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William Carey’s Commitment to the Gospel and Social Change

When I hear the name William Carey, I immediately think of gospel missions, and rightly so. After all, Carey has been labeled the Father of Modern Missions. He doesn’t carry this designation because he was the first missionary but because he helped evangelicals prioritize global missions. His essay An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens (hereafter, An Enquiry), and his tireless missionary efforts in India (17931834), led to rapid growth in gospel missions efforts and societies around the globe.

It’s also important to note, as Vishal and Ruth Mangalwadi do in their book The Legacy of William Carey: A Model for the Transformation of a Culture, that Carey would be recognized as even more than a Christian missionary in India. Other job descriptions might include botanist, economist, medical humanitarian, media pioneer, agriculturalist, translator, educator, astronomer, library pioneer, conservationist, crusader for women’s rights, public servant, moral reformer, or cultural transformer.

If Carey had been asked why he spent time in these other areas when there was gospel mission work to be done, my guess is that he would look confused and say, “That was all a vital part of my gospel mission work.”

Reflect God’s Justice

As is clear in An Enquiry, Carey believed there was no real hope for India apart from evangelistic gospel proclamation and conversion. It’s also true that he cared passionately about the people of India as God’s image-bearers and wanted to see the influence of the gospel transform the great social darkness in the nation. After all, Paul tells us that the gospel “reveals the righteousness of God” and that it’s “the gospel of peace” (Rom. 1:17; Eph. 6:5). Paul also says our conduct should be “in step with the gospel” as we live before others (Gal. 2:14). Conducting ourselves in line with the gospel means reflecting his justice (righteousness) in the world as much as we can while living “peaceably with all” (Rom. 12:18).

In regard to global gospel missions, Carey explained his understanding of the holistic nature of his gospel mission work before he ever stepped foot in India:

Can we hear that they are without the gospel, without government, without laws, and without arts, and sciences; and not exert ourselves to introduce among them the sentiments of men, and of Christians? Would not the spread of the gospel be the most effectual means of their civilization? Would not that make them useful members of society?

When writing about the door he saw opening for gospel preaching around the world, Carey’s mind immediately went to the slave trade and his longing that the spread of the gospel would spell its doom: “A noble effort has been made to abolish the inhuman Slave Trade, and though at present it has not been so successful as might be wished, yet it is to be hoped it will be persevered in, till it is accomplished.”

Pray and Act

Carey called for persistent prayer, explaining that prayer always accompanied great moves of the gospel. But he added, “We must not be contented however with praying, without exerting ourselves in the use of means for the obtaining of those things we pray for. Were the children of light, but as wise in their generation as the children of this world, they would stretch every nerve to gain so glorious a prize, nor ever imagine that it was to be obtained in any other way.”

In John 8:12, Jesus declared, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Jesus isn’t only “the light of the world,”—a missionary assertion. He also enlightens his people in the dark world because he is “the light of life”—a social claim. Carey believed “the light of the world” was to shine in darkness now, not only light the way to future heavenly consummation. Thus, he wrote:

Christians are a body whose truest interest lies in the exaltation of the Messiah’s kingdom. Their charter is very extensive, their encouragements exceeding great, and the returns promised infinitely superior to all the gains of the most lucrative fellowship. Let then everyone in his station consider himself as bound to act with all his might, and in every possible way for God.

When Carey witnessed widow-burning, infanticide, the caste system, a refusal to educate females, child marriage, and polygamy, he was compelled to work for the eradication of such aspects of social unrighteousness. How could he preach about the righteousness of God if he ignored unrighteousness around him? Carey frequently ate meals with all levels of people in the caste system and encouraged believers toward inter-caste marriage. Why? He knew his preaching of the gospel would have more power if the one preaching was conducting himself in line with the gospel and demonstrating love by working to eliminate injustice among the people to whom he preached.

Embrace the Entailments

It’s possible to abandon or truncate the gospel in opposing directions. One direction tragically replaces gospel preaching and attendant calls for repentance and faith with immediate societal transformation. The other also prioritizes culture—but in defense of the status quo by shrinking the gospel’s effect to individual salvation only.

We would do well to heed the vision of Carey in our day by neither replacing the gospel with social justice nor acting as though the gospel has nothing to say about social justice.

Editors’ note: 

A version of this article appeared at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

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