Essay / On This Day

William Carey’s Birthday, and India’s

Today (August 17) is the birthday of William Carey (1761-1834), whose name is “synonymous with the heroic age of the Protestant missionary movement” (according to Timothy George). And the birthday falls two days after Indian Independence Day (August 15, 1947).

The case for William Carey’s impact on India has been put maximally by Ruth and Vishal Mangalwadi in their book The Legacy of William Carey: A Model for the Transformation of a Culture. They begin with an imaginary scene: a quizmaster at the final round of the All India Universities competition asks, “Who was William Carey?” A science student raises his hand and identifies Carey as a botanist, after whom an Indian eucalyptus was named, who introduced the Linnaean system to gardening, who published the first books on plant biology in India, and who did it all from theological conviction about the goodness of creation.

The next student is an industrialist who recounts Carey’s contributions to indigenous paper milling. The next is an economics student who tells of Carey’s introduction of savings banks to India as part of his campaign against usury, and his land-use policies.

And so it goes: A med student describes his dealings with leprosy, a printer describes his publishing, an agriculture student describes Carey’s founding the Agri-Horticultural Society in the 1820’s, etc. Astronomy, library science, forest conservation, women’s rights, human rights, and the seeds of the Indian Renaissance.

One of the students who speaks up attempts to catalog Carey’s contributions to Indian literature, but time fails him: Carey’s translations of Indian religious classics into English, a pioneer project in the decades when the more typical attitude was the one voiced by Macaulay, that “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.” Carey also, of course, translated the Bible into numerous Indian languages and produced a host of reference works; he held a professorship of Bengali, Sanskrit, and Marathi at Fort William College in Calcutta. The list goes on and on.

In the popular mind, Carey is “just a missionary,” and there’s no doubt that everything he did was driven by his strategic thinking about getting the gospel to India. His overall goals are clearly stated in his famous enquiry. The Mangalwadis certainly don’t ignore that evangelistic project, but their brief book on Carey is designed to highlight Carey as an example of how the gospel can transform a culture, affirming every good in the culture, and calling everything before the bar of biblical judgment.

So the Mangalwadis begin with maximal claims about Carey’s influence on the country. Historically, there is no disentangling modern India from the work of William Carey, and Vishal and Ruth Mangalwadi make a great case for the transformative character of Carey’s work.

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