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William Carey and his Books

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Date June 16, 2011

This year sees the 250th anniversary of the birth of the pioneer missionary William Carey. On Monday June 6 at the Evangelical Library around 40 people gathered for the Library’s Annual Lecture and to hear Pastor Austin Walker of Crawley give an interesting and stimulating paper on ‘William Carey and his Books’.

He began by pointing out that as far as books are concerned Carey’s main pre-occupation was with translating the Bible. In this he was prolific. Timothy George has said he must be put in ‘the front ranks of Bible translators in Christian history alongside Jerome, Wycliffe, Luther, Tyndale and Erasmus.’ We were then given an overview of the subject under four main headings with a closing lesson.

1. Some of the books Carey produced besides his translations of the Bible
When translating the Bible into Bengali Carey came to see the importance of the underlying Sanskrit language, which he proceeded to master, producing a grammar, a dictionary and a Bible in it as he had done for Bengali and would also do for Marathi. He went on to produce grammars in seven more Indian languages! In addition to the grammars and dictionaries he also provided prose books in Bengali for his students to read (he took up a college teaching post for various reasons in 1801) and also for children in the mission’s elementary schools. Together with his son Felix and some of the pundits he produced some sixty prose books: simple stories, fables, essays, a version of Pilgrim’s Progress, books on Indian history, a chemistry book, as well as the translation of the Sanskrit classics. There was also no end of evangelistic material of various sorts in Bengali and English (aimed at those settled in India). Clearly Carey ‘was not a man who ever let the grass grow under his feet’! The famous statement about his being a plodder was then quoted. The question of why was he so single-minded was tackled in the rest of the paper.

2. What William Carey believed about ‘the Book,’ the Bible
Here we were given something of the background to Carey’s position – his thoroughly orthodox view of the Bible, his conversion and his confidence in the power of the naked Word to convert sinners.

3. Some of the books that shaped Carey’s theology, mission principles and translation priorities
We then stepped further back to consider this matter focusing on his Calvinistic and Baptist convictions and the founding of ‘The Particular (or Calvinistic) Baptist Society for Propagating the Gospel among the Heathen’. Reference was made to a variety of books – Pilgrim’s Progres, Defoe’s Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe and the Life of Christopher Columbus as a child. Then, significantly, Help to Zion’s Travellers, by Robert Hall Sr. (1728-1791) – ‘probably the most important extra-biblical book that Carey read’ (Peter J Morden). Carey often re-read it. There were also Fuller’s Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation of 1785, many works by Jonathan Edwards, especially his Life of Brainerd (required reading and re-reading for Serampore missionaries). Also, of course, the narratives of the voyages of Captain Cook.

4. Carey’s Enquiry
The final section considered and summarised Carey’s little book arguing the case for taking the gospel to the heathen, arguments so familiar to us now that it is hard to imagine there was a time when they were not widely accepted.

5. Lesson
We closed with an appropriate exhortation to read the Scriptures and to make good use of good Christian books.It was encouraging that two Indian brothers (Chako and Joseph) were able to visit us, being in the country at present and based in Basildon.

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