Biblical Ethics Changed India


(Investigator 115, 2007 July)

Around 1800 biblical teaching collided with India's caste system, widow burning, idolatry, infanticide, and with reincarnation and karma. Behind the collision was William Carey.

William Carey (1761-1834) grew up in a village in central England. His father was a school master, his mother a lace-maker. He left school at 14, worked on a farm two years, then became a cobbler.

Carey's parents were devout Anglicans. His interest in the Bible began at 17 when he attended meetings of Anglican dissenters. A gift for languages revealed itself when he borrowed a Bible with the Greek text between the English and began learning Greek.

At 20 Carey married Dorothy Placket an uneducated girl unable even to sign the parish marriage register.

Carey was baptized by Baptists in 1783. At 25 he could read the Bible in Latin, Hebrew and Greek and spoke Dutch, French and Italian. He now had a reputation as a preacher, converted his two sisters, and also became a teacher.

Carey pondered over Bible prophecies that God and the gospel would be declared in all nations. He asked some ministers whether, "the command given to the apostles to teach all nations was not obligatory on all succeeding ministers to the end of the world."

His sister, Polly, recalled, "He was remarkably impressed about the heathen lands and the slave trade. I never remember him engaging in prayer, in his family or in public, without praying for those poor wretches."

In 1789 Carey became a minister at Leicester, a country town. He now had three sons and still worked nine to five as a teacher.

 In 1792 his 87-page book was published — AN ENQUIRY into the Obligation of Christians to use means for the Conversion of the Heathens. His text was Romans 10:12-14
For there is no distinction between the Jew and the Greek, the same Lord is Lord of all and bestows his riches upon all who call upon him. For "every one who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved
But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent?
At a Baptist Association meeting Carey expounded Isaiah 54:2-3 and concluded, "Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God."
 In October twelve ministers including Carey founded the Baptist Missionary Society to "propagate the gospel among the heathen." He also met John Thomas who had spent five years as a physician in Bengal. The two men were appointed as the Baptist Missionary Society's first missionaries — assignment Bengal, India.
 Carey's wife opposed the move; his father called him "mad"; the East India Company opposed missionary work and refused Carey a licence to enter India.
 However, John Newton — a former slave trader turned Christian minister opposing slavery, and composer of the song Amazing Grace — said, "If God has something for you to accomplish, nothing on earth can stop you!"
 In 1793 Carey with wife and children, his wife's sister, and John Thomas sailed on a Danish ship to Bengal.
 One of Carey's later co-workers described what they found:
Amidst innumerable idol temples…none erected for the worship of the one living and true God. Services without end…performed in honour of the elements and deified heroes… Among these idolaters no Bibles were found; no Sabbaths; no congregation for religious instruction in any form, no house of God; no God but a log of wood, or a monkey; no Saviour but the Ganges; no worship but that paid to abominable idols... (Martin 1974, p.82)
 ver the next forty years Carey and co-workers experienced poverty, wild animals, primitive conditions, sicknesses, East India Company opposition, deaths of family members, and setbacks from fire and floods.

Nevertheless they:

Carey was shocked by the Hindu practices of:
1.    Child marriage whereby parents contracted infant daughters to marry men they had never met;
2.    Leaving old, or very sick, people by the Ganges River to die;
3.    Mothers sacrificing newborn babies by drowning in the Ganges;
4.    Hook-swinging where people had bamboo splints forced through their flesh, attached to hooks, and were swung through the air;
5.    Widow-burning or suttee:
Regarding suttee, Carey wrote:
We saw a number of people assembled on the river-side…to burn the body of a dead man. I inquired if his wife would die with him; they answered yes, and pointed to her. She was standing by the pile of large billets of wood, on top of which lay her husband's dead body. Her nearest relative stood by her and near her was a basket of sweetmeats. I asked if this was her choice, or if she were brought up to it by any improper influence. They answered that it was perfectly voluntary. I talked till reasoning was of no use, and then began to exclaim with all my might against what they were doing, telling them it was shocking murder. They told me it was a great act of holiness and added in a very surly manner that if I did not like to see it, I might go further off, and desired me to do so. I said I would not go, that I was determined to stay and see the murder, against which I would certainly bear witness at the tribunal of God. I exhorted the widow not to throw her life away, to fear nothing, for no evil would follow her refusal to be burned. But in the most calm manner she mounted the pile, and danced on it with her hands extended as if in the utmost tranquillity of spirit.
Previous to this, the relative whose office it was to set fire to the pile, led her six times round it — thrice at a time. She went round, she scattered the sweetmeats amongst the people who ate them as a very holy thing. This being ended, she lay down beside the corpse, and put one arm under its neck, and the other over it, when a quantity of dry cocoa-leaves and other substances were heaped over them to a considerable height, and then ghee, melted preserved butter, was poured on the top. Two bamboos were then put over them, and held fast down, and fire put to the pile which immediately blazed very fiercely, owing to the dry and combustible materials of which it was composed. No sooner was the fire kindled than all the people set up a great shout of joy, invoking Siva. It was impossible to have heard the woman had she groaned, or even cried aloud, on account of the shoutings of the people, and then it was impossible for her to stir or struggle, by reason of the bamboos held her down, like the levers of a press. We made much objection to their use of them, insisting that it was undue force to prevent her getting up when the fire burned. But they declared it was only to keep the fire from falling down. We could not bear to see more, and left them, exclaiming loudly against the murder, and filled with horror at what we had seen. (Martin 1974, p.70)
The New Testament treatment toward widows is different — namely that they be put on a list for Church support:
Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years old… (I Timothy 5:9-10; James 1:27)
 Most nations have now adopted standards similar to the Bible and call it "pension", "social security" or "government benefits".
 Carey also described how Hindus treated lepers:
A pit ten cubits in depth was dug and a fire placed at the bottom of it. The poor man rolled himself into it; but instantly, on feeling the fire, begged to be taken out and struggled hard for that purpose. His mother and sisters, however, thrust him in again; and thus a man, who to all appearance might have survived several years, was cruelly burned to death… Taught that a violent end purifies the body and ensures transmigration into a healthy new existence, while natural death by disease results in four successive births, and a fifth as a leper again, the leper, like the even more wretched widow, has always courted suicide. (Martin 1974, p. 83)
 India had numerous fixed social categories or "castes". The lowest, the "Untouchables", were considered barely human and fit for only the dirtiest work. No one could change caste irrespective of talent or ability, or show compassion toward lower castes. Why? — Because Hindus believe in reincarnation and Karma.
 Karma is a law of divine justice whereby suffering is considered punishment for wrongs one did in a previous life. Suffering, therefore, is deserved; it's a just consequence.
 The Bible, however, rejects reincarnation — and says that people "die once". (Hebrews 9:27)
 The caste system also ensured preferential access to status and wealth. It economically advantaged all except the lowest caste. Caste is therefore an institutionalized example of the truth of:
For the love of money is the root of all [sorts of] evils. (I Timothy 6:10)
 To combat Hindu practice Carey used the Bible. The Encyclopedia Britannica says: "Carey translated the Bible into Bengali, Oriya, Merathi, Hindi, Assamese, and Sanskrit. Parts of it he also translated into 29 other languages and dialects."
 And Carey preached the Bible:

The "golden rule" (Matthew 7:1
Neighborly love and doing good (Luke 10:25-37; II Thessalonians 5:15);Kindness and compassion (Colossians 3:12-13);The wrongness of child sacrifice (Jeremiah 7:31; Psalm 127:3-5);The wrongness of idolatry (Jeremiah 10:1-16)The wrongness of suttee.
The same Bible principles that oppose racial distinctions also oppose caste:
Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all. (Colossians 3:11)
For God shows no partiality. (Romans 2:11; Deuteronomy 10:17)<>
However, for a Hindu to change religion flouted the caste system and resulted in persecution and disownment by relatives. Carey's first converts therefore were Europeans. In 1800 the first native, Krishna Pal, accepted Christianity and became a missionary to the Hindus.
 The Government was reluctant to interfere in religion and simply let "murder", as in suttee and child sacrifice, continue. But Carey lobbied ceaselessly for almost 30 years.
 Finally in 1829 Lord W. C. Bentinck, Governor-General of Bengal, abolished suttee. On December 5th a messenger handed Carey a document abolishing suttee throughout British-ruled India for translation into Bengali.
 Bentinck also took measures to suppress the murder of unwanted children and human sacrifice.
 In Bengal alone 6,000 widows had been burned to death in the previous ten years. Allowing for the rest of India and the passage of time, the widows that Carey, and the Bible, helped to save must number many millions.
 Inspired by the Baptist Missionary Society other denominations formed missionary societies including the London Missionary Society (1795) and the Church Missionary Society (1799). Missionaries headed for Africa, the South Seas, Asia and all over the world.
 Today suttee is rare and killing of babies and lepers illegal. India's Parliament outlawed Untouchability in 1949 and the caste system is slowly breaking down.
 William Carey, the cobbler from an obscure village did "great things for God" and helped fulfil Jesus Christ's great prophecy:
And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations; and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:14)
 Martin, N. 1974 William Carey The Man Who Never Gave Up, Hodder & Stoughton.

The Bible Brought Benefits

John Hutchinson

(Investigator 116, 2007 September)

Some writers for Investigator are quite negative about the Bible and Christianity. However, "Great Things For God, Biblical Ethics Changed India" (#115) about the work of William Carey, was constructive, inspiring and encouraging.

 Most people, even in churches, don't know or appreciate that their quality of life arose because people searched the Bible and sought to understand it and apply it. In this way the Bible gradually changed nations and societies for the better.

William Carey, John Newton, the Earl of Shaftesbury (who introduced factory reform), William Booth (who opposed injustice, poverty, "sweated labour" and child prostitution), Hudson Taylor, and numberless others acted from their Christian faith and worked for changes that benefit nations and societies today.