On May 12, 1792, William Carey (1761-1834) published his pamphlet, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians, to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens. In Which the Religious State of the Different Nations of the World, the Success of Former Undertakings and the Practicability of the Further Undertakings Considered.
Prior to writing this influential work, some background story is helpful.
God laid a burden on Carey’s heart for missions. On the one hand, he had been significantly influenced by the Moravians. On the other hand, he had seen a lack of passion for or commitment to evangelism, to bring the gospel to the ends of the world through missions.
As Carey shared this burden with others, it was not well received. Shortly after he was ordained, he shared his burden and vision for reaching people with the gospel of Jesus Christ through missions. To this passionate plea to fellow ministers of the gospel, an older minister interrupted and rebuked Carey by saying, “Young man, sit down! You are an enthusiast. When God pleases to convert the heathen, he’ll do it without consulting you or me.”
In response, he penned the work mentioned at the beginning. Carey concluded that the Scriptures taught, for which he also arguned, that Jesus’ Great Commission applied to all Christians of all times. He also exhorted fellow believers of his day for ignoring it writing, “Multitudes sit at ease and give themselves no concern about the far greater part of their fellow sinners, who to this day, are lost in ignorance and idolatry.” This was not only a doctrine Carey believed or preached, he was also willing and eager to obey it, being committed to both biblical truth and the means God uses to accomplish that: “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.”
Here is the main emphasis in the pamphlet, which he then expounds in the rest of An Enquiry: (words are Carey’s; format is mine):
In order that the subject may be taken into more serious consideration, I shall enquire,
- whether the commission given by our Lord to his disciples be not still binding on us,
- take a short view of former undertakings,
- give some account of the present state of the world,
- consider the practicability of doing something more than is done,
- and the duty of Christians in general in this matter.
One writes the following summary of this work:
In it he argued that Christ’s “Great Commission” in Matthew 28:19-20 was not just to the apostles but to Christians of all periods. It proved to be kind of the charter of the modern Protestant missionary movement. Carey showed that if Christians want to claim the comforts and promises of the New Testament, they must also accept the commands and instructions given there. Soon after the publication he delivered a famous sermon in which he admonished Christian leaders to “expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.” His colleagues formed a missionary society and sent Carey as their first missionary to India.
The publicaton was not the end of Carey’s work. In 1792 he organized a missionary society. At the first meeting he preached a sermon with the call, Carey didn’t stop there: in 1792 he organized a missionary society, and at its inaugural meeting preached a sermon with the reminder of who God is and the exhortation to respond in joyful obedience, words God has used in the lives of many Christians since: “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God!”
In the next year, Carey and his family, which included three boys and his wife expecting their fourth, and John Thomas, a former surgeon, were on a ship bound for India.
Carey’s pamphlet and missionary endeavors caused many Protestants to rethink God’s call and command to make disciples of all nations, and it became a manifesto for Protestants and Evangelicals since that time.
In a brief summary of Carey’s life and ministry, one concludes Carey was, indeed, the father of the modern missions movement.
His greatest legacy was in the worldwide missionary movement of the nineteenth century that he inspired. Missionaries like Adoniram Judson, Hudson Taylor, and David Livingstone, among thousands of others, were impressed not only by Carey’s example, but by his words “Expect great things; attempt great things.” The history of nineteenth-century Protestant missions is in many ways an extended commentary on the phrase.