William Carey was perhaps the greatest pioneer missionary since the days of the apostles. Every Christian should be familiar with his story. Born in 1761, he lived at a time when few Christians understood that they had any duty to evangelise ‘the heathen’ overseas. Many evangelical leaders took the view that the world had been evangelised by the apostles, and that the Church had no further missionary responsibility. Yet from the time that he was converted, Carey had a passionate concern that the gospel should reach the millions across the world who had never heard it.
Experienced Christians tried to stifle his enthusiasm. The story is told that at one meeting, he was rebuked by a much-respected older minister: “Young man, sit down. When God pleases to convert the heathen world, He will do it without your help or mine.” Yet Carey continued to plead, cajole, argue and preach until he had around him a circle of men who shared his vision. In 1792 a group of twelve Baptist pastors agreed to form “a society for propagating the Gospel among the heathen”.
The three leading members of the society, along with Carey were Andrew Fuller, John Ryland and John Sutcliff. These three were present at a historic meeting held on 10th January 1793, when Carey preached on the words “Behold I come quickly and my reward is with me”. At that meeting, the challenge of India was put before the newly formed society. Fuller commented that “there was a gold mine in India, but it seemed as deep as the centre of the earth. Who will venture to explore it?”
Carey was swift to reply. “I will venture to go down,” he said, “but remember that you (addressing Fuller, Sutcliff, and Ryland) must hold the ropes.” Fuller later wrote: “We solemnly engaged to him to do so, nor while we live shall we desert him.”
What did Fuller and his friends mean? They were promising that back home, they would give Carey all the support they could. They would pray for him and stir others up to pray too. They would make sure the money and resources he needed would reach him. They would keep writing to him, offering encouragement, counsel and their continuing affection. They would try to recruit other workers to go out and join him. They could not go with Carey down into the pit of India, but they would hold the ropes.
Later that year, Carey, his family, and another missionary volunteer, Dr John Thomas, sailed for India. Carey’s first years there were marked by unimaginable hardships and sorrows. He and his family faced extreme heat, abject poverty, and constant dangers from snakes, crocodiles and tigers. Their first home was a remote and mosquito-infested house in the jungle. The whole family suffered repeatedly from malaria, dysentery and other tropical diseases. Carey’s five year old son, Peter, died of dysentery in 1794. Carey’s wife, Dorothy, unable to cope with the miseries of the situation went insane. She frequently accused her husband of unfaithfulness and several times attacked him with a knife. She had to be physically restrained in chains for the last twelve years of her life.
Carey’s colleague, John Thomas squandered all the missionaries’ money, forcing Carey to work on a plantation to provide for his starving family. In their first seven months in India, the family had to move home five times. Carey wrote home frequently but it was seventeen months before the first letters from friends at home reached him.
Yet, somehow, Carey hung on through it all. As one biographer put it:
“Somehow, while often sick, holding down a full time secular job, surrounded by domestic turmoil, with an insane wife screaming in the next room, Carey mastered Bengali and Sanskrit and by 1797, the New Testament was translated into Bengali and ready for printing! Carey had also established several schools and was preaching regularly in Bengali..”
Carey had to cope not only with great sorrows, but also with huge discouragement. He laboured for seven years before seeing a single convert. Yet he laboured on. He never returned to England but remained in India for forty years until his death in 1834.
Today, Carey is recognised as the father of the modern missionary movement. His work during those forty years changed the face of India, and became the inspiration for countless other missionaries who have taken the gospel across the world.
Yet Carey would be the first to insist that the honour for his work should not be his alone. Ultimately, all honour belonged to Christ. When Alexander Duff visited Carey in the last weeks of his life, Carey asked him to pray. Duff knelt down by the bed, prayed, said goodbye and turned to go. “Mr Duff” called Carey faintly. “Mr Duff, you have been speaking about Doctor Carey, Doctor Carey… When I am gone, say nothing about Doctor Carey… Speak about Doctor Carey’s Saviour”. Carey’s zeal, godliness, perseverance, his capacity to plod on in the face of great difficulties, were all the gifts of Carey’s Saviour, imparted by the Spirit.
And then, Carey would want to acknowledge the men back home who held the ropes. Fuller and his friends promised they would not desert him while they lived, nor did they. To the end of their lives, they remembered their vow and supported Carey, half-way across the world in India. Remember, they lived at a time when communications were vastly more difficult than they are today. The only way for a letter to travel from England to India was on board ship, a journey of many months. Yet, Carey, his family and his colleagues were never out of their thoughts.
Fuller, especially played a key role. He was the effective leader of the Society back home (we would call him today the General Secretary of the Mission), responsible for its management. Again, one historian writes:
“Andrew Fuller was not only the first of Foreign Mission Secretaries; he was a model for all. To him his work was spiritual life, and hence, though the most active preacher and writer of his day, he was like Carey in this, that his working day was twice as long as that of most men, and he could spend half of his time in the frequent journeys all over the kingdom to raise funds, in repeated campaigns in London to secure toleration, and in abundant letters to the missionaries… To Carey personally the death of Fuller was more than to any other. For almost the quarter of a century he had kept his vow that he would hold the rope. When Pearce died all too soon there was none whom Carey loved like Fuller…”
What enabled Carey to keep going during the dark early days of the mission? During the seven years while he waited and prayed for the first convert? Through weariness, opposition, conflict, growing frailty and old age? Yes, he was sustained supremely by the knowledge of Christ’s love. “Lo, I am with you even to the end of the age”. But beyond that, there was the knowledge that however lonely he might feel, there were others with him. However dark and deep the pit he had to descend, he was sure his friends would be holding the ropes.
Paul had his rope-holders too. From his prison-cell in Rome, he wrote to the Philippian church: “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, thankful for your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now..” (Phil 1:3-4). Without the prayers and support of the Philippian believers, Paul could not have finished his work.
Why am I thinking about Carey and his rope-holders tonight (10 pm on Tuesday 27th January)? Well, because I was out with the usual Tuesday night YO team this evening. As we walked through the streets of Cheadle Heath, it began to snow, first a wet sleet, then heavier, drifting snow. There’s been little to encourage in recent weeks – no opportunities to share the gospel with teenagers. There were few people on the streets again tonight. But as we walked, I was thinking, “I wonder who’s holding the ropes now? I wonder which of the church members are praying for us?” We don’t expect you all to come out and join us on our wanderings. But we expect you to hold the ropes. Pray for us in your homes. Be with us in the church prayer-meetings and let us hear you pray for our work. If you can, join us for a few minutes down at the pavilion to pray with us before we go out. If any of the teenagers turn up at a Sunday service, take an interest. Chat with them afterward. Be involved. Hold the ropes.
Hold the ropes for the members of the church who visit nursing-homes on Sunday and Friday afternoons – or teach Sunday-school – or deliver leaflets. When others mention these things, don’t say “Oh I’m not involved in that..” Not every believer is asked to go down into every pit. But every believer can hold a rope.