William Carey, Modern Missions, and the Moravian Influence

By Schattschneider, David A. | International Bulletin of Missionary Research, January 1998 | Go to article overview

William Carey, Modern Missions, and the Moravian Influence


Schattschneider, David A., International Bulletin of Missionary Research


In his exuberant biography of William Carey, George Smith refers to Carey as "the Founder and Father of Modern Missions" and places him at the end of a list of English worthies beginning with Chaucer (the father of English verse) and just after Newton (the father of English science).' Historians of the Moravians have occasionally been tempted to a similar exuberance. J. E. Hutton, in his otherwise generally reliable account of Moravian mission work, issues this introductory invitation to his readers: "Let us haste at once to the fountainhead, and follow the romantic story of the eighteenth century pioneers."2 His pioneers were largely Moravians, although he also included Carey.

The claims of fatherhood and pioneer status put forth by these early twentieth-century historians have been tempered by more recent scholars. Stephen Neill in his History of Christianity in India, 1707-1858, after reviewing the events of Carey's early career, notes, "English writers have tended to exaggerate the importance of these events. This was not the beginning of modern missions, not even the beginning of Protestant missions .. [it meant that] the immense forces of Anglo-Saxon Christianity would now be released for missionary service; this was significance enough. "3 As Christopher Smith has recently claimed, "A scholarly quest for the 'historical Carey' is long overdue. In spite of the fact that scores of biographies have been written about him, layers of popular mythology still remain to be cut through before the actual contours of his career as a pre-Victorian mission leader will be uncovered."4

The contribution of the Moravians, beginning half a century before Carey, was to produce a shift of emphasis of missionary awareness within Protestantism. As Kenneth Scott Latourette suggests, "Here was a new phenomenon in the expansion of Christianity, an entire community, of families as well as of the unmarried, devoted to the propagation of the faith. In its singleness of aim it resembled some of the monastic orders of earlier centuries. . . a fellowship of Christians, of laity and clergy, of men and women, marrying and rearing families . . . but with the spread of the Christian message as a major objective, not of a minority of the membership, but of the group as a whole."5

The Evangelical Network

Rather than continue to debate who was first to do what, a more productive approach is one suggested by Susan O'Brien in her 1986 article "A Transatlantic Community of Saints: The Great Awakening and the First Evangelical Network, 1735-1755." According to O'Brien's analysis, participants in revivals in America, England, and Scotland were all connected with each other through the exchange of personal letters, the public reading of letters, the publishing of newspapers and magazines, and the organizing of coordinated prayer days. O'Brien's concern is that historians move beyond studies of only local or national revivals to what she terms "the history of connection, interconnection, and direct assistance between evangelicals in different countries and across generations."6

The idea of an evangelical network, with its suggestion of points of contact among otherwise separate movements, is useful in examining Carey and the Moravians. In their contacts they brought together strands of the English Evangelical Revival and German Pietism, providing points of contact between these two movements so essential to the beginnings of Protestant missions.

The life of William Carey is so well known that only the briefest summary is necessary here. Born in the village of Paulerspury, Northamptonshire, in 1761, Carey lived in England for thirty-two years and traveled little. In 1793, after a five-month voyage, he arrived in India, where he lived the remaining forty years of hiS life. Never returning home, he died in Serampore in 1834. Despite only a very modest formal education, Carey was driven by a thirst for knowledge throughout his life. …

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