The Power of a Pledge : an Analysis of William Carey’s 1805 Serampore Covenant, part 1

In 1793, William Carey, a shoemaker and subsequently Baptist pastor from Northamptonshire, UK, took his family to India as missionaries. They finally settled at Serampore in West Bengal. For seven years they had not a single convert, their funds ran out and for a time they were destitute. His wife Dorothy got severely depressed and three of their children died. But by the time of his own death 41 years later, Carey had planted churches, founded colleges, overseen the translation of the gospels into forty local languages, and had secured the banning of ‘sati’ – the ritual burning of a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre. He is still a revered figure in India and has featured on postage stamps.

What made the difference were some radical changes made when reinforcements arrived in 1799. Joshua Marshman, a gifted linguist, was a happily married man who saw immediately the strain in Carey’s marriage and his neglect of his children (whom Marshman found rude, indisciplined and uneducated). The Marshmans took the children under their wing and brought them some much-needed love and discipline. William Ward brought a practical business brain and took the weight of administration off Carey’s shoulders, as well as taking charge of the printing operation.

All this gave Carey a support structure that freed him to discover his leadership gifts. These three men thrashed through many issues and found a oneness of heart. This found an unusual expression: a brotherhood covenant, a pledge of loyalty and commitment. Entitled Form of Agreement, it was published in 1805 and has eleven points. Three times a year they read the pledge through at a special service and re-committed themselves to it. This covenant bond was faithfully kept by all of them until death. It was in many ways their backbone, the mainstay of the work in India.

This document has received little attention, but it well merits a closer inspection. Its context is specifically missionary – as opposed to the church covenants of membership that existed at the time. It is heartfelt, uncompromising and at times very strict. For example, the final point pronounces woes to the man who ever pulls away from the unity and does things on his own.

Carey baptising his first Indian convert, Krishna Pal

Carey baptising his first Indian convert, Krishna Pal

The Form of Agreement opens with a carefully-worded justification of their being in India at all. There is a reason for this. The Baptist Church in England at the time held a hyper-Calvinist position regarding the salvation of sinners. Forever lodged in Carey’s memory was the occasion where he made known his missionary yearning at a ministers’ meeting in 1786; an older pastor allegedly (some say apocryphally) stood up and said: “Young man, sit down! when God pleases to convert the heathen, he will do it without your aid and mine.”

So Carey chooses his phrases carefully: ‘We are sure that only those who are ordained to eternal life will believe, and that God alone can add to the church such as shall be saved.’ Carey and several colleagues back home had challenged the prevailing determinism; he himself had preached a sermon on the necessity of missions, in which he included the memorable exhortation: Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God. Yet he was wise enough to realise that, were they to antagonise the Baptist hierarchy in England, they could easily cut off the supply of recruits and donations on which they relied.

Carey then brings the balance. ‘Nevertheless, we cannot but observe with admiration that (the Apostle) Paul… was the most conspicuous for his personal zeal in the work of persuading men to be reconciled to God. In this respect he is a noble example for our imitation.’  Touché? I think so!

And so to the first article of the covenant itself, which concerns urgency for lost souls. Recent research claims that 98% of Christians worldwide are neither envisioned nor equipped for mission in 95% of their waking lives. If that really is the case, then let us hear the heart expressed by Carey and his friends.

It is absolutely necessary that we set an infinite value upon immortal souls. [We should] endeavour to affect our minds with the dreadful loss sustained by an unconverted soul launched into eternity. May their case lie with continued weight on our minds.

India is a vast country, lying in the arms of the wicked one. This is no colonial pride, for Carey is just as scathing about his own roots: ‘He who raised the sottish and brutalised Britons to sit in heavenly places in Christ Jesus, can raise these slaves of superstition… and make them worshippers of the one true God in spirit and truth’. Indeed, in faith Carey anticipates a day when He will famish the gods of India and cause these very idolators to cast their idols to the moles and the bats.’

This blog post considers reasons why the “heart for the lost” has been largely lost in Christendom today and challenges us, very practically, to do something about it. No doubt, Carey and his covenant team would long for us to do so!

Carey and his first Indian convert

Articles 2 and 3 of William Carey’s 1805 Serampore Covenant are rooted in good sense and the wisdom born of experience in the field. The need, they write, is for a contextualised gospelto converse with [Indian people] in an intelligible manner and to avoid coming across to them either as fanatics or as irrelevant. Sounds familiar? Read any piece about relevant witness in a post-modern (or ‘post-Christian’) society and the same issues apply. Here is an example from the UK Evangelical Alliance.

So Carey, Marshman and Ward commit themselves to several things:

* conversing with sensible natives;
* reading some parts of their major writings;
* attentively observing their manners and customs.

They stress the need to know Indian modes of thinking, their moral values and their manners. So much is standard missionary training today, of course. But the Serampore missionaries see it as crucial to understand the way they reason about God, sin, holiness, the way of salvation, and [man’s] future state. This surely parallels the move in today’s ‘Emerging Church’ to understand where post-modern people are coming from, and then to reach out to them in Facebook evangelism or whatever.

Carey also advocates a common sense approach to interacting with people of the Hindu majority religion. We must abstain from those things which would increase their prejudices against the gospel – in particular, English colonial haughtiness, and cruelty to animals. There should be no direct confrontations, no defacing of their statues, no disturbance of their worship gatherings. Carey praises the mild-mannered and gracious approach of the Moravian missions and of the Quakers among the Native American tribes. He was to enlarge on this elsewhere.

He who is too proud to stoop to others, in order to draw them to him…, is ill-qualified to be a missionary , states the Form of Agreement. The Serampore trio pledge to follow the stated aim of the Apostle Paul, to “be all things to all men, that I may by all means win some” (the Bible, 1 Corinthians 9:22). And the section closes with a paraphrase from an unnamed missionary to North America, almost certainly either David Brainerd or John Eliot: “that he would not care if the people trampled him under their feet, if he might become useful to their souls”.

To be continued…

 

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About Trevor Saxby

I'm a mentor, friend to many, with a PhD in church history. I love learning from the 'movers and shakers' of the past, as I want to be one today!

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