to India. Seemingly convinced that he’d corrected his financial misdeeds, the Society agreed to send him as its first missionary. Shortly after, they agreed to send Carey as its second.
One member of the Society was the pastor Andrew Fuller. He reflected on these early decisions, “We saw here a gold mine in India, but it was as deep as the centre of the earth. Who will venture to explore it?”
Carey had an answer to Fuller’s question: he would go down, if others would “hold the ropes.”
Carey had a problem with Hyper Calvinists because he held to genuine Calvinistic theology. He believed the Lord would open a door to India if He willed. And the Lord really did need to open a door. After all, anyone who travelled to Bengal without permission from the East India Company risked imprisonment and a fine—or both. Once, while on a trip to London, Carey asked John Newton what he should do if the Company refused his entrance to Bengal. Newton replied it’s possible to “conclude that the Lord has nothing there for you to accomplish. But if He have, no power on earth can hinder you.”
It’s true now as it was then: misunderstanding God’s sovereignty discourages missionaries, churches, and agencies who desire to enter a specific location only for the authorities to close the door. If Carey had been “called” to India, surely the Lord would open the door. Over the course of the current pandemic, I find this to be tremendously encouraging. Friends, if the Lord has work for us around the world, then no earthly power can stop us. If a missionary’s assignment consists of desire, opportunity, and gifting, then we patiently wait for these three things to come together. If they don’t, then we can rest in the fact that it was not, in fact, our “calling.”
Ultimately, Carey’s opportunity to minister in India came through the English Missionary Society and his encounter with Thomas.
In his early years, Carey served in Malda according to his original plan. In 1800, he travelled to Serampore and joined a team of English missionaries who sought to establish ministry closer to Calcutta, away from the harassment of the East India Company. Serampore became the center of Carey’s ministry for decades to come.
Sending churches and supporters should be aware that missionaries often come across unexpected opportunities when they arrive. Sometimes, this change in “the original plan” happens fast—perhaps due to political pressure or environmental concerns. Other times, relationships with local believers or other missionaries lead to unforeseen opportunities.
We can only guess what could have happened if Carey had stayed in Malda just to “stick to the original plan.” We serve our missionaries well when we ask them about opportunities they’ve come across. Perhaps the Lord is closing one door in order to open another.
From a young age, Carey mastered some Latin grammar by committing the majority of a textbook to memory. He studied Greek with friends and learned Hebrew by asking ministers in his area for both their help and their books. He taught himself Dutch and learned to read French over several weeks. I want to be clear: Carey didn’t become a missionary because he loved learning new languages. Nonetheless, the Lord used his clear, natural gifting to form the basis of much of his ministry. Over time, he became a renowned linguist in India.
Before he became a missionary, Carey worked as a shoemaker and a teacher to subsidize his meager income as a Baptist preacher. The Lord used these gifts also in his ministry overseas. His past career as a shoemaker allowed him to get a managerial position at an indigo factory. That’s where he learned Bengali and engaged in evangelistic conversations with his colleagues. Years later, Carey established the Serampore College, through which he and others would train local leaders.
More than 200 years later, Reaching & Teaching follows a similar pattern. We send teachers around the world to train local leaders. But we encourage those men and women to rely on gifts that were acquired and affirmed at home—perhaps long before they ever considered going abroad.
You might be wondering: what about the church? What role did the church play in Carey’s calling?
In July 1785, Carey was admitted into membership of a church in Olney. That same month, Carey preached to the church and they resolved to allow Carey to continue his itinerant preaching while still occasionally preaching to his own congregation. As a young preacher, Carey now had the opportunity to preach regularly, and the church at Olney could now further discern his gifting. Just over a year later, the congregation at Olney formally appointed Carey to ministry. In doing so, they committed to sending him out wherever the Lord sovereignly provided the opportunity. How often do churches send missionaries overseas to do things they’ve neither allowed them to do nor observed them doing?
Carey desired to see the nations reached with the gospel. His gifts were clear from an early age, and his opportunity came in time.
Eventually, Carey became a member of the first team sent out by the new Society he inspired and established with a group of faithful friends. For the next several decades, this Society funded Carey’s work. All of these opportunities—and countless more—came about because of the sovereign hand of the Lord.
Once again, we see the triad of Desire, Opportunity, and Gifting weave together in the missionary assignment of William Carey, “the Father of Modern Missions.”
Author’s Note: This post focuses on the Assignment of William Carey. Much can be learned negatively from Carey as well. At times, it appears that his eagerness to get to the field led to poor decision-making when it came to his family, especially his wife. She struggled with mental illness in India, and one can only wonder what would have happened if Carey had slowed down his deployment to make sure that Dorothy fully agreed with him.
 William Carey, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of Heathens in Which the Religious State of the Different Nations of the World, the Success of Former Undertakings, and the Practability of Further Undertakings, are Considered, 72.
 Ibid., 87.
 George Smith, The Life of William Carey (John Murray: London, 1887), 50-51.
 Ibid., 55.