Colonialism and Christian Mission in India

WIlliam Wilberforce – an unfinished work

[The William Carey story cont…]

William Wilberforce – working for India’s freedom
William Wilberforce was, as yet, unable to change the policy of the British with respect to missionaries going to India.

Parliament refused to change their Indian policy to include ‘religious improvement’ as Wilberforce had hoped.

It’s interesting to note that the celebrated hero of the abolition of slavery bill was keenly involved in encouraging Christianity in India. Wilberforce was a Christian first and a politician second.

Servants of the British Empire intervene to stop Christian missionaries
William Carey attempted, perhaps in response to John Newton’s bad advice, to sail to India without a visa (or licence, as it was called then). But, although the Captain of the ship had allowed Carey to board, when a warning of legal action came from the British authorities, Carey and the team were ordered to disembark.

They watched in tears, as the only apparent means of their getting to India pulled out of the harbour – without them!

At this point Carey actually considered getting to India by land – a journey that would have taken many months.

The Adventure – The Hardship – Begins
Finally good news – a non-British ship, a Danish ship, was sailing to India and would take them. Finally there was a way around British resistance to missions.

And a further apparent answer to prayer was that, after much persuasion, Dorothy Carey, her sister, and all the children had agreed to join William and the others in the first modern attempt to take the message of the gospel to the people of India.

Colonialism and Christianity
While many assert that European missionaries were merely the puppets of colonialists and empire builders, William Carey’s story surely provides an example that this was by no means the whole truth.

Perhaps there were some hopeless, arrogant, religious manipulators who were serving money rather than God. But could this really characterise the many who forsook comfortable ministries in Europe in order to try and serve other nations with the gospel? The fact is that this was a tough and notoriously uncomfortable assignment – with little money involved.

There’s no question that 19th Century Europeans generally assumed their culture – and their race – was inherently superior to that of the colonised peoples; nor should it be a debate that to colonise (for one country to take possession of the land and peoples of another) is fundamentally wrong.

Yet in that context many genuine Christians sought to take the good news of Jesus Christ to those who hadn’t heard of him, in obedience to Jesus’ command to ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel.'[1]

And these good guys doubtless made the kind of cultural mistakes and faux pas that we still make today, in business globally, as well as in understanding and respecting other cultures.

That Carey was no destroyer of local language or culture will be seen in future posts. For now, though, it was a great relief for him just to be on the way.

They sailed at 3am on June 13, 1793

More next time…

To read from the beginning of William Carey’s story click here

[1] Mark 16.15

© 2011 Church History Blog / Lex Loizides


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