Four Qualities of a Faithful Missionary, Gleaned from William Carey

Faithful missionaries who have gone before us have much to offer those who are willing to learn. Not only do their examples of courage and persistence through suffering stir the heart, their lives offer timeless principles to follow. I was reminded of this recently while reading about the life and ministry of William Carey.

He is credited with the launch of modern missions because of an impassioned essay he wrote back in 1792, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens.

While today we prefer not to call unreached peoples “heathens,” we understand Carey’s benevolent intent: he was burdened to take the saving gospel of Jesus to people who had not yet heard it and to do that throughout every part of the world. It’s a task that remains unfinished today. And although the wording of Carey’s Enquiry may be ancient, it’s as relevant today as it ever was.

Although the wording of Carey’s Enquiry may be ancient, it’s as relevant today as it ever was.

Here are four qualities of a faithful missionary, gleaned from William Carey:

Immune to Naysayers

William Carey faced one of his most troublesome obstacles at a meeting of Baptist leaders. Carey, a young minister, stood at the meeting and naively asserted a passionate case for the church to do its part in taking the gospel to the nations. It’s important to note that the modern mission movement had not yet begun. Carey was interrupted by John Collett Ryland, a senior minister (the father of John Ryland Jr.) who rebuked him, calling the young pastor a “miserable enthusiast.” He ordered Carey to sit down and even quipped, “When God pleases to convert the heathen, he’ll do it without consulting you or me.” (Timothy George, Faithful Witness: The Life & Mission of William Carey, p. 53, New Hope, 1991).

In the face of such intimidation, Carey could have been deterred from his exploration of the church’s obligation to the nations. But he wasn’t. Even when he faced opposition from within his gospel community, he pressed forward.

Eager to Do the Impossible

In Carey’s treatise, he had the acumen to interpret his generation’s responsibility in light of his own times. When he began proclaiming the church’s obligation to go to the nations, among the many issues raised against him was the near impossibility of travel. It’s hard for us to imagine in our day when most of the world is accessible to us by plane, but in the 1700s global travel simply wasn’t feasible.

Although Carey most assuredly recognized the vast distance between the church and the nations, he drew attention to a significant technological advancement of his day: the compass. “Whatever objections might have been made on that account before the invention of the mariner’s compass, nothing can be alleged for it, with any colour of plausibility in the present age.” In other words, he heard their objections then responded, saying essentially, “Now that we have the compass, we have no excuse!” He recognized the uniqueness of his day compared to that of preceding generations, and he called on believers of that era to seize new opportunities that lay before them.

God providentially moves throughout history, and he has given each generation what he intends for it to employ in the advancement of his kingdom. Christians of every age need to be aware of the new opportunities that technological and other advancements bring about. And we need to respond with imagination, faith, and obedience.

Resistant to Cynicism and Superiority

God’s people must vigilantly guard their hearts against becoming cynical and even hostile to people of other nations. In Carey’s day, some considered the “heathen” to be unworthy of the gospel. To that, Carey replied, “The uncivilized state of the heathen, instead of affording an objection against preaching the gospel to them, ought to furnish an argument for it” (emphasis added).

Jesus looked at people with compassion and gave the church an example of a heart fixed upon giving the gospel to the oppressed and downcast (Matt. 9:36). He came to seek the lost, and he calls us to do the same. It’s easy to become jaded in the midst of social debates of any generation. But believers must guard against this very human tendency and instead lead with love, not condemnation. After all, we stand in need of the very same gospel.

Undeterred by Suffering

Carey said Christians are “a body whose truest interest lies in the exaltation of the Messiah’s kingdom.” Recognizing Jesus as Lord (Rom. 10:9), genuine believers seek his kingdom. Jesus is central. He is king of the ages (1 Tim. 1:17). In the context of the Great Commission, allegiance and service are costly. Suffering should be expected.

Carey maintained, “The flights, and hatred of men, and even pretended friends, gloomy prisons, and tortures, the society of barbarians or 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.”

There was a price to pay in Carey’s era, and there’s a price to pay today. It may not be a gloomy prison or miserable accommodation (although it might), but there will always be little worldly encouragement.

Suffering should be the object of our expectation, regardless of the epoch. It was true for Jesus. It was true for Carey. And it will be true for us.

D. Ray Davis serves on the mobilization team at IMB. He and his family previously served among Sub-Saharan African peoples. You can follow him @DRayDavis.