The tragedy of Dorothy Carey

The tragedy of Dorothy Carey image

One of the most tragic stories of missionary history is the story of Dorothy Carey, wife of the pioneer missionary William Carey.
Dorothy married William, then a cobbler, in 1781. Given these humble beginnings, it may not have been apparent how great the mismatch was between them: she was illiterate, he mastered more than seven languages in his life time.

Carey entered the Baptist pastorate, and grew increasingly convinced of a call to take the gospel to the world. His motto became


Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God!


When Carey announced his plan to take the gospel to India, his wife was not at all taken with the notion. Dorothy initially refused to leave England; but, at the last minute, though she was heavily pregnant, she consented to go.

But the trip did not go well for Dorothy. Her young son Peter died of dysentery (two daughters had already died); and Dorothy, having herself suffered more than one bout of life-threatening dysentery, descended into a severe mental breakdown from which she never recovered, finally dying of a fever after more than a decade of insanity in 1807.

In her book William Carey and the Regeneration of India, author Ruth Mangalwadi writes that Dorothy:


…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.


There is no doubt that Carey not only attempted, but achieved ‘great things for God’. But was his poor wife sacrificed on the altar of even this high ideal? (It was also reported that Carey badly neglected the upbringing of his four sons).

Of course, judging at this distance is a very difficult matter. How can we ever know all the circumstances of Mrs Carey’s loss of her mind, and of her husband’s treatment of her? But one reading of Carey’s career is certainly that he accomplished what he did, marvelous as it was, at the expense of Dorothy’s wellbeing. Certainly, there are missionary and ministry children I know of that would be able to testify to an experience very similar to this.

And, whatever the realities of that particular situation, it ought at least to prompt us to ask: can ‘the gospel’, or ‘attempting great things for God’ become a pretext for doing things (or not doing things) in a way that undermines the very cause we seek to serve?

The problem comes especially when we make ‘the gospel’ a principle, or an ideal, and depersonalize it; or when we make our vision for our institution or work coterminous with ‘the gospel’ itself.

Is it possible even to make the gospel an idol? Perverse though it sounds, I think very much that it is. By turning it into a slogan we can forget the very content that is internal to it. And inherent to the message is the character of the righteous and merciful God himself, who drives us to prioritize rather than neglect our familial relationships. And if we needed more reassurance of this, Paul tells Timothy that an overseer:


…must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect.  (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God's church?) (1Ti 3:4-5)


Clearly, the Christian leader fanatical for the gospel of Jesus Christ does not sacrifice his family – not because they are the ultimate thing but because the gospel orients you to love people, not pursue a cause.

Once ‘the gospel’ has become a dream or an ideal or even a cause, it has become something other than itself – and it is lost, whatever apparent successes are achieved in its name.



Feature photo: Wikimedia

Michael Jensen is rector of St Mark's Darling Point and is the author of the book My God, My God: Is it Possible to Believe Anymore? He's on twitter: @mpjensen

Comments (1)

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  • Christopher Braga
    March 5, 13 - 1:04pm
    Yes, thanks for the encouragement Michael. You don't want to hurt people as you work together in gospel ministry but I suppose be able to say like Paul, "help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life." Philippians 4:3