The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: William Carey’s Couch

If you were to visit Oxford, England today, and find your way to the Angus Library of Regent’s Park College (a part of Oxford University), you might just come across an old, nondescript couch settled there in the archives. This antique couch sits at the top of a stone staircase, beside a plaque warning that this area of the library is a “quiet area.” It looks for all the world like a piece of furniture someone put down for a moment and then forgot to move to a better place. And yet this couch has greater significance than you might guess, because William Carey died upon it in Serampore, India, almost two hundred years ago. William Carey’s couch is the next of the twenty-five objects through which we are exploring the history of Christianity.

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Carey CouchWilliam Carey was born on August 17, 1761 and raised in Paulerspury, a small village in central England. At the age of fourteen he was apprenticed to a cobbler in a nearby village and, though Carey had been raised Anglican, a fellow apprentice who was a Dissenter influenced him to leave the Church of England and join a Congregational church. This was just the beginning of an important spiritual pilgrimage.

During Carey’s time as an apprentice and shoemaker he found that he was adept at languages and taught himself Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Dutch, and French. In 1783 he became a Baptist and by 1789 was a full-time pastor at Harvey Lane Baptist Church in Leicester. After reading Jonathan Edwards’ account of the life of David Brainerd, as well as the journals of the explorer James Cook, he became increasingly interested in missions and in 1792 published his most enduring work, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens. This book outlined the Christians’ obligation to do missions, shared a brief history of missions, gave statistical data about the world’s need for missions, provided answers to objections against doing missions, and contained a proposal for the kind of society that could be formed to support such an effort.

Also in 1792 he preached the sermon which contained the quote that has become indelibly associated with his name: “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.” In the fall of that same year, he formed the Baptist Missionary Society alongside other charter members Andrew Fuller, John Ryland, and John Sutcliff. Carey sailed to India the following April, and would never again return to England.

Over the next 41 years Carey accomplished or influenced a remarkable amount of work, and for good reason is considered the father of modern missions. He translated the entire Bible into India’s major languages: Bengali, Oriya, Marathi, Hindi, Assamese, and Sanskrit and parts of 209 other languages and dialects. He influenced social reform, including the abolition of infanticide, widow burning, and assisted suicide. And he helped found Serampore College, a divinity school for Indians. But, as Mark Galli says, “His greatest legacy was in the worldwide missionary movement of the nineteenth century that he inspired. Missionaries like Adoniram Judson, Hudson Taylor, and David Livingstone, among thousands of others, were impressed not only by Carey’s example, but by his words ‘Expect great things; attempt great things.’ The history of nineteenth-century Protestant missions is in many ways an extended commentary on the phrase” (131 Christians Everyone Should Know). Carey expected great things from God and on that basis attempted great things; thousands would follow his lead.

Carey’s initiative, expressed through the Baptist Missionary Society, ushered in what is now known as the First Wave or First Era of Modern Missions. This wave focused mainly on the coastlands of foreign lands, with later waves focusing on the inlands and then the unreached people groups that remained. Ralph Winter identifies two especially bright notes about this opening era in the missions movement: The first is the “astonishing demonstration of love and sacrifice on the part of those who went out. … Very few missionaries to Africa in the first 60 years of the First Era survived more than two years” (The World Christian Movement). And still they went. In fact, Carey himself suffered immeasurably, marrying three times as his wives succumbed to illness. The second is “The development of high quality insight into mission strategy.” Such strategy had to be learned through patience and perseverance—rather difficult qualities when so few of the missionaries survived long enough to apply the lessons.

William CareyWhile Carey was not the first Protestant missionary, he served as a catalyst for a whole new movement so that John Piper can rightly say, “Carey was the morning star of modern missions” (Holy Faith, Worthy Gospel, World Vision). Generations of Christians were inspired by Carey’s example and followed him from the safety and comfort of England and America to foreign lands. Over the next century, the missionary movement he sparked would reach almost every coastland on earth with countless souls being saved.

Today that old couch rests in The Angus Library where students are free to sit on it or to use it to catch a quick nap. This library is a fitting resting place because it houses a leading collection of Baptist history and heritage from around the world. But it is fitting as well that the couch is relatively unknown, for Carey himself was content to be unknown. Not long before he died he scolded a friend: “You have been saying much about Dr. Carey and his work. When I am gone, say nothing about Dr. Carey; speak about Dr. Carey’s Saviour.” While Carey’s life ended upon that couch on June 9, 1834, his legacy continued and, indeed, continues today. And his Savior still reigns, and is still drawing his people to himself.

More in The History of Christianity in 25 Objects:

  1. The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: Introduction
  2. The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: Augustus of Prima Porta
  3. The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: Rylands Library Papyrus P52
  4. The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: Alexamenos Graffito
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