One of the best-known and respected missionaries of the first half of the 20th century was Amy Carmichael. Her 35 books have blessed countless thousands. One who knew her well gives this testimony: “Miss Carmichael was a blessing to all who came into intimate and understanding contact with her radiant life. She was the most Christ-like character I ever met, and her life was the most fragrant, the most joyfully sacrificial that I have ever known.”
Amy Carmichael was born in 1867 into a well-to-do North Ireland Christian family. In her teen years, she was educated at a Wesleyan Methodist boarding school; and at age 13, while still in boarding school, she accepted Christ as Savior. When she was age 18, her father died, leaving the family in difficult financial circumstances as he had given a large personal loan that was not repaid. The family moved to Belfast. There she became involved in visiting in the slums, and seeing the terrible conditions under which many women and girls worked in the factories, she began a ministry with these women. It was a work based on faith alone in God, and He met the needs in most remarkable ways.
She became acquainted with the Keswick Movement, and it was there that she learned of a close, deeper walk with the Lord. One of the leaders of the Keswick Movement, Mr. Wilson, a widower, asked her to come and live in his home and be his secretary. She learned much from that employment. She remembered on one occasion at Keswick when Mr. Moody had preached and afterwards was talking with Mr. Wilson when he stopped in mid-sentence. He had just preached on the prodigal son when the father had said to the older son, “Son, thou art ever with me and all that I have is thine.” Mr. Moody said, “I never saw it before. Oh, the love of God’s love. Oh, the love. God’s love.” Tears rained down his cheeks. Amy never forgot that spiritual truth—”All that I have is thine.” It reinforced her faith that God knew her needs before she asked and wanted to supply them by faith.
She developed a good work among the women in Belfast and was then asked to have a similar ministry in Manchester. There, with her mother at her side, she developed a similar ministry among slum people and particularly the women and girls who were working under very terrible conditions in the factories.
Amy received her Macedonian call in 1892 at the age of 24; and the following year, as the first appointee of the Keswick’s missions committee, she went to Japan. But there she met with disappointments. The Japanese language seemed impossible to her, and the missionary community was not the picture of harmony she had envisioned. Likewise, her health was also a problem. After 15 months as a missionary, Amy became convinced that Japan was not where God wanted her, so without notifying the Keswick Convention, she sailed for Ceylon. She was there only a few months when she was urgently called back to England to care for Mr. Wilson, who was in critical condition.
After about one year in England, she returned to the field, this time to India. She arrived in Madras in November of 1895, a discouraged, confused, and ill young Irish woman. She was 28 years old. Soon after her arrival, she contracted dengue fever, which laid her low for a period of time. She was sent to a more healthful place to recuperate. One friend who met her said, “You look fresh as a daisy.” But Amy’s temperature was 105, and in her own words she felt “wormy.”
She saw in the community where she was that the church was very active but there were no changed lives. She detested the meetings with the other missionary ladies—drinking tea and gossiping, again showing very little concern for the eternal souls of those about them. She felt so alone. One day as she fell to her knees in dispair, a verse that she had learned long before floated into her memory: “He that trusteth in me shall never be desolate,” and she found that to be true throughout her long life of ministry in India. The following lines are so appropriate concerning the missionary community in Bangalore:
Onward Christian soldiers,
Sitting on the mats;
Nice and warm and cozy
Like little pussycats.
Onward Christian soldiers,
Oh, how brave are we,
Don’t we do our fighting
Amy just did not fit into the stiff, staid missionary community of Bangalore and subsequently went to the very south end of India to live with another missionary family. The Walkers were a godly family that really understood the Hindu religion and the tremendous need of reaching out to these debased people. For several years Amy, along with a daughter of the Walkers and several Christian Indian ladies, began an itinerant ministry through the villages in the south tip of India in the state of Tamil Nadu. They were dubbed the “starry cluster,” for the Indians recognized the sincerity and light that shown forth from them. The members of the band had no salary but looked to God to supply needs. Their attitude was “How much can I do without that I may have more to give?” It was during this period of time that she took on the habit of wearing Indian dress, which she continued throughout her lifetime.
A life-changing experience took place in 1901. A little five-year-old girl, named Pearl Eyes by Amy, was brought to her by an Indian woman. The child had been sold by the mother to the temple, and there she was being prepared and taught all the degradation of temple prostitution. Twice she had run away only to be caught, carried back, beaten, and subjected to the terrible perversion of that Hindu temple. Finally, as she was running away again at night, she met with this understanding woman who brought her to Amy, who gathered the child up into her lap and picked up the rag doll and gave it to the child to play with. It was then that she really truly understood the evil of the temple practice. Little Pearl Eyes talked freely as she played with the doll. She told Amy things that they did to her in the temple, demonstrating them using the doll. The date was March 7, 1901. Amy never forgot that day nor the child’s story. It was terrible beyond imagination. This was the beginning of her rescue of these children who had been dedicated to the temple gods.
This incident led to the founding of the Dohnavur Fellowship. Over the years literally thousands of temple children have been rescued and other ministries established there at the Dohnavur Fellowship in South India.
In 1918, they began to rescue baby boys, for they likewise were dedicated to the temple gods and goddesses. Other areas of the work over the years were added, such as hospital, schools, printing, etc. Amy was not understood by many of the missionaries in India. She was also greatly resented by the Hindu priests and was frequently taken to court on charges of being a kidnapper.
Amy was greatly influenced by the life of George Mueller and ordered her work on the same basis, never asking for financial help except as she winged her petitions to the God of all grace.
In 1931 Amy had a fall that left her an invalid for the remainder of her life, and she seldom left her bed. It was during this period of her life that she was most prolific in writing. Occasionally someone would wheel her in a type of wheelchair out onto a veranda where her children would gather outside and greet her and sing to her.
My wife had always been a great admirer of Amy Carmichael and collected most of the books that she wrote. It was a real thrill for us, while in India, to visit the Dohnavur Fellowship.
Dohnavur Fellowship is located on a large tract of land on the very southern tip of the Indian subcontinent. It is a lovely site with many tropical plants and flowering shrubs and trees. The buildings are well built in Indian style. The central building is the chapel, which is a large, lovely facility. Daily devotions are held there. There are no pews per se, but the Indians who are a part of the fellowship sit on mats, Indian style, in the main part of the auditorium. Around the periphery, there are chairs for guests that are visiting the campus. The children are housed in “family” units. Each house takes care of 8 to 10 children with a house mother living with them and supervising them. The boys’ and the girls’ sections are separate by some distance. There are very few boys anymore. That part of the ministry is virtually closed. They do have a hospital, schools, agricultural pursuits, and other facilities. The house Amy Carmichael lived in is still in good repair. It is again typical of the colonial-day housing. It has large, open doors and windows and is very comfortable. The main central room is a dining room. It was there where Amy had her meals until she was rendered bed-bound by her injury. As guests we were invited to have our meals there, served in the same room and with the same tableware that Amy used some fifty years earlier. Off the dining room was her private bedroom, which is very spacious as well. The walls are lined with shelves, and she had a fabulous missionary library. There are several smaller rooms off this bedroom, so it would be possible for her to privately counsel and deal with inquirers who came to her for help. Another door from her bedroom leads out onto a veranda that overlooks a lovely garden. We were told that every evening the children would come and greet Amy and sing to her. Her bed could be rolled out onto the veranda, and she would greet and speak with the children on those occasions. If I understood correctly, the only European who is involved in any ongoing way is a woman who is the treasurer. She cannot get a resident visa to stay full-time, but she comes on a tourist visa for three months, leaves India for a short period, and then returns again for another three-month stint. The rest of the operation is in the hands of the Indians, and they seem to be doing an outstanding job.
It’s interesting that most of the children who are there do not know their birthdates, so they reckon on the day they arrived at the Dohnavur home and call it the “coming day.” That becomes their birthday. On the coming day there is a special occasion with special treats and new clothing; and they honor the individual in some way.
Temple prostitution played a major part of Hinduism. This practice was known by the British who governed India and had been spoken against, but nothing ever happened. However, through the “campaigning” of Amy and some other concerned people, temple prostitution was banned toward the end of Amy’s life. Yet it is still practiced today, for it was never really enforced—a very horrific sexual perversion of these children, both girls and boys (more so the girls), and it is still a blight upon that great land of India.
Surrounding Amy’s house are lovely gardens. She also was quite an admirer of birds, and a number of bird baths and feeders are found in the garden around her cottage. Somewhere in the garden, in an unmarked tomb, Amy was buried. She didn’t want a marker placed over her grave. She wanted just to remain a part of the Dohnavur Fellowship.
The present superintendent of the Dohnavur Fellowship is a woman whose “coming day” was when she was five days old. All of the house mothers, likewise, grew up at the fellowship and seem to be very lovely, caring people. The present superintendent was five years old when Amy passed to her reward in 1951. From the time Amy set foot on Indian soil, she never returned to her homeland—55 years without a furlough.
Amy was very self-effacing-would never allow her photograph to be taken and never referred to herself by name or personal pronoun in her writings.
Upon a life I did not live,
Upon a death I did not die,
Another’s life, another’s death,
I stake my whole eternity.