Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Carey Conundrum

The story of William Carey is used to show that predestination and evangelism are contrary  to each other. Carey was advocating missions and was told to sit down; when God was ready to save the heathen He would do it without Carey's assistance. But what are the facts of this case?

Now Carey was a Calvinist and believed in predestination. Therefore, this is, at worst, a debate between Calvinists over what Calvinism means. Further, there was an extreme view of Calvinism (called hyper-Calvinism by the standard Council-of-Dort-affirming Calvinism), which may have been involved in this disagreement. Now I would be willing to leave things here as a debate among Calvinists and simply say I support William Carey's form of Calvinism. But the truth is more complicated then that.

The scene was a pastor's conference presided over by the elder John Ryland. (There were two John Rylands involved: the younger, who was Carey's friend and supporter, and the elder, who was his father.) William Carey and his friend Thomas Chisholm had just been ordained as ministers. The elder  Ryland asked the newest members of the group to propose a subject for discussion. Chisholm suggested discussing a passage in 2 Peter, but the elder Ryland told him to look it up in John Gill. Then Carey asked if the command to preach the gospel to the heathen did not last until the end of the world, since the accompanying promise was to that extent (see Matthew 28:19,20). And the elder Ryland replied .... It is not really clear what the elder Ryland replied. The elder Ryland never remembered what he had said. Chisholm accused him of claiming that a restoration of the gift of tongues was necessary to take the gospel to the heathen. (The younger Ryland denied his father said this, but I have not seen the exact words of the denial.) The common version, "Sit down young man, when God gets ready to save the heathen He will do it without your help or mine," was from Jonathan Marshall, who knew Carey in India, at a time when Carey himself admits he did not remember exactly what was said. But the bigger question is what was meant.

Carey wrote a pamphlet called  An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians To Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens. He told the younger Ryland that it responded to the elder Ryland's objections. It does not mention Calvinism. It does deal with God's command, which is the portion he claimed referred to the elder Ryland's objection. But the main part of the pamphlet deals with practical objections: where will we get the money; the heathen will eat us; and similar questions. The issue does not seem to be doctrinal but practical: how would such an endeavor be possible? And Carey's chief virtue was being willing to trust God to accomplish such things. But doctrine does not seem to be the main issue.

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