Carey, William

1761 - 1834
Missionary, Bible translator, pastor, and founder of Serampore College

William Carey was born on August 17, 1761, the eldest of five children of Edmund and Elizabeth Carey, weavers by trade. The family, members of the Church of England, lived in Paulerspury in rural Northamptonshire, England.  

At 14, Carey was apprenticed to a shoemaker, Clarke Nichols. Mostly self-educated, Carey had a gift for languages and taught himself Greek with the help of a local weaver named Thomas Jones, who possessed a classical education.[1]

Carey was converted in his teens and was baptised by John Ryland Jr, a Baptist pastor.  He joined a local association of Particular Baptists [2] – the Northamptonshire Baptist Association where he became friends with Ryland, John Sutcliff and Andrew Fuller who were also young pastors. By 1785, Carey had been invited to pastor a local Baptist church and in 1789, he became the full-time pastor of Harvey Lane Baptist Church in Leicester.

Drawing inspiration from Jonathan Edwards’ Account of the Life of the Late Rev. David Brainerd and the journals of the explorer James Cook, Carey became concerned with propagating the gospel throughout the world. 

At the 1785 meeting of the Northamptonshire Baptist Association’s Ministers’ Fraternal, Carey was invited to propose a topic for discussion. His proposal was to discuss whether the command given to the apostles to “teach all nations” was obligatory “on all succeeding ministers to the end of the world… ”. Carey believed that the Great Commission of Matthew 28: 18-20 was a binding command on every generation of Christians. But most British Baptists at that time held the hyper-Calvinist view that God would bring the nations to Christ without human help, and he was publicly rebuked by John Collett Ryland (the father of John Ryland Jr) who called the young pastor a “miserable enthusiast”.[3]

His missiological pamphlet An Enquiry Into The Obligations of Christians To Use Means For The Conversion of the Heathens was published in May 1792. In it, he said: “In respect to the danger of being killed by them, it is true that whoever does go must put his life in his hand, and not consult with flesh and blood.”[4] This quote from his seminal treatise on why Christians must engage in missions sums up the essence of the man who has been called “the father of modern missions”.

On May 30, 1792, following the publication of the pamphlet, Carey preached at the Friar Lane Baptist Chapel in Nottingham from Isaiah 54: 2-3 and exhorted the congregation to: “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.”[5]

The Particular Baptist Society for the Propagation of the Gospel Among the Heathen was formed in October 1792 with Carey, Andrew Fuller, John Ryland Jr and John Sutcliff as charter members. The society later became known as the Baptist Missionary Society (BMS) and, since 2000, it has been known as the BMS World Mission.

The society concerned itself with raising funds and deciding which regions of the world to focus on. It was decided that Carey would accompany Dr John Thomas, a visiting medical missionary from Calcutta (now Kolkata) who came under the aegis of the newfound Society, back to India. Calcutta had an established mission station that had been founded by J.L. Kiernander in 1758.[6] The Careys, Dr Thomas and his wife and daughter arrived at Calcutta in November 1793.[7]

Mudnabatty (1794-1800)

During the first year, Carey’s inclination for languages motivated the missionaries to make attempts to learn Bengali.[8]

To support the mission and his family, Carey got a job as a manager at an indigo factory owned by a friend of Thomas’ in Mudnabatty.[9] He spent six years there during which he formulated the principles for his missionary community – communal living, financial self-reliance, and the training of indigenous ministers. He also completed the first revision of the New Testament in Bengali, and founded a church at Mudnabatty.[10][11]

At a time when only children of a particular social class received education, Carey established a primary school in 1794 at his own expense and admitted any child who wished to learn without any discrimination based on caste.[12][13]

John Fountain arrived from England in 1796 and was assigned as a general assistant by the Society.[14][15] He was followed by William Ward, a printer, and Joshua Marshman, a schoolteacher, in 1799.

Economic reasons and hostilities from the British East India Company caused the fledgling mission to move their base from Mudnabatty to Serampore, 13 miles up the Hooghly River from Calcutta. Ward and Marshman had found a welcome and legal protection in the Dutch colony of Fredericksnagar in Serampore (now called Shrirampur – a city in the Hooghly district of West Bengal), thanks to the Dutch governor Ole Bie.

Carey joined Ward and Marshman in 1800, forming the “Serampore trio”. The mission station at Serampore was described by the English philanthropist and member of parliament William Wilberforce as “one of the chief glories” of the British nation.[16]

Serampore (1800 – 1834)

The mission moved to a large house which could accommodate the families and still have room for a print shop. Ward, the printer, was tasked with printing the Bible in Bengali. Fountain, with his knowledge of Bengali, was appointed librarian and oversaw the project. However, his services were cut short when he succumbed to dysentery on August 20, 1800, leaving behind his wife after just a year of marriage.[17]

The first translation of the entire Bible in Bengali was printed in 1801.

Carey was invited to teach Bengali at Fort William College in Calcutta. The college was founded by the British Governor General, Richard Wellesley, to educate civil servants. There, Carey was introduced to Sanskrit, the classical language which served as the root for many Indian vernacular languages. He was taught Sanskrit by one of his colleagues, Madan Mohan Tarkalankar. Carey served as a professor of Bengali, Sanskrit and Marathi at the college for  30 years.

While Carey learnt vernacular languages, Ward had to create punches for the type by hand, as these languages had never been printed before. Costly fonts of type were cast for many Indian languages.[18]

On the evening of  March 11, 1812, a fire broke out in the print shop. At midnight the roof caved in and the leaping flames consumed a polyglot dictionary, Scriptures in several native languages, Bengali and Sanskrit grammar texts, and 12,000 reams of paper. Fourteen special font typefaces also melted down. Marshman broke the news the next day to Carey in Calcutta. Stunned at first, Carey soon regained his composure and the duo is reported to have spent the day looking for replacement typefaces but returned empty-handed.[19]

Providentially, the press itself, situated in an adjoining building, and the punches and moulds for typecasting were found unscathed in the ruins. Six weeks later, the presses were turning out Scriptures in two languages and soon, support poured in by way of contributions and manpower.

Carey not only presented the Bible to Indians but also introduced native religious texts to the larger world. In collaboration with the Fort William College, he undertook the translation of the Hindu classics into English, beginning with the three-volume epic poem the Ramayana, of which he translated two.

In his lifetime, the mission printed and distributed the Bible in whole or in part in 44 languages and dialects. The entire Bible was available in Oriya, Marathi, Hindi, Assamese and Sanskrit, and selected portions in other dialects and languages. A true linguist, in 1805, Carey published the first-ever modern documentation on Marathi grammar​​​​​​​[20]and the first systematic compilation of Sanskrit grammar.  

His love for education and language ensured that the press also served primary and college- level students and the general public by printing textbooks, dictionaries, and classical literature.

Sati, the practice of a woman immolating herself on her dead husband’s cremation pyre was a social malaise which was enforced with fervour. Carey was moved at the plight of young women being pulled, weeping and howling, strapped and burnt alive against their will. He leveraged his influence as a professor at Fort William and persistently petitioned the Governor-General, joining hands with the social reformer, Raja Ram Mohan Roy. Carey collected data on sati and reported that nearly 300 widows were burnt alive around Calcutta and 10,000 in all of India within a short span of time. His 25-year untiring campaign bore fruit in 1828 when Lord Bentinck abolished sati in all of British India.

In 1818, the mission founded the Serampore College. The prospectus for the inaugural year written by Marshman was titled, “A College for the instruction of Asiatic Christian and other Youth in Eastern Literature and European Science”. Frederick VI, King of Denmark, granted a royal charter to the college in 1827. This was later confirmed by the Bengal Government Act, 1918 which forms the basis for the theological degrees awarded by the Senate of the Serampore College.  

Today, the theological university which holds affiliations for 65 colleges across the country [21] and a secular Arts, Sciences, and Commerce college accredited to the Kolkata University is among the oldest functional seats of learning in India.

Andrew Fuller, the secretary of the Society, died in 1815. William Carey had significant differences with his successor John Dyer, a bureaucrat. Carey formally severed ties with the Society he had founded and moved out to the college campus.

In 1818, Carey published Digdarshan in Bengali, the first Indian-language periodical and Samachar Darpan, a newspaper. He was also instrumental in bringing out the English periodical Friend of India that same year. It was later amalgamated with The Statesman.​​​​​​​[22]

Carey also pioneered the idea of a savings bank which he introduced at Serampore in 1819 to safeguard the poor from usurious moneylenders charging extremely high interest. Ten years later, William Bentinck, the Governor General, established a savings bank upon the same principle.[23]

His contributions to botany, including his introduction of the Linnaean system of plant organisation,[24] were recognised when a genus of flowering plants native to the Indian subcontinent was named Careya.[25]


Carey experienced tragedy during his early years in India when his five-year old son Peter died of dysentery in 1794. After the birth of another son in 1796, his wife Dorothy suffered a nervous breakdown from which she never recovered. She died on December 8, 1807.[26] On May 9, 1808 Carey married Charlotte Rumohr. They were happily married for 13 years before Charlotte too passed away. Two years after her death, Carey, now 62, married Grace Hughes, a widow.

Carey’s own sons Felix and Jabez followed in their father’s footsteps.[27]

Over 41 years of ministry from 1793, without a furlough, Carey donned multiple hats of a Baptist minister, educationist, social reformer, Bible translator, publisher-printer, botanist, and cultural anthropologist – all in his efforts to use “means for conversion”. He earned his title “the father of Bengali prose” for his contribution to the vernacular grammars, dictionaries and translations.[28]

His last years were spent revising his Bengali translation of the Bible, preaching, and teaching.[29] He died at his house in the Serampore College campus on June 9, 1834. His tomb still stands at the Serampore Mission Burial grounds with the epitaph, “A wretched, poor, and helpless worm, on thy kind arms I fall.”

On January 9, 1993, the government of India released a postal stamp in William Carey’s honour.


  1. ^ When Nichols died in 1779, Carey went to work for another local shoemaker, Thomas Old, and married Old’s sister-in-law, Dorothy Plackett, in 1781. Old died soon afterwards and Carey took over his business. It is believed that Carey also taught himself Hebrew, Italian, Dutch and French while making shoes. 
  2. ^ There were two groups in early Baptist life: the Particular Baptists and the General Baptists. The Particular Baptists adhered to the doctrine of a particular atonement—that Christ died only for an elect—and were strongly Calvinist (following the Reformation teachings of John Calvin) in orientation; the General Baptists held to the doctrine of a general atonement—that Christ died for all people and not only for an elect—and represented the more moderate Calvinism of Jacobus Arminius, a 17th-century Dutch theologian.  
  3. ^  “Missionaries You Should Know: William Carey”, accessed August 21, 2023,
  4. ^  William Carey, An Enquiry Into The Obligations of Christians To Use Means For The Conversion of the Heathens, 70, accessed August 18, 2023,
  5. ^  “Deathless Sermon”, accessed August 21, 2023,
  6. ^ M.A. Sherring, The History of Protestant Missions in India, ed. Edward Storrow. (London: The Religious Tract Society, 1884), 54, accessed August 21, 2023,
  7. ^ Dorothy Carey, pregnant with the Careys’ fourth son, refused to leave England and was only persuaded when Kitty, her sister, agreed to accompany her. But the captain of the English ship that they were on received word after departure that he could be violating the trade monopoly with the East India Company, and refused to convey missionaries. After setting sail from London in April, he left the Careys and Thomases on the Isle of Wight where Dorothy delivered her baby. It was June when Thomas found a Danish captain willing to give them passage.  
  8. ^ Carey, An Enquiry, 74. According to Carey, “It is well known to require no very extraordinary talents to learn, in the space of a year, or two at most, the language of any people upon earth.” 
  9. ^ Mudnabatty is a village 180 miles north of Kolkata in the Malda district. 
  10. ^ R. D. Woodall,“Friend and helpmate of William Carey, Anniversary of John Fountain”, The Christian No. 3998, September 12, 1946, accessed August 10, 2023,  
  11. ^  “Arrival in Calcutta”, accessed August 21, 2023,
  12. ^  George Smith, The Life of William Carey, D.D.: Shoemaker and Missionary, Professor of Sanskrit, Bengali, and Marathi in the College of Fort William, Calcutta. (Edinburgh: R & R Clark, 1885), 148, accessed September 7, 2023,
  13. ^ “Chapter VI: The First Native Converts and Christian Schools. 1800-1810”, accessed August 21, 2023,
  14. ^ The Particular Baptist Society for the Propagation of the Gospel Among the Heathen. 
  15. ^ Woodall, “Friend and helpmate”. 
  16. ^  “William Carey, missionary”, Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed August 14, 2023,
  17. ^ Woodall, “Friend and helpmate of William Carey, Anniversary of John Fountain”. 
  18. ^ . David Kopf, British Orientalism and the Renaissance: The Dynamics of Indian Modernization 1778-1835 (Calcutta: Firma K.L. Mukhopadhyay, 1969), 71, 78, accessed September 7, 2023, 
  19. ^ “Years of William Carey's Work Went Up in Flames”, accessed August 10, 2023,
  20. ^ William Carey, A Grammar of the Mahratta Language (Serampur: Serampore Mission Press, 1805), accessed September 7, 2023,
  21. ^ “List of the Colleges”, 
  22. ^ “The Legacy of William Carey”, The Sentinel (June 9, 2010), accessed August 11, 2023,
  23. ^   “The Legacy of William Carey”. 
  24. ^ “William Carey, A Missionary Who Transformed a Nation”, accessed August 14, 2023, 
  25. ^  James Culross, William Carey (New York: A.C. Armstrong & Son, 1882), 190. 
  26. ^  Kitty’s moving out after marriage to an East India Company official, the death of Peter, and the initial years of hardship took a toll on Dorothy. Her condition worsened to a point that Carey had to often confine her to a locked room.
  27. ^ Felix, however, abandoned his missionary position in Burma in 1814 and became an ambassador to the king of Burma. At his son’s career change, Carey is said to have remarked, “Felix is shrivelled from a missionary into an ambassador.”
  28. ^ Encyclopaedia Britannica, “William Carey, missionary”. 
  29. ^  “Years of William Carey's Work Went Up in Flames”. In his sunset years when a visiting minister asked about his hope of a future world, he is said to have replied, “I cannot say I have any very rapturous feelings; but I am confident in the promises of the Lord and wish to leave my eternal interests in his hands.” 

Philip Malayil

The writer is the coordinator for the South Asia region for


“Arrival in Calcutta”. Accessed August 21, 2023.

Allen, Scott. “William Carey, A Missionary Who Transformed a Nation”. Mission Frontiers (September-October 2011). Accessed August 14, 2023.

Carey, William. An Enquiry Into The Obligations of Christians To Use Means For The Conversion of the Heathens.

Carey, William. A Grammar of the Marathi Language. Serampur: Serampore Mission Press, 1805.….

“Chapter VI: The First Native Converts and Christian Schools. 1800-1810”. Accessed August 21, 2023.

Culross, James. William Carey. New York: A.C. Armstrong & Son, 1882.

Encyclopaedia Britannica. “William Carey, missionary”. Accessed September 7, 2023.

Finn, Nathan A. “Missionaries You Should Know: William Carey”. Accessed August 21, 2023.…/.

Haq, Aziz-ul. “The Legacy of William Carey”. The Sentinel (Jun 2010). Accessed August 11, 2023.

Kopf, David. British Orientalism and the Renaissance: The Dynamics of Indian Modernization 1778-1835. Calcutta: Firma K.L. Mukhopadhyay, 1969.

“List of the Colleges”. Accessed August 11, 2023.

Sherring, M. A. The History of Protestant Missions in India from their Commencement in 1706 to 1881. Revised by Edward Storrow. London: The Religious Tract Society, 1884.….

Smith, George. The Life of William Carey, D.D.: Shoemaker and Missionary, Professor of Sanskrit, Bengali, and Marathi in the College of Fort William, Calcutta. Edinburgh: R & R Clark, 1885.

Tucker, Ruth A.
“William Carey’s Less-Than-Perfect Family Life”. Accessed August 14, 2023.

Wikipedia. “Deathless Sermon”. Accessed August 21, 2023.

Woodall, R.D. “Friend and Helpmate of William Carey, Anniversary of John Fountain”. The Christian, no. 3998 ( September 12, 1946). Accessed August 10, 2023.

Graves, Dan. “Years of William Carey's Work Went Up in Flames”. Accessed August 10, 2023.