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The Legacy of William Carey: A Model for the Transformation of a Culture

June 9, 2011

Justin Taylor on hagiography:

Matt Perman passed along the following example. William Carey’s friend and early biographer John Marshman had this to say about William’s attitude toward his wife Dorothy and her struggle with mental illness:

The extreme consideration and tenderness which invariably marked his conduct towards her, place the meekness and magnanimity of his character in the strongest light. No word of complaint escaped him.

Even if you know nothing about Carey, this quote should raise some suspicions. One would think that deleting the word “invariably” would be wise, and perhaps saying that the author himself never heard a word of complaint—rather than the blanket statement that “no word” ever escaped him.

And indeed Vishal and Ruth Mangalwadi provide some counter-details in The Legacy of William Carey: A Model for the Transformation of a Culture:

But Carey did complain. In his journal he writes, at the beginning of Dorothy’s emotional retreat from reality, “I don’t love to be always complaining. Yet I always complain.” So to suggest that Dorothy’s problems never bothered Carey, that he never uttered a word of complaint, or that he never lost patience with her is to place him in an untenable position. He was human as she. We can . . . honor and remember him well without having to make ourselves believe he was perfect in all that he ever said. (p. 51)

The fear of hagiography, however, can take us to another extreme where all admiration, affection, and appreciation are obscured. A desire for historical fidelity should not preclude celebrating God’s grace in a person’s life.

Furthermore, careful critical thinking does not necessarily require cynicism. Yes, we are all sinners. But we also believe in a God who does supernatural work in the lives of sanctified sinners. The quest for historical faithfulness should also not preclude exercising such virtues as prudence and tactfulness where necessary.

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From → Church History

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