Today we are continuing our blog series on the history of missions. Last week, we found ourselves in India, discussing Amy Carmichael. This week we are again returning to India to examine the ministry of William Carey, who has been called the “Father of Modern Missions” (Tucker, 122).
William Carey (1761-1834) married his shoemaker boss’s sister-in-law, Dorothy, who was five years older (Tucker, 123). Their marriage is one of the more intriguing and unfortunate aspects of the story of William Carey’s ministry in India, as we will see below. Carey was one of the founders of the Baptist Missionary Society, and quickly volunteered for the mission field. Dorothy, however, refused to go (Tucker, 124). Only after a delay in Carey’s departure, and the birth of their fourth child, did Dorothy finally relent and join William and their children in heading to India (Tucker, 125).
One can already see the problems inherent in William Carey’s ministry: Dorothy did not want to go with him. Also, the East India Company resisted missionaries, which led the Careys to move their ministry into the interior of India (Tucker, 125). India was a harsh place, and the Careys’ time was made harsher by the death of their son, which sent Dorothy into a “delusional disorder” in which she thought William was cheating on her (Tucker, 125).
Despite the family troubles, the mission continued with William relocating the mission to Serampore, near Calcutta. Here the Serampore Mission became a success, leading to schools, printing, and translation of the “whole Bible into Bengali, Sanskrit, and Marathi… and translated the New Testament and portions of Scripture into many more languages and dialects” (Tucker 126-127). William Carey’s time in India is a study in contradiction. You have the family trauma and his wife’s declining mental health coupled with the outward successes of the Serampore Mission. Ruth Tucker notes that while all the success was going on in the mission, Carey “neglected his children, failing to give them the parenting they so desperately needed. Even when he was with them, his easygoing nature stood in the way of firm discipline, a lack that was plainly exhibited in the boys’ behavior” (Tucker, 127).
Dorothy died in 1807 and Carey married Lady Charlotte Rumohr, whom he had baptized four years earlier, six months after Dorothy’s death (Tucker, 127-128). Charlotte became a valuable member to the mission, helping William’s translations and being a loving mother to the children, but died in 1821. “Two years later, at the age of sixty-two, Carey married again, this time to Grace Hughes, a widow seventeen years younger than he” (Tucker, 128). Clearly William’s family life was marred by upheaval and tragedy.
Carey’s time in India saw a great deal of change in the Serampore Mission. The group had to deal with new missionaries who wanted to change the living situations and other ways in which the Mission operated. The Serampore Mission did eventually split from the Baptist Missionary Society, but eventually rejoined with it (Tucker, 129). Carey also was noted for being focused on “social issues-particularly in his long struggle against widow burning and infanticide. But otherwise, he sought to leave the culture intact” (Tucker, 130).
So what do we do with William Carey? Was he a success? His is a complicated picture, fraught with his seeming abandonment of his family, particularly his mentally ill wife. He did not provide the help with his own children that they needed. Yet, his mission flourished, grew, and essentially provided a model for modern missions going forward. I would argue that Carey is a strong picture of the dangers of jumping into ministry without first assessing the cost.
In my master’s and doctoral work, I have seen many colleagues who have jumped into a major life change such as getting a Master’s of Divinity or a PhD without first considering what it means for their family and friends. In fact, in my first year of seminary, I sorely neglected my job, leading to me being fired. My pursuit of God’s calling in my life led to me making mistakes at my job and being fired. I have known people who have burned out and/ or allowed relationships and family life to deteriorate because they are willing to sacrifice anything to follow what they perceive to be God’s calling for their lives. In watching people head toward careers in ministry, I wonder if God truly is calling them into vocational ministry or if they are simply going after what sounds exotic or challenging (like William Carey). I have wondered before if I also jumped in too quickly. Thankfully, I seem to have found that balance.
There are countless stories of pastors who have burned themselves out, who have allowed things in their lives to crumble while their ministries thrive. I wonder if it is worth it? Should we consider it a blessing when the ministry of an individual is successful while their personal life falls to pieces? Is the benefit of the greater good worth the damage to an individual? Should we just see it as their personal sacrifice to following God’s calling? I think, for me, a less successful ministry and a successful personal life are more glorifying to God.