Monday, July 9, 2012

The Case of Dorothy Carey

The name of William Carey (1761–1834) is legendary in evangelical Christian circles. Frequently denoted as “the father of modern missions,” the genuinely humble Englishman would be deeply embarrassed by all of the attention he has received since his death in India, where he labored for over forty years. His opinion of his ministry is well summed up in a statement he once made to his nephew, Eustace Carey, to the effect that he was “a plodder.” In his opinion, the combination of divine grace, grit and gumption was the simplest explanation for his achievements. However these achievements are best to be viewed, what cannot be gainsaid is that most of those in the circles around him have all but disappeared in the light that has been shone upon Carey. This is not helpful since few, if any, truly great human beings accomplish what they do without the help of others.

In Carey’s case, one of those who disappeared is Carey’s first wife, Dorothy Plackett (1756–1807). Utterly unwilling at first to go to India with William, she was eventually persuaded to do so. But when her son Peter (1789–94) died in Mudnabatti, where William had gone to be the manager of an indigo factory after their money ran out, and none of the neighboring Hindus or Muslims would help the grieving family by acting as gravediggers, coffin makers or even pallbearers, Dorothy began a slow descent into insanity. She eventually reached the point where she was completely delusional and believed that her husband was an unrepentant adulterer. She publicly accused him of such in quite vile terms and subsequently also made two attempts to kill him. By June 1800, William Ward (1769–1823), one of Carey’s closest friends and a vital co-worker at Serampore—where the Careys made their home from 1800 onwards—could state simply in his diary: “Mrs. Carey is stark mad.”

Carey biographers have not been kind to Dorothy, and the way she has been treated in biographies of the Baptist Leader are a fascinating study in their own right. Thankfully, James Beck, senior professor of counseling at Denver Seminary and a licensed clinical psychologist, drew up a very balanced account of Dorothy’s life in Dorothy Carey: The Tragic and Untold Story of Mrs. William Carey (Baker, 1992; now Wipf and Stock, 2000). I first read this work in 1992, when its publication coincided with the bicentennial of the formation of the Baptist Missionary Society that sent Carey to India. Recently re-reading parts of it, I am impressed with the judicious balance of Beck’s analysis, especially given the fact that Dorothy, illiterate when William married her, has left not one scrap of written text. Attempting to draw a psychological portrait of her through the eyes of others is understandably difficult, and the danger to engage in pure speculation enormous. Beck avoided this danger while at the same time producing an excellent psychological portrait of a very unhappy woman. Along the way, he raised serious questions about areas of Carey’s mission that need to be faced if an accurate account of Carey and the Serampore mission is to be given. Beck does not question Carey’s greatness, but shows that, like the rest of us, he had clay feet.

Beck, J.R. (1992/2000). Dorothy Carey: The tragic and untold story of Mrs William Carey. Eugene, OR:  Wipf and Stock.

Michael A. G. Haykin
Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

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