By C.J. Moore
Calvinism. Unfortunately, that word—a sour one to many—has been misunderstood and mischaracterized for far too long and by far too many people. The term, itself, is ratherloaded with various meanings, some even saying that Calvinism—because of its emphasis on the doctrines of predestination and election in particular—is inherently anti-missions. 1 After all, how can one who thinks God to be sovereign over all of salvation be properly motivated to make the gospel known to the lost without partiality? Yet, when it comes to the famed “Father of Modern Missions,” William Carey’s theology 2 was unashamedly Calvinistic. In fact, Carey’s warm and evangelical Calvinism was a response to the anti-mission sentiment of his day, whether of a hyper-Calvinistic or eschatological nature. Surprisingly, and perhaps defensively, some scholars have written of a supposed Arminianism in William Carey’s theology; from the evidence available, nothing could seem to be further from the truth. In what follows, my aim is to prove that, showing Carey’s Calvinism in his writings, associations, denomination, and influences.
Sadly, Carey did not write much in the English language. However, evidence of his Calvinism can be seen both explicitly and implicitly in his writings. First to consider is his main work, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens. While Carey does not explicitly mention Calvinism in this short book, he does summarize the work (in the fifth section) with two words: pray and work. These two words would become foundational to Carey’s ministry overseas. The first word is most important. Carey believed that without the Holy Spirit’s work in missions, all his “work” would “be ineffectual.” 3 For their work to succeed, Carey believed the sovereign God had to act; so, he needed to pray. Brian Stanley writes,
“The fifth and final section of the Enquiry hinged in classic moderate Calvinist fashion on the necessary connection between prayer and responsible Christian action… Divine sovereignty demanded human means; prayer required action; obligation called for obedience.” 4 Conversions would only come from the “divine blessing” of God. 5
Moreover, Carey wrote of his hope that a mission society would form “amongst the particular Baptist denomination, of which denomination he had said sometime before… was his denomination.” 6 Carey belonged to this Calvinistic branch of Baptists, not the Arminian (or “general”) branch. 7 Like Fuller’s Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation, Carey wrote An Enquiry as a response to the hyper-Calvinism of his day. 8 Though God is sovereign over man’s salvation (i.e., the “end”), this does not excuse man from evangelistic work, which God is also sovereign over (i.e., the “means”).
In letters from his later years, Carey shows a consistent Calvinism. There was no wavering in his conviction concerning the sovereignty of God. James Beck writes on this:
Carey never strayed far from his Calvinistic roots when reflecting on his God of providence. God was a God of order and control. Even the smallest of details did not escape God’s attention or care… At times Carey felt “tossed up and down on the Waves of Providence,” but never did he fail to put his trust in the one who tossed the waves. 9
Entering his fourth year of ministry in India, Carey notes that he was able to persevere because he trusted that “[God’s] glorious designs [would] undoubtedly be answered.” 10 Two years after this, Carey explicitly mentions Calvinism, when he writes: “Calvinists… have peace in afflictions and I think peace which is built on a surer foundation.” 11 When facing afflictions such as unexpected death on the mission field, Carey often responded with the following words: “I am dumb with silence because the Lord has done it.” 12 Even beyond basic, soteriological implications, Carey had a high view of God’s sovereignty in general. The words on Carey’s tombstone, requested in writing by him, reveal a “Calvinistic conviction of personal unworthiness,” especially in light of an omnipotent and sovereign God. 13 Those words were thus: “O guilt weak and helpless worm, On thy kind arms I fall; Be thou my strength and righteousness, My Jesus—and my all.”
Carey’s “deathless sermon,” preached on May 31, 1792 at a Particular Baptist meeting, is often mentioned in the secondary source material available. While no manuscript exists of the sermon, it is known that Carey preached on Isaiah 54:1-2. Much like An Enquiry, this sermon shows Carey’s understanding that man must work, but he must also pray to the God who can bless that work with fruit. Bruce Nicholls writes that this “sermon reflects Carey’s confidence in the sovereignty of God and his love for the world and his own certainty of the need to use every possible means to proclaim the gospel worldwide.” 14 Carey’s two sermonic points validate this claim: (1) “Expect great things,” and (2) “Attempt great things.” Many writers have added the phrases “from God” and “to God.” However, these phrases are not mentioned in the earliest references to this sermon. Timothy George believes that Carey did not have to add phrases like these because his belief in God’s sovereignty could be assumed. 15 Again, he was an unashamed Calvinist; his audience would have known this.
When writing the Serampore Form of Agreement in 1805, Carey and others solidified their Calvinism in writing. From this, all could rest assured of Carey’s theology, particularly the at-home supporters of the BMS who would send future missionaries to India. Finn notes that prayer “was an integral part in the Serampore Trio’s missionary strategy… They included fervent prayer [toward a sovereign God], the kind they believed David Brainerd modeled.” 16 Most important is Carey’s view of election set forth in that agreement. Carey wrote, “[We] are firmly persuaded that Paul might plant and Apollos water, in vain, in any part of the world, did not God give the increase. We are sure that only those who are ordained to eternal life will believe, and that God alone can add to the church such as shall be saved.” 17 In Carey’s eyes, the only converts they would see would be those whom God had elected to believe. Though he and others were doing the work, it was not they who would be adding members to the church; it was God—the one who saves.
Carey’s Associations and Denomination
As the old saying goes, “You are who you hang out with.” If this is true, then Carey was a Calvinist, for he most associated himself with other Calvinists, namely Andrew Fuller, John Sutcliff, John Ryland, Jr., and Samuel Pearce. Terry Carter writes:
Considering the company he kept, William Carey was undoubtedly a Calvinist but not in the strict variety of John Gill. Carey inherited and embraced an evangelical Calvinism, which accepted the five points of Calvinism but with an evangelical flare that allowed bold and intentional invitations to sinners to accept the gospel truth believing that they are capable of responding. 18
Rarely, if ever, did Carey mention any disagreement with his friends’ soteriology. Quite the contrary, he unabashedly committed himself to these men and their Particular Baptist, Calvinistic theology. Carey, writing of his ordination in a Baptist newspaper, mentioned each of the following men and their roles: John Ryland, Jr. who “prayed the ordination prayer”; John Sutcliff who “delivered a very solemn charge from Acts 6:4”; Samuel Pearce, who “preached from Galatians 6:14”; and Andrew Fuller, who “delivered an excellent address to the people from Ephesians 5:2.” 19 The last man mentioned, Andrew Fuller, wrote one of the most groundbreaking texts in the Calvinist and hyper-Calvinist debate. The already mentioned Gospel Worthy taught that though man has the moral inability to believe in God (i.e., total depravity), he does have the natural ability to do so. To overcome this moral inability, God must supernaturally regenerate man, and He chooses to do so through the means of gospel proclamation. 20 This book was desperately needed in a context where the “hyper-Calvinism of the day was more than capable of turning the sovereignty of God into a pretext for doing nothing.” 21 Terry Carter notes that “Carey was a Calvinist, but many other Baptist Calvinists at the time would not have dared such a thing [i.e., evangelism to all].” 22 Thankfully, a few other Baptists did dare to dream with Carey.
In light of hyper-Calvinism’s presence within their own denomination, one might think Carey and his friends would establish some new denomination or find some other way to separate themselves from their counterparts; however, they did not. They believed their denomination had become theologically—and more so, practically—lacking. So, they sought to change it, while retaining the Calvinistic identity that came with being a Particular Baptist. Timothy George writes, “Carey, Fuller, Ryland, Jr., John Sutcliff, and Samuel Pearce all belonged to this tradition [of Particular Baptists]. They were happy to call themselves Calvinists. They affirmed without reservation what Fuller called ‘the discriminating doctrines of grace.’” 23 Contrarily, the Calvinism (or hyper-Calvinism) of that day was “a harsh Calvinism that emphasized the sovereignty of God and the hopelessness of the non-elect as ‘foreordained to condemnation, whose names were left out of the book of life.’” 24 For Carey and his friends to fulfill their dream of taking the gospel to the nations, “A new kind of Calvinism would have to evolve.” 25 In some sense then, Carey, Fuller, and the others started a true reformation within their own denomination because they were unashamed of their Calvinistic identity. They did not have to become something new. Therefore, they rightly named their society after their denomination, declaring for the world—both then and now—to see that the founders of the modern missionary movement were indeed Calvinists.
When one reads the words of Carey, it quickly becomes clear that a few men—outside of his closest friends—impacted him the most: John Flavel, Jonathan Edwards, and Robert Hall. As can be seen in their writing, each of these men was a Calvinist, and Carey read their works often. In his journal, Carey notes on three separate occasions that he had been reading Flavel’s work, The Mystery of Providence, which surely helped Carey faced constant difficulties. 26 Carey believed in a God who was providential over both the good and bad in life, as laid out in Flavel’s book. 27 Carey also had a love for Jonathan Edwards—the real frontrunner of evangelical Calvinism—as Eustace Carey notes: “Before Mr. Carey left England, he was deeply imbued with North American theology. President Edwards, its great master, was his admired author.” 28 Carey mentions in his journal that he had read two sermons of Edwards: “The Most High a Prayer-Hearing God,” 29 and “The Manner in which the Salvation of the Soul is to be Sought.” 30 As well, Carey often referenced Edwards’ work on redemption, which includes a section on the proclamation of the redemptive message. 31
Perhaps more than any other book, Carey was deeply affected by Robert Hall’s Help to Zion’s Travelers. Tom Hicks says that Carey actually became a Calvinist through the influence of Thomas Skinner, who “gave him a copy of Help to Zion’s Travelers by Robert Hall.” 32 Carey loved “those doctrines” contained in Hall’s book, which were “the doctrines of grace, that system of theology which exalts the sovereignty of God in the salvation of sinners.” 33 Hall argues in this book that man need not prove his election to earn a hearing of the gospel. At the same time, he confirms belief in unconditional election, which is “God’s choosing persons in Christ Jesus, or setting them apart as in connexion [sic] with him, to salvation, through sanctification of the Spirit, and belief of the truth.” 34 Speaking of Hall’s book, Carey said, “I do not remember ever to have read any book with such raptures as I did that. If it was poison, as some then said, it was so sweet to me that I drank it greedily to the bottom of the cup; and I rejoice to say, that those doctrines are the choice of my heart today.” 35 The hyper-Calvinists were the ones who believed Hall’s book to be a “poison,” but Carey did not care. He was truly an evangelical Calvinist, and he would not abandon his Calvinism in pursuit of a worldwide mission. Though Carey was not a theologian, he unquestionably cared about theology, for it directly impacts one’s practices in missions.
By no means must one be a Calvinist to be a good missionary. At the same time, non-Calvinists should not purport that Calvinists cannot be good missionaries. As the debates rage on, we should not soon forget that the “Father of Modern Missions” was a Calvinist. Surely, Carey serves as one of the foremost examples that Calvinists can—and should—care deeply about global missions, and if any Calvinist claims a position of “anti-missionism,” perhaps it is in spite of his theology, not because of it. Since God has predestined who shall be saved, missionaries can be sure that their faithful work will not return void; their obedience is their success. As J.I. Packer recommends, we need to “dispel the suspicion… that faith in the absolute sovereignty of God hinders a full recognition and acceptance of evangelistic responsibility.” Instead, we should believe that “only this faith can give Christians the strength that they need to [fulfill] their evangelistic task.” 36 Carey’s trust in the sovereignty of God was daily medicine for the constant struggles he faced. Nearly two hundred years beyond his death, we need it too.
- For example, see Michael Frost’s article from May of 2012: “Statement on Calvinism Draws Approval, Criticism,” Baptist Press, https://www.baptistpress.com/resource-library/news/statement-on-calvinism-draws-approval-criticism/. Frost notes the views of some “Traditional” Southern Baptists, who believe that one of the unacceptable conclusions of Calvinism is “anti-missionism” and that if a Calvinist is evangelistic or missional, it is in spite of their theology, not because of it. ↩
- Surprisingly, some still claim that Carey was an Arminian, meaning that Carey’s being a Calvinist is not held as a truism by all. Carter writes that Carey often “sounded like an Arminian,” which Andrew Fuller and Robert Hall had been accused of as well, precisely because they were leaving hyper-Calvinism behind (Terry G. Carter, “The Calvinism of William Carey and Its Effect on His Mission Work,” In William Carey: Theologian-Linguist-Social Reformer, ed. Thomas Schirrmacher, 33 [Bonn: Verlag für Kultur und Wissenschaft, 2013]). Missiologist David Hesselgrave argued that William Carey “moved to [the] position [of Arminianism] after his rejection by some members of his own presbytery” (David Hesselgrave, Paradigms in Conflict: Ten Key Questions in Christian Missions Today [Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2005], 31). Hesselgrave continues, “[Arminianism] became the theological position of [Carey’s] Baptist missions board.” He says Carey and his friends would have believed in and stressed “prevenient grace,” an Arminian doctrine opposed to irresistible grace (p. 31). While Carey was caught in the tension between Arminianism and hyper-Calvinism, he did not resort to the other extreme (see Bruce Nicholls, “The Theology of William Carey,” Evangelical Review of Theology 17.3 : 369). Rather, Carey sought to communicate his adherence to Calvinism and his commitment to evangelistic practices, thanks to the writing of men like Jonathan Edwards, Robert Hall, and Andrew Fuller. Most scholars do not offer any explicit evidence that Carey was an Arminian because, in my estimation, none exists. The claim of Arminianism is a significant assumption to make given the primary and secondary source material available that states otherwise. It seems best to stay on the side of men like Timothy George, who wrote: “An Arminian Carey was not, nor ever became… Like Bunyan before him and Spurgeon after him, he was an evangelical Calvinist” (Timothy George, Faithful Witness: The Life and Mission of William Carey [Birmingham, AL: New Hope, 1991], 57). ↩
- William Carey, “An Enquiry,” In William Carey and the Missionary Vision, by Daniel Webber, 53-100 (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2005), 94. ↩
- Brian Stanley, The History of the Baptist Missionary Society 1792-1992 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1992), 13. ↩
- William Carey, “An Enquiry,” 89. ↩
- A.H. Oussoren, William Carey: Especially His Missionary Principles (Leiden: A.W. Sijthoff’s Uitgeversmaatschappik N.V., 1945), 142. ↩
- Oussoren notes further that the Particular Baptists, on the whole, were “Reformed men and women” (142). For a more thorough proof of this “association,” see p. 53 of Oussoren’s work. ↩
- Thomas Ascol writes, “Before he ever left England’s shores to take the gospel to India, Carey rejected… hyper-Calvinism. He was firmly convinced… [of] historic, evangelical Calvinism.” See “Calvinism Foundational for Evangelism and Missions,” In Whomever He Wills: A Surprising Display of Sovereign Mercy, eds. Matthew Barrett and Thomas Nettles, 269-289 (Cape Coral: Founders Press, 2012), 283. ↩
- James R. Beck, Dorothy Carey: The Tragic and Untold Story of Mrs. William Carey (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1992), 184 ↩
- Carey, quoted in Terry Carter, The Journal and Selected Letters of William Carey (Macon, GA: Smyth and Helwys, 2000), 249 (Letter to Sisters, Dec 22, 1796). ↩
- Ibid., 267 (Letter to Sisters, Jan 10, 1798). ↩
- Ibid., 288 and 290. ↩
- A. Christopher Smith, “The Legacy of William Carey,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 16.1 (1992): 2. ↩
- Nicholls, “The Theology of William Carey,” 371. ↩
- George, Faithful Witness, 32. ↩
- Nathan A. Finn, “‘Surely it is Worth While’: William Carey’s Personal Application of His Enquiry,” Puritan Reformed Journal 2.2 (2010): 297. ↩
- Carey, quoted in Oussoren, William Carey, 127. ↩
- Carter, “The Calvinism of William Carey,” 23. ↩
- William Carey, “Ordinations in 1791: Rev. William Carey,” The Baptist Annual Register (1790-1793): 519. ↩
- For a thorough analysis of Gospel Worthy, see George, Faithful Witness, 56. ↩
- Webber, William Carey, 15. ↩
- Carter, “The Calvinism of William Carey,” 14. ↩
- Timothy George, “William Carey (1761-1834),” In The British Particular Baptists 1638-1910, Volume II, ed. Michael A.G. Haykin, 143-162 (Springfield, MO: Particular Baptist Press, 2000), 150. ↩
- Ibid., 15 ↩
- Ibid., 15. ↩
- Carter, Journal and Selected Letters, 48, 52, and 53. ↩
- Especially significant is Carey’s understanding of “dark providence,” which he mentions a few times in his journal and letters (see Carter, Journal and Selected Letters, 209, 210, and 289). In one section of his book, Flavel sets out to answer the following question: “How may a Christian discover the will of God and his own duty under dark and doubtful providences?” See John Flavel, The Mystery of Providence (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1963), 185. Surely, through the dark providence of fruitless labor, Carey could find comfort in Flavel’s teaching: “Remember always the success of your callings and earthly employments is by divine blessing, not human diligence alone” (79-80). ↩
- Eustace Carey, Memoir of William Carey, D.D.: Late Missionary to Bengal (Boston: Gould, Kendall and Lincoln: 1836), 88. ↩
- Carter, Journal and Selected Letters, 22 ↩
- Ibid., 18. ↩
- See Jonathan Edwards, A History of the Work of Redemption, Transcribed and Edited by John F. Wilson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 432-435. In this section, Edwards mentions three kinds of Christian success, one of which is “the propagation of the gospel among the heathen” (433). Along with this work, Edwards’ books, Life and Diary of David Brainerd, Freedom of the Will, and Religious Affections, were extremely influential on Carey, his call to missions, and his missiological practices. ↩
- Tom Hicks, “The Glorious Impact of Calvinism upon Local Baptist Churches,” In Whomever He Wills: A Surprising Display of Sovereign Mercy, eds. Matthew Barrett and Thomas J. Nettles, 363-383 (Cape Coral: Founders Press, 2012), 380. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Robert Hall, quoted in Leon H. McBeth, A Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1990), 126. ↩
- Carey, quoted in Carter, “The Calvinism of William Carey,” 17. ↩
- J.I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1991), 7-8. ↩