Who was William Carey, and why has he had such a major impact on our global culture? On May 26th 2013, I graduated with my Doctorate from Carey Theological College on the UBC Campus. While at Carey College, I often walked past a painting of Carey, showing his humble beginning as a village shoemaker in Paulersbury, England. Carey was fascinated with reading books about science, history and travel journals of explorers like Captain Cook. His village playmates nicknamed him Christopher Columbus. Carey said that he was addicted as a young person to swearing, lying, and alcohol. A major turning point happened when he was caught by his employer embezzling a shilling. Fortunately his employer did not press charges. For such petty larceny, Carey could have easily paid the price of imprisonment, forfeiture of goods and chattel, whipping or transportation for seven years to the plantations of the West Indies or America. Facing his own selfishness, Carey had a spiritual breakthrough by personally meeting Christ that had a lasting impact on his values and lifestyle.
Carey had a quick mind and a natural love of learning. He would have normally become a farm labourer, but suffered from a skin disease that made it painful for him to go out in the full sun. If Carey’s face and hands were exposed to the sun for any lengthy period, he would suffer agony throughout the night. So instead he became a cobbler, making shoes. While making shoes, he was able to read and pray. Through this, Carey developed a conviction that he was to go to India. His unimaginative friends and colleagues tried to talk him out of this fantasy. His five-month pregnant wife Dorothy was also dead-set against it. His own father Edmund wondered if his son had lost his mind. Carey said to his dad: “I am not my own nor would I choose for myself. Let God employ me where he thinks fit.”
With unshakable determination, Carey went to India in 1793 which was under the control of the East India Company. He later ended up becoming a Professor of Bengali and Sanskrit in Calcutta, India. Through teaching at Fort Williams College in Calcutta, he was investing in young civil servants from England, helping them to have a good start in India. Carey believed that the future was as bright as the promises of God. He had an exceptional natural gift for languages. Carey called himself a plodder; whatever he started, he always finished. Unlike a number of his family members and closest friends, Carey survived malaria and numerous other tropical diseases. His first wife Dorothy however had a nervous breakdown before later dying. Carey was heartbroken.
Some bureaucrats from the East India Company did their best to expel Carey and his team from India. Anything that might affect financial profit was seen as a threat. William Wilberforce however, having finally abolished the slave trade, presented 837 petitions to the British Parliament representing over half a million signatures, requesting that ‘these good and great men’ be allowed to stay in India. Carey’s enemies attacked him in Parliament for being a lowly shoemaker. Wilberforce won the day in the Charter Renewal Bill of 1813.
Entirely self-taught, Carey impacted the emerging generation of Indian leaders that birthed the burgeoning modern democracy of India. Serampore College was founded by Carey and his colleagues in 1818. He produced six grammars of Bengali, Sanskrit, Marathi, Panjabi, Telugi, and Kanarese, and with John Clark Marshman, one of Bhutia. He also translated the whole Bible into Bengali, Oriya, Marathi, Hindi, Assamese, and Sanskrit, and parts of it into twenty-nine other languages or dialects. Scholars say that Carey significantly contributed to the renaissance of Indian Literature in the nineteenth century.
While an ordained preacher and a church planter, Carey was fascinated with all aspects of daily living. In 1818 Carey founded two magazines and a newspaper, the Samachar Darpan, the first newspaper printed in any Asian language. He was the father of Indian printing technology, building what was then their largest printing press. Carey was the first to make indigenous paper for the Indian publishing industry. He brought the steam engine to India, and pioneered the idea of lending libraries in India. Carey introduced the concept of a ‘Savings Bank’ to India, in order to fight the all-pervasive social evil of usury at interest rates of 36% to 72%.
Carey introduced the study of astronomy as a science, teaching that the stars and planets are God’s creation set by him in an observable order, rather than astrological deities fatalistically controlling one’s life. He was the founder of the Agri-Horticultural Society in the 1820s, thirty years before the Royal Agricultural Society was established in England. Carey was the first person in India to write about forest conservation. In 1823, he was elected as a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London, one of the world’s most distinguished botanical societies even today. As Carey’s favorite flowers were lilies, he had the honour of having one (Careyanum) named after him.
Having a strong social conscience, Carey was the first man to oppose the Sati widow-burning and female infanticide. Sati was finally banned by the Government of India in 1829. He also campaigned for humane treatment of lepers who were being burned or buried alive because of their bad karma. The view at the point was that leprosy was a deserved punishment in the fifth cycle of reincarnation.
Carey loved India and never returned home to England, dying in 1834 at the age of 73. Near the end, he said: ““You have been speaking about William Carey. When I am gone, say nothing about William Carey-speak only about William Carey’s Saviour.” My prayer for those reading this article is that we too would have the passion for learning and making a difference that William Carey once had.