Felix Carey

Young missionary and prodigal son

At age 8 Felix Carey went to India as a companion to his missionary father. He picked up Bengali even faster than his father did.

With his father absorbed in mission work, though, Felix was neglected. He became characterized by, as Hannah Marshman put it, “obstinacy and self-will.” With the arrival of William Ward (who became his “spiritual father”) and Hannah to India, he got hold of himself. He and William Ward and Krishna Pal (William Carey’s first Indian convert) had many discussions, which eventually led to the baptism of him and Pal on the same day.

Young Felix, along with Joshua Marshman and two Indians of upper caste, once carried the coffin of a lowcaste believer—a monumental act that initiated the breakdown of the caste system among believers in that area.

In 1807, at age 21, Felix was sent as a missionary to Rangoon [Burma], but mission life proved costly. His wife died within a year, and seven years later, he lost his second wife and his children in a boating accident.

Having noticed Felix Carey’s linguistic and medical gifts (he had introduced smallpox vaccination to Burma), the king of Burma offered Felix an ambassadorship to the governor-general in Calcutta. The weary Felix accepted, resigning from mission activities in 1814. His disappointed father commented: “Felix is shrivelled from a missionary into an ambassador.”

Felix lived in fine ambassadorial style in Calcutta (with “a red umbrella with an ivory top, gold betel box, gold lefeek cup, and a sword of state,” he wrote), soon overspending and drinking heavily. He was recalled to Burma in disgrace. Felix then disappeared across the border into Assam, where he wandered for three years.

Missionary William Ward persuaded him to return to the Serampore mission. There Felix worked on the mission newspapers, contributed major translation work, and wrote a treatise in Bengali on anatomy and physiology. Cholera struck him down at age 37, during the same few months that it took Krishna Pal and William Ward.

Krishna Chandra Pal
(d. 1822)

Carey’s first Indian convert

Krishna Chandra Pal lived a life of “firsts.” He worked near Serampore as a carpenter and heard of Jesus while working for some Moravians there. By the time he met Carey and the other Serampore missionaries, he had broken from formal Hinduism into a sect that embraced the theism and egalitarianism of Islam.

One day, while going to the river to bathe, Krishna slipped and dislocated his shoulder. He sent his children to the mission house, where he knew the medical doctor, John Thomas, was staying. As Thomas took care of the shoulder, he spoke with Krishna about the healing of his soul and gave him a tract in Bengali.

After that, Krishna called frequently at the mission. William Ward and Felix Carey read and discussed Scripture together. Soon Krishna told Thomas, “I am a great sinner, but I have confessed my sin and I am free!”

“Then I call you brother,” Dr. Thomas said. “Come and let us eat together in love.” This caused a great stir among the Indian servants, for by eating with Europeans, Krishna had broken caste.

Despite being mobbed and called “traitor!” by fellow Indians, Krishna was baptized. He was the first native convert in seven years of missionary labor and prayer.

Krishna’s wife and sister also made commitments to Christ, as did his four daughters; a neighbor, Gokul, and his wife; and a neighbor widow. They formed the first indigenous Christian community in that area, and not surprisingly, the group experienced spiritual growing pains: feuds, jealousies, and instances of immorality.

Eventually, Krishna Pal went on preaching tours with the missionaries. He was the first native missionary to Calcutta. There he preached at a dozen or more locations weekly and visited numerous homes to evangelize both poor families and servants of the rich. He was the first writer of Christian hymns in the Bengali language.

John Thomas
(d. 1801)

Eccentric doctor

John Thomas was actually the first official appointee of the Baptist Missionary Society; William Carey was then chosen to accompany him.

A medical doctor formerly employed by the East India Company, Thomas had already engaged in missions, studied Bengali, and translated a portion of the New Testament. Thomas’s recklessness in matters of finance, however, had ended that missionary stint.

Back in India with Carey, Thomas’s mismanaging of the finances put him and Carey in certain ruin. He had to set up a medical practice in order to repay creditors who had hounded him all the way from England. From medicine Thomas moved into indigo manufacturing, taking Carey with him, and soon they were able to finance the mission work they had come for. Then, in 1797, Thomas quit the mission altogether to resume medicine, and later he entered the “sugar trade,” probably a euphemism for rum distilling.

Through his many shifts and enterprises, John Thomas maintained a heart for evangelism. He brought the first native convert, Krishna Chandra Pal, into the mission family. On the day of Krishna’s baptism, though, he suffered an episode of mental illness and had to be confined in the mission schoolhouse. Later, he stayed in a Calcutta asylum for a time. Biographer George Smith claims that Thomas’s “eccentric impulses and oft-darkened spirit were due to mania.” Thomas may have been, in today’s terminology, manic-depressive.

Whatever his affliction, Thomas had spurred the new mission society at Kettering to go through with its missionary vision. And his missionary service, fervent if sporadic, spanned fifteen years.

Andrew Fuller

Carey’s strongest home supporter

Andrew Fuller has been called “the greatest original theologian among eighteenth-century Baptists.” Influenced by the writings of Jonathan Edwards, he revived evangelical Calvinism, expounded in his well-known “The Gospel worthy of all Acceptance” (1785).

At a time when many believed evangelizing the heathen was reserved for the original apostles, Fuller believed differently; his views were derided as “Fullerism.” He heard Carey preach and told him, “We must know more of each other.”

The men did become friends, and in 1792 Fuller joined Carey, Samuel Pearce, John Ryland, John Sutcliff, and others to form the The Particular Baptist Society for Propagating the Gospel among the Heathen. He served as the organization’s secretary until his death. Fuller and the rest promised to “hold the ropes” while Carey went down into the spiritual mine of India.

Fuller was the “life and soul of the cause at home,” traveling throughout England and Scotland to raise funds for the mission work in India. He also campaigned for Parliament to legalize missionary work in the British Indian territories. And he kept the peace between the missionaries in Serampore and their sponsors back home.

Fuller wrote many letters to Carey, Marshman, and Ward in India sometimes exhorting or rebuking them. For example, when the trio decided to translate and print Hinduism’s sacred Vedas (so that missionaries could better understand the religion), Fuller thought the idea was “obscene.” Yet when Fuller died, no person in England understood the Serampore missionaries and their task as well.

Vinita Hampton Wright, a regular contributor to CHRISTIAN HISTORY, is co-editor of World Shapers: A Treasury of Quotes from Great Missionaries (Harold Shaw, 1991).