This article is from the issue: Special Preview Issue: Celebration of William Carey’s 250th birthday

Who (Really) was William Carey?

Like William Carey International Development Journal? Sign up for WCIDJ’s email list, or follow WCIDJ on Facebook or Twitter.

Read the William Carey Birthday issue here.

Imagine a quiz master at the finals of the All Indian Universities’ competition. He asks the best-informed Indian students, “Who was William Carey?”All hands go up simultaneously. He decides to give everyone a chance to answer.

A Quiz:  Who Was William Carey?

“William Carey was the botanist,” answers a science student, “after whom Careya herbacea is named. It is one of the three varieties of eucalyptus found only in India.”
  “Carey brought the English daisy to India and introduced the Linnaean system to gardening. He also published the first books on science and natural history in India such as Flora Indica, because he believed the biblical view, ‘All Thy Works praise Thee, O Lord.’ Carey believed that nature is declared ‘good’ by its Creator. It is not maya (illusion) to be shunned,but a subject worthy of human study. He frequently lectured on science and tried to inject a basic scientific presupposition into the Indian mind that even lowly insects are not souls in bondage, but creatures worthy of our attention.”

“William Carey was the first Englishman to introduce the steam engine to India and the first to make indigenous paper for the publishing industry,” pipes up the student of mechanical engineering. “Carey encouraged Indian blacksmiths to make copies of his engine using local materials and skills.”

“William Carey,” announces an economics major, “who introduced the idea of savings banks to India to fight the all-pervasive social evil of usury. Carey believed that God, being righteous, hated usury and thought that lending at the interest of 36 to 72 percent made investment, industry, commerce and the economic development of India impossible.”
  “The moral dimensions of Carey’s economic efforts,” the student continues, “have assumed special importance in India since the trustworthiness of the savings banks has become questionable, due to the greed and corruption of the bankers and the nationalization of the banks in the name of socialism. The all-pervasive culture of bribery has, in many cases, pushed the interest rates up to as much as 100 percent and made credit unavailable to honest entrepreneurs.”
  “In order to attract European capital to India and to modernize Indian agriculture, economy and industry, Carey also advocated the policy that Europeans should be allowed to own land and property in India. Initially, the British Government was against such a policy because of its questionable results in the United States. But by the time of Carey’s death, the same government had acknowledged the far-reaching economic wisdom of his stand. Likewise our Indian government, after one-half century of destructive xenophobia, has again opened the doors for Western capital and industry.”

Medical Humanitaria
“William Carey was the first man,” asserts a medical student, “who led the campaign for a humane treatment for leprosy patients. Until his time, they were sometimes buried or burned alive in India because of the belief that a violent end purified the body and ensured transmigration into a healthy new existence. Natural death by disease was believed to result in four successive births and a fifth as a leper. Carey believed that Jesus’ love touches leprosy patients so they should be cared for.”

Media Pioneer
The student of printing technology stands up next. “Dr. William Carey was the father of print technology in India. He brought to India the modern science of printing and publishing and then taught and developed it. He built what was then the largest press in India. Most printers had to buy their fonts from his press at Serampore.”
  “William Carey,” responds a student of mass communications, “established the first newspaper ever printed in any oriental language because he believed that, ‘Above all forms of truth and faith, Christianity seeks free discussion.’ His English-language journal, Friend of India, was the force that gave birth to the Social Reform Movement in India in the first half of the 19th century.”

“William Carey was the founder of the Agri- Horticultural Society in the 1820’s, thirty years before the Royal Agricultural Society was established in England,” says the postgraduate student of agriculture. “Carey did a systematic survey of agriculture in India, wrote for agriculture reform in the journal Asiatic Researches and exposed the evils of the indigo cultivation system two generations before it collapsed.”
  “Carey did all this,” adds the agriculturist, “not because he was hired to do it, but because he was horrified to see that three-fifths of one of the finest countries in the world, full of industrious inhabitants, had been allowed to become an uncultivated jungle abandoned to wild beasts and serpents.”

Translator and Educator
“Carey was the first man to translate and publish great Indian religious classics such as the Ramayana and philosophical treaties such as Samkhya into English,” says the student of literature. “Carey transformed Bengali, which was previously considered ‘fit only for demons and women’ into the foremost literary language of India. He wrote gospel ballads in Bengali to bring the Hindu love of musical recitations to the service of his Lord. He also wrote the first Sanskrit dictionary for scholars.”
  “Carey was a British cobbler,” joins in the student of education, “who became a professor of Bengali, Sanskrit and Marathi at the Fort William College in Calcutta where civil servants were trained. Carey began dozens of schools for Indian children of all castes and launched the first college in Asia at Serampore, near Calcutta. He wanted to develop the Indian mind and liberate it from the darkness of superstition. For nearly 3,000 years, India’s religious culture had denied most Indians free access to knowledge, and the Hindu, Mughal and British rulers had gone along with this high caste strategy to keep the masses in the bondage of ignorance. Carey displayed enormous spiritual strength in standing against the priests who had a vested interest in depriving the masses of the freedom and power that comes from the knowledge of truth.”

“William Carey introduced the study of astronomy into the Subcontinent,” declares a student of mathematics. “He cared deeply about the destructive cultural ramifications of astrology—fatalism, superstitious fear and an inability to organize and manage time.”
  “Carey wanted to introduce India to the scientific culture of astronomy. He did not believe that the heavenly bodies are ‘deities that governed our lives.’ He knew that human beings are created to govern nature, and that the sun, moon and the planets are created to assist us in our task of governing. Carey thought that the heavenly bodies ought to be carefully studied since the Creator had made them to be signs or markers. They help divide the monotony of the universe into directions—East, West, North and South—and of time into days, years and seasons. They make it possible for us to devise calendars, study geography and history and plan our lives, our work and our societies. The culture of astronomy sets us free to be rulers, whereas the culture of astrology makes us subjects, our lives determined by our stars.”

Library Pioneer
A post-graduate student of library science stands up next. “William Carey,” she reveals, “pioneered the idea of lending libraries in the Subcontinent.”
  “While the East India Company wasimporting shiploads of ammunition and soldiers to subdue India, Carey asked his friends to load educational books and seeds into those same ships. He believed these would facilitate his task of regenerating Indian soil and empowering Indian people to embrace ideas that would generate freedom of the mind. Carey’s objective was to create indigenous literature in the vernacular. But until such indigenous literature was available, Indians needed to receive knowledge and wisdom from around the world to catch up quickly with other cultures. He wanted to make worldwide information available to Indians through lending libraries.”

Forest Conservationist
“William Carey was an evangelist,” maintains the student from the Indian Forest Institute. “He thought that ‘if the gospel flourishes in India, the wilderness will, in every respect, become a fruitful field.’ He became the first man in India to write essays on forestry, almost 50 years before the government made its very first attempt at forest conservation in Malabar. Carey vigorously advocated and practiced the cultivation of timber, giving practical advice on how to plant trees for environmental, agricultural and commercial purposes. His motivation came from the belief that God has made man responsible for the earth. It was in response to Carey’s journal, Friend of India, that the government first appointed Dr. Brandis of Bonn to care for the forests of Burma and arranged for the supervision of the forests of South India by Dr. Clegham.”

Advocate for Women’s Rights
“William Carey,” argues a female social science scholar, “was the first man to stand against both the ruthless murders and the widespread oppression of women, virtually synonymous with Hinduism in the 18th and 19th centuries. The male in India was crushing the female through polygamy, female infanticide, child marriage, widow-burning, euthanasia and forced female illiteracy, all sanctioned by religion. The British Government timidly accepted these social evils as being an irreversible and intrinsic part of India’s religious mores. Carey began to conduct systematic sociological and scriptural research. He published his reports in order to raise public opinion and protest both in Bengal and in England. He influenced a whole generation of civil servants, his students at Fort William College, to resist these evils. Carey opened schools for girls. When widows converted to Christianity, he arranged marriages for them rather than allowing them to be burned alive. It was Carey’s persistent 25 year battle against sati that finally led to Lord Bentinck’s famous Edict in 1829, banning one of the most abominable of all religious practices in the world: widow-burning.”

Public Servant
“William Carey,” pronounces a student of public administration, “who initially was not allowed to enter British India because the East India Company was against proselytizing Hindus. Therefore, Carey worked in the Danish territory of Serampore. But because the Company could not find a suitable professor of Bengali for Fort William College, he was later invited to teach there. During his professorship, lasting 30 years, Carey transformed the ethos of the British administration from indifferent imperial exploitation to ‘civil’ service.”

Moral Reformer
“William Carey,” reflects a student of Indian philosophy, “was a preacher who revived the ancient idea that ethics and morality were inseparable from religion. This had been an important assumption underlying the Vedic religion. But the Upanishadic teachers separated ethics from spirituality. They thought that the human self (Atman) was the divine Self (Brahma). Therefore, our spirit cannot sin. Our Atman only gets deluded and begins to imagine itself as distinct from God. What we require is not deliverance from sin but enlightenment, i.e., a direct experience of our divinity. This denial of human sinfulness and emphasis on the mystical experience of our divinity made it possible for us in India to be intensely ‘religious,’ yet at the same time unabashedly immoral.”
  “Carey began to affirm that human beings were sinners and needed both forgiveness for sin and deliverance from its power over them. He taught that it was not ignorance, but sin, that had separated us from God; therefore, it was impossible to please God without holiness. According to him, true spirituality began only when we repented of our sin. This teaching revolutionized the 19th century religious scene in India. For example, after Raja Ram Mohun Roy, one of the greatest Hindu scholars of that century, came in contact with Carey and the others at Serampore, he began to question seriously the spirituality then prevalent in India. Raja Ram Mohun Roy concluded,

‘The consequence of my long and uninterrupted research into religious truth has been that I have found the doctrine of Christ more conducive to moral principles, and better adapted for the use of rational beings, than any other which has come to my knowledge.’”

Transformer of Culture
A student of history stands up last. “Dr. William Carey was the father of the Indian Renaissance of the 19th and 20th centuries. Hindu India had reached its intellectual, artistic, architectural and literary zenith by the 11th century AD. After the absolute monism of Adi Shankaracharya began to sweep the Indian subcontinent in the 12th century, the creative springs of humanity dried up and India’s great decline began. The material environment, human rationality and all that enriches human culture became suspect. Asceticism, untouchability, mysticism, the occult, superstition, idolatry, witchcraft and oppressive beliefs and practices became the hallmark of Indian culture. The invasion, exploitation and the resulting political dominance of foreign rulers made matters worse.”
  “Into this chaos Carey came and initiated the process of India’s reform. He saw India not as a foreign country to be exploited, but as his heavenly Father’s land to be loved and served, a society where truth, not ignorance, needed to rule. Carey’s movement culminated in the birth of Indian nationalism and of India’s subsequent independence. Carey believed that God’s image was in man, not in idols; therefore, it was oppressed humanity that ought to be served. He believed in understanding and controlling nature instead of fearing, appeasing or worshiping it; in developing one’s intellect instead of killing it, as mysticism taught. He emphasized enjoying literature and culture instead of shunning it as maya. His this-worldly spirituality, with as strong an emphasis on justice and love for others as on love for God, marked the turning point of Indian culture from a downward to an upward trend. The early Indian leaders of the Hindu Renaissance, such as Raja Ram Mohun Roy, Keshub Chandra Sen and others, drew their inspiration from William Carey and those associated with him.”

So Who Was William Carey?
William Carey was all of these things and thus a central character in the story of the modernization of India. Carey also pioneered the Protestant Church in India and translated or published the Bible in 40 different Indian languages. He was an evangelist who used every available medium to illuminate the dark facets of India with the light of truth.

Excerpt from The Legacy of William Carey, by Vishal and Ruth Mangalwadi, 1999 Crossway Books. Used by permission of the author.

Keywords: India, cross-cultural ministry, William Carey, Dorothy Carey, biography

Vishal Mangalwadi

Vishal and Ruth Mangalwadi have served the rural poor in central India through community development, political empowerment, evangelism and leadership training. Vishal has authored or co-authored over a dozen books

Ruth Mangalwadi

Vishal and Ruth Mangalwadi have served the rural poor in central India through community development, political empowerment, evangelism and leadership training. Ruth Mangalwadi holds a Master’s Degree in Theology from Wheaton College.