The sermon that William Carey preached on this day has been called deathless. Mission text books agree that it changed the world. Thousands, perhaps millions have read or quoted the two most remarkable phrases from it: “Expect great things from God; Attempt great things for God!”
A poorly educated cobbler, William Carey always sought to teach himself new things. He was converted to Christ by dissenters (English Christians who operated outside of the official Church of England). Immediately he recognized that others also needed Christ. He began to preach and strained even harder to educate himself, going hungry–and allowing his family to suffer–so that he could buy himself books. He became a Baptist pastor.
Reading Captain Cook’s voyages gave him a heart for world missions. The people who Cook wrote about needed Christ. At that time, Protestants were doing little to spread the gospel world-wide. Hans Egede in Greenland, the Moravians in the West Indies, David Brainerd and John Eliot in America had undertaken efforts, but the reformation church at large was idle.
But when William spoke up in behalf of missions, an older pastor responded with a withering rebuke. “Young man, sit down: when God pleases to convert the heathen, he will do it without your aid or mine.”
William sat down on that occasion, but he didn’t sit back. He was the kind of man, who once he begins a thing, must go through with it. He gathered facts and statistics, Bible commands and commonsense arguments demolishing the position of those who said the church should do nothing. The result was a book called An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen.
On this day, May 31, 1792, at ten in the morning, he addressed his fellow Baptists at a Nottingham conference. He took as his Isaiah 54:1, 2: “Lengthen thy cords and strengthen thy stakes, for thou shall break forth on the right hand and on the left; and thy seed shall inherit the Gentiles and make the desolate cities to be inhabited. ” As he saw it, this was a challenge for missionary work. It was a challenge for faith. “Expect great things from God; Attempt great things for God!” he urged.
“If all the people had lifted up their voices and wept,” said Dr. Ryland, “…it would only have seemed proportionate to the cause; so clearly did Mr. Carey prove the criminality of our supineness [lying down] in the cause of God!” But his listeners seemed indifferent.
At their meeting the next day, they said the venture was too big for them. Carey seized Fuller’s arm and, in deep distress asked whether they were once more going to go their separate ways without doing anything. This final plea made the difference. The gathering put forward a resolution for drawing up plans to form a Baptist Mission Society. William Carey became their first missionary.