Thankful for the people around the “Heroes”

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Yesterday here in the US was Thanksgiving holiday, a day to gather with family and friends. Along with my family, I’m grateful this year for those that stand with the “heroes” in their lives. Those that are faithful daily to the tasks that enable them to serve others, often not in the public eye. The “heroes” are those men and women that also are faithful, but serve in more noticeable ways, gaining acclamation in more visible ways. Both kinds of people are needed, but both are not often given equal honor and respect.

Many people aware of the history of Christian missions, or the history of 19th century Bengal in India, have heard the name William Carey. Called by some the “Father of Protestant Missions” (though not completely accurate as others were before him even in India, like Lutheran missionary Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg), Carey sailed for India from England in May, 1793. He spent the next 40 years in West Bengal, accomplishing an astounding amount of work that included translation of the Scriptures into multiple languages, church planting, starting a University, engaging in social justice and community uplift projects, and more.

Yet Carey did not accomplish these things alone. He was part of a trio that included William Ward and Joshua Marshman. And they were part of families that included their wives and children. But there were also other co-workers from England as well as India, forming a strong overall team. William Carey has become the most well-known name, the “hero”. But there was someone at his side when he left England for India that should never be forgotten.

Her name was Dorothy. She married William Carey in 1781, when she was 25 years old. When William approached her with his call to go to India, she was reluctant to go and initially said no. Finally, as the early months of 1793 drew on, she agreed to go, though still deeply fearful and very fragile. There were various possible reasons for her reluctance, including that she was in the last stage of pregnancy, and had three small boys of ages 8, 5 and 4. By the time she agreed to go, and the family left in May, a new baby named Jabez was also with them.

Upon arrival in Calcutta in the summer of 1793, Dorothy became quickly sick with dysentery, along with the oldest child, Felix. In October of the following year, their five year old, Peter, died after a violent two week bout of the same disease. Over the next two years, Dorothy would do her best to carry on, often miserable. But in 1795, the challenge of that carrying on became so much deeper with the onset of mental illness. She would face the darkness of this mental torment all the way until her death in 1807. In the early years it was up and down, but then the final years saw a retreat into full paranoia and unreality.

I have heard of William Carey for many, many years. When I was 16 years old I had gone to Vancouver, British Colombia in Canada, and helped lead a Vacation Bible School that included teaching lessons on Carey and his mission to India. Then just seven years later, I was on my way to Calcutta (now Kolkata), to lead our mission organization’s first work in India in 1982. But seldom had I ever heard of (or noticed) the important figure at Carey’s side for so many years. When I finally got to visit Serampore a few years ago, Carey’s base of operation, I went to the Baptist cemetery where he and his other co-workers are buried.

As I stood at Carey’s grave, my attention was drawn also to the grave right to his left, that of Dorothy. (she was the first wife he would bury in India). I paused in that moment, and gave thanks for the life of Dorothy Carey, a life of much suffering and torment, but somehow knowing that she had a very important part in the whole story. But a part that is so often not told or even acknowledged.

In 1992, a Baptist professor named James R. Beck published a book called Dorothy Carey: The Tragic and Untold Story of Mrs. William Carey. A couple years later in Pune, India where we lived, a co-worker let me borrow and read her copy of this book. (thanks, Cora!) I highly recommend this little-known book to those reading this, as it beautifully not only tells Dorothy’s story, but brings out the sad but very real issues of mental illness and burn-out in the context of the “helping professions.”

I’m thankful for the life of Dorothy Carey. We will only know in the light of eternity her particular contribution, her own part to play in the “heroic” story of William Carey and the Serampore trio, and the other co-workers and families from India, England and other nations. Hers is not a story of triumph and victory, but agony and seeming defeat. A story of mental illness, paranoia and loneliness in the relational context of a husband who suffered his own terrible costs.

Who are you thankful for today? People that are not the “heroes”, but have lived lives of pain and suffering in unknown places? Yet their obedience and faithfulness has unleashed grace for the heroes to come, or the heroes already in their lives. Every “hero” has countless others around them who have paid a price in obscurity to see dreams fulfilled.

I’m thankful for Dorothy Carey. I hope someday I can tell her that face to face.

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