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