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Christian History Home > 1992 > Issue 36 > William Carey's Less-than-Perfect Family Life

William Carey's Less-than-Perfect Family Life
The model missionary did not have a model home
Dr. Ruth A. Tucker, a member of Christian History's editorial advisory board, is the author of numerous books, including From Jersusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions (Academie, 1983). | posted 10/01/1992 12:00AM

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Taming Unruly Children

During these years, the Carey boys had to fend for themselves. Their father was consumed by his work and was not inclined to discipline them for misbehavior. “The good man saw and lamented the evil,” wrote his colleague Hannah Marshman, “but was too mild to apply an effectual remedy. ”

Hannah sought to provide a motherly influence, and William Ward, another colleague, served as a surrogate father. According to a missionary on the scene, “From being a tiger, he [Felix] was transformed into a lamb under Ward’s influence.” At age 16 Felix began preaching to the native people, and six years later, in 1807, his father ordained him and commissioned him to serve as a missionary in Burma.

Later that same year Carey made the following entry in his diary: “Tuesday, Dec. 8, 1807. This evening Mrs. Carey died of the fever under which she has languished some time. Her death was a very easy one; but there was no appearance of returning reason, nor any thing that could cast a dawn of hope or light on her state.”

Finding Happiness

On May 9, 1808, just five months and a day after Dorothy’s death, Carey married Charlotte Rumohr, a Danish woman not connected with the mission. He had known her since she had moved to India several years earlier, and she had become a baptized believer through his ministry. She was described as petite, elegant, well-educated, cultured, and wealthy—a stark contrast from Dorothy.

William and Charlotte were both 46, and in many ways she was a perfect match for Carey. But their marriage created no small scandal in the mission. So agitated were some missionaries when they learned of William’s intent to remarry so soon, they circulated a petition to dissuade him. Carey’s determination prevailed, however, and they withdrew their protest.

Fortunately for Carey, this marriage was happy. He and Charlotte worked together on translations, and she became a loving mother to the younger boys, who had never lived in a functional family. When she died in 1821, after 13 years of marriage, Carey wrote: “We had as great a share of happiness as ever was enjoyed by mortals.”

Two years after Charlotte’s death, Carey, now 62, married for the third time. The bride was Grace Hughes, a widow 17 years younger. Grace was no match for Charlotte in intelligence or culture, but she was a good companion for Carey’s remaining 11 years. “Her constant and unremitting care and excellent nursing took off much of the weight of my illness,” he wrote, adding, “we live in great happiness.”

But it was Charlotte who had truly captured William Carey’s heart. When he died in 1834, his will specified that Grace should receive his valuable library, but that he be “buried by the side of my second wife, Charlotte Emilia Carey.”

Building a Communal Family

Carey’s home involved more than the nuclear family. After he located in the Danish settlement of Serampore in 1800, Carey formulated a pattern for communal family living. All missionaries and their family members would share meals and devotional times and live out of a common treasury. The purpose was to bring family life and ministry together in order to enhance both. Earlier Carey had written, “Our families should be considered nurseries for the Mission.”

For Carey, as well as the other Serampore missionaries, that ideal became a reality as their children continued on in the work of the mission. Carey’s own legacy includes nephews and sons and later generations of missionary enthusiasts. His son Jabez, like Felix, started young—language study at 13 and ordination and commissioning at age 18.

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