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The Essential Bonds of Missionary Friendship

Ministry without friendship is unsustainable and undesirable. The impulse to go it alone in ministry, whether close to home or around the globe, can seem like faith-filled bravery, but it’s more likely foolhardy bravado. Sadly, our culture praises the self-made and self-sufficient, then makes a spectacle of their inevitable self-destruction.

The star player who puts the team on his back and carries them to victory is a hero. But servants of God are never asked to put Christ’s kingdom on their backs. Instead, the gospel goes forward and bears fruit in all the earth through faithful men and women working in networks of close friendships and covenanted local church membership. An example of this can be seen in the interwoven lives of William Carey and his friends. Studying Carey’s correspondence, along with letters from supporters like Andrew Fuller, provides us with intimate glimpses into the joy and necessity of friendships in ministry.

Holding the Ropes

England in the 18th century was the seedbed of evangelicalism, its great revivals and awakenings, and the modern missions movement. In particular, British Baptists present a beautiful snapshot of the interconnected web of friendships that propelled faithful and fruitful ministry to the ends of the earth.

The life and work of William Carey (1761–1834) are well known. (Michael Haykin has noted more than 70 biographies of Carey.) But how many know the names of John Ryland Jr., John Sutcliff, Samuel Pearce, and Andrew Fuller? As Aaron and Hur held up Moses’s arms, so this band of brothers steadied, served, defended, advocated, and prayed for one another until their final days.

The impulse to go it alone in ministry can seem like faith-filled bravery, but it’s more likely foolhardy bravado.

Ryland was the one who baptized Carey in 1783. Sutcliff, who was Carey’s pastor, in 1784 issued a call to prayer for “the spread of the gospel to the most distant parts of the habitable globe.” When Carey’s excitement for missions was dampened at a minister’s meeting in 1785, Fuller encouraged him to persevere despite the resistance of others. These three took part in Carey’s ordination in 1787, raised funds to support his team, then preached and wrote on his team’s behalf, affirming and defending Carey’s theological understanding of the Great Commission.

Together, these men helped form the Baptist Missionary Society in 1792, then sent their dear friend to India through that society the following year. It was to these beloved friends that Carey famously said, “I will go down into the pit, if you will hold the ropes.” They agreed and, by God’s grace, to a man, they remained true to their word.

Special Bond

The support these friends displayed for Carey began long before he left for India. When they eventually found themselves separated by thousands of miles, they turned to the means of communication they’d used for many years prior: the letter. Thankfully, much of their heartfelt correspondence survives.

In a letter dated February 2, 1787, less than a week after the death of Ryland’s wife Elizabeth, Fuller wrote, “I have often been in pain for you, since I saw you; but God is good, and will support you.” He continued, “God has long tried you, my brother, by a series of trials; under which you have had one to feel with you and for you. The Lord, it may be, has taken her away, that you may have a more direct recourse to him.” Then, reflecting on the loss of his own daughter, Fuller looked ahead to the resurrection: “O what a meeting shall we have at last!”

In a diary entry dated January 21, 1788, Ryland recorded, “Brethren Fuller, Sutcliff, Carey, and I, kept this day as a private fast, in my study.” They read aloud from the Bible and Christian literature, “and each prayed twice—Carey with singular enlargement and pungency. Our chief design was to implore a revival of the power of godliness in our own souls, in our churches, and in the church at large.”

Memories like this, and the spiritual bonds forged in fellowship, proved crucial for their sustained friendships and successes in ministry. In a letter dated December 3, 1793, after Ryland moved away to lead the Bristol Baptist Academy, Fuller wrote to him feeling the evident pain of friends far away: “I have no other occasion for writing, than to express my earnest desire that your important removal may be for good. I am satisfied that you are in the path of duty; on this consideration, I am willing to part with you. I loved Carey, but I loved the cause of Christ better.”

I loved Carey, but I loved the cause of Christ better.

As a missionary, Carey likely felt the sting of loneliness more acutely. In a letter to Sutcliff from January 16, 1798, Carey wrote: “You are among the number of my dear friends whose names I often mention in my poor prayers to God, and, give me leave to say, one to whom my heart is truly attached in the gospel.”

Throughout their correspondence, it becomes apparent these men had a genuine interest both in the seemingly mundane details of life and in the significant spiritual work being done on opposite sides of the globe. Their consistent communication was a lifeline of spiritual encouragement and guidance for one another. Through these letters, the bonds of friendship proved strong enough to endure the weathering of miles and years.

Knit Together

If we laud Carey as the father of modern missions, we ought also to appreciate the long-lost uncles of the movement. And we ought to consider their brotherly love and soul-deep friendship as worthy of our imitation. Friendship like this is beautiful and preeminently desirable.

John Collett Ryland, the father of John Ryland Jr., defined such brotherly and sisterly companionship this way: “Spiritual friendship is the union of souls by means of vital holiness.” This is what we find in the ministries of William Carey and his friends.

If such spiritual relationships are not only desirable but also essential to a meaningful Christian life, then they’re certainly necessary for a healthy Christian ministry. Modern examples abound of the devastation caused by ministerial mavericks and authoritarian leaders that evade accountability. But the brightest lights of Christian history, including our missionary heroes, were intensified by mutual illumination. We remember their names, not only for what they did as individuals but also for what they did as those knit together.