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Who or what is a cordwainer? (November 2020)

That was the question asked when I began researching the life of William Carey, the man after whom the smaller of our two halls is named. In case you don’t know either, according to “Google” a cordwainer is someone who makes new shoes from new leather in contrast to a cobbler who merely repairs shoes and if you want to know what that has to do with William Carey, I suggest you read on!

William was the oldest of five children born to Edmund and Elizabeth Carey.  They were weavers by trade and lived in the hamlet of Pury End in the village of Paulerspury, Northamptonshire.  The family attended the local parish church and when he was six, William’s father was appointed the parish clerk and school master. We’re told he was an inquisitive boy who was keenly interested in the natural sciences, particularly botany. He also possessed a natural gift for languages and taught himself Latin.

At the age of 14, his father apprenticed him to a cordwainer in the nearby village of Piddington. His master, Clarke Nichols, was a churchman like himself, but another apprentice, John Warr, was a Dissenter. Through his influence Carey eventually left the Church of England and joined with other Dissenters to form a small Congregational   church in nearby Hackleton. Whilst apprenticed to   Nichols, William also taught himself Greek with the help of a local, college-educated villager.

When Nichols died in 1779, Carey went to work for the local Shoemaker, Thomas Old and went on to marry Old’s sister-in-law, Dorothy Plackett, in 1781.   Unlike William, Dorothy was illiterate and her signature in the marriage register is a crude cross. William and Dorothy went on to have seven children, 5 sons and 2 daughters; both girls died in infancy, as well as son, Peter, who died  at the age  of five.   Thomas Old himself died soon afterwards and Carey took over his business, during which time he taught himself Hebrew, Italian, Dutch and French, often reading while working on the shoes.   Carey was   a   humble man who always referred to himself as a cobbler but, as I hope you can see, he was already far more than that!

Carey went on to become involved with a local association of Particular Baptists that had recently formed. There he became acquainted with men such as John Ryland, John Sutcliff, and Andrew Fuller who would become his close friends in later years.  They invited him to preach in their church in the nearby village of Earls Barton every other Sunday.    On October 5th 1783, he was baptised by Ryland and committed himself to the Baptist denomination.

In 1785, Carey was appointed the schoolmaster for the village of Moulton.  He was also invited to serve as pastor to the local Baptist church.  During this time, he read Jonathan Edwards’s account of the Life of the Late Rev. David Brainerd and the journals of the explorer James Cook, and became concerned with propagating the Christian gospel throughout the world. John Eliot (c. 1604 – 21 May 1690), Puritan missionary in New England, and David Brainerd (1718 – 47) became his “canonized heroes” and “enkindlers”. 

In  1789,   Carey  became  the  full-time pastor of Harvey Lane Baptist Church  in  Leicester and  three years later, in 1792, he published  his  ground-breaking  missionary  manifesto,      “An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens.”  This short book is divided into 5parts, as follows:

•      Part 1:          A theological justification for missionary activity, arguing that the command of Jesus to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28vv18-20) remains binding on all Christians.

•      Part 2:          Outlines a history of missionary activity beginning with   the early Church and ending with David Brainerd and John Wesley.

•             Part 3:          Is made up of 26 pages of tables, listing area, population, and religious statistics for every country in the world. These   Carey had compiled during his years as a schoolteacher.

•             Part 4:          Here Carey seeks to answer some of the objections to   sending missionaries, such as difficulty learning the language or danger to life.

•             Part 5:          Finally, Carey calls for the formation by the Baptist denomination of a missionary society and describes the practical means by which it could be supported Carey was later to preach what has become known as the ‘Deathless Sermon’.   In this, using Isaiah 54:2 – 3 as his text, he repeatedly used the epigram which has become his most famous quote namely:
“Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.”

He  finally  overcame  the resistance  to  missionary effort, and the   ‘Particular  Baptist  Society  for  the  Propagation  of  the Gospel  Amongst  the  Heathen’  (subsequently  known  as the ‘Baptist  Missionary  Society’  and  since  2000 as BMS World Mission) was founded in October 1792.  Carey, Andrew Fuller, John Ryland and John Sutcliff were charter members. They then concerned themselves with practical matters such as raising funds, as well as deciding where they would direct their efforts.  A medical missionary, Dr. John Thomas, had been in Calcutta and was in England raising funds; they agreed to support him and that Carey would accompany him to India.

We will continue with more about Carey’s missionary life in India next month.

Barbara R