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Carey, Williamlocked

  • Brian Stanley

William Carey (1761–1834)

by Robert Home, 1811 [with his chief pandit, Mritunjaya]

original owned by BMS World Mission, PO Box 49, Didcot, OX11 8XA, England

Carey, William (1761–1834), orientalist and missionary, was born on 17 August 1761 at Paulerspury, Northamptonshire, the eldest of the five children of Edmund Carey and Elizabeth Wells. His father, originally a weaver, became in 1767 parish clerk and schoolmaster, which gave Carey access to a wide range of books. At the age of about fourteen he was apprenticed to a shoemaker in the hamlet of nearby Piddington. Through the influence of a fellow apprentice, he began to attend a dissenting prayer-meeting, and, from 1779, the Independent (Congregationalist) chapel in the next village, Hackleton. He married Dorothy Plackett (1756–1807), of Hackleton, on 10 June 1781. In 1783, having been persuaded of the principles of the Baptist denomination, he was baptized by John Ryland (1753–1825), in Northampton. While continuing to practise as a shoemaker he preached to the Baptist congregation at Earls Barton, near Northampton, and in his spare time studied Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. In 1785 he moved to a residential Baptist pastorate a few miles away at Moulton, though still needing to augment his income by schoolmastering and shoe making.

Carey's interest in the non-European world was awakened by reading (probably in 1784 or 1785) the published accounts of the south sea voyages of Captain James Cook. He became intensely concerned for the spiritual condition of the populations currently being opened up to European eyes. While at Moulton he began work on a pamphlet urging the obligation of Christians to spread the gospel overseas, which he completed following his move in 1789 to a pastorate in Leicester. The pamphlet, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens, was published in 1792. Although it sold poorly it led a number of the Particular (Calvinistic) Baptist ministers of the east midlands to join Carey in founding the Particular Baptist Society for Propagating the Gospel among the Heathen, at Kettering in October 1792. This society, later known as the Baptist Missionary Society, was the first evangelical missionary society, and it stimulated the formation of similar societies in Britain, Europe, and North America. In January 1793 Carey offered to go as a missionary to Bengal to accompany John Thomas, an East India Company surgeon who intended to return to India as a missionary. Thomas and Carey and his family arrived in Bengal in November 1793. Exhaustion of funds soon compelled Carey to accept a position as manager of an indigo factory, owned by George Udny, north of Malda. He learned the Bengali and Hindi languages, and began to preach in the vernacular and to translate the Bible into Bengali.

In January 1800 Carey moved to the Danish settlement of Serampore, north of Calcutta, following the refusal of the East India Company to grant permission to reside in its territory to a party of missionary recruits who had just arrived in Bengal. Among the recruits were Joshua Marshman (1768–1837) and William Ward (1769–1823). The ‘Serampore trio’ of Carey, Marshman, and Ward built up the Baptist work at Serampore to a level which attracted attention in Britain as well as in India. Further mission centres were established in other parts of Bengal and northern India. The first Hindu convert, Krishna Pal, was baptized at Serampore in December 1800. Although more than 1400 baptisms had been recorded by 1821, the rate of conversion was disappointing; the caste system proved a more formidable obstacle to evangelism than Carey had anticipated. His later years at Serampore were marred by deteriorating relationships with the Baptist Missionary Society in London, which culminated in the separation of the Serampore mission from the society in 1827.

Although the Serampore missionaries invested heavily in education, Carey's principal contribution was not to educational endeavour but to Bible translation and language study. Carey and his Indian pandits were responsible for the translation of the entire Bible into six Indian languages—Bengali, Oriya, Sanskrit, Hindi, Marathi, and Assamese—and of parts of it into a further twenty-nine languages. Carey also produced grammars of Bengali (1801), Marathi (1805), Sanskrit (1806), Punjabi (1812), Telinga (1814), and Bhotia (1826), and he compiled dictionaries of Marathi (1810), Bengali (1815), and Bhotia (1826). With Marshman he also began to translate the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, into English; three volumes had been published by 1810. He was working on a universal dictionary of all Indian languages derived from Sanskrit when in 1812 a fire destroyed all his manuscripts for this work and others besides.

Carey's expertise in Indian languages was recognized by his appointment in 1801 as professor of Sanskrit, Marathi, and Bengali at the East India Company's Fort William College. He was also awarded in 1807 the degree of DD by Brown University, USA. His role at Fort William College helped to give the Baptist mission a more secure status in the period before 1813, during which any activity by the missionaries within the company's territory was illegal. His encouragement of the Bengali language was of permanent significance in establishing a corpus of Bengali literature and it contributed to a Bengali cultural renaissance. Carey was also a keen botanist. He edited for publication William Roxburgh's Hortus Bengaliensis (a catalogue of the plants in the East India Company's Calcutta garden), published in 1814, and Roxburgh's Flora Indica (1832).

Carey's domestic life was marked by tragedy. Dorothy Carey had been unwilling to go to India, and in Bengal she developed acute mental illness. They had seven children. Two daughters died in infancy in England; their third son, Peter, died at Mudnabati in 1794. Four sons—Felix Carey, William, Jabez, and Jonathan—survived. Dorothy died at Serampore on 8 December 1807. In the following year, on 9 May 1808, Carey married Charlotte Rumohr, daughter of a Danish count; she died on 20 May 1821. Carey married his third wife, Grace Hughes, a widow, in 1823; she died on 22 July 1835. Carey himself died on 9 June 1834 at Serampore, where he is buried.


  • S. Pearce Carey, William Carey, DD, fellow of Linnaean Society [1923]
  • E. D. Potts, British Baptist missionaries in India, 1793–1837 (1967)
  • B. Stanley, The history of the Baptist Missionary Society, 1792–1992 (1992)
  • M. Drewery, William Carey: shoemaker and missionary (1978)
  • E. Carey, Memoir of William Carey (1836)
  • J. C. Marshman, The life and times of Carey, Marshman and Ward, 2 vols. (1859)


  • Bristol Baptist College
  • Linn. Soc., drawings
  • N. Yorks. CRO, letter-books and journals
  • Regent's Park College, Oxford, Angus Library, corresp.; corresp. and papers; family corresp.
  • Lpool RO, corresp. with William Roscoe
  • Northants. RO, letters to John Ryland
  • U. Edin. L., corresp. with Nathaniel Wallich


  • R. Home, oils, 1811, Baptist Missionary Society, Didcot, Oxon. [see illus.]
  • R. Home, portrait, 1811, Regent's Park College, Oxford
  • W. H. Worthington, line engraving, pubd 1813 (after R. Home), BM, NPG
  • J. Jenkins, stipple, pubd 1836 (after R. Home), BM, NPG
  • J. Jenkins, line engraving, pubd 1839 (after R. Home), BM, NPG
  • stipple, BM
  • stipple (after R. Home), BM, NPG