Suppose a company of serious Christians, ministers and private persons, were to form themselves into a society…
For all Protestant Christianity’s concern for right doctrine, it had a pretty rusty record in terms of mission during its first 200 years. But William Carey, ostensibly the father of Protestant missions, helped to mobilise parachurch groups, sparking a great age of mission.
Not long before William Carey moved to India in 1793, he published a booklet, An Enquiry into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens. It’s brimming with equal parts Enlightenment pragmatism and gospel compulsion. His point: don’t just pray for change, make the change! Carey was a ‘particular’ Baptist, a Calvinist, yet he saw no clash between God’s sovereignty and human endeavour. The tagline of his most famous sermon, on Isaiah 54, is ‘Expect great things, attempt great things’. We ought to use ‘means’ — every practical and material pursuit at our disposal — to help bring in the Kingdom of God.
I guess you’re reasonably familiar with the ‘Great Commission’ of Matthew 28:16-20 — yet, prior to Carey, few seem to have taken this as an incentive for mission. Jesus’ commands were just to the apostles, weren’t they? But in his booklet, Carey takes those verses and turns on the heat: Your churches are ‘baptising’, aren’t they? Your churches are ‘teaching’, aren’t they? Jesus is ‘with you always’, isn’t he? So why shouldn’t you also go and make disciples of all nations?
But aren’t there enough non-Christians right here in our own backyard? To this objection, Carey replies that the gospel is already present:
Our own countrymen have the means of grace, and may attend on the word preached if they choose it. They have the means of knowing the truth, and faithful ministers are placed in almost every part of the land.
The more pressing question is, What about everyone else? What about all the places where there’s not much in the way of leaders, or training, or theological colleges, or Bible translations? Carey urges us to make ‘every possible exertion to introduce the gospel amongst them’.
One of the unique features of the booklet is Carey’s use of facts and figures — in fact, a whole quarter of the booklet is made up of tables listing the populations of the nations of the world. Carey intends that the sheer numbers speak for themselves: ‘All these things are loud calls to Christians’. How will all those people hear?
Carey then turns to a series of pragmatic questions.
- Aren’t those nations too far away? Of course not; modern transport can get you there!
- Aren’t those people too uncivilised? Only if you’re attached to your own creature comforts!
- But isn’t it too dangerous? Not unless you consider death the end! Besides, the people who ‘the heathen’ get miffed at are not so much the Christians as the colonial idiots.
- And won’t it be too hard to survive? Well, you don’t have to go alone! Unlike earlier Protestant missionaries, like the Moravians, Carey was committed to mobilising teams of Christians in support of one another.
- But they speak other languages… To this Carey writes plainly, ‘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…’
Before sketching out his plan for missionary societies, Carey exhorts us,
We must not be contented however with praying, without exerting ourselves in the use of means for obtaining of those things we pray for. Were the children of light but as wise in their generation as the children of this world they would stretch every nerve to gain so glorious a prize, nor ever imagine that it was to be obtained in any other way.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Don’t pray the prayer unless you’re prepared to be its answer!
Carey’s little booklet has retained all the strength of its practical persuasion. Many of his points ring true for Tamie and I. For some time now, the question for us has been, Why not go? Stay tuned…
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.