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William Carey's Postmillennialism and World Missions

By Thomas Schirrmacher
May 01, 2001

Carey’s Theology — The Missing Link

William Carey is considered the Father of Protestant missions.1 His book, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens,2was written in 1792, the beginning of the so-called Great Century3 (1792-1914) between the French and the Russian Revolutions. For the centennial anniversary, none less than the mentor of German missiology, Gustav Warneck, wrote, “Thus, the year 1792 may be considered the true birthdate of modern missions.”4 Less that twenty days after the publication of the Enquiry, Carey preached his sermon on Isaiah 54:2-3 and began to disseminate it with a clear appeal for missions to his fellow pastors,5 which soon led to the foundation of the mission society. The Particular Baptist Mission. The first mission society without state supervision, it was founded on different lines than the Anglo-Saxon honor societies.6

Much has been written about Carey and his colleagues, their mission field in Serampore, and their achievements in printing, in Bible translation, in teaching and in many other areas.

Strangely enough, however, little attention has been paid in his numerous biographies to his theology, as expressed in his major work. (The only exception I know of is Iain Murray’s study, The Puritan Hope.) This failure is probably due to the fact that Carey’s theology differs from that of the presently predominant, post-classical mission societies, which happily claim him as their father, although he was a Calvinist and a postmillennialist. Even the two dissertations which discuss his achievements7 ignore large areas of his theology. Neither mention his eschatological views, which played a major role in his decisions. The best description — interestingly, actually a biography of his first wife8 — mentions his personal optimism in the chapter on “Attitudes Towards the Future,” but not his optimistic perspective on world missions, which he derived from his postmillennial theology.

Postmillennialism in the Enquiry

Let’s examine the central indications of Carey’s postmillennialism in the Enquiry.

Carey had two questions about the Great Commission: 1) Was the Great Commission directed only to the apostles, or is it valid for all Christians of all eras; 2) Can the Great Commission be fulfilled?

To the first question, Carey points out that the Great Commission is binding “even to the end of the age” (Mt. 28:20).9One of his best arguments for the validity of the Commission is the fact that it includes the command to baptize, which all churches and theologians consider valid.10 If the Great Commission was directed only to the apostles, the churches would have to stop baptizing people.

The answer to the second question arises out of Carey’s postmillennial expectation of missions’ final success. Premillennialism, which molded post-classical missions, assumed no such achievement, but only the conversion of a minority from each nation.

In his introduction, Carey expresses no doubts that Cod would build His kingdom on this earth to the same extent as the devil’s present government:

Yet God repeatedly made known his intention to prevail finally over all the power of the devil, and to destroy all his works and set up his own kingdom and interest among men, and extend it as universally as Satan had extended his.11

Very early in the Enquiry, Carey refutes objections to the continuing validity of the Great Commission on eschatological grounds:

It has been said that some learned divines have proved from Scripture that the time is not yet come that the heathen should be converted; and that first the witnesses must be slain, and many other prophecies fulfilled. But admitting this to be the case (which I much doubt) yet, if any objection is made from this against preaching to them immediately, it must he founded on one of these things; either that the secret purpose of God is the rule of our duty, and then it must be as bad to pray for them, as to preach to them; or else that none shall be converted in the heathen world till the universal downpouring of the Spirit in the last days. But this objection comes too late; for the success of the gospel has been very considerable in many places already.12

On the one hand, he questions his own eschatological view, but on the other, he objects to any interpretation which prohibits the present carrying out of the Great Commission. The Christian must make his decisions not according to the unknown mysteries of Cod’s will but according to His clear, revealed commandment. Carey here follows Calvin’s distinction between God’s sovereign will, providence, and His moral will, duty.13

Carey drew his argument against the predominant view of the day, that the witness must first be slain, from Jonathan Edwards’ detailed discussion.14

The other argument that Carey would have accepted against missions would have been the lack of converts in the heathen world. This, however, was refuted by reality. Interestingly, Carey fails to mention the expectation of the universal pouring out of the Holy Spirit, which was to initiate the great conversion of the heathen, which was, after all, his own opinion. Because this view could also have been used against missions, he emphasized the role of the Great Commission as a commandment rather than eschatological opinions as the basis of our plans and actions.

Towards the end of the Enquiry, Carey defines his eschatological view more clearly, bur the complete picture becomes clear only in the light of the postmillennial views of the day. Carey emphasizes that the prophesied growth of the kingdom of God should not make the believer passive, but increases the obligation to missions.

If the prophecies concerning the increase of Christ’s kingdom be true, and if what has been advanced concerning the commission given by him to his disciples being obligatory on us, be just, it must be inferred that all Christians ought heartily to concur with God in promoting his glorious designs, for he that is joined to the Lord is one spirit.15

At the same time, he sees the first signs of the approaching expansion of the kingdom of God in the social and political arena, but above all, in the open doors.

[Y]ea, a glorious door is opened, and is likely to be opened wider and wider, by the spread of civil and religious liberty, accompanied also by a diminution of the spirit of popery; 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 hoped it will be preserved in, till it is accomplished.16

In Carey’s view, Biblical eschatology does not refute God’s commandments, but supports them. Thus, in discussing future promises, he can also allude to Christian responsibility and failure.

If an holy solicitude had prevailed in all the assemblies of Christians in behalf of their Redeemer’s kingdom, we might probably have seen before now, not only an open door for the gospel, but many running to and fro, and knowledge increased; or a diligent use of those means which providence has put in our power, accompanied with a greater blessing than ordinary from heaven.17

Carey’s interpretation of Zachariah was inspired by Jonathan Edward’s18 interpretation, which was popular at the time:

It is as represented in the prophets, that when there shall be a great mourning in the land, as the mourning of Hadadrimmon in the valley of Megiddon, and every family shall mourn apart, and their wives apart, it shall all follow upon a spirit of grace, and supplication. And when these things shall take place, it is promised that there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David, and for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, for sin and for uncleanness -— and that the idols shall be destroyed and the false prophets ashamed of their profession. Zech. xii. 10.14. - xiii. 1,6. This prophesy seems to teach that when there shall be a universal conjunction in fervent prayer, and all shall esteem Zions’ welfare as their own, then copious influences of the Spirit shall be shed upon the churches, which like a purifying fountain shall cleanse the servants of the Lord. Nor shall this cleansing influence stop here; all old idolatrous prejudices shall be rooted, out, and truth prevail so gloriously that false teachers shall be so ashamed as rather to wish to be classed with obscure herdsmen, or the meanest peasants, than bear the ignominy attendant on their detection.
The most glorious works of grace that have ever took place, have been in answer to prayer; and it is in this way, we have the greatest reason to suppose, that the glorious out-pouring of the Spirit, which we expect at last, will be bestowed.19

In the Enquiry, Carey not only thinks and argues from a postmillennialist position, but he finds his examples among postmillennialist missionaries and theologians.

The Calvinist (Puritan) missionaries mentioned as examples in the second and third chapters of the Enquiry were missionaries to the Indians, John Eliot (1604-1690) and David Brainerd (1718-1747). Carey’s original models, they too came from the sphere of Jonathan Edward’s influence Both were postmillennialists20 and believed that numerous conversions would occur at the end of time, i.e., at the beginning of the millennium, prior to Christ’s return. (Carey read and continually re-read Edward’s biography of Brainerd.)

A postmillennialist, Johnathan Edwards, the Calvinist evangelist and the leading American theologian of his day, called for a world wide prayer chain for world missions in his pamphlet, “A Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union Among Cod’s People in Extraordinary Prayer for the Revival of Religion and the Advancement of Christ’s Kingdom on Earth.”21 In referring to this work in the Enquiry, Carey mentions the British edition provided by John Sutcliffe in 1789, which together with the American edition of 1747 had strongly influenced the Baptists of Northumberland since 1784. In his arguments for postmillennial hope in the Enquiry, Carey sometimes used the same Scripture quotations as Edwards, particularly those from Zechariah.

Besides Edwards, Eliot, and Brainerd, the Enquiry also mentions the seaman, James Cook (1721-1779), whose logbook he had studied diligently. Cook’s last voyage, described in part in his logbook of 1779, was published in 1784, and in 1785, reprinted by the Northampton Mercury in a series of pamphlets. Carey writes, “My attention to missions was first awakened after I was at Moulton, by reading the Last Voyage of Captain Cook.”22

Carey also became aware of the immense possibilities for missions of the new expeditions in the geographical descriptions of the Northampton Mercury, one of the oldest English weekly newspapers. Without question, world wide exploration and the new possibilities for travel inspired postmillennialism as much as the rising of Protestant world missions did.

Not only Carey, but also his mission society and his team were postmillennialists. A. Christopher Smith, writing about Carey, his colleague John Marshman, and their representative at home, says:

In mission theology, the Serampore Fraternity members were at the fore in declaring that the world would be evangelized properly only after the Holy Spirit was poured forth. Rufus Anderson was perhaps even more sanguine and triumphalist in his millennialist expectations.23

The significance of postmillennialism (and of the Calvinist doctrine of predestination) can also be seen in another aspect: “Another remarkable feature of the Enquiry is that the argument of ‘perishing heathen’ is never used.”24

Carey believed that the heathen were lost without Christ. He builds his arguments for missions, however, on positive ideas rather than on negative ones, which distinguishes him strongly from other methods of supporting missions.

Carey’s Struggles for Social Change

Carey’s involvement in the battle against social injustice was also an element of his missionary work, as well as in the Enquiry, as is evident in the texts already cited on religious freedom and the slave trade. These endeavors point to his Calvinist background, which considers possible the Christianization of a nation in ethical and social-political concerns.25 Shortly after his arrival in India in 1802, he began an investigation on the commission of the governor into religious killings in Hindu India, and soon attained the prohibition of the ritual killing of children — babies were annually thrown into the Ganges once a year on the Island of Saugor.26 After a lifelong battle, in 1826 he was able to obtain the prohibition of sati, the incineration of widows.27 Both prohibitions were by and large successful.

Carey was just as outspoken in his opinions on slavery and the caste system, which he in no case wanted to allow within the church, even at the cost of advantages for his missionary efforts. In this point, he differed from the Halle-Danish mission and from the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SPCK), which retained the caste system even in the Lord’s Supper. Carey insisted that the convert break with the system before being baptized. He wrote:

Perhaps this is one of the greatest barriers to conversion with which the devil ever bound the children of men. This is my comfort, that God can break it.28

In this he was in harmony with his fellow workers. So Ward insisted that the missionaries would dig the graves for missionaries and other Europeans and, thus, did a job which was even forbidden for members of the lowest casts.

Carey’s achievements in translating the Scripture and in preserving Indian languages, particularly his grammars, are uncontested. He aided in doubling the number of Bible translations in the eighteenth century from thirty to nearly sixty, and played a major role in keeping these languages from dying out by making them written languages.

The team founded forty-five free schools with about 10,000 pupils of all social classes, the still extant Serampore College, and several newspapers in English and native languages to further the education of the Indian people. Serampore College, modeled on the universities of Copenhagen and Kiel, was India’s first university.

Finally, through the Agricultural Society of India, founded in 1820, he did much to improve India’s farming system. E. Daniel Potts writes, “Those who follow Colin Clark’s lead in thinking that contributions to the development of India would ultimately be of far greater benefit than hand-to-mouth poor relief will applaud the advanced thinking of William Carey.”29

In 1993 many Indian linguists, scientists, historians, and theologians gathered for a jubilee symposium, emphasizing the great achievements of Carey for all branches of Indian society.

Carey and his colleagues were, however, no instruments of the colonial government. Their activities “led them to cooperate or, more often, conflict with the constituted authorities.”30

The Enquiry shows how Carey argued for native leadership, which aroused criticism not only in politics, but also in the church. In 1834, fifty missionaries (six Europeans, Anglo-Indians, and Indians) were working in Serampore with Carey’s team of nineteen. The British General Baptists, in particular, criticized the Particular Baptists’ preference for native workers, which hindered many good British missionaries from working in Serampore. Carey pied for the “modern” principle that missionaries should be able to make decisions independent of their mission boards, which led to the most difficult crisis of the Serampore mission station and to a temporary dissolution of the ties between the station and the mission board.

  1. Ralph D. Winter, Steven C. Hawthorne, ed., Perspectives on the World Christian Movement (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1981), 227-228. L. Daniels Potts, British Baptist Missionaries in India 1793-1837: The History of Serampore and its Missions (Cambridge: At the University Press, 1967), 5, criticizes this view.
  2. Edition used: William Carey, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens (London: The Carey Kingsgate Press, 1961).
  3. Charles L. Chaney, The Birth of Missions in America (South Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1976), xi.
  4. Gusrav Warneck, “Zum Jubiläumsjahr der evangelischen Mission,” Allgemeine Missions-Zeitschrift 19 (1892), 3-4. Warneck mentions Carey’s predecessors, but considers their efforts private attempts, while Carey initiated the systematic spread of the evangelical faith. In Serampore, Carey and his team took over the work of the Herrnhuter missionaries, Schmidt and Grassmann, who began their work in 1777. Schmidt died twelve years later, the station was closed in 1787, and Grassmann returned to Europe in 1792; from A. Schillbach, “William Carey: Line Jubiläumserinnerung,” Zeitschrift für Missionskunde und Religionswissenschaft 7 (1892), 175-183, 219-227, and 8 (1893), 29-38. For a thorough comparison of the two positions, see Aalbertinus Hermen (Dussoren, William Carey, Especially his Missionary Principles, Diss.: Freie Universtät Amsterdam (Leiden: A. W. Sijthoff, 1945), 219-269.
  5. Mary Drewery, William Carey (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979), 39. James R. Beck, Dorothy Carey: A Biography (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979), 65-66. Gustav Warneck, “Zum Jubiläumsjahr der evangelischen Mission,” op. cit., 3.
  6. R. Pierce Beaver, All Love Excelling: American Protestant Women in World Mission (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1968), 15-17.
  7. Aalbertinus Hermen Oussoren, William Carey, Especially his Missionary Principles, op. cit., includes excellent historical discussion of his life, 19-121; E. Daniels Potts, British Baptist Missionaries in India 1793-1837: The History of Serampore and its Missions, (Cambridge: University Press, 1967), contains the most thorough work on Carey and the work of his team in India.
  8. James R. Beck, op. cit. This work rises above the usual prejudices against Carey’s marriage to an uneducated woman, for which one might find the following example: W. Bieder, “William Carey 1761-1834,” op. cit., 153-173. After the death of his first wife, Carey was happily married for 13 years (1807-1821) with the linguistically gifted Danin Charlotte Rumohr. His third wife, Grace Hughes, survived him. Both these marriages are little known. See also A. Christopher Smith, “William Carey,” op. cit., 248.
  9. William Carey, Enquiry, 9.
  10. ibid., 9. See also James R. Beck, Dorothy Carey, op. cit., 63.
  11. William Carey, Enquiry, 5.
  12. William Carey, Enquiry, 12.
  13. See Johannes Calvin, Unterricht in der christlichen Religion: Institutio Religionis Christianas (Neukirchen, Germany, 1988), 129 (1st book, chapter 18 Kap, paragraph 4) and 234f; similarly Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. by James T. Dennison, vol. 1 (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1992), 220-222; and Thomas Schirrmacher, Ethik Vol. 1 (Neuhausen, Germany: Hanssler, 1994), 723-732.
  14. Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 2 (1834/1974, repr. Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1992), 278-315. See also Peter Kawerau, Amerika und die orientalischen Kirchen, op. cit., 72-73.
  15. Carey, Enquiry, 79.
  16. ibid., 79.
  17. ibid., 80.
  18. See Brian Stanley, The History of the Baptist Missionary Society 1792-1992, op. cit., 13 and Frank Deauville Walker, William Carey, op. cit., 59.
  19. Carey, Enquiry, 78-79.
  20. See W. O. Carver, Missions in the Plan of the Ages, op. cit., 213-282; Iain Murray, The Puritan Hope, op. cit., 93-103.
  21. Boston, 1748; printed in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 2 (1834/1974; repr. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1992), 278-315.
  22. ibid., 49.
  23. A. Christopher Smith, “The Edinburgh Connection: Between the Serampore Mission and Western Missiology,” Missiology: An International Review 18 (1990) 2, 185-209.
  24. Aalbertinus Hermen Oussoren, William Carey, Especially his Missionary Principles, op. cit, 129.
  25. Aalbertinus Hermen Oussoren, William Carey, Especially His Missionary Principles, op. cit, 189-190.
  26. E. Daniels Potts, British Baptist Missionaries in India 1793-1837, op. cit, 141-144; Frank Deauville Walker, William Carey, op. cit, 197-199; Basil Miller, William Carey, op. cit, 93.
  27. The most detailed study can be found in E. Daniel Potts, British Baptist Missionaries in India 1793-1837, op. cit., 144-157. Texts by Carey are printed in Pearce Carey, William Carey, op. cit., 170-173. Cf. Brian Stanley, The History of the Baptist Missionary Society 1792-1992, op. cit., 44-45; A. Schillbach, “William Carey als Bahnbrecher der evangelischen Mission,” op. cit., 181-182; Frank Deauville Walker, William Carey, op. cit., 199-201; Basil Miller. William Carey, op. cit., 137-138; Kellsye Finnie, William Carey, op. cit., l 4 l - 143; James R. Beck, Dorothy Carey, op. cit., 170-171; G. Schott, William Carey, der Vater der gegenwärtigen Missionsbewegung, op. cit., 27-30.
  28. William Carey’s diary, quoted in Mary Drewery, William Carey, 79.
  29. ibid., 70-71.
  30. ibid., 169-204 describes the relationship to the colonial government in detail.

Topics: Eschatology

Thomas Schirrmacher

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