William Carey, the “Father of Modern Missions,” is revered by mission enthusiasts from every denomination and mission society. He stands as a model for generations to come—but not in his family life.

Carey’s performance in the arena of family life has most marred his image—and not just in the twentieth century when family issues have assumed a high priority. In Carey’s own day, people questioned his seeming insensitivity to family concerns.

But questions about Carey’s judgment in family matters were muted by the spirit of the times. It was an age when by law a wife and children were essentially a man’s property. Eighteenth-century jurist Sir William Blackstone summarized the marital legal code of his day by quipping, “The husband and wife are one, and the husband is that one.” So it was with William Carey and his first wife, Dorothy—or Dolly, as she was affectionately called.

It was William’s decision, and his decision alone, to leave everything behind for a lifelong commitment to India. Dolly’s resistance was natural for a mother of three little ones, expecting the fourth. Nevertheless, she is the one who has suffered at the hands of biographers. Wrote George Smith: “Never had a minister, missionary, or scholar a less sympathetic mate, due largely to … latent mental disease.” Furthermore, “she remain[ed] to the last a peasant woman, with a reproachful tongue.”

Finding Little in Common

William was still a teenager—not quite 20 in the summer of 1781 when he married Dorothy. She was nearly six years his senior. There is no indication theirs was a love-match, but the marriage lasted until her death 26 years later.

William and Dorothy had little in common. She was illiterate at the time of their marriage; she signed an X in the parish ...

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