The Truth Behind Those Missionary Biographies

great bios

I was an eighteen year old college freshman when I learned that Abraham Lincoln actually had flaws.  Oh my goodness, that was quite an eye opener.  As a boy I had only read biographical works that extolled the great man’s stellar character.  I recall feeling let down when I discovered that the Great Emancipator was less an other-worldly-saint and more a typical 19th century lawyer and politician. As you can imagine, I was not happy to discover that our nation’s founding fathers weren’t always noble and honorable giants of virtue.  I went through a similar process during my first weeks as a missionary counselor.  I had joined Wycliffe Bible Translators under the assumption that the missionary stories I had heard and read were the whole story.  Oops.  Wrong again.  Please understand:  I am not saying the biographers lied or misrepresented these great people.  I am only saying that there is usually more to every story including those involving the great Christian missionaries.  Reality checks are good for us/me.

Take for example the Father of Modern Protestant Missions, William Carey.  If missions had an All Star team, Carey would be the team captain.  The minimally educated shoemaker left England in April 1793 for Calcutta, India.  He would remain in India till his death in 1834.  His first field term was 41 years.  Furlough came when he died.  Impressive, indeed.  During his time in India, Carey translated the entire Bible into six languages and portions of Scripture into 29 others.  He helped found Serampore College, the first Christian college in Asia.  He was an educator, evangelist, linguist, and reformer.  His interest in botany led him to form the Agricultural and Horticultural Society of India.  As a result of Carey’s influence, such cultural practices as burning widows on their deceased husbands’ funeral pyre was outlawed.  Truly, William Carey’s legacy of single minded ministry to the Indian people is one of devotion, perseverance, and sacrifice.

Bigger than life?  Truly amazing?  Oh yes.  But what is the rest of the story?  Well, there are a few other issues to consider.  First, William Carey was not exactly a stellar role model as a husband and father.  He initially left for India without his pregnant wife, Dorothy.  Initially, his illiterate peasant wife refused to follow him on his India missions adventure.  She would follow later but only after much pressure from Carey and colleagues.  Within two years of her arrival in India she buried her five year old son, saw their funding disappear, moved five times in one seven month period, endured numerous illnesses and finally in October 1794 she slipped into insanity.  She would spend the final 12 years of her life in a locked room.  There is no record of Carey seeking medical treatment for his wife even though the British East India Company had medical personnel in the country.  He certainly never considered taking the poor soul back to England.  Dorothy, who gave birth to a seventh child nearly a year into her psychosis, was unable to provide care for her four living sons (two daughters and a son had died in childhood).

Dr. James R. Beck, professor at Denver Seminary has written an excellent book entitled Dorothy Carey The Tragic and Untold Story of Mrs. William Carey if you want to read more about her life. Carey’s prolific devotion to work left the boys to grow up on their own.  Other missionaries at Serampore  eventually stepped in to raise the Carey children.  Even though his Bible translation production is unsurpassed even with our present technology, his actual results were less than functional.  Historian Mark Galli in his article, The Man Who Wouldn’t Give Up (http://www.ctlibrary.com/ch/1992/issue36/3608.html) states, “Most Indian language experts (including missionary translator Henry Martyn in Carey’s day) have concluded that his translations are wooden and in some places indecipherable. Carey’s work had to be immediately and significantly revised.”  So, even though his translation output was remarkable, the numbers do not accurately reflect practical impact of his accomplishments.

So what?  Was Carey a great man of God or just another workaholic missionary who sacrificed his family and integrity on the altar of his ego?  Aw…I believe Carey was truly a great man.  He had incredible faith and vision and focus.  I admire him.  But he was a real person too.  Just like you and me.  The truth doesn’t necessarily tarnish his legacy as much as it points us to God’s glory.  Carey was “the father of modern missions” by grace alone.  There is no reason an ill educated, ill funded, ill prepared man could do what he did in 17th century India.  His intellect was from the Lord…his physical stamina was from the Lord…his opportunities were from the Lord…his results in spite of himself were from the Lord…his very survival in a harsh environment was from the Lord.  And really that is also the nature of own true stories in Christ.  The truth about who we are and what we actually do only serve as examples of God’s greatness on the backdrop of our flawed stories.

Now…go out there and have a flawed but godly fortnight.  And keep it real in the process.

Fortnight Quiz answer:  C.  The Father of Bud Sieges’ biography is unflawed because it does not exist.  His sanitized autobiography can be seen on our website.

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