Recognizing that the church has long benefited from stories of international missions, we want to encourage readers through our Remembering Great Missionaries series, highlighting classic missionary biographies that continue to inspire us today.
Stories of travel, adventure, and discovery have long captured the imagination of young and old. For the church, missionary stories inspire Christians to remember and participate in God’s mission to the nations. The devotion, sufferings, and successes of missionaries as recorded in their biographies serve to encourage our faithfulness to the Great Commission.
In his 1991 biography titled Faithful Witness: The Life and Mission of William Carey, Timothy George traces the story of the most well-known missionary from the last two centuries. Since his death in 1834, Carey, an Englishman of humble beginnings, has come to be known as the father of modern missions.
Today, William Carey’s legacy remains significant for missionaries, pastors, and faithful Christians. Here are 10 reasons why it’s worth revisiting.
Faithful Witness: The Life and Mission of William Carey
William Carey is now known as the father of modern missions. His example proved missions work was possible; his zeal convinced people missions work was essential; and generations of missionarires followed in his footsteps.
Shoemaker, botanist, translator, preacher, and factory manager, William Carey was all those things and more. Most importantly, he awas a faithful witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ amidst a life of personal grief, professional ridicule, and international strife.
1. Carey shows how God uses humble servants.
William Carey was born in 1761 in Pury End to parents who were weavers. Carey himself worked as a cobbler and later became a village pastor. In chapters 1–2, George traces Carey’s family history and theological influences. Who could imagine a simple cobbler would go on to become a gifted linguist, mastering the biblical languages and overseeing dozens of Bible translations? Carey would also become a professor of the Bengali language in Calcutta, teaching the British government’s civil servants there.
2. Carey led the church to recover a proper theology of missions.
In 1792, Carey famously called Christians to a missional understanding of the church and claimed the Great Commission was for all Christians, not merely the apostles of Jesus’s day (39). As an addendum to his biography, George includes Carey’s seminal work, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens. In An Enquiry, Carey provides a theological, rather than merely sociological or pragmatic, rationale for engagement in gospel proclamation among the nations—an argument that mobilized a generation of Christian witnesses.
3. Carey was the forerunner to the ‘Great Century’ of global missions.
The 19th century was a period of vast geographic expansion for Christianity, thus earning it the title of the ‘Great Century.’ This era saw an army of missionaries sent out, with subsequent converts from nearly every nation and religion. In chapters 3–4 of Faithful Witness, George helpfully places Carey’s widening vision of the nations within the broader historical context of Pietism and the theology of the Reformation, showing how he contributed significantly to this century of unprecedented missionary activity to the four corners of the globe.
4. Carey exemplified long-suffering and faithfulness in trials.
Most missionaries of Carey’s day lost children in infancy; Carey was no exception. A strength of Faithful Witness is that it doesn’t rush into the successes and glories of Carey’s ministry in later years. Chapters 5–7 capture many harsh realities he faced, such as failed business ventures, miscommunication with his mission society, and his wife’s mental illness. Through it all, Carey’s willingness to suffer and his patient endurance remains a positive example to follow.
5. Carey was burdened to reach those who hadn’t heard.
For years, Carey compiled lists of demographic and religious statistics that he included in An Enquiry. He was burdened by the sheer volume of lostness throughout the world, especially among those who had never heard the gospel. Still today, and in every generation, Christians need consistent reminders of God’s mission, the fate of the unconverted, and the church’s joyous responsibility to be Christ’s ambassadors to the world.
6. Carey’s team modeled healthy partnerships in missions.
In chapter 8, George describes the relationship, ministry, and living conditions of Carey’s missionary team at Serampore. In 1804, they adopted the Serampore Form of Agreement, which articulated their common convictions and commitments (123–25). This agreement emphasized the priorities of gospel preaching, Bible translation, cultural respect, and seeing the value of Indian lives. The group’s gospel partnerships also extended beyond their missionary team to include Indian men and women in ministry and translation.
7. Carey called for the organization of missionary-sending societies.
Prior to 1792, formal organizations for gospel advance were limited mainly to the Moravians and the Roman Catholic orders. Carey’s book, An Enquiry, directly called for “rope holders” to organize the sending and supporting of missionaries. Following this call, women, youth, denominations, and nondenominational groups organized formal societies that sent large numbers of missionaries during the Great Century, a movement that continues through countless missionary organizations today.
8. Carey emphasized faithfulness as a marker for missions success.
In a day when missionaries are tempted to measure success by numbers, Carey’s life points to faithfulness over the long haul. Carey is said to have commented about a potential future biographer, “If he gives me credit for being a plodder, he will describe me justly. Anything beyond this will be too much. I can plod” (16). In chapter 11, George recounts what faithful Christian plodding can accomplish under the sovereignty and blessing of God.
9. Carey prioritized God’s glory and humanity’s lostness.
In Faithful Witness, George describes how observing blatant idolatry in India deeply influenced Carey and his colleagues (149–52). Having seen atrocities such as widow burning, Carey worked to overturn the cultural and religious snares of Hinduism. However, despite great physical needs all around him, Carey didn’t seek mere cultural or legal change. He prioritized what was most important: the preaching of the gospel that transforms hearts and societies. God’s glory and humanity’s lostness were the primary motivations for Carey’s mission.
10. Carey took a Bible-centered approach to missions.
For people to know and respond to the gospel in faith and repentance, they must be able to hear and understand the message in their language. Carey built on Reformation doctrine and Moravian missionary practice, emphasizing Scripture as primary. George states it this way: “Why was Carey so committed to a Bible-centered approach to missions? Because he knew that the Word of God was full of living power” (173–74). Because of that belief, translating and printing the Bible into multiple languages became a central activity of the Serampore missionary team. Missionaries do well to follow in his footsteps.