If you were 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.
William 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 a 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.” Carey expected great things from God and on that basis attempted great things; thousands would follow his lead.