The Serampore Mission-Bible Translations, Bengal Renaissance

                                                                             History of Christianity In India

                                                                                                                                                                                            Date: January 21, 2013

Presenter: Beechy Ram Tin Thang

Topic: The Serampore Mission-Bible Translations, Bengal Renaissance

  1. Introduction

The name of Serampore will always be associated with the work of great pioneers, William Carey, Joshua Marshman and William Ward, and through them with the beginning of modern missionary movement. William Carey must be accorded the honor of first arousing the western church to the ideal of universal brotherhood, and to the responsibility of the church to share with others the treasure of its faith.[1]This paper is an attempt to give a brief introduction to Carey’s life, background of Serampore and contribution of the Serampore Mission.

  1. William Carey: A Short Biography

William Carey was born to Edmund and Elizabeth Carey in Northampton, England, on 17 August 1761[2] in a small cottage in Paulerspury village, Northamptonshire, England he grew up with the gift of learning languages. His interest in collecting and gathering plants and insects in the early period of his life lead him to be a botanist in the future. Due to some distressed while working in agriculture field he left the job and joined the shoe making company in Piddington.[3] He started preaching in 1782 and learnt Greek and Hebrew. The pamphlet published by Carey in 1792, “The Enquiry” was very powerful which was so dear to everyone. And on 30th May 1792 the Baptist Ministers formed a Missionary Society, and Bengal was chosen as the Missionary platform.[4]

Carey was chosen as the leader and board on the ship on 13 June 1793 toward Bengal. He even started learning Bengali while on the ship. The ship landed on 11 November 1793 in Calcutta. With the help of Munshi, he settled in Dehatta, in Sundarbhan region, Bay of Bengal and started to cultivate for his living. After eight months of struggle he started his missionary work, learning language and translating the bible in Bengali. Carey suffered from criticism and later was unemployed when his partner George Udney sold the Indigo factory. But without losing his hope he bought a small factory by himself at Khiderpur, and continued his translation in Bengali.

III. The Dutch, British and Serampore[5]

At the end of Eighteen Century, October 1799, four Missionaries Marshman, Ward, Brunsdon and Grant arrived in Bengal, sent by the Missionary Society. They were compelled to shelter in the Dutch’s colony, due to East India Company prohibition of Missionaries activities. The missionaries’ programs of printing press, schools and Bible translation were appealing to the Col. Bie and immediately they assured Royal protection.[6] Carey joined the missionary group at Serampore and established a missionary center on 10 January 1800, the beginning of the Serampore Mission.[7]

On 8 May, 1801 Serampore went under the British and in 1802 it was restored back to Danish and again in1808 it was occupied by the British up to 1815, under the administration of the Judge Magistrate of Hooghly. But socially the settlement continues to flourish with the establishment of Serampore College, publication of vernacular periodicals in 1818, establishment of first saving bank in 1819, and also the steam power driven modern paper mill 1820 by the Serampore missionaries. But later, there was a decline in commerce in this region due to the silting riverbank, destroying the usefulness of the harbor.[8]

  1. The Serampore Mission

Though the first Christian activity in Bengal began from 1576 by the Jesuits, the total life of Bengalese was not influenced by it. But the mission of Serampore trio had a tremendous impetus on the life of the Bengal society from 1800. William Carey started his ministry in Bengal in 1793 and he had been joined by Joshua Marshman, a school teacher and William Ward, a printer. This partnership was generally called – Serampore Trio who worked united for many years for the upliftment of Bengal society in educational, social and religious environments.

Carey was missionary during the hostile period of Missionary Enterprises (The British were afraid that educational progress and opening up of new thoughts could lead unrest, unwanted difficulties in the British administration).[9] The actual Serampore history begins in the year 1799 when Grant, Marshman and Ward arrived in India and joined Carey. They were highly intellectual and were completely devoted to the service of God.[10] By then Carey had already begun his Bengali translation learning new languages and preaching.

  1. The First Converts

The main purpose of the missionaries was to make known to the people of India the love of God in Christ, which they did with all their effort and during this the Krishna Pal was baptized in Hooghly River on 20th  December 1800 and by 1810 they were 300 who gathered in the Church.[11]



  1. Education (The First School)

The first school in Serampore for European and Anglo Indian children was opened in 1800, increasing the revenue system, which helped them to get relieved from the foreign aid. By 1817 there were around 45 such schools in the surround district.[12]

  1. Bible Translation and Other Literatures[13]

Carey’s unbroken habit was to begin the day every morning by reading one chapter of the Bible, first in English and then in six other languages which he himself had learned. Since 1793, when he acquired Bengali, Carey’s heart and mind was occupied to translate the Bible into principal languages of India and Eastern Asia. He preached, he taught, but the one thing which took the greatest part of his long working day year after year was the translation of the divine message to “all men in their own language”.[14]

By 1797, Carey felt the urgency of setting up a printing press for the printing of scriptures. He wrote to his friend Andrew Fuller, who was the secretary of Baptist missionary society, but it was not materialized.[15] Carey and his associates undertook and supervised the translations of the Bible into 40 major languages and some dialects as they worked together with a team of Indians Pundits.[16] Another very important and remembered contribution by the three missionaries was to the spheres of Literature in translation of Christian Scriptures. The Bengali New Testament[17] was the first book of any size ever printed in Bengali prose and also it was the first printed copy of New Testament in Indian tongues, February 7, 1801.[18] Carey’s Choice of the text for his sermon on the occasion was “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom” (Col. 3: 11). Carey felt that the NT translation far from perfect in spite of all the effort and care, so in 1803 he revised it and published in 1806.[19]

Carey was appointed professor of Bengali and Sanskrit in college at Fort William, and the salary he received was put for the missionary activities. He holds therefore for 30 years during which he came in touch with the Government officials and prominent men. While in Fort William Carey he also produced Bengali grammar, the colloquies and Bengali prose. The Bengali dictionary, which was published in 1815, has been the greatest service to the people of India. By the time of his death there were six complete Bible translations and twenty-three entire New Testament and also portion of Scriptures in other ten languages.[20]During his lifetime he produced, seven grammar books, four dictionaries in Sanskrit, Bengali, Marathi, Telugu (His Sanskrit dictionary of 80,000 words appeared in 1815), thirteen polyglot vocabularies, 132 books of learning on various subjects such as botany, social-customs and literature, and he translated Ramayana and Mahabarata into Bengali.[21]

The printing press was completely destroyed by the fire in 11 March 1812. Everything was burnt, press books, scripts, most of the translation of Ramayana and even the manuscripts. Though the loss was very despairing but it brought more and more people around the world together with their sympathy and interest in the mission field and also narrowed down the opposition of the East India Company for the Missionary work.[22]

  1. The Periodical[23]

Under the leadership of Marshman the attempt was made and “Dig Darshan” appeared first time in February 1818 containing the general interest together with some current events. In 8 May 1818 a Samachar Darpan (mirror of news) was issued the first ever newspaper in Indian language and by April 18 monthly magazine “friend of India” also appeared which continued till 1875. These publications gave references to the evil and unjust society of India such as ‘Sati’ and ‘Infanticide’.  In 1804 Carey was asked by the Government to collect information on the observance of burning widows. So he sent investigators to every village within thirty miles of Calcutta to collect information about how many widows had been immolated. The number reported was 438. On the basis of information, Serampore missionaries requested the Government to prohibit the practice. But due to the opposition of conservation Hindus to the abolition of sati; the Government was unwilling to take a hasty decision. It was continued until Lord Bentick took charge in July 1828.

  1. Serampore College (University)[24]

More schools meant more teachers and more educational institutions would produce more teachers and more qualified men for job. This led the missionaries the felt for the need of large missionary personal. certain unfortunate circumstances led them isolate themselves from the Baptist missionaries society in 1816, yet, they decide to take a bold step of starting a College ‘in which a higher and more complete education should be given to the natives, more especially to the Christian parentage, in which native preachers and schoolmasters, whose defect had been felt, should be efficiently trained up’.[25]

The college issued a prospectus on the 15 July, 1818 with the instruction that the ‘College is for Asiatic Christian and other youth in the Eastern Literature and European Science’, The Prospectus made another very important clearance that the College was to be handmaid for evangelization and proposing that the instruction would be in Sanskrit, Arabic, European Science and English. The medium was to be the vernacular, and English was offered as required subject. College was to be considered as preeminently a divinity school.[26]

  1. Social Reformation

When Carey stepped in India he found the most atrocious and inhuman custom of burning widows or burying them alive. On 1st April 1799, while returning from Calcutta, Carey for the first time saw a woman burning herself with the corpse of her husband. He was told that the woman was performing a great act of holiness. Cary exhorted the woman not to throw away her life in this manner. He was told that if he could not bear to see then he may go. Carey determined to stay and that he would certainly bear witness of it in the tribunal of God. Carey could not bear to see more, but left exclaiming loudly against the murder.

The remembrance of the sight never left Carey. He was naturally inflamed to indignation all his life. At first he met with official indifference. The Indian Supreme Court in 1805 ruled that Sati had religious sanction and could not be questioned. But Carey’s influence, more than of any other one man, at last prevailed and put out for ever the murderous pyre. Carey then had to wait till 1829. When on Sunday morning, the regulation of Lord Bentinck prohibiting the crime reached him as he was meditation for his sermon, he sent another to do the preaching and taking his pen he at once wrote the official translation, and issued it in the Bengali Gazette, that one more soul may not fall prey to this heinous custom.

Carey undertook a thorough research into the number, nature and reasons for the infanticide and published hi reports. He presented several petitions to the government until, in 1802, infanticide was outlawed. This marked the first time that the British government interfered directly with religious practice in India. It set a precedent for the abolition of other practices. No class of sufferers appealed more to Dr. Carey’s sympathies than the lepers. Lepers were rejected by their families and society and burnt alive. Hinduism taught that only a violent and fiery end could purify the body and ensure transmitigation into a healthy new existence. In 1812, he had witnessed at Cutwa, the burning alive of one of these unfortunates. His soul was filled with horror, and he did not rest until through his influence and exertions, a leper hospital had been established in Calcutta.[27]

Eventually on 4 December 1829, Lord Bentick passed in Council of Regulation declaring the practice of sati both illegal and criminal.[28] The Serampore Mission’s attitude towards caste distinctions was as clear as they understood the caste distinctions was our and out of religious than social. So they were conscious to what caste and in 1803, Krisha Prasad, a Brahmin convert married Onunda, the second daughter of Krishna Pa, a Sudra. Serampore missionaries attended that marriage and made evident about their stand on caste system.[29] Carey’s interests in Botanical studies and research led to the development of one of the finest Botanical garden in the East. Though the garden does not exist the Society of Horticulture do exist up to this present time.[30] Euthanasia was also widely practiced with those afflicted by other sicknesses. The infirm were regularly carried out to be left exposed to cold and heat, crocodiles or insects, by the riverside. Cary fought against these and many other social evils practices child prostitution, slavery and the caste system. He publicly criticized the government for inaction and passivity in the face of murder. He organized public debates and spoke out and wrote often on these atrocities.

  1. Bengal Renaissance

Western liberal and rationalistic ideas imparted through English education and Christian social activities played an important role in the nineteen century Indian renaissance. The reaction of Hindu society to Western and missionary influence varied from blind imitation of the West to unthinking hostility and opposition to it. English education was considered by Christian agencies as a preparation for evangelism. A number of young Indians who came under the influence of Western education separated themselves from Hinduism. Among them an identity crisis was felt. Some of them became Christians. This movement of educate Indians to Christianity continued throughout the nineteen century and the post of the twentieth century.

“The western impact did not make the educated class to consider Christianity as a substitute for Hinduism, but rather take it as a challenge to consider the plight of their religion and society in the light of the new knowledge. To such national leaders, several of them educated in Christian schools Christianity which was closely tied up with the British raj, did not offer an alternative to their ancestral faith, but rather they saw in Christianity an effort on the part of the foreigners to make them subservient to colonial rule. The role of the missionaries of this period as apologists for the empire proved to be fatal for the cause of Christianity. It was not surprising then that the Indian educated class turned away from Christianity and in several cases became anti-Christian”.[31]

  1. Influence of Christianity in the renaissance

“Though the missionary efforts in the 19th century did not make many Christians, the influence of Christianity in the renaissance cannot be ignored. Sisir Kumar Da observes”. All religious movements in Bengal from that time related directly or indirectly to Christian challenge Bengal’s response to Christianity remained ambivalent throughout the century; there was a conflict between the respect for Christ and antipathy to Christian missionary action. Every religious thinker in Bengal had to reconcile this conflict either b accepting something from Christianity or by reviving militant Hinduism.

Christianity was both a challenge and an inspiration. It was a challenge in that the Hindu intellectuals, in the fact of missionary criticism of Hinduism and Indian society, had to reinterpret their theological position and start social and religious reform movements to modernize Indian religion and society. It was an inspiration in that they borrowed many things from Christianity. Christianity’s influence on the social practice of Hinduism and in the awakening of its social conscience cannot be minimized. S. Natarajan in his History of Social reform has said that the tradition of social service has come to India chiefly through the example of Christian mission. There was a tremendous respect of Jesus Christ and his ethical teaching and an aversion to doctrinal and western form of Christianity. The attempt of Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Keshub Chandra Sen to discover an Oriental Christ illustrates the conflict of the Indian intellectuals between their admiration for the ethical teaching of Jesus and their attachment to Indian tradition. An universal note was seen in the writings of R.M. Roy, K.C. Sen, R.Tagore and even in Vivekananda. For several of them Jesus Christ was a symbol of humanity and therefore a universal symbol. It was the humanism of the gospel which attracted them. The educated Indians created a new myth of Christ. Christ became a symbol of man struggling in the darkness and searching for truth. His death symbolizes the be-wilderment, anguish and faithlessness of man and his birth symbolizes the hope and victory of man”.[32]

VII. Conclusion

William Ward returned to England due to health problem and came back to India in 1821 to take up some of his old interest but died within 17 month at the age of 53. And during the following year Carey and Marshman continue to serve the community through the college, translation and the literary works. Carey spent sometime in the garden and died in 9 June 1834. Three years later Marsh died on 5 December1837.[33]

In India, Bengal Renaissance alone could be epitomized as a great wave that has brought change in India. Serampore triumvirates were master stroke for the great wave of change, “Bengal Renaissance”. His excellent stellar influences in mission cannot be easily emulated by others. The power in his silver tongue and command in languages, have to be appreciated. Carey, Marshman and Ward were the men with a single aim to serve India in the name of Christ. They will always be remembered for their life and sacrificial contribution towards Indian Literature, Bible translation, social reformation, scientific studies and towards the growth of Protestant Christian Mission.

[1] John Clark Marshman, The History of Serampore Mission: Carey, Marshman and Ward (London: Council of Serampore College, 2005), 1-3.

[2] William Carey: Father of Missions (India: Genesis Books, 2012), 3.

[3] J.C. Marshman, The History of Serampore Mission: Carey, Marshman and Ward, 10-15

[4]Michael Walsh Ed., Dictionary of Christian Biography (London: Continuum, 2001). 5

[5] Sunil Kumar Chatterjee, William Carey and Serampore (Calcutta: Ghosh Publishing Concern, 1984), 3-11

[6] Ibid.

[7] Marshman, The History of Serampore Mission, 20-100.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Chatterjee, William Carey and Serampore, 1

[10]  E. L. Wenger, The Story of Serampore at its College (Serampore: The Council of Serampore College, 1918),

4th ed., 4

[11] Ibid., 6.

[12] Ibid., 6-7.

[13] Ibid.,8.

[14] William Carey: Father of Missions (India: Genesis Books, 2012), 20-21.

[15] Ashish Kumar Massey and June Hedlung, “William Carey and the Making of Modern India”, Indian Church History Review, XXVII/1 (June 1993), 9.

[16] Ashish Kumar Massey and June Hedlund, op.cit., 11.

[17] In the early part of 1797 Carey wrote exultantly: “The New Testament is now translated into Bengali. Its treasure will be greater than diamonds.” See Kellsye M.Finnie, William Carey: Missionary pioneer (Chennai: Evangelical Literature Service, 2011), 87.

[18] E. L. Wenger, The Story of Serampore at its College, 7.

[19] C.Arangaden, “Carey’s Legacy of Bible Translation”, Indian Church History Review, XXVII/1 (June 1993), 19.

[20] Ibid.,8.

[21] William Carey: Father of Missions, 27.

[22] Wenger, Story of Serampore, 11

[23] Ibid., 12.

[24] Ibid., 20-40. Serampore College (university) was founded in 1818 by William Carey, Joshua Marshman and William Ward to give an education in Arts and Science to students of every ‘caste, color or country’ and to train a ministry for the growing Church in India. “Royal character of Incorporation, given by the King of Denmark, following a visit of Dr. Marshman in 1827, gave the Serampore College the authority to award degrees in different faculties. It was the first college in India to secure this status”. See M.K. Kuriakose, History of Christianity in India: Source Materials (Delhi: ISPCK, 2003), 109 and Regulations Relating to the Degree of Master of Theology–Booklet (Serampore: Registrar Senate of Serampore College, July 1998), 1. From the beginning the College has been ecumenical, but this means that it has no automatic basis of support from any one branch of the Christian church. Today, in a combination of subjects unique in India, nearly a hundred and fifty Theology students from a very wide range of denominations and a score of languages study alongside three thousand in the Arts-Science-Commerce department, which is affiliated to Calcutta University.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] William Carey: Father of Missions (India: Genesis Books, 2012), 26-27.

[28] Ashish K.Mandal “William Carey and Calcutta”, Indian Church History, XXV/1 (June 1991), 8.

[29] D.Arthur Jeyakumar, History of Christianity in India selected Themes (Madurai: Author, 2007), 62.

[30] Wenger, Story of Serampore,11.

[31] T.V. Philip, “Christianity in India During Western Colonialism: Conflict Reconciliation Or Adjustment”, ICHR, XXX/ (June 1987) 25.

[32] Ibid., 27.

[33] C. B. Firth, An Introduction to Indian Church History (Delhi: ISPCK, 2008), 147-164.

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