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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
William R. Williams
From the book, Lectures on Baptist History, 1877
The very first sheets—earliest in the date of their writing—of this entire New Testament are the story of missionary adventure, launching from one continent to evangelize another. They tell how Asia was quitted for Europe by primitive zeal, and bow emphatically the European converts recognized the new brotherhood thus created, and that in their common Ransomer they, the kindred of Alexander's old legions, owned themselves the debtors to men of Palestine, the soil whose acres Christ had trod, and whose people had brought them this wondrous light of salvation.
If the Christian church in our day would forswear foreign missions as redundant, you will see how she must, in consistency, tear asunder the volume of the New Testament right through its very heart, rending the Book of Acts out of the New Testament histories, and shearing off the Epistles to the Thessalonians first, and then exscinding how many others, with these two, out of the Inspired Letters of the New Dispensation.
Yet how strangely, and at a date comparatively how recent, have the Baptists been led to a recognition of this great Christian duty. Their churches, compared with others, of little worldly endowment, having lost in England the position of national influence which they had won in the days of the Commonwealth and Protectorate, they had yet been honored of God with faithful preachers.
From one of these, William Carey—a convert under the influence of the labors of Thomas Scott, the commentator—proceeded under God the impulse. The son of the parish clerk and parish schoolmaster, under great disadvantages he had acquired but the elements of learning, and was apprenticed to a shoemaker, in consequence of weakness that was thought to unfit him for the farm-work to which he would otherwise have passed.
Scott himself was brought from the mazes of Socinianism under the teachings of John Newton of Olney, the friend of Cowper; and Newton himself, the prodigal, was met at sea and amid the slave-trade on the western coast of Africa; how remote and how unlikely, at every link of good influence, was the long chain, that yet, in God's good providence, brought the old gospel down from the hammock, where Newton had at first swung as a profane and infidel sailor, to the humble shoemaker's shop, where Carey cobbled, studied, and prayed.
The conquests of Clive at the battle of Plassey had, in India, converted the traders' company into the beginnings of an empire. But the British rulers who won the subject tribes and territory little heeded the language of the people whom they subjected. Clive, it is said, never learned any of the Indian dialects proper of the various peoples whom he led to conquest or reduced to subjection.
Of one among the later great governors-general of India, the Marquis of Wellesley, the brother of Wellington, and a man of large intellect and wide statesmanship, it is told by an English writer on India, that, once passing through the streets of a great Indian city, a Brahmin, with the dignity of which some of their number are such masters, cursed the English viceroy in the name of all the gods of his country. Wellesley, though described by the narrator as the haughtiest of viceroys, knew so little of the language that he made the lowliest reverence to the Hindoo, in utter unconsciousness of the true meaning of the salutation.
It was the aim of the British to appropriate the revenues and treasures of the Indian colony; but, to secure this, it was matter of policy, in the minds of their agents generally, to avoid aught that should exasperate the superstitious prejudices of the people. Many, even of English settlers, gave offerings to the idol-temples; and some, attached to heathen mistresses, gave silent or eager aid to the pagan oblations of the mothers of their children.
The East India Company was bitterly hostile to all attempts to interfere with the faith of the Hindoos. Carey in his humble shop read the voyages of Cook; and the discovery of heathen islands, that only excited the curiosity of others, awakened his Christian sympathy and compassion. He constructed for his school-children a rude map of the globe, describing its population and its various and erring religions. Become a pastor, but with the smallest stipend, and a father with a growing family, his soul was drawn out to the desolations of ancient paganism.
He had the friendship of the elder Robert Hall, parent of the great scholar and orator, a pastor of strong mind and clear views; of Sutcliffe, another country pastor, devout, sagacious, and earnest; and of Ryland, who had baptized him; and of Andrew Fuller, a man of the clearest and strongest intellect, gravely, solidly pious, and yet of few literary advantages.
To these, Carey's suggestions for heathen evangelization seemed visionary, and, rather to evade the topic, they proposed his putting into written form his thoughts on the subject. He did so. Called to preach before his Association, he took as his theme a prophecy of Isaiah 54:2, 3, of the enlarged tent and lengthened cords that were to take in the Gentiles.
In 1792, he preached on it with the two great subdivisions, "Expect great things from God, and attempt great things for God." It led to the formation of a missionary society at Kettering, the seat of Fuller's labors, in October, 1792, and the contributions were £13 2s. 6d.
Fuller was its secretary, Carey was its offered missionary. The church of the devout Pearce of Birmingham added a sum of £70, quintupling the original funds. Yet how, to any other than the simplest, strongest faith, must the enterprise have seemed one of sovereign absurdity—that of attempting with these puniest means to assail the faith of pagan India and a population of, perhaps, one hundred and sixty millions.
But the churches enlisted were country churches. The London Baptists, when consulted, generally stood aloof. Stennett, to whose pulpit ministrations Howard expressed such warm gratitude and reverence, could not be brought to favor it.
The elder Ryland, the father of Carey's friend, a scholar and author, a man of genius and piety, and of whom the statesman William Windham makes respectful mention, had cried with some indignation when the project was by Carey named to him, "Young man, when God would have the heathen converted, he will do it without your aid or mine."
With small children, his wife averse to the voyage, his way shut up as to passage in one of the East India Company's vessels, Carey persisted, and secured, at last, embarkation in a Danish keel, his wife consenting finally to sail if her sister, who was, however, equally with herself, unbelieving as to the wisdom of the undertaking, would accompany her. Thus freighted with discouragement, Carey set sail.
When the question of permitting Christian missionaries in their possessions came up before the Board of Directors of that great mercantile body, one of the directors, depicting the tumult it would excite, said, that he would see a band of devils let loose in India rather than a band of missionaries.
Perchance eyes of keener and celestial vision already saw his wish at work; for the population of India counting hilt one hundred and sixty millions, its subordinate deities, according to their own Brahmins, were in number three hundred and thirty millions, or an average of two separate deities to every man, woman, and child of the teeming myriads of the vast region.
The East India Company was a most potent body in its wealth and its patronage and its parliamentary influence at home. Burke and Sheridin had assailed one of its favored governors, Warren Hastings; and after a trial of years, marked by the most resplendent exhibitions of talent and eloquence, and after fearful evidence produced of malversation and oppression, such orators, with such witnessings, had failed to secure his conviction.
Charles James Fox, a statesman of great powers and signal popularity, had devised, with the aid of Burke, a new charter by an India Bill. Not that Fox favored missionaries; for when consulted, he disapproved them. But the British Parliament and the nation and the Court were against the India Bill of Fox, however skillful its framing or vigorous its advocacy; and it failed.
On his arrival, Carey found himself shut up, after various experiments in indigo-culture, to a refuge in the small Danish settlement of Serampore, an independent region of small extent, but near the English capital of Calcutta. Here he set up a press, which in Calcutta even Wellesley would not then have permitted. His wife became insane; his fellow-laborer Thomas also insane. With these sorrows on either hand under the roof, he went forth to the baptism of his first convert.
Had not the faith of a present Christ and the power of an Almighty Spirit sustained the laborer, human zeal might well have faltered when in circumstances so forlorn, after seven years of toil, he led down his first convert to baptism in Christ's name. But as he said, he could plod; and plod he did, till God turned hearts toward him in the India of his chosen residence and in the Britain which he was no more to see.
He became a Sanscrit scholar, greater than Sir William Jones, who had been the first of Englishmen to lead in that new field. He completed, in the modern and feebler language of the people around him, a Bengalee Bible, and its finishing was occasion to him of profound and devout joy. God gave him fellow-laborers, Marshman and Ward.
The favor of Wellesley, the governor-general, was drawn toward him. He received, though a Dissenter, an appointment as professor in the college which Wellesley set up, without the authority, and even against the protests, of the East India Company, under whom he acted. Strong in his own energy and in the friendship of the younger Pitt, Wellesley persevered, and brought forward also his more illustrious brother, afterward to be known as the Duke of Wellington, and who, on the field of Assaye, on Indian soil, began the fame so emphasized in Spain and on the field of Waterloo.
But besides the complications encountered thus in the East India Company, the opponents of missions in the Edinburgh Review, then the highest organ of British literature, by the witty Sydney Smith, commenced an attack on the whole evangelizing enterprise, as endangering the lives of every Englishman, and as one that ought to be forthwith and ruthlessly suppressed.
Some of the older of us may recollect a time when the ill words of that great journal stirred up the wrath of all our country, as it asked scornfully, "Who reads an American book?"
It was a blessed and Christian revenge on the maligners of missions, which, in God's good providence, the mission and mission family took upon these their priestly and Parliamentary revilers, when a son-in-law of this same Marshman, the gallant Havelock—"every inch a soldier, and every inch a Christian," as Sir Henry Harding called him —pushing his way against such overwhelming odds, relieved Lucknow, and saved to the British Crown, under God, an empire which Smith had said the missionaries were sure to overthrow. Putting to silence the ignorance of foolish men by patient continuance in well-doing is apostolic.
But it requires apostolic zeal and endurance to obey a precept so calmly brave. The number of versions of the Bible that in part or entire Carey and his coadjutors completed is wondrous. His brother-laborer, Marshman, framed a Chinese version of the Bible. These may be superseded, just as Wycliffe's and Tyndale’s and Coverdale's have been, in our own tongue.
But they did a good work; and nations have been glad for them, and heaven has been made the richer in its tenantry by their means, in the converts they have won.