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Mar 11 William Carey's fire in Serampore


On this day in Christian History we go back to year 1812 and travel to West Bengal in India. Today a fire broke out in missionary William Carey's print shop in Serampore,

causing an estimated £10,000 in damages and destroying some other work that is difficult to put a monetary value too. Among the losses were many translations of Sanskrit literature and a polyglot dictionary of Sanskrit and related languages, and two grammar books. The press itself and the punches were saved, and it took six months for it be working at full capacity again. Carey produced translations of the Bible in Bengali, Sanskrit, and other major languages and dialects. As news of the fire spread, it brought Careys work to wider attention and made him famous, bringing in funds and attracting volunteers. In Carey's lifetime, the mission printed and distributed the Bible in whole or part in 44 languages.


India is an ancient melting pot for language formation and culture. A recent census indicated 19,500 languages or dialects are spoken in India as what are designated as ‘mother tongues’. Just the sheer scale of this can be quite confusing, but many of the languages overlap and have similar scripts. There are 121 languages which are spoken by 10,000 or more people in India. The Indian Constitution lists 22 languages, which have been referred to as scheduled languages and given recognition, status and official encouragement. Sanskrit is the sacred language of Hinduism, the language of classical Hindu philosophy, and of historical texts of Buddhism and Jainism. In the early medieval era Sanskrit became a language of religion and high culture, and of the political elites


Careys work was two-way, as well as translating the Bible into Sanskrit he was able to translate some of the ancient Sanskrit texts into English and this was acknowledged by The Asiatic Society who commended Carey for “his eminent services in opening the stores of Indian literature to the knowledge of Europe and for his extensive acquaintance with the science, the natural history and botany of this country and his useful contributions, in every branch.” Sanskrit can be dated back to the Indus Valley Civilisation, an early Bronze Age civilisation in South Asia, together with ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, and of the three, the most widespread. The oldest written language is Sumerian but there have been variations of Sanskrit earliest possible dates from 2000 BC but they remain undeciphered.


William Carey didn’t start life as a linguist, when he was 14, his father apprenticed him to a cordwainer in Northamptonshire in central England. A cordwainer is a shoemaker who makes new shoes from new leather unlike a cobbler who, then at least, just repaired shoes. His master was an Anglican churchgoer like himself, but another apprentice was a Dissenter. Through his influence Carey would leave the Church of England and join with other Dissenters to form a small Congregational Church. Later, he became acquainted with John Ryland and at the age of 22 was baptised by him and committed himself as a Baptist. Six years later he became the pastor of Harvey Lane Baptist Church in Leicester where he published his ground-breaking missionary manifesto, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens. This lead to the founding of the Baptist Missionary Society, now known as the BMS World Mission. They agreed to support the medical missionary, Dr John Thomas and Carey would accompany him to India.


Sailing with his family to India as a missionary, because the East India Company was hostile to missionaries, they settled in the Danish colony in Serampore where Carey started a school for impoverished children. They were taught reading, writing, accounting and Christianity. He would also go on to found the Serampore College and the Serampore University, which claims to be the first degree-awarding university in India.