Who: William Carey, British missionary to India, known as “the father of modern missions.” He is also noted for his linguistic works and Bible translations in Bengali, Marathi, and several other languages.
When: 1792, one year before William Carey left for his mission field in India.
This pamphlet did lead directly to the founding of the Baptist Missionary Society. Encyclopedia Brittanica calls this pamphlet “the charter of Protestant missions.” That is a just assessment as it concerns certain mainstream and evangelical Protestant groups. However, this can’t be stated without giving due honor to Lutheran pioneers, such as Hans Egede and Ziegenbalg, or the Moravians, such as Leonard Dober; all of these preceded Carey by some decades. In 1710, August Francke was training a ten-year-old Count Zinzendorf, circulating missionary newsletters for the Danish Tranquebar Mission, and printing Bibles in various languages, more than fifty years before Carey was born.
While it’s more often referenced than read today, Carey’s arguments are surprisingly current and readable.
Carey argues first that the Great Commission is Christ’s mandate to all his disciples, not just the Eleven (Section I); then he gives a summary of how Christianity grew through missions work, in the Book of Acts as well as over the centuries (Section II); the third section summarizes the state of missions in his day; the fourth section debunks a series of objections in the way of missionary service; and, the last section explains the duties of all Christians to further missions work by prayer and finances.
The first part of Carey’s pamphlet argues persuasively that the commissions of Jesus apply to all Christians, not just the apostles. His arguments in this section are timeless and should be discussed even at the present time. Jesus has not repealed or amended the Great Commission; it stands binding on all his followers.
Carey also has some great reminders about missionary hardship. (He encourages his readers that the invention of mariner’s compass has made travel much more certain!) He points out with conviction—Livingstone noted the same in Africa—that traders will undergo any hardship for the single goal of riches; Christians with a single goal should likewise “act with all their might,” without fear, in the pursuit of this all-encompassing goal. (See quote below from p. 82.)
It is difficult to make heads or tails of Section III, Carey’s survey of the state of world missions, which is replete with obsolete place names; even the data itself is questionable. Section II might also seem superfluous to many readers, although the history itself is well done.
“Where a command exists nothing can be necessary to render it binding but a removal of those obstacles which render obedience impossible, and these are removed already.” (On the Great Commission, p. 11)
“After all, the uncivilized state of the heathen, instead of affording an objection against preaching the gospel to them, ought to furnish an argument for it.” (p. 69)
“It is inconsistent for ministers to please themselves with thoughts of a numerous auditory, cordial friends, a civilized country, legal protection, affluence, splendour, or even a competency. The flights, and hatred of men, and even pretended friends, gloomy prisons, and tortures, the society of barbarians of uncouth speech, miserable accommodations in wretched wildernesses, hunger, and thirst, nakedness, weariness, and painfulness, hard work, and but little worldly encouragement, should rather be the objects of their expectation. ” (p. 72)
“When a trading company have obtained their charter they usually go to its utmost limits. … They cross the widest and most tempestuous seas, and encounter the most unfavourable climates; they introduce themselves into the most barbarous nations, and sometimes undergo the most affecting hardship. … Christians are a body whose truest interest lies in the exaltation of the Messiah’s kingdom. Their charter is very extensive, their encouragements exceeding great, and the returns promised infinitely superior to all the gains of the most lucrative fellowship. Let then every one in his station consider himself as bound to act with all his might, and in every possible way for God.” (p. 82)