William Carey’s commitment to the gospel and social change

August 16, 2018

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 has not carried this designation because he was the first missionary but because of his significance in turning the tide of evangelical thought in favor of prioritizing 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 (1793-1834) led to rapid growth in gospel missions efforts and societies around the globe.

It is 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, Carey would be recognized as even more than a Christian missionary in India. Those other 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 Carey would look confused and say, “That was all a vital part of my gospel mission work.”

As is clear in Carey’s An Enquiry, he believed there was no real hope for India apart from evangelistic gospel proclamation and conversion. It is also true that Carey 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 and injustices in the nation. After all, Paul tells us that the gospel “reveals the righteousness of God” and that it is “the gospel of peace” (Rom. 1:17; Eph. 6:5). Paul also says that we should have conduct that is “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 and as much as we can while living “peaceably with all” (Rom. 12:18).

We would do well to heed the vision of Carey in our day by not replacing the gospel with social justice or acting as though the gospel has nothing to say about social justice.

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 in An Enquiry,

Can we hear that they are without the gospel, without government, without laws, and without arts, and sciences; and not exert ourselves to introduce amongst 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”

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 is not 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, Carey 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.

It is possible to abandon the gospel in opposing directions. One direction tragically replaces the preaching of the gospel and attendant calls for repentance and faith with immediate societal transformation. The other also prioritizes culture but in defense of the cultural status quo by shrinking the gospel’s impact to individual salvation only. Both truncate the gospel message and neglect a full-throated proclamation of the gospel message and all of its glorious implications. We would do well to heed the vision of Carey in our day by not replacing the gospel with social justice or acting as though the gospel has nothing to say about social justice.

David E. Prince

David E. Prince is the Assistant Professor of Christian Preaching at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In addition to his role on the faculty, he is also the pastor of Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky. He is married to Judi and they have eight children.  Read More by this Author