William Carey (1761-1834), an English Particular Baptist missionary, known well as the “father of modern missions,” is a hero to many current and aspiring missionaries. Indeed, as I am currently preparing for future mission work in India, he is a hero of mine, for it was India where he ministered. When one studies the life of Carey it is almost impossible not to be told of the confrontation between him and the fellow minister, Mr. Ryland. When Carey proposed the discussion on the duty of Christians to spread the gospel among the heathen nations, Mr. Ryland responded, “Young man, sit down. When God pleases to convert the heathen, He will do it without your aid or mine” [John C. Marshman, The Life and Times of Carey, Marshman, and Ward; 10]. What is more, this quote is almost always referenced as somewhat of a slam against Calvinism, illustrating, so it goes, the “necessary” outcome or implications of Calvinistic convictions.
I beg to differ. First, this statement has actually been brought into question, for there seems to be no primary evidence for it. Even if Ryland’s retort did occur, and sprung forth from his Calvinistic convictions, this would be nothing but an improper application of Calvinism. Calvinism, contrary to the view of some, does not kill evangelism by any means. For an explantion of why, see my past article on Calvinistic Evangelism: An Oxymoron?. However, I am thoroughly convinced that Ryland’s retort had nothing whatsoever to do with Calvinistic convictions. In other words, Ryland’s response to Carey, which seems to be against all things missions, was not stated as an implication of Calvinistic theology. Why do I take such a view? Because I myself am a Calvinist? No, not at all; for if it could be proven without a shadow of a doubt that Ryland spoke these words as his understanding of the implications of Calvinism, I would merely disagree with his conclusion. Rather, I believe Ryland’s retort had nothing to do with Calvinism because of William Carey’s subsequent pamphlet entitled “An Enquiry Into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens.” Certainly, we would expect to find some mention of Calvinistic convictions in this “Enquiry” if in fact that was at least part of the reason for the objection against Carey. This, however, is not at all what we find. In the first section of his “Enquiry” Carey notes why some were negligent in obeying the Great Commission. You will note that nothing pertains to Calvinism:
It seems as if many thought the commission was sufficiently put in execution by what the apostles and others have done; that we have enough to do to attend to the salvation of our own countrymen; and that, if God intends the salvation of the heathen, he will some way or other bring them to the gospel, or the gospel to them. It is thus that multitudes sit at ease, and give themselves no concern about the far greater part of their fellow-sinners, who to this day, are lost in ignorance and idolatry. There seems also to be an opinion existing in the minds of some, that because the apostles were extraordinary officers and have no proper successors, and because many things which were right for them to do would be utterly unwarrantable for us, therefore it may not be immediately binding on us to execute the commission, though it was so upon them.
Granted, the statement, “if God intends the salvation of the heathen, he will some way or other bring them to the gospel, or the gospel to them,” could possibly be referenced as an “implication of Calvinism,” as some may conclude. However, this statement must be understood in relation to the surrounding “reasons” (i.e. the command given the apostles and the apostles themselves being so unqiuely called). What is more, as one keeps reading the “Enquiry,” nothing whatsoever is said that hints of Calvinism.
I think it safe to say that Calvinism was never thought of by Mr. Ryland (and others associated with this community) as an impediment to missions, and therefore Carey did not entertain the idea. I can only conclude that Mr. Ryland’s statement, as sad as it may be to our ears, was not spoken based on Calvinistic convictions as many have postulated. Rather, according to Carey’s “Enquiry,” it appears to have been some other theological-historical issues pertaining to the nature of the Great Commission in relation to the apostles and the church today. This is at least what may be gathered from this historical document. I know of no primary resource that speaks to the contrary, although I would be interested in learning about it if there is.