William Carey’s Greatest Obstacle: The Local Church

At the end of the 18th century in England, an impoverished shoemaker started reading a book called The Last Voyage of Captain Cook. This book catalogued the exotic adventures of sailor and explorer Captain Cook and caused young William Carey’s mind to drift outside the borders of his native land. This book “became a revelation of human need.” The “savages” that were referenced in the book “were now seen as God’s creatures and in need of a Sovereign’s mercies” (13).*

Carey then looked to the Scriptures and saw that the Sovereign’s mercies were poured out on the lost of the nations as they heard the Gospel. And, he asked himself, how were they to ever hear the Gospel unless someone went to preach it to them? Carey knew that God did not only predetermine the ends (that people from every tribe, tongue and nation worship Jesus), but he also purposed the means: sending people, people like him, to them to preach the Gospel to the nations. He was ready to go.

But Carey had a problem…

Carey’s Greatest Obstacle: The Local Church
In the church, at that time, there was a prejudice in the hearts of believers that squelched compassion for the lost. He therefore knew that he had an obligation to convince church members and church leaders of the need for missions. Therefore, at a church elder’s meeting in the year 1786, Carey raised the question whether the command given to the apostles to teach all nations was obligatory for them at that present time. Reading between the lines, an older man present at the meeting looked at him and said,

Young man, sit down: when God pleases to convert the heathen he will do it without your aid or mine (15).

In the words of biographer Daniel Webber, “The hyper-Calvinism of the day was more than capable of turning the sovereignty of God into a pretext for doing nothing” (15).

The local church was thus one of the biggest obstacles that Carey faced in his pursuit of missions. But he would not relent. He continued to bring the plight of the nations before the church until at last his fellow ministers started to desire to see the nations worship Christ.

However, they knew that mission work was truly an unbeaten path and thus “their minds revolted at the idea of attempting it. It seemed to them something too great, and too much like grasping at an object utterly beyond their reach” (18). Thus they went from seeing foreign missions as ridiculous to important, but still unattainable.

One minister, however, Andrew Fuller, caught the vision and became Carey’s ally. He addressed this attitude in his sermon The Dangerous Tendency of Delay. He looked his congregants in the eye and said:

There is something of this procrastinating spirit running through a great part of life, and it is of great detriment to the work of God. We know of many things that should be done and cannot in conscience directly oppose them; but still we find excuses for our inactivity…We quiet ourselves with the thought that they need not to be done just now.

We are very apt to indulge in a kind of prudent caution (as we call it) which foresees and magnifies difficulties beyond what they really are.

Instead of waiting for the removal of difficulties, we ought, in many cases to consider them as purposely laid in our ways in order to try the sincerity of our religion. (18)

Thus Carey and Fuller together called the church to no longer make excuses for inactivity, but instead to be goers and be senders so that the nations might worship Christ. This was no easy task for there was a spirit of “prudent caution” in the air among church members and church leaders that led to a stagnancy. The church at that time was waiting for a removal of difficulties before they sought to take steps towards going overseas. To this Fuller called congregants to embrace these difficulties and see them not as closed doors but instead as trials purposefully laid out by their heavenly father in order to test the sincerity of their faith.

Fuller and Carey refused to grow discouraged in their desire to persuade the local church of the importance of missions. They agreed that the Lord would save all of the elect in every nation, but they insisted that God would use means in order to do it. They essentially told their fellow church members to look to the left and look to the right in order to see the means that God intended to use to save unreached people groups.

Carey said that the church was to pray for the lost in the nations but he also said 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 (29).

He kept coming back to the Great Commission where God said that we were to go out into all the nations and make disciples. The church responded in saying that this command was just for the apostles at the time of Christ. To this Carey said that if the church wouldn’t claim the responsibility to go make disciples of all the nations then they had no business claiming the promise that Jesus would be with them to the end of the age, seeing that this command and this promise were couched in the same passage.

Little by little, the truth of Carey’s arguments worked their way into the hearts of those on the pew.

Six Year Battle – Won!
Finally, after 6 years of fervent prayer and persuasion, the local church was finally won to the missionary vision. In October 1792, a group of ministers met in order to discuss Carey’s proposal of seeking to evangelize the nations. This is what they wrote in their records of the meeting:

Desirous of making an effort for the propagation of the gospel among the heathen, agreeably to what is recommended in brother Carey’s late publication on that subject, we….do solemnly agree to act in society together for that purpose (32).

Carey spent 6 years laboring in order to convince a local body of believers to let him go out and labor all the more on the mission field. And his labor paid off! The church was won and because of this faithful plodding, there are Indian people around the throne of Jesus right now, worshipping him.

Lessons from Carey
We often look to the ministry of Carey on the foreign mission field to draw lessons from. However, there are many many lessons that can be learned from his six year battle to get to the field. Carey’s battle to get to the field lent towards…

The Strengthening of the Sending Church
God was sovereign in that he used William Carey to sanctify, correct and build up the church even though that meant delaying his ministry by 6 years. And this correction was not limited to his own local church but has expanded to the universal church. Carey wrote a paper which has blessed the universal church for decades. The Lord not only planned for the Indian people to worship Jesus through Carey’s ministry but also that Carey’s local church be jolted from their hyper-Calvinism that tied them to the pews.

If we as missionaries think that our role is just for the lost of the nations, then we may be missing good works that the Lord has for us to walk in within our local churches. Our plodding in Great Commission ministry does not begin on foreign soil; it begins in the hallways of the churches that we were raised in.

The Strengthening of the Missionary
Not only did the Carey’s delay profit the faith of his local congregation but it also strengthened his own faith. In fact, I believe that the difficulties in getting to the field are the training ground for missionary labor on the field. To those that are trying to get to the field, I think Carey helps us to remember that any awkwardness in support raising, resistance from the local church, and dealing with fear are all trials used to work in us a resilient character that is resolved to never give up. If it took Carey 6 years to convince his church to send him out, he wasn’t going to be coming home any time soon.

We, thankfully, cannot personally relate to Carey’s frustrations with his local church but there are missionaries who can. And so, to church leaders, let our knee-jerk reaction be to fan the flame of missionary zeal, not dampen it. And to those who are headed to the field and feel as if the local church is more of a burden than an impetus to the field, know that as you take measured, painful steps bearing this burden, you are developing a strength that will be essential for your future ministry on the field. Keep plodding and keep praying that the Lord would sanctify your local church through you.

* All quotes are taken from: Webber, Daniel. 2005. William Carey and the Missionary Vision. Edinburgh, UK. Banner of Truth and Trust.

Another book that speaks about Carey is: Tucker, Ruth. 2004. From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.


Author: Stacey Hare

Stacey is a servant of Jesus Christ as well as a wife, mom, linguist, and Bible translator among the Kwakum people of Cameroon.