Chapter IX: The Carey Epoch in Missions

The closing years of the eighteenth century constitute in the history of Protestant missions an epoch indeed, since they witnessed nothing less than a revolution, a renaissance, an effectual and manifold ending of the old, a substantial inauguration of the new. It was then that for the first time since the apostolic period, occurred an outburst of general missionary zeal and activity. Beginning in Great Britain, it soon spread to the Continent and across the Atlantic. It was no mere push of fervor, but a mighty tide set in, which from that day to this has been steadily rising and spreading. Hitherto all similar undertakings had been isolated, spasmodic, and lacking in reliable support. Spurts of vigor were certain to end in fatal relapse. Excepting in the case of the noble Moravian work, every attempt had thus sooner or later come to failure. But from this time forward it is no more to be after this discouraging fashion. Or the fact may be stated in this way. Hitherto the churches, ministers and people together, had been indifferent to the spiritual condition of the pagan world. Whatever had been done was the achievement of some single earnest soul, or some monarch, and usually in that case politics entered largely as a directing force. Only a little circle had been aroused and moved to co-operate, while all about was a dead mass of apathy. And so, naturally, the project ended with the originator. But with Carey was ushered in a more excellent, way. A few elect spirits were touched, and from them the flame was diffused to Christians of other names in all the dissenting churches, and to the great Establishment as well; that is; to the most intelligent and spiritual in each. It was the plain people, the masses, that now began to pray and give and go, not tarrying in the least for king or prelate to hoist the signal. Or this form of expression will fairly well complete the setting forth of the change which now transpired, so radical and sweeping as to amount to a revolution. Here and now was the beginning of missionary organization. From henceforth as never before, emotion, desire, holy purpose, were to be incarnated in constitutions and by-laws, in memberships and anniversaries, in treasuries and systematic giving, the continual offering of littles by each one in great multitudes. And Carey's Baptist society, which originated in his brain, was the model for the scores and hundreds which followed after. Thus was ushered in the happy day of voluntary societies, organizations sustained by such as are interested in the promotion of the objects sought.

And the year of grace 1792 is annus mirabilis, the famous date from which to reckon backward and forward. Well may it stand side by side with 44 A. D., when the Holy Ghost said, "Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them." Or 53 A. D., when in vision Paul was bidden to lay the foundations of the gospel in Europe. Whatever has been accomplished since can be traced to forces which began to operate a hundred years ago. And Carey is not only the chief figure in the matter, but also the supreme personal force--yes, under God the efficient cause of the wondrous changes which have been brought to pass. We may speak of the "Carey epoch" with every whit as much propriety as of the Luther Reformation. We may as fitly term him the apostle of modern missions as Paul the apostle to the Gentiles, or Ulphilas the apostle to the Goths, or Augustine apostle to the Britons, or Boniface apostle to the Germans.

A glance at such incidents of Carey's life as relate to this sublime re-beginning is next in order. In 1761 a babe was born in central England gifted among other things with a measureless and inextinguishable hunger for knowledge, and a capacity seldom matched for endless plodding and hard work. And a will-power was present able to push and persist without limit, but which could not by any means be allured or driven from the pursuit of any chosen object. To such royal qualities were joined later a stalwart faith, and a zeal for righteousness so fervid and all-consuming that no difficulties or discouragements could quench it. At seventeen we find him a shoemaker's apprentice at Hackleton, nine miles from his birthplace. Already he had commenced the diligent study of birds, eggs, insects and plants, and ere long had begun to delve deep into the mysteries of Latin, Hebrew, Greek and French. And, early and often, he was called to take lessons in the stern discipline of life. When about twenty he was married to one who was "querulous, capricious, obstinate," and without sympathy with his most exalted life-aims, all this perhaps in large part because of a predisposition to mental disease. He passed also through a protracted season of ill health, and besides for years was burdened by the woes of extreme poverty. And further, when the voice of the Lord began to call in clearest tones, "Go preach the Gospel to the whole creation," year after year he stood almost utterly alone in disposition to obey.

It can not but be interesting and profitable to take note of the various steps in the wondrous unfolding of the Divine plan. This future hero for the kingdom of heaven was well on towards manhood before his spiritual nature was effectually and savingly aroused, and then, reared as he had been in the Established Church, hearing a sermon from the text "Let us go forth unto him without the camp bearing the reproach," he made a direct personal application to himself, and with characteristic decision and practical energy, went and joined a little company of Baptists, because theirs was a faith despised. Nor was it long before acceptable preaching gifts began to appear. In 1785 he became a member of the Olney church, by which he was called to the work of the ministry, and two years after was ordained as pastor of the Moulton church, ten miles from Northampton, upon a salary of but £15, of which £5 came from London. To eke out a living, school-teaching and shoe making were added to his occupations. It was while here that his attention was first fixed upon the moral desolations of the pagan world, and his heart began to be deeply moved to hasten relief . The fact is established that it was the reading of the voyages of Captain Cook which brought this weighty theme to his notice, "though if ever an idea was originated in any man by, the Spirit of God, it was this idea of the evangelization of the world." From boyhood books of science and history and travel had been his delight, and now from investigating the world's physical features, he turned with all his might to an examination of the religious condition of mankind. When Fuller once visited Carey's shop in Moulton he saw upon the wall near where he sat at his work a roughly sketched map of the world, upon which had been set in order all manner of facts and figures, to picture to the eye what needed to be done for the diffusion of the Gospel, the redemption of the race. Already also had fuel been added to the heavenly flame by a sermon of Fuller's upon "The Gospel Worthy of all Acceptation," which convinced him that in spite of any hyper-Calvinistic teaching to the contrary, it was the duty of all men to believe, and what was even more to the point just now, the duty of Christians to go everywhere telling the glad tidings to all. A third impulse was supplied by a pamphlet of Jonathan Edwards', published in 1747, and recently reprinted in England, which exhorted God's people to union in "extraordinary prayer for the revival of religion and the advancement of Christ's kingdom upon earth." As a result of reading this, the Baptist ministers in Northamptonshire set apart an hour for prayer on the first Monday of each month, that the power of the Cross might soon be displayed in the most distant parts of the habitable globe. When with his brethren he could not but speak frequently upon the all-absorbing theme, but found few to listen with interest, while as for most he seemed to be a dreamer, a teller of idle tales, one gone daft, his conclusions irrational, his plans impracticable, his longings such as never could be met. Meantime his ministry had been removed to Leicester. It was a crisis in his career, that day at the Association, when having been urged by the moderator to name a subject for discussion, after endeavoring to shun the responsibility, he finally propounded this question, "Whether the command given to the apostles to teach all nations was not obligatory on all ministers, to the end of the world." And the reply of the aged Ryland did but express the indifference and unbelief of Christendom; "Sit down, young man. You are a miserable enthusiast to ask such a question. When God wants to convert the world, he can do it without your help; and at least nothing can be done until a second Pentecost shall bring a return of the miraculous gifts". As yet no one had begun to suspect that here was a "young man" already actually possessed of the substance of that old-time enduement, even to the speaking with tongues!

However, not in the least shaken in his purpose by this rebuff and rebuke, the heroic subject thereof is presently found engaged upon the task of arguing and proving his case with his pen. That is, he put on paper with remarkable clearness, fullness, and cogency, a tabular statement of the size, population, religious condition, etc., of the various countries in the Old World and the New, and then went on to prove that the Lord's command and commission were perpetual, to recite the efforts which in each century had been put forth, and to demonstrate the practicability of making further attempts. This memorable presentment, so novel and so purely original with Carey, which one of his biographers pronounces the "first and still greatest missionary treatise in the English language," closed with an appeal for united prayer, and besides, since petition without suitable effort to match would be but mockery, the gift regularly from each one of a penny a week was suggested. As another token of the current spiritual blindness and apathy, for sheer lack of means to print, this pamphlet lay for six years in manuscript and unread. But that the precious leaven of missionary desire was spreading is shown by the fact that at the Association meeting held in 1791 the two preachers, Sutcliff and Fuller, chose kindred themes; the former taking for his text I. Kings 19:10, "I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts," and the latter from Haggai 1:2 "This people say, The time is not come that the Lord's house should be built." Noticing how deep and solemn was the impression produced by these discourses, Carey, with whom action, as a matter of course, must needs follow hard upon the heels of knowledge and conviction, proposed to begin at once to plan and to organize for vigorous endeavor. But for the others the vision of privilege and obligation was still too dim, and the objects aimed at were too indefinite and out of reach. And so another year passed in inaction.

But May 31st, 1792, a date to be memorized by every lover of the kingdom, came the life-opportunity for this irrepressible agitator for the opening of a world-wide evangelistic campaign. For the Baptist ministers are found together again at Nottingham, and Carey has been chosen to preach. Judged by its momentous and far-reaching results his sermon must be considered one of the very chiefest in Christian history, perhaps second only to the Sermon on the Mount. With Isaiah 54:2-3 for a text, he proceeded to unfold the two matchless and immortal subdivisions, "Expect great things from God," and-eminently Carey-like from first to last--joining untiring works to stalwart faith, "Attempt great things for God." In that never-to-be-forgotten hour the conclusions, the convictions, the longings of years first found full expression, and so, not strangely, the emotions of those who listened were aroused to somewhat of sympathy. But nevertheless, though hearts were swayed, and some tears fell, the audience was about to separate without open definite commitment to any "attempt " in behalf of the fervid speaker's "great things." So in an agony of desire mingled with fear, Carey seized Fuller by the arm and exclaimed; "Are you going to again do nothing?" And it was then, as the latter admits, "to pacify him and also to gain time," that it was decided to organize at a meeting to be held five months hence, and Carey was counseled to publish his pamphlet in the meantime. In due season came forth from the press "An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen, in which the Religious State of the Different Nations of the World, the Success of Former Undertakings, and the Practicability of Further Undertakings, are considered by William Carey."

In due season also, at Kettering in the back parlor of the Widow Beebe Wallis, was formed the "Particular Baptist Society for Propagating the Gospel Among the Heathen." How utterly insignificant were the actors for number, or station, or gifts! Only twelve, belonging to a feeble and despised sect, and unheard of outside of the interior counties in which they lived. Only one London clergyman gave countenance to the movement. Kings, statesmen, church-magnates cared nothing, knew nothing. And they made a subscription on the spot for the world's conversion, which amounted to £12 2s. 6d, over which the brilliant Sydney Smith made merry years after, for its preposterous inadequacy when the souls of 420,000,000 were concerned. Indeed, how sublime was that act of faith, that venture far beyond the realm of sight. How exceedingly remote were the heathen, and what an uncounted host. The undertaking was vast beyond conception, and the issue exceedingly doubtful. It was like crossing the Rubicon, like nailing the theses to the church doors, putting forth from Palos upon the untraversed sea, or burning the ships to make retreat impossible. However, it was easy enough to resolve, and to adopt a constitution and by-laws, and not so very difficult to subscribe, but after that came the real tug of war. The pertinent and very practical question was next to be answered, "Who shall be sent forth, and whither in all the pagan world shall they journey?" Carey offered himself as a candidate on the sole condition that a companion be found to go with him, and his thought had long been centered upon the South Seas and the Society Islands as the most eligible spot for a beginning. A committee was chosen to investigate and decide, and was not left long to wait, for the pillar of fire soon began to rise and move forward. By "accident" a certain John Thomas, surgeon in the employ of the East India Company, in Bengal since 1783, converted there and led to engage in evangelistic work in behalf of the Hindus, had recently returned, and was now in London endeavoring to raise money for further efforts. He was heard of, and was sent for, and finally was invited to return under the auspices of the new society with Carey as associate. Thus did the divine hand guide this master-missionary to make assault, not upon one of the comparatively unimportant outworks of heathenism, but directly upon one of the mightiest of its central strongholds.

But trials and tribulations in plenty were yet in store. The Leicester church was loath to lose its beloved pastor, and touchingly alleged, "We have been praying for the spread of Christ's kingdom among the heathen, and now God requires us to make the first sacrifice." Next Carey's wife, having no sort of appreciation for his life-aims, utterly refused to share the risks and hardships involved in carrying them out. And though the idea cost pain unspeakable, for weeks imperative duty appeared to compel him to set forth alone, leaving her behind, at least for a season. Then too India was 15,000 miles away; the East India Company was in full possession, no Englishman could land upon its shores without a license, while as for missionaries, they were held in fear and abomination, the gospel being "a contraband article", in those climes. After the utmost of influence had been brought to bear upon the directors, it became evident that no license was to be obtained; and therefore, recalling that the apostles did not wait for permission from Caesar, or any earthly authority, our hero resolved to set forth without the consent of the Company and take the consequences. Then the climax of embarrassment and discouragement was connected with Thomas. In most respects he was but a weak vessel, and among the rest, had an amazing proclivity for being always overwhelmingly in debt. Through his influence with the captain, passage had been surreptitiously engaged upon one of the Company's ships, the fare had been paid, and the baggage put on board. But delayed long by storms under the Isle of Wight, one of Thomas' creditors hearing of their design to proceed to India without leave, sent a communication to the captain threatening exposure. Hence the missionaries were put ashore, with the loss of the bulk of their passage money. But fortunately a few days after a Danish East Indiaman lay in Dover Roads (here again did Denmark through her settlements in the east unwittingly do an important service to Christian missions), upon which transportation was secured, and at the last moment visiting his erratic wife, Mrs. Carey consented to accompany him, only stipulating that a sister might also go.

It was June 13th, 1793, that the departure was finally made, and they set sail upon a voyage so pregnant with consequences to Christianity unspeakably great, and five months later landed in Calcutta, and on the 9th of November.

Of course the passage of these events produced scarcely a ripple upon the surface of the social, or political, or even religious world, were almost altogether unnoticed and unknown. And not many historians even yet make the slightest mention of them. In those days the tremendous stir over the American Revolution was quieting down, but only to be succeeded by the vastly more fearful commotion from across the English Channel. It will be instructive to set down a few dates which locate what many would still deem the notable happenings of the period. In 1789 first burst forth the volcano of the French Revolution, and July 9th the Bastille fell. June 20th, 1791, King Louis XVI fled from Paris. August 18th of the next year, a few weeks after Carey's immortal sermon, the Invasion of France by the allies began, and the next month followed the September Massacres, and the Republic was proclaimed. January 21st, 1793, the king ascended the scaffold; March 11th the Revolutionary Tribunal was set up and the Reign of Terror was inaugurated; and June 2nd, a fortnight before Carey sailed, the Girondists fell; and as he was nearing his destination the hapless Marie Antoinette met her fate, the Girondists following hard after. As God, and angels, and glorified saints estimate human affairs, who will dare affirm that the Hackleton cobbler's part in history is not in every way worthy to be compared with that of Chatham and Napoleon, George III. and Burke, Mirabeau and La Fayette?