William Carey (1761–1834) is often called the father of modern missions. Indeed, he proved innovative in founding the Baptist Missionary Society in 1792 and through pioneering Bible translation in India. Carey also broke new ground in 1800 when he helped launch the Serampore mission—a team of three families that lived and served together in the Danish colony of Serampore near Calcutta.
While forming a missionary team in his day was already innovative, Carey’s 1805 draft of the “Serampore Form of Agreement” was also ahead of its time. Following a brief introduction acknowledging God’s sovereignty in salvation and the imperative to proclaim the gospel, Carey laid out 10 “great principles”—a mix of convictions, values, and strategies—for the Serampore team in India.
Article 1: Lostness
Emphasizing the “value of souls,” Carey kept the spiritual lostness and eternal destiny of the peoples of India before their team so they would labor with urgency. Without losing that focus, he also encouraged his colleagues with the truth of the resurrection and God’s mighty power to save. A reflection of his Reformed theology, these values also inform his famous maxim “Expect great things from God, attempt great things for him.”
Article 2: Ethnography
The Agreement advocated learning Indian cultures, worldviews, and religions to “be able to converse with [Indian peoples] in an intelligible manner.” Carey called his team to be students of their host culture by dialoguing with local people, reading books by Indian authors, and cultivating the habit of observation. Today, we call this ethnographic study that leads to cultural intelligence. Though Carey was never formally trained in cultural anthropology, because of this value, he served for 30 years as a professor of languages and culture at Fort William College.
Carey called his team to be students of their host culture by dialoguing with local people, reading books by Indian authors, and cultivating the habit of observation.
Article 3: Contextualization
Carey called the Serampore team to emulate the apostle Paul, becoming “all things to all people” (1 Cor. 9:22). As well as building bridges, Carey added that they should also “abstain from those things which would increase . . . prejudices against the gospel.” In the Hindu context, this meant avoiding cruelty to animals and refraining from attacking Hindu beliefs.
Article 4: Diligence
Carey recognized that the team could become complacent with mediocre attention to ministry or even become physically fatigued because of the hot Indian climate. He exhorted his colleagues to pursue “all opportunities of doing good”—to work hard and be diligent every day in preaching the gospel and carrying out their ministries.
Article 5: Proclamation
Though Carey felt it was vital to understand and connect with Indian culture, he believed that the central focus of their message—“the great subject of our preaching”—should be “Christ the crucified.” Following the apostles, Paul, the Protestant Reformers, and John Wesley, Carey believed the most important message a Hindu could hear was that Christ had died and paid the penalty for sins.
Article 6: Relationships
Carey believed that in addition to hearing the gospel message, the Indians should observe the reality of Christ in the Serampore team. This could only happen through deliberate relational proximity. Carey wanted their Indian friends to “feel quite at home in our company” and for the team to be “easy of access.” In this sense, they imitated Paul’s posture toward the Thessalonians: “Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well” (1 Thess. 2:8, NIV).
Article 7: Discipleship
Carey also emphasized discipleship—“to build up, and watch over . . . souls.” Like spiritual parents, the team should be patient and walk with new believers. They ought to nurture their disciples in the Scriptures and in following the example of Christ. Carey believed discipleship should also be holistic. Along with teaching Scripture, the team would help their disciples to become good citizens, honor the authorities, and find gainful employment.
Article 8: Indigeneity
In the longest article in the Agreement, taking up nearly a quarter of the entire document, Carey emphasized that India should be reached through indigenous missionaries. He wrote, “It is only by means of native preachers that we can hope for the universal spread of the gospel throughout this immense continent.”
In addition to hearing the gospel message, Carey believed the Indians should observe the reality of Christ in the Serampore team.
Anticipating the three-self strategy articulated in the mid-19th century (that churches should be self-led, self-supporting, and self-propagating), Carey believed national church leaders ought to “choose their pastors and deacons from amongst their own countrymen, that the word may be statedly preached, and the ordinances of Christ administered, in each church, by the native minister.” This should be done “without the interference” of foreign missionaries.
In addition to setting apart national pastors, Indian missionaries should also be sent “to the extremities” of the country, engaging the culture and preaching the gospel. With these values, Carey anticipated Hudson Taylor’s vision to reach all of China and the 1910 Edinburgh World Missionary Conference’s watchword, the “evangelization of the world in this generation.”
Article 9: Translation
To reach all of India, the Serampore team needed to “labor with all [their] might in forwarding translations of the sacred Scriptures” in every national language. Though Carey wasn’t trained in linguistics, he worked on Bible translation in 36 Indian languages, including a full Bible in three languages and a complete New Testament in 23 languages. Once translation had been completed, Carey also developed a strategy for distributing Scripture throughout the country.
Article 10: Spirituality
Carey urged that the work of mission in India must be accomplished through fervent prayer and the “cultivation of personal religion.” To be faithful and even effective missionaries, the Serampore team should first attend to their spiritual lives.
Carey concluded the Agreement with a commitment to pursue mission work to the glory of God. The Serampore community remembered their vision and calling by reading the document at three set times a year during Lord’s Day worship.
While some of Carey’s principles (e.g., ethnographic study, national missionaries, and Bible translation) were quite innovative to early 19th-century missions, the Agreement was probably more groundbreaking because it integrated Christian spirituality, a passion for God’s glory, a burden for souls, theological reflection, and missiology in a single document. The Agreement became a concise strategic plan—a memo of understanding—for the Serampore team. To this day, it remains a useful model for mission teams and is worthy of our careful reflection.