Essay / On This Day

Carey’s Enquiry, May 12, 1792

It had one of those classic self-expositing eighteenth-century titles: “An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens,” and tacked onto that was an even more elaborate sub-title: “in which the Religious State of the Different Nations of the World, the Success of Former Undertakings, and the Practicability of Further Undertakings, are Considered.”

Of the forty-one words in that title, the most important one is: MEANS. Carey was presenting his case to a church that understood well enough that the heathens needed to be converted, and knew that there were lots them, and that Christianity had spread in various ways in the past. But William Carey decided that it would be a good idea to use some, well, you know, some means. As in, do something. Go over there, do some preaching. Use some means.

When Carey made an argument like that in a gathering of ministers, one elderly member is said to have interrupted him with the reproach: “Young man, sit down! You are an enthusiast. When God pleases to convert the heathen, he’ll do it without consulting you or me.” No means; no.

So the Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens was an argument for action. It’s a classic short book, and I would declare it to be mandatory reading except for the fact that most of Carey’s arguments are so persuasive and influential that most evangelicals have already heard them all, nearly word for word in some cases.

The first chapter, for instance, takes off from the great commission, asking essentially “what part of GO don’t you understand?” Eighteenth-century Protestants had many objections to world missions, but the one that Carey especially took aim at was the idea that the great commission was only intended for the first generation of Apostles, not subsequent generations.

There seems… to be an opinion existing in the minds of some, that because the apostles were extraordinary officers and have no proper successors, and because many things which were right for them to do would be utterly unwarrantable for us, therefore it may not be immediately binding on us to execute the commission, though it was so upon them.

Carey dismantles this facile objection by considering the full commission in context: If the commission was temporary, was the authority of Christ over all things likewise temporary? What about the command to baptize? Line by line, Carey shows that the Lord’s commission to his apostles is still in effect, and binding for today. This first chapter also takes apart numerous other objections to the theological imperative for mission.

In chapter two, Carey sketches the entire history of missionary activity, starting in the book of Acts and moving down to the middle of the eighteenth century. The third chapter is all statistics: charts and tables showing the population of the world and the number of souls to be reached with the gospel. Once he has convinced his readers that the task is vast in scope, he spends the next chapter arguing that the great difficulty of the task is no reason for leaving it undone. It may require learning languages and facing mortal danger, but it always has.

The final chapter is a practical plan for organizing a missionary society among the Baptists, arranging for its funding and staffing, and getting to work.

A pdf of Carey’s Enquiry can be found at the website of William Carey University.

Share this essay [social_share/]