William Carey’s Less-than-Perfect Family Life

WILLIAM CAREY, the “Father of Modern Missions,” is revered by mission enthusiasts from every denomination and mission society. He stands as a model for generations to come—but not in his family life.

Carey’s performance in the arena of family life has most marred his image—and not just in the twentieth century when family issues have assumed a high priority. In Carey’s own day, people questioned his seeming insensitivity to family concerns.

But questions about Carey’s judgment in family matters were muted by the spirit of the times. It was an age when by law a wife and children were essentially a man’s property. Eighteenth-century jurist Sir William Blackstone summarized the marital legal code of his day by quipping, “The husband and wife are one, and the husband is that one.” So it was with William Carey and his first wife, Dorothy—or Dolly, as she was affectionately called.

It was William’s decision, and his decision alone, to leave everything behind for a lifelong commitment to India. Dolly’s resistance was natural for a mother of three little ones, expecting the fourth. Nevertheless, she is the one who has suffered at the hands of biographers. Wrote George Smith: “Never had a minister, missionary, or scholar a less sympathetic mate, due largely to . . . latent mental disease.” Furthermore, “she remain[ed] to the last a peasant woman, with a reproachful tongue.”

Finding Little in Common

William was still a teenager—not quite 20 in the summer of 1781 when he married Dorothy. She was nearly six years his senior. There is no indication theirs was a love-match, but the marriage lasted until her death 26 years later.

William and Dorothy had little in common. She was illiterate at the time of their marriage; she signed an X in the parish marriage register. Carey might have waited and married a woman whose capabilities and interests more closely paralleled his own, but he did not.

It would be mistaken, however, to imagine that Dorothy had shrewdly snared the hometown’s most eligible bachelor. He was described as a “poor journeyman-shoemaker,” and during the dozen years before he sailed for India, he was never able to bring his family above the poverty level When his mother visited them at the time of their baby daughter’s death, she was appalled by their abject poverty.

But despite the Careys’ financial hardships, there is no evidence Dorothy was dissatisfied with her marriage or circumstances in life. William’s pastoral duties at a tiny Baptist church consumed precious time and energy with inadequate compensation. Yet she supported him to the point of consenting to be rebaptized as a Baptist—a noteworthy decision considering her devout Puritan upbringing.

Refusing to Go to India

But Dorothy’s support for her husband’s ministry had its limits. When he announced he had volunteered to become a missionary in India, she adamantly refused to be part of the venture. There is no evidence William had previously shared his dreams with Dorothy. And his decision came suddenly—not at home with Dorothy at his side, but at a Baptist Missionary Society meeting in a neighboring town.

William reluctantly acquiesced to her refusal to join him, but he did insist on taking their oldest child, Felix.

Why did Dorothy oppose serving with her husband as a foreign missionary? Critics have charged not only a lack of wifely submission, but also spiritual impotence. But considering the departure was immediate, the cross-cultural move was permanent, and the venture was woefully underfunded, it is not difficult to understand her frame of mind.

Even if they endured the long sea voyage, would they survive the disease—ridden tropical climate of India? She had endured many hardships, but this was asking too much, especially to say good—bye to family and friends with no hope of seeing them again. She was described as a “homebird” who was “home—clinging to a degree. Her people, as the registers prove, had for a century at least kept close to one another, sharing all their sunshines and griefs within the bounds of the village.” She must have hoped her husband would change his mind, but he did not.

Caving in to Pressure

On April 4, 1793, William Carey abandoned his pregnant wife and two little children and boarded the Oxford on the Thames to begin his voyage to India. He was accompanied by his son Felix and his missionary partner, John Thomas, as well as Mrs. Thomas and their daughter. The voyage ended almost as quickly as it began, however, when Thomas was forced to return and settle debts before leaving.

The delay gave William as well as John Thomas additional time to urge Dorothy, who had just come through a safe delivery, to change her mind. Carey utilized kind words and subtle implications in his effort to persuade her. “If I had all the world I would freely give it all to have you and my dear children with me,” he wrote while on board the Oxford. “But the sense of duty is so strong as to overpower all other considerations; I could not turn back without guilt on my soul. . . . You want to know what Mrs. Thomas thinks, and how she likes the voyage. She would rather stay in England than go to India; but thinks it right to go with her husband.”

Thomas was not so subtle. He told Dorothy her refusal to join the venture would cause her family to “be dispersed and divided for ever—she would repent it as long as she lived.”

Dorothy reluctantly caved in and agreed to go, provided her sister would accompany her. But she was unhappy, and in the years that followed, her unhappiness turned into bitter resentment. Poverty, illness, and loneliness took its toll—hardships compounded by the fact the Thomas family was living in relative affluence in Calcutta. William complained in a letter that Dorothy and her sister were “continually exclaiming against” him.

Suffering from Delusions

The family situation worsened for Dorothy when her sister left the household to marry an official of the East India Company Then in 1794, soon after the Careys moved from the Sundarbans jungle to Mudnabatti, 5-year-old Peter died of dysentery. For Dorothy, the grief, combined with her physical ailments, pushed her over the brink of despair. Her mental condition worsened—though not enough to preclude marital intimacy, since in January 1796, Dorothy gave birth to another son. Three months after the birth, William wrote: “My poor wife must be considered as insane, and is the occasion of great sorrow.” Another missionary described her as “wholly insane.”

Dorothy suffered from delusions, particularly that her husband was having affairs with other women. But she was not entirely out of touch with reality. At times she was coherent enough to convince others of the charges, though women who believed Dorothy were quick to discredit her when they became the targets of her accusations. Sometimes she would follow her husband into the streets berating him; other times she was seen attacking him physically; and still other times she talked and acted rationally.

But as the years passed, her condition worsened to the point that Carey confined her in a locked room. He worked on his translations, according to an observer, “while an insane wife, frequently wrought up to a state of most distressing excitement, was in the next room.”

Taming Unruly Children

During these years, the Carey boys had to fend for themselves. Their father was consumed by his work and was not inclined to discipline them for misbehavior. “The good man saw and lamented the evil,” wrote his colleague Hannah Marshman, “but was too mild to apply an effectual remedy. ”

Hannah sought to provide a motherly influence, and William Ward, another colleague, served as a surrogate father. According to a missionary on the scene, “From being a tiger, he [Felix] was transformed into a lamb under Ward’s influence.” At age 16 Felix began preaching to the native people, and six years later, in 1807, his father ordained him and commissioned him to serve as a missionary in Burma.

Later that same year Carey made the following entry in his diary: “Tuesday, Dec. 8, 1807. This evening Mrs. Carey died of the fever under which she has languished some time. Her death was a very easy one; but there was no appearance of returning reason, nor any thing that could cast a dawn of hope or light on her state.”

Finding Happiness

On May 9, 1808, just five months and a day after Dorothy’s death, Carey married Charlotte Rumohr, a Danish woman not connected with the mission. He had known her since she had moved to India several years earlier, and she had become a baptized believer through his ministry. She was described as petite, elegant, well-educated, cultured, and wealthy—a stark contrast from Dorothy.

William and Charlotte were both 46, and in many ways she was a perfect match for Carey. But their marriage created no small scandal in the mission. So agitated were some missionaries when they learned of William’s intent to remarry so soon, they circulated a petition to dissuade him. Carey’s determination prevailed, however, and they withdrew their protest.

Fortunately for Carey, this marriage was happy. He and Charlotte worked together on translations, and she became a loving mother to the younger boys, who had never lived in a functional family. When she died in 1821, after 13 years of marriage, Carey wrote: “We had as great a share of happiness as ever was enjoyed by mortals.”

Two years after Charlotte’s death, Carey, now 62, married for the third time. The bride was Grace Hughes, a widow 17 years younger. Grace was no match for Charlotte in intelligence or culture, but she was a good companion for Carey’s remaining 11 years. “Her constant and unremitting care and excellent nursing took off much of the weight of my illness,” he wrote, adding, “we live in great happiness.”

But it was Charlotte who had truly captured William Carey’s heart. When he died in 1834, his will specified that Grace should receive his valuable library, but that he be “buried by the side of my second wife, Charlotte Emilia Carey.”

Building a Communal Family

Carey’s home involved more than the nuclear family. After he located in the Danish settlement of Serampore in 1800, Carey formulated a pattern for communal family living. All missionaries and their family members would share meals and devotional times and live out of a common treasury. The purpose was to bring family life and ministry together in order to enhance both. Earlier Carey had written, “Our families should be considered nurseries for the Mission.”

For Carey, as well as the other Serampore missionaries, that ideal became a reality as their children continued on in the work of the mission. Carey’s own legacy includes nephews and sons and later generations of missionary enthusiasts. His son Jabez, like Felix, started young—language study at 13 and ordination and commissioning at age 18.

But not all went according to Carey’s plans. His nephew Eustace established a rival mission station. Carey’s son Felix abandoned his missionary work in Burma in 1814 to serve as an ambassador for the king of Burma. Carey was devastated: “Felix is shriveled from a missionary into an ambassador.”

Carey’s children were important to him, but the ministry came first. This was evident when his son William, who was serving with his young wife at a remote mission outpost, was gored by a buffalo. Discouraged and fearing for his wife’s safety, William requested a transfer back to Serampore.

Carey’s words to his son exemplify his lifelong perspective on family relationships: “I ought, however, to say that I think there is much guilt in your fears. You and Mary will be a thousand times more safe in committing yourselves to God in the way of duty than in neglecting the obvious duty to take care of yourselves.” CH

By Ruth A. Tucker

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #36 in 1992]

Dr. Ruth A. Tucker, a member of Christian History’s editorial advisory board, is the author of numerous books, including From Jersusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions (Academie, 1983).
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