William Carey, the Agriculturalist
WCIU Journal: Environmental Studies Topic
August 3, 2011
by Ken Gnanakan
This article is from the Summer 2011 Special Preview Issue of the WCIU Journal: Celebration of William Carey’s 250th Birthday.
William Carey, the worker with a big vision is equally known for his practical pursuits putting faith into practice as much as the proclamation of the Gospel. The Gospel for him was not only for salvation of the “soul”; and therefore gave him access into several areas of life in India. His was a holistic purpose in every sense of the word.
We read brief references to Carey as an agriculturist or a botanist scattered here and there, and I have been eager to explore this further. To my delight I stumbled across “The Life of William Carey,” a book by George Smith published in 1922.  Being interested in some aspects of the field myself, this was pure serendipity!  Carey, Smith writes, was…
“...an erudite botanist. Had he arrived in Calcutta a few days earlier than he did, he would have been appointed to the place for which sheer poverty led him to apply, in the Company’s Botanical Garden, established ...for the collection of indigenous and acclimatisation of foreign plants… One of Carey’s first requests was for seeds and instruments, not merely from scientific reasons, but that he might carry out his early plan of working with his hands as a farmer while he evangelised the people.” 
Smith refers to Carey as “the gentle botanist” who engaged in this recreation “in the interest of his body as well as of his otherwise overtasked spirit.” Such engagement in kingdom activity must flow from a theology that legitimizes all activity in God’s world as God’s purposes. This was undoubtedly true – Carey, being a devout Calvinist, regarded creation as God’s handiwork. 
Carey procured five acres of land in Serampore (near Calcutta) and planted trees which had not been known to that region. There was “mahogany and deodar, the teak and tamarind, the carob and eucalyptus.” He was very careful to record the date of planting and meticulously checked on the rate of growth. The trees grew to becoming a welcoming abode to all who visited. “The garden” was more than a place of recreation. “It was his oratory, the scene of prayer and meditation, the place where he began and ended the day of light.” 
It was not merely the planting of trees; Carey was interested in the prevalence of a scientific foundation. He introduced the “Linnaean classification” to India, and began the enormous task of recording and classifying Indian plants. (Modern biological classification has its root in the work of Carolus Linnaeus, who grouped species according to physical characteristics.)
William Carey was soon to become an agricultural reformer. He was concerned about the state of agriculture in the district, and urged various improvements. “The soils, the “extremely poor” people, their “proportionally simple and wretched farming utensils,” the cattle, the primitive irrigation alluded to in Deuteronomy (11:10) as” watering with the foot,” and the modes of ploughing and reaping, were all a matter of his concern. 
Carey considered various aspects of hemp and jute plants, oil-seeds, the cultivation of wheat, pulses, “egg-plant, the capsicums, the cucumbers, the arum roots, turmeric, ginger, and sugar-cane” and all to help improve methods of growing and helping the poor. He was soon ready to cause his experiments to receive wider application; and on 15th April 1820, issued a “Prospectus” launching the “Agricultural and Horticultural Society in India.”
The Society gradually grew into having an influence on individuals and institutions with various studies being propagated to improve agricultural methods. In 1842, the Agri-Horticultural Society resolved to honour its founder; the then president stated – “... the late Reverend Dr. William Carey, who unceasingly applied his great talents, abilities, and influence in advancing the happiness of India—more especially by the spread of an improved system of husbandry and gardening inspires our desire to mark, by some permanent record, their sense of his transcendent worth, by placing a marble bust to his memory.” 
I write about Carey as an agriculturist with a deep desire for a practical engagement of Christians in resolving the problem of food security among the poor. The crisis we face is looming large, and this is of grave concern. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently said that the world’s poorest countries are facing “a real prospect of a new crisis in food and nutrition security.”
If we truly believe in God as creator, and that we are caretakers of God’s creation, then Carey’s example should be one that will make us more concerned Christians.
1. George Smith, The Life of William Carey (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1922), 216.
2. My interest in ecology and the environment has led me to membership of the International Ecological Engineering Society, Switzerland with a heavy focus on agriculture and food security.
3. Smith, 219.
5. Smith, 222.
6. Ibid., 227.
7. Ibid., 239.