Guiding Light from the Cloud

Neel Roberts draws out key aspects from the writings of William Carey and Jonathan Edwards—two trustworthy guides who have personally influenced him and many others who sought to discern how they might best serve the Lord. The connection between William Carey and Jonathan Edwards is included in the historical account of how these two guides impacted the history of the modern missionary movement as well as the thinking and practice of missionaries.

Neel Roberts graduated from Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary in 1986. He works in the Mekong Region where he is currently involved with Chiang Rai International Christian School in seeking ways to help bring quality education to neighboring Thai minority communities for the glory of Christ Jesus.


Guiding Light from the Cloud

Mission Round Table Vol. 11 no. 2 (May-August 2016): 15-20

Download this edition of Mission Round Table (2 MB)

When I was about 19 years old I was walking through a cemetery and saw a small gravestone with the words:

John Smith[1]
Youth is the time to serve the Lord.

It was not a long sermon but it was a powerful one. I am thankful that it was written. I am thankful that I read it.

Jesus Christ was once asked, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”

And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Matt 22:37–39, KJV)

Whatever age we are when we discover that it is time to serve the Lord, we will naturally ask how we might best do so. It is at such times that we seek guidance from those who are wiser and more experienced than ourselves. A reliable advisor is one who has run the race to the end and finished well. This can be problematic in some cultures. On the one hand, Christians are forbidden from using mediums to communicate with the dead, and on the other hand, the living have not finished the race. How can we overcome this great obstacle and gain the guidance we need? Happily, the solution was discovered thousands of years ago. It consists in written languages, education, libraries, printed books, and now online libraries.

Most of my guides are temporarily dead. The following article is my effort to honor a few who have proved good guides to both myself and others.

The conqueror of inertia: William Carey (1761–1835)

In the history of the modern missionary movement, there was a point when an age of lethargy ended and action began. That point was in 1792 when William Carey published An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the  Heathens.[2] The booklet might have been of no lasting impact if Carey had not gone out as a missionary to Bengal in Northern India in 1793, but the inescapable reality is that the facts which filled the book also filled his heart and literally impelled him to carry the gospel message to the heart of the non-Christian world. Where did that impulse come from?

William Carey was born a member of the Established Church (Anglican) in Northamptonshire, England. His father was a tradesman, parish clerk, and village school master. The younger Carey obtained a good education by village standards of his day, and improved upon it by constant reading while learning and carrying out a trade. As he became a Dissenter and joined a Baptist church in 1783, he began to interact with some of the leading lights of the rural Baptist churches in England of his time, such as Andrew Fuller and John Ryland. Carey emerged as a bi-vocational preacher who was highly successful in church planting, though not in business. His congregations were generally made up of poor, and therefore poorly educated, peasants or tradesmen like himself. While he made great efforts to self-educate himself in “learned languages, science, history, composition, &c.,” he was daily reminded of the need to keep sharing the gospel in a manner that could be appropriated by the local people.[3] Fuller wrote a brief memoir about Carey that described the development of his theological views.

I have heard him say, that he did not recollect to have received his views of divine truth from any writer or preacher, but merely from reading his Bible; but that, when he found a number of brethren whose sentiments and feelings accorded with his own, it yielded him great satisfaction. The writings of president Edwards were afterwards of much use to him; and he drank in the leading principles of that great writer with approbation and delight.[4]

We all know that you cannot judge a book by its cover, but you can learn quite a bit about people by the books that they read and the authors they admire. Carey’s reading of Jonathan Edwards helped shape him into the man he became. It was in my search for wisdom from Carey that I discovered how much modern missions owes to Edwards.

Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758)

The greatest guide that the American Colonies, and perhaps the North American continent, ever produced was Jonathan Edwards. He was instrumental in directing evangelical Christians to the ends of the earth with the gospel because of his ability to make biblical prophecy make sense to his readers. Through his writings, he convinced others that it was God’s intent that the gospel should be proclaimed throughout the earth and that Christians were to use divinely instituted means to participate in this work of God. This theology was not his own creation. The stream that watered his spiritual life flowed first through the Puritans. What he did exceptionally well was to help clear from that stream some of the intellectual logjams that were in danger of blocking its flow.

In 1739, when evangelical Christianity was still a great rarity, Edwards preached a series of sermons in a rural church which eventually grew into a book called the History of the Work of Redemption. These sermons trace God’s purposes as they are revealed in the Scriptures and unfolded in history from before creation “until that time when all the church shall enter with Christ, their glorious Lord, into the highest heaven, and there shall enter on the state of their highest and eternal blessedness and glory.”[5]

In enumerating the reasons why God would reveal his designs to man, he states, “it is fit that mankind should be informed something of God’s design in the government of the world, because they are made capable of actively falling in with that design, and promoting of it, and acting herein as his friends and subjects.”[6] Thus the study of prophecy in regard to God’s work of redemption was the means by which God’s friends and subjects could intentionally promote God’s designs.

This idea became more evident in An Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God’s People in Extraordinary Prayer for the Revival of Christ’s Kingdom on Earth Pursuant to Scripture Promises and Prophecies Concerning the Last Time, which Edwards wrote in 1746.[7] Here, Edwards interpreted how Zechariah 8:20–23 is to be understood and then showed how it ought to be applied.

We may learn from the tenor of this prophecy, together with the context, that this union in such prayer is foretold as a becoming and happy thing, and that which would be acceptable to God, and attended with glorious success.

From the whole we may infer, that it is a very suitable thing, and well pleasing to God, for many people, in different parts of the world, by express agreement, to come into a visible union in extraordinary, speedy, fervent and constant prayer, for those great effusions of the Holy Spirit, which shall bring on that advancement of Christ’s church and kingdom, that God has so often promised shall be in the latter ages of the world.

And so from hence I would infer the duty of God’s people, with regard to the memorial lately sent over into America, from Scotland, by a number of ministers there, proposing a method for such an union as has been spoken of, in extraordinary prayer for this great mercy.[8]

Edwards, in his writing and preaching, followed the activist Reformed tradition in an age when Christianity appeared to be declining. Rather than seek to protect the remnant, he forcefully expressed what many of his fellow ministers of the gospel believed, namely that those who have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit are called to be the chosen instruments of God for God’s worldwide work of redemption.

His Humble Attempt was not a personal initiative. He wrote to support the efforts of Christians in Scotland to promote united prayer for revival and advancement of Christ’s kingdom. A visionary guide need not have a new vision. A vision as old as the Bible is sufficient. Edwards focused the eyes of God’s people on the divinely revealed vision so as to convince them that it was true and not a mirage. Then he immediately followed through with a clearly stated objective which was a logical inference from the vision itself, namely that Christians were to unite in extraordinary prayer for that outpouring of the Spirit which he showed from prophecy to be the appointed prerequisite for the fulfillment of the vision.

One remarkable aspect of this work is just how much of it is consumed with the interpretation of the book of Revelation. Though some Christians doubted that it was the time to pray for revival and extension of God’s kingdom, Edwards proposed that an outpouring of the Holy Spirit was a legitimate object of prayer at that very time. Here it was felt necessary to refute or at least mitigate the claims of Moses Lowman who had published a book in 1745 which claimed that the Seventh Vial of Revelation represented an age that would only end in 2016![9] While Edwards offered an alternative interpretation on the prophecies, he also tempered his remarks by pointing out that the church should still pray for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit at that very time, even if the Millennium would only begin two centuries later. Referring to the stream that flows from the Temple and gradually becomes a river in Ezekiel 47, Edwards writes:

If the Spirit of God should be immediately poured out, and that work of God’s power and grace should now begin, which in its progress and issue should complete this glorious effect; there must be an amazing and unparalleled progress of the work and manifestation of divine power to bring so much to pass, by the year two thousand.[10]

In the History of the Work of Redemption, Edwards’s views are similarly expressed.

There is no reason from the word of God to think any other, than that this great work of God will be wrought, though very swiftly, yet gradually…. [T]hough there are many things which seem to hold forth that the work of God would be exceeding swift,—and many great and wonderful events should very suddenly be brought to pass, and some great parts of Satan’s visible kingdom should have a very sudden fall,—yet all will not be accomplished at once, as by some great miracle, like the resurrection of the dead. But this work will be accomplished by means, by the preaching of the gospel, and the use of the ordinary means of grace, and so shall be gradually brought to pass. Some shall be converted, and be the means of others’ conversion. God’s Spirit shall be poured out first to raise up instruments, and then those instruments shall be used with success. And doubtless one nation shall be enlightened and converted, and one false religion and false way of worship exploded, after another.[11]

Jonathan Edwards was a narrator of God’s marvelous works which occurred in his day. As a participant in the first stirrings of the Great Awakening in 1735, he wrote A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls, in Northampton and the Neighboring Towns and Villages of New Hampshire, in New England. He knew that carefully observed and well documented facts had a weight all their own in undergirding biblically based exhortations. Perhaps his most influential contribution to world missions was his book, An Account of the  Life of the Late Reverend Mr. David Brainerd.[12] Edwards presented this life of a missionary to the American Indians, as an example of the power of God to transform the life of his servant and through him to bring the gospel to bear on the most pagan and uncivilized society with great and lasting effect. It became the inspiration of countless missionaries who carried the gospel throughout the world.

Through his writings, Edwards became a guide who led God’s people into the future that God had pre-ordained for them. He had no authoritative power and he had no influence beyond that which he had accrued as a faithful minister of the gospel and interpreter of the divine oracles. His preached sermons in Northampton, Massachusetts touched several thousand people in his day, but what he wrote has influenced millions over the centuries.

Let us move on to see specifically how Edwards’s works impacted others. Consider just his Humble Attempt. At first the book’s influence was relatively small. The decades following Edwards’s death in 1758 were not noted for church growth and expansion. But in 1786, an English Baptist, John Sutcliff of Olney, republished Edwards’s Humble Attempt and once again called on Christians to join together in extraordinary prayer for revival and the advancement of God’s kingdom. The call was heeded and the movement of prayer spread among the Baptists and beyond.

A close associate of John Sutcliff was William Carey.[13] Once one realizes the connection between Edwards and Carey, it quickly becomes apparent that An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the  Heathens was in many ways a sequel to Edwards’s Humble Attempt. His expectation of how the gospel would impact even the most savage society was expressed clearly in the Enquiry.

After all, the uncivilized state of the heathen, instead of affording an objection against preaching the gospel to them, ought to furnish an argument for it. Can we as men, or as christians [sic], hear that a great part of our fellow creatures, whose souls are as immortal as ours, and who are as capable as ourselves, of adorning the gospel, and contributing by their preaching, writings, or practices to the glory of our Redeemer’s name, and the good of his church, are inveloped in ignorance and barbarism? Can we hear that they are without the gospel, without government, without laws, and without arts, and sciences; and not exert ourselves to introduce amongst them the sentiments of men, and of Christians? Would not the spread of the gospel be the most effectual mean of their civilization? Would not that make them useful members of society? We know that such effects did in a measure follow the afore-mentioned efforts of Elliot, Brainerd, and others amongst the American Indians; and if similar attempts were made in other parts of the world, and succeeded with a divine blessing (which we have every reason to think they would) might we not expect to see able Divines, or read well-conducted treatises in defence of the truth, even amongst those who at present seem to be scarcely human?[14]

When Carey sailed for India in 1793 he brought the sermons of Edwards to read along the way.[15] It is often noted that Carey spent seven years in India before baptizing his first convert in 1800. It is not as often remarked that the first convert preached continually for the next twenty-two years throughout Bengal and even to Assam and the foothills of the Himalayas. By 1803, with the New Testament published and Old Testament translated, Carey could write in a letter to Mr. Sutcliff:

The Lord has blessed us with twenty-five native church members, who are all baptized on a profession of their faith. They do not all afford us equal pleasure, and we have been under the necessity of suspending some from communion for a time. Yet, with all their imperfections, they are our glory and joy.[16]

Carey worked in unison with other missionaries who shared his theological and missiological convictions. In 1805 they wrote “The Serampore Agreement” which stated how they were to work together for the conversion of the heathen. It includes this reference to David Brainerd that should inspire modern missionaries to persevere in their work.

Let us often look at Brainerd, in the woods of America, pouring out his very soul before God for the perishing heathen, without whose salvation nothing could make him happy. Prayer, secret, fervent, believing prayer, lies at the root of all personal godliness. A competent knowledge of the languages current where a missionary lives, a mild and winning temper, and a heart given up to God in closet religion, these, these are the attainments which, more than all knowledge, or all other gifts, will fit us to become the instruments of God in the great work of Human Redemption.[17]

By 1814, approximately 1100 converts had been baptized.[18] Carey’s tenacity, which was equally evident in the lives of other pioneers like Adoniram Judson and Robert Morrison, stemmed from the theological principles laid out by Edwards. There was urgency without hastiness, confidence without triumphalism, and expectant perseverance in the midst of both opposition and indifference.

Robert Morrison’s prayer chain

Another example of the influence of Edwards in his promotion of a union of prayer is to be found in the journals of the first Protestant missionary to China, Robert Morrison. In December 1826 he wrote to his wife,

To-morrow, being the first Monday in the month, we propose meeting for Missionary prayers – O. is pleased with the idea of a chain of such meetings going on round the world. Not a simultaneous prayer-meeting, (some of our friends at home mistake this matter,) but a consecutive series. Perhaps, in the circle, we in China should begin; as the sun of J ĭh-pun (Japan), literally, the ‘source of day,’ first rises on us.[19]

The following entry continues:

It is now about ten, P.M. – Our friends, with Johnny [his son] and myself assembled about eight to read the Scriptures, and pray for the conversion of the heathen, and the restoration of the Jews. It is the first monthly-prayer meeting that was ever held (I believe) in China. May such meetings never cease till China be evangelized![20]

Then on 5 November 1827 he records:

This evening we purpose to have a missionary prayer meeting. If they begin in the South Seas, we follow here in China – then India, Syria, and Europe, –America comes last. A chain of prayer all round the world, for twenty-four hours![21]

Thus we see that eighty years after Edwards wrote An Humble Attempt, there was still a concerted effort to maintain the union of prayer in line with its original purposes.

The impact of Edwards

Jonathan Edwards took the theology of the Puritans and adapted it to an age when Western society was generally indifferent to the divine claims of Jesus Christ. He, like John Wesley, was a formulator of what was to become Evangelicalism. Unlike Wesley, Edwards left no institution to preserve and promulgate his views. What he did leave was books and admirers. Those books were read, distributed, printed, and reprinted so as to affect the views of a century of Christian leaders, many of whom became missionaries or advocates of missions.

The common evangelical eschatology of the eighteenth to mid-nineteenth Century was Post-millennialism. There was no expectation of the imminent, visible return of Christ. Still, many of those who held to this view remained vigilant and zealous for several reasons. (1) There was an extremely high mortality rate. Whether people were living in Calcutta or London, they may have been in the best of health and spirits at breakfast but covered with a funeral shroud by sunset. On the individual level, Jesus often did come as a thief in the night. (2) They had a firm belief in the scriptural teaching regarding the return of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. (3) They had a strong confidence that God purposed to cause his kingdom to spread throughout the earth through the instrumentality of his saints. His kingdom would come. His friends and subjects were to be his ready witnesses and martyrs working with the enabling of the Holy Spirit to effect its advance.

The advocates of world missions believed that their labors in the Lord were not in vain. Yet they readily acknowledged that it was highly improbable that they would personally see the completion of the work which they began. They did, however, base their work on a number of time-honored principles and practices.

  • Their faith was built on the Bible. They would translate the Bible and establish printing houses.
  • They read their Bibles from the time they were children. They would teach adults to read and start schools wherever they preached the gospel.
  • They generally were gradually converted after hearing much preaching. They would preach the gospel continuously and equip and encourage believers to do so also until people believed.
  • They came from churches where they had been taught to use their minds to their full capacity. They would empower their disciples to do likewise.
  • They gained their deep rooted theological convictions that carried them to the ends of the earth and kept them there by reading and taking to heart solid theological teaching. They would make suitable scholarly writings available to their converts.
  • They usually benefited from attending Christian institutes. They would create institutions of higher education for emerging leaders.

To put it simply, those who participated in the early stages of the modern missionary movement sought to love their neighbors as they loved themselves. They did so in line with the guidance they had received from the writings of men like Edwards.


In 1979, as a very young Christian, I was working on a farm in Iowa. My neighbors, the Masters, took me to church every Sunday morning and evening. I soon discovered that Dwight Masters had a brother, Phil Masters, who had been martyred in Irian Jaya a decade earlier. They lent me the book Lords of the  Earth, which told something of his story.[22] Thus it was that the first missionary I ever got to know was a dead one. That summer I offered my life to God for missionary service. Four years later I was back on the farm cutting brush around the remains of the old farm house when I discovered some gravestones. One small stone had words to this effect, “Philip Masters 1932–1968 … Hebr. 11:4.” Pulling out my pocket Bible I found the verse, “he being dead yet speaketh.” Phil Masters, whom I never met, speaks to me to this day.

The dead speak to God continually from under the altar, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?” (Rev 6:10). But these departed saints only speak for a short time to the living—unless their stories are recorded for posterity. A spoken word is like a stone thrown into the pond. The ripples may spread, but they will disappear and the waters will become still and torpid once again. The recorded word is like the rain coming down from that vast cloud of witnesses that will not allow that grave-like slumber to reign.

[1] Pseudonym.

[2] William Carey, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1891).

[3] Eustace Carey, Memoir of William Carey, D.D.  (Boston: Gould, Kendall and Lincoln, 1836), 38.

[4] Carey, Memoir, 45. Fuller’s Memoir which only covered William Carey’s early life is recorded in part in Eustace Carey’s later Memoir.

[5] Jonathan Edwards, “Work of Redemption,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol 2 (Worcester: Isaiah Thomas, 1808), 371.

[6] Edwards, “Work of Redemption,” 384.

[7] Jonathan Edwards, “An Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God’s People in Extraordinary Prayer for the Revival of Christ’s Kingdom on Earth Pursuant to Scripture Promises and Prophecies Concerning the Last Time,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol 3 (Worcester: Isaiah Thomas, 1808), 355–6.

[8] Edwards, “An Humble Attempt,” 369.

[9] Moses Lowman, A Paraphrase and Notes on the Revelation of St. John, 2nd ed. (London: John Noon, 1745), xxxi.

[10] Edwards, “An Humble Attempt,” 468.

[11] Edwards, “Work of Redemption,” 330–1.

[12] Jonathan Edwards, An Account of the Life of the Late Reverend Mr. David Brainerd (Boston: D. Henchman, 1749).

[13] For a short but very helpful article on the subject see: Nathan A. Finn, “History Could Happen Again,” June 26, 2014, (accessed 19 May 2016).

[14] Carey, An Enquiry, 69–70.

[15] Carey, Memoir, 73.

[16] Carey, Memoir, 312–3.

[17] William Yates, Memoirs of Mr. John Chamberlain Late Missionary in India (Calcutta: Baptist Mission Press, London: Re-printed for Wightman and Cramp, Paternoster Row. 1826), 190–201.

[18] James Hough, The History of Christianity in India from the Commencement of the Christian Era. Second Portion: Comprising the History of Protestant Missions 1706–1816, Vol 2 (London: Seeley, Burnside, and Seeley, 1845), 427.

[19] Eliza Morrison, Memoirs of the the Life and Labours of Robert Morrison, D.D., Vol 2 (London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green, and Longmans. 1839), 376.

[20] Morrison, Memoirs, 382.

[21] Morrison, Memoirs, 382.

[22] Don Richardson, Lords of the Earth (Bloomington, Minnesota: Bethany House, 1977), 368.

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