Dorothy Carey and the Cost of Mission

When William Carey announced to his wife Dorothy that he felt called to take the gospel to India she didn’t share his zeal.

In fact, as the plans developed she became increasingly nervous to the point that she concluded it would be unwise for her to go.

William appealed to his wife but without success. She was absolutely certain that this was not for her. She was heavily pregnant and not about to move her young children into the absolutely unknown.

So Carey adjusted his plans. He and his eldest son, Felix, would go to India and in a year or so they would return to bring the rest of the family.[i] Good plan. That would give him time to settle in and write to her of the conditions and also give her time to hear from God for herself.

But as things progressed the pressure mounted. John Thomas, Carey’s co-missionary, was travelling with his wife. Why not Dorothy? While the ship was delayed, Thomas and Carey met with Dorothy. Thomas so convinced Dorothy that she may never see her husband again that Dorothy was ‘afraid to stay at home’. [ii]

And so, in what can only be described as a frantic rush, ill-prepared, in just one day, she quickly packed what she could, gathered the children, including the (now) newly born son, and boarded the ship along with her husband.

A Tribute by an Indian Woman

Ruth Mangalwadi, in a beautifully written chapter entitled, ‘William Carey – a tribute by an Indian Woman’ writes, ‘Devastating circumstances overwhelmed Dorothy from the outset.

‘She didn’t share her husband’s vision. And his many accomplishments in mission, linguistics, printing, journalism and social reform overshadowed her own struggles with poverty, child-rearing, the heat, mosquitoes, her bouts of chronic dysentery and the frequent upheavals as they moved house.

‘All that William Carey was able to accomplish was possible only if he could leave the domestic responsibilities to his wife. But she paid a high price.’[iii]

Death and Distrust

In their first seven months in India they moved five times. In the eleventh month, after a struggle with fever in the heat, their five-year-old son Peter died. In the bewildering months that followed Dorothy became increasingly deranged. She had lost two daughters in infancy in England but this was different.

Any difficulty is hard to bear when you are far from home, in a different land – but difficulties are harder to bear when you’re convinced you should not be there in the first place.

One psychologist has suggested that Dorothy’s reluctant trust in William, and his friend John Thomas, which led to her changing her mind and coming to India was now shattered and ‘in its place surged a flood of distrust’.[iv]

‘She began to have delusions of Carey’s infidelity and would follow him around to catch him red-handed. She would…publicly accuse him in foul language, shouting obscenities and causing great embarrassment. She saw Carey as her enemy.’[v]

Carey considered that her problem may have been of a spiritual nature but concluded it was psychiatric in origin.

Several friends and colleagues urged William to commit Dorothy to an insane asylum. But he recoiled at the thought of the treatment she might receive in such a place and took the responsibility to keep her within the family home, even though the children were exposed to her rages.[vi]

She suffered for a further 12 years, latterly in full confinement for her own safety, until her death of a fever in 1807. She was 51.

The price of the Careys’ love for India

Ruth Mangalwadi argues that Dorothy’s sacrifice enabled Carey to have the influence on India that he did.

If she had refused to come to India, he would have been forced to return home. She did not absolutely reject the possibility of living in poor conditions during the early years in India. She committed herself to raising the children so Carey could focus on translation work. As a result of her struggles, and her mental illness, ‘mission societies began to consider the wives as equally important as their husbands: their needs and concerns were provided for.’[vii]

For me, by far the most moving reflection on this chapter in missionary history has been expressed by Ruth Mangalwadi. This statement captures the pain and mystery, as well as the outcome of the Careys’ experience in India:

‘For Dorothy’s sake, I would have been glad had Carey returned to England. For India’s sake, I am grateful that he did not.’[viii]

I was at a Leaders’ Retreat recently and was asked for my own opinion on Dorothy Carey. It may be helpful for some if I put my own thoughts in brief here.

1. I think William and Dorothy should have stuck to their first option, which was that William would take Felix and go for a year, arrange for suitable accomodation and then return to collect Dorothy and the rest of the family.

2. In terms of relocating for the sake of church-planting or extension, a general principle of mutual agreement should be upheld. In other words, if the wife is having a serious struggle with the thought of leaving and is essentially against the idea, or not yet at peace, then the husband should wait. It’s not that the wife would make the final decision but if the wife is saying no, then you’re not ready to go. Extenuating circumstances in the Carey case: what precedent was there? Also, how could Carey have known it would turn out as it did?

3. I would reiterate Ruth Mangalwadi’s compassionate but realistic insight: that in terms of Dorothy’s well-being they should have stayed in England, but in terms of India’s well-being, it was right that they went.

© 2011/2012 Church History Blog / Lex Loizides

[i] Timothy George, The Life and Mission of William Carey, IVP, p.157

[ii] ibid. p.85

[iii] Ruth Mangalwadi, William Carey and the Regeneration of India, Good Books, Mussourie, p.26

[iv] James R Beck, Dorothy’s Devastating Delusions,

[v] Mangalwadi, p.38

[vi] George, p.158

[vii] Mangalwadi, p.39

[viii] ibid. p.26


12 thoughts on “Dorothy Carey and the Cost of Mission

  1. Peter Stephens January 4, 2011 / 8:49 am

    Thanks Lex – a very thought-provoking article. I wonder how we would react today to such hardships. The culture even within our churches places such a high esteem on marriage and family life that Carey would be seem as cavalier at best and uncaring and a poor husband and father at worst. Yet, he was convinced of the call of God and held tight to that call, despite the cost both to him and to Dorothy. Plenty to mull over…

  2. Jill January 5, 2011 / 4:47 am

    I can’t help but wonder how I would feel in Dorothy’s position. It makes me sad, and it’s difficult to know how to respond to it. I’m always amazed at the ways God uses a fallen world with fallen people in it to reveal the light of his gospel, however.

    I am happy to have found your site. Thank you for all that you’ve posted here. I’ll bookmark your site and return.

  3. cpb June 15, 2011 / 10:31 pm

    It seems to me that Carey did not love his wife as he is called in the Bible to do so. Apparently he wanted her to go for “appearances sake”. It also seems to me that his children were also far down on the list. I judge a man by the way he treats his family. If he says he is a Christian, I watch and listen extra closely. There will always be someone to go into the fields. But there is only one chance to love and raise your children. If the need is still so strong and the call really there–once the children are grown (and when someone marries and has children–it is their Godly duty to tend to them–they ARE the mission field), then by all means, follow through–but not before then. Where is the Godliness in neglecting or abandoning one’s children and turning a blind eye to the distress of a spouse.

  4. chuck clark September 8, 2011 / 8:03 am

    29 And Jesus answered and said, Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake, and the gospel’s,
    30 But he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life.

  5. David M. Taylor February 7, 2012 / 3:56 pm

    I recently watched the Carey film and afterwards discussed with my wife what we felt about it/him/her.

    We agreed that we need to keep our unity of direction central as we seek God’s will for our lives and examine where we want to push work forwards. We agreed that Carey was guilty of neglect. he did not love his life like his own Body until it was too late – when he did at least not lock her away.

    From this blog, it is interesting to note that external pressure influenced their plans. Couples need to find God’s will for them and his timing and not be pushed by others.

    What is completely ignored in all the writing I have read about this case is the understanding of spiritual warfare and the demonic. Carey came against a very strong evil spirit that was destroying woman through Satee in India. It is no wonder that by making his reference a book on Psychiatry rather than Biblical teaching on spiritual warfare and the reality of the demonic, he was powerless to resist this spirit. As a consequence this spirit took his wife, possesed and destroyed her.

    Carey was thus a victim of the limited Western intellectualised Christianity. He threw himself into an intellectual challenge of translation while neglecting not just his wife, but also the spiritual dimension of his mission. He came against principalities and powers for which neither he nor Dorothy, nor anyone in the sending church had a concept to deal with. Unfortunately, from a biblical perspective she might have been afforded at least a degree of protection had she aligned herself under her husbands spiritual authority.

    Peter teaches, Sarah is protected by the Lord from Abraham’s mistakes because of her submissive spirit.

    Paul teaches that the unbeliefing partner is sanctified by the believer or that the Husband is the head of the family as Christ is head of the church. Submitting to the will of Christ is what protects us and removes the legal rights of the enemy.

    The third aspect is that Dorothy perhaps had a broken-heart from the loss of her children. But Luke 4:18 Jesus came to heal the broken-hearted. The ministry of Inner Healing – healing of broken hearts was not understand in that era and is still neglected in many streams of the church in this day and age. But Dorothy could have been helped. I recently met with a church leader’s wife who had been traumatised by an attempted assanination in Pakistan. All she wanted was an over and out solution. The end of all ministry, evangelism and a ticket to the West. Our teaching on inner healing facilitated her having an encounter with Jesus that healed her inner person and restored her joy and zeal. They have continued with the work in their country.

  6. Jo Flemings July 23, 2012 / 6:23 pm

    You make a lot of excuses here for William Carey’s failure to do his primary dut before God and the Church. He had an obligation to provide for and protect his wife and his children. Marriage is the FIRST vocation. Carey should not have married if he was in any way called to foreign missions, or he should have waited until his family was in a state that would have made the mission consistent with his obligation to his wife and children. The problem here is that Carey was encouraged in perhaps what was a zealous selfish prideful pursuit of what he preferred instead of what he was obliged to do- serve God in all the glory of going, doing, and being for Jesus’ gospel at the expense of Dorothy, and his children. And here you sit, an hundred plus years later justifying this. When what might have happened in the second generation, among his children and his friends, if his love for souls had been rightly ordered and therfore channelled where it should have been- into his wife and children’s lives- maybe that five year old who died in India would have been the catalyst for conversion for four times as many people as WIlliam was. And in the meantime Dorothy the real victim here, besides the children, continues to be marginalized for the sake of ‘India’. Well, Jesus cares about Dorothy and last time I checked He wasn’t the one saying that it was fitting to sacrifice the one for the sake of the many- that was Caiaphas, the Pharisee.

  7. Maggie Steven January 28, 2013 / 11:30 pm

    CPB , Jo & David : I TOTALLY agree with u. I think this Bible verse sums up all i need to say and all of my anger with William Carey : “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” ( 1 Tim.5:8).

  8. Audrey Yu July 11, 2013 / 5:30 pm

    In Carey’s time, the Bible has not yet been translated to many languages, now we have online Bibles in virtually all languages in the world. In Carey’s time, it was considered normal for Indian women to be burned at their husbands’ death, now no government would condone such brutal abuse of human rights. In short, the presence of missionaries who were willing to sacrifice their lives no matter what the cost was much more necessary in Carey’s time. Faced with the daily sight of injustice, cruelty, oppression and darkness, William Carey might have felt compelled to stay on to give light and hope to such a dark world, even after the death of his son and his wife’s derangement. I doubt that mission conditions today would necessitate such sacrifice.

  9. Marge January 18, 2018 / 6:01 pm

    I agree with CPB. I judge a man by how he treats his family and Carey treated his family horribly. God gives you a family, then they should be first before your missions. The order of importance and priority should be God, family, THEN missions and Carey had it all messed up. It was God, appearance, missions, and then family. He was completely wrong and I think he was part of why Dorothy went crazy. She didn’t want to be there and he didn’t even care about her (he married her not because of love but because of who knows what and also wanted her to accompany him because he felt like it would make him look bad to be traveling alone, without his wife). He was so wrapped up in translating the Bible that he neglected the family God gave him. I think he was neglectful and if there was ever a missionary who had warped theology and a screwed idea of family and missions, it was Carey. I know some people go gaga over him and what he did, and that’s great that he translated the Bible, but he should have made family a bigger priority and put Dorothy first. And just food for thought, SIX MONTHS after Dorothy died, Carey was already married — to the same lady he baptized in 1803 (before Dorothy died), He had already developed a friendship with her and despite strong opposition all around they went ahead with it. So though he probably wasn’t cheating on Dorothy, I could see where she got her suspicions if she saw them talking or maybe the baptism planted a seed and it started to take root and grow more and more every time she saw the two together. Who knows, but I am definitely on Dorothy’s side, no matter how crazy she was. I am sympathetic to all *three* wives of Carey’s because he’s the crazy one to me.

  10. Michael Tardive August 26, 2018 / 4:01 am

    Typical of the proud church members in America that they would censure a figure like Carey who suffered greatly for the gospel and in his own family. Do any of you REALLY know what happened there? You sit in judgement upon a situation you never witnessed. You know NONE of these people. The Bible says, “Who are you to judge another man’s servant? Before his own master he stands or falls.” Your arrogant judging reveals you know nothing of the kind of demonic attack that comes upon missionaries serving Christ in dark places. May God forgive you of your judgmental attitudes.

  11. John Brittain November 26, 2018 / 10:36 pm

    Well spoken, Michael.

    This article is very thought-provoking. I often think of absolute truth only being understood by our omniscient God and label His understanding “Truth,” while the filtered and finite understanding we have must be labeled “truth,” for it is something less than the “Truth.”

    The story of the Carey family may be seen as both sad and glorious. Somehow, I say, may the Lord be glorified in it.

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