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.
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!
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 gospel: to 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…
Over the last four centuries, various church congregations have chosen to write down certain pledges of commitment in the manner of a legal covenant – and publish it. In today’s western society, however, ‘easy come, easy go’ is so often the keynote. Political parties, churches or local clubs all lament that they can’t get people to sign up. ‘Quickie’ divorces can end marriage vows in weeks. Life is impersonal and everything must be “now”.
But there is a curious phenomenon here. Men who baulk at demands and commitments, even in their own marriage and family, can also be inspired by movies like Shawshank Redemption or Braveheart, with their ‘band of brothers’ flavour and ‘loyalty to the death’ message. Maybe women do the same with Paradise Road?
The implication seems to be that intuitively we recognise the strength and desirability of loyalty, faithfulness and commitment, but life’s experience has taught us that we’re all too weak and it doesn’t work – so leave it enshrined in films, don’t try to live it.
But there is a reaction. Interest in covenants is growing. In churches in America, there is a mushrooming of interest in ‘fireproofing’ the marriage vows, born of the film Fireproof, which is popularising the term “covenant marriage” and offers specific rubrics for marriage re-dedications along this line.
A covenant is a statement of the basis for, and conditions of, a relationship, writes Julia Faire in “Covenant People“. Covenants have the purpose of both defining and strengthening commitment and setting forth a particular course and vision for those that participate in them to follow. They have a strong biblical basis and a history of heroic observance, notably the Covenanter martyrs of Scotland.
There is a battle to be fought and won, Faire concludes, a lost generation to be won for Christ, a solid church to be built within a fragmented and unstable society. There is a need for a drawing of the lines, consolidation and fresh vision if the church is not going to largely disappear amidst the fog of confusion and disarray that characterises our present [western] society.
Church history rightly remembers Nicholas, Count Zinzendorf (1700-1760) as a significant figure. He was a religious and social reformer, founder of the Christian community and mission centre at Herrnhut in Saxony, Germany, from which grew today’s Moravian Church. Under his leadership, missionary teams carried the gospel everywhere, from the Inuit of Labrador to the Zulus of South Africa.
It was a phenomenal achievement. What is far less known is how near the whole movement came to collapse, and how it was rescued and restored. In many ways, we will find here a model of good practice in leadership succession and generational transition in a church. The largely unsung hero was Zinzendorf’s successor, August Spangenberg (1704-92).
He had been a theology lecturer but threw in his lot with the Moravians, aged 29. He became the movement’s theologian, apologist, statesman and corrector – for sixty years! At first, he was an assistant to Zinzendorf, who sent him to Pennsylvania to establish churches, communities and schools – and to address opposition from other denominations. Zinzendorf sought Spangenberg’s tutoring when he was preparing for his own Lutheran ordination. If the count was the visionary of the Moravian movement, Spangenberg was his interpreter and enabler.
However, all was not well in the church. Zinzendorf was more of a visionary than a practical administrator. Under his leadership, the church’s expansion was funded by personal loans. By the 1750s, expenditure was out of control and the church had over-extended itself. This precipitated a spectacular crash in the church’s credit rating and reputation. Detractors used the opportunity to attack them. One major objection was to Zinzendorf’s devotion to the wounds of Jesus, which some saw as too Catholic, others as plain weird.
Zinzendorf died in 1760 with the Moravian church in a precarious position. Spangenberg was recalled from America and, although Moravian leaders saw themselves as equals, Spangenberg was clearly first among them. Under his leadership, the church felt compelled to turn inwards for a season, to address very real issues. They looked at what was central to their call and the way it had hitherto been expressed, and realised that some realignment was necessary.
They took responsibility for the debts and introduced financial controls. They avoided bankruptcy and achieved financial stability.
They apologised for any extra-biblical teaching, admitting that some of the contentious areas had been Zinzendorf’s “private opinions”, which church members were not required to endorse.
They reiterated their commitment to the Bible and to mission.
These reforms worked, much to Spangenberg’s credit. With disasters averted and unhelpful trappings removed, the vibrant church life and gospel endeavour initiated by Zinzendorf flourished. The Moravians concentrated on what they did best: community and mission. Their fruit was remarkable and highly esteemed. While the Great Awakening won souls in ‘Christian’ Britain and America, the Moravians reaped a harvest among the unconverted in other lands. As the 18th century ended, the Moravians had been successfully rehabilitated as the model of a missional church.
1. The Moravian Church teaches that it has preserved apostolic succession. In Berlin in 1735, several Moravian Brethren from Herrnhut received episcopal ordination from the two surviving bishops of the Unitas Fratrum (the Bohemian Brethren or Hussites). They considered it important to preserve the historic episcopate.
2. In their earlier years, the Moravians took literally Acts 1:26, the drawing of lots, to determine the will and guidance of God. Their covenant of 1727 included the stipulation that at any time, there should be 12 elders leading the church, all appointed by ‘the lot’. Thereafter, ‘the lot’ was used to help decide key matters like the election of elders, or whom to send on mission. Once the lot was consulted, the decision was seen as binding, since God’s Spirit had spoken.
The usual method was to place two pieces of paper in a box, one with “The Saviour approves” written on it, the other with “The Saviour does not approve”. After corporate prayer, a member of the elders’ council then pulled out one of these papers.
‘The lot’ came to be mistrusted. Some feared leaders could manipulate the lot by rewording and redrawing it until they got the answer they wanted. Others, influenced by the Enlightenment, suggested that God was too rational to use such a haphazard system and that the lot was just a matter of luck. By 1800 it was no longer being used in the Moravian churches.
For further insights, see Nigel Tomes, After the Founding Fathers; Historical Case Studies.