Birds of a Feather: What Made the Greatest Missionary Team Great


When Jesus sends missionaries around the world, he’s uses them as individuals and as parts of a team. David Brainerd lived alone for many years as he evangelized the Native American Indians. Elisabeth Elliot, Amy Carmichael, John Paton, Robert Moffat, James Gilmour, David Livingstone and a host of other missionaries all experienced years of ministry alone. The very definition of pioneer missions often means working solo, at least in the beginning.

But I’m a proponent of team missions and believe the Serampore Trio is one of the greatest examples of teamwork in the history of world evangelism. They tripled and quadrupled the output of their work compared to what they could have done individually.

Henry Martyn, the great missionary to India and Persia, never had the privilege of enjoying a permanent teammate and companion on the field. He did, however, have the joy of knowing each member of the Serampore Trio. He wrote:

“Three such men as Carey, Marshman, and Ward, so suited to one another and their work, are not to be found, I think, in the whole world.”

In 1793, William Carey arrived in Bengal as a missionary. Today he is known as the Father of Modern Missions. William Ward and Joshua Marshman joined him six years later. They eventually chose as their headquarters the city of Serampore, just a few miles north of Calcutta, one of the largest cities in India. They became known as the Serampore Trio. Carey’s biographer wrote of this team: “No three men ever had a soul so single.”

They served together as missionary teammates for 24 years until William Ward’s death in 1823. Carey and Marshman continued as partners another eleven years until Carey’s death in 1834. The long standing work they did as translators and evangelists in India is beyond calculation.

Unity in heart and mind made them great. The quotes below come from S. Pearce Carey’s biography, William Carey. Here are six ways these three friends were similar.


(1) Same cultural background

All three men came from blue-collar homes in England. Ward’s father was a carpenter. Mrs. Marshman’s father was a farmer. Carey’s father was a church clerk and schoolmaster. Some may argue that social background makes no difference. In one sense that is true. Paul and Barnabas had different social backgrounds. What ultimately makes the difference in any relationship is that two or more groups are committed to Jesus.

But I still think it makes a difference. Habits of certain styles of living and education helped the families get along. And in the one exception where it was different (Carey’s wife Dorothy was largely illiterate), it caused tremendous problems in the team.

From our own team, all of us grew up in blue collar America where none of our fathers were professionals. With the Meyers, Seth’s father was a sub-contractor and his wife Amy’s father worked in the tiling business. My father was a Tool and Die maker and my wife Melinda’s father was a building contractor and small town pastor. All of us went to a Christian school from K-5 to 12th grade. All of us went to the same college. All four of our mothers were homemakers.

(2) Same church denomination

All three were from the same church denomination, Baptist. Though they were ecumenical in the sense that they prayed happily for other Protestant denominations to find spiritual success, Carey recommended in An Enquiry that it would be most prudent for missionaries from different denominations to remain separate in ministry:

“In the present divided state of Christendom, it would be more likely for good to be done by each denomination engaging separately in the work, than if they were to embark in it conjointly. There is room enough for us all, without interfering with each other; and if no unfriendly interference took place, each denomination would bear good will to the other, and wish, and pray for its success, considering it as upon the whole friendly to the great cause of true religion; but if all were intermingled, it is likely their private discords might throw a damp upon their spirits, and much retard their public usefulness.”

(3) Same commitment to friendship

Possessing the same goals is crucial for team unity. In a letter to his son, Carey wrote:

“Cultivate brotherly love. Think of our friends Creighton and Grant, who lived for near twenty years in Goamalti without one painful difference. You cannot so much as shy with each other without hurt to the Mission. Union, like every other blessing, must be prized and sought.”

Not only did the Trio have the same mission goal. They possessed the same friendship goal. They were willing to labour to the end for unity. In one sad example, when a missionary that had joined the team was sent home, he created severe strife among the missionaries. Carey worked his hardest with this man for reconciliation, to no avail. The distress made Carey “alarmingly ill” so that he even “looked for death”. Many modern missionaries can relate.

On another occasion when a new team came to India, they asked Carey to join them, as long as Marshman was left behind. Carey refused and defended his friend and teammate with whom he had served for eighteen years:

“Marshman’s excellencies are such that his defects are almost concealed by them, and I believe him to be one of the firmest friends the Mission ever had, and I hope it may never stand in need of one like him.”

When Marshman came under attack, Carey showed loyalty, writing, “There is no man in India more respected than he. I love him.” Elsewhere, Carey even rebuked his good friend John Ryland in a letter for his harsh treatment of his teammate. He wrote:

“Your letter to Bro. Marshman was absolutely insulting, and I will confidently say unmerited. You are bound as a Christian man to acknowledge the evil of what you have said; and, if you have mentioned such things to others, you are bound as an act of simple justice to contradict what you have said.”

(4) Same lodging

Carey believed in the Moravian model of communal living. So upon their arrival in Serampore they purchased a house large enough to accommodate all of the families and a school. But this strange, joint endeavour almost never happened. There was much friction between the three in the beginning, especially between the wives. It would take the deepest humility for these living accommodations to work. Ward wrote:

“I tremble, almost before we begin to live together. So much depends on a man’s disinterestedness, forbearance, meekness and self-denial. One man of the wrong temper could make our house a hell. Much wisdom will be necessary. It is but here and there that one makes conscience of strangling thoughts, and of esteeming others better than himself. Only few are fit to live in such a settlement as ours is to be, where selfish passions must be crushed, and the love of Christ swallow up all else.”

They not only shared the same house but the same possessions. They pooled their resources into one and poured all of their monies into the Society, viewing themselves as trustees rather than owners.

(5) Similar age

All three men were north of 30 years old when they came together, Carey being 39, Marshman 32 and Ward 31. Each being in the same chapter of life spiritually and socially made things run smoothly, especially compared to a team where one member in his 60’s is missing his grandkids back home and the other member in his 20’s is still learning the rudiments of marriage.

(6) Same authority

Unlike the Moravian model, there was no official leader or head of the Trio. All three had equal say, which was one of the secrets to their success. This threefold cord was never broken accept through death.

They dealt with discord in the team quickly and thoroughly. Carey explains:

“We have a meeting every Saturday evening to regulate family concerns, and settle any difference that may have arisen in the week. Should any be hurt in their minds, and not mention it then, they would meet with little pity afterwards, and indeed, would be guilty of a crime.”


Unity made the greatest missionary team great. They were unified in many important items, and even similar in matters some may consider unimportant. But they were most unified in their understanding of the Gospel and how missionaries should proclaim it to reach the lost for Christ.

1 thought on “Birds of a Feather: What Made the Greatest Missionary Team Great

  1. Pingback: Opposites Attract: How and Why Missionaries Should Embrace Their Differences | Between Two Cultures

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