Amy Carmichael was a missionary to India in the first half of the twentieth century. She is best known today for her work among at-risk Indian children, founding the Dohnavur Fellowship, and her many influential writings.
Amy Carmichael was born in Millisle, County Down, Ireland, in 1867. Her churchgoing family ensured that young Amy was brought up knowing the Lord. In her teens, Amy developed a burden for the Shawlies in Belfast, poor mill girls who wore shawls instead of the more expensive hats. She started a Bible class for them, and the work grew, eventually needing a building to hold 500 people. Amy continued to work with the Shawlies in Belfast until she moved on to a similar work in Manchester in 1889.
Amy Carmichael began attending Keswick Convention meetings, where she heard the likes of D.L. Moody and Hudson Taylor, founder of the China Inland Mission. After hearing Taylor, Amy knew that God was calling her to foreign missions. In 1887, Amy Carmichael travelled to Japan, but she had to return home fifteen months later, due to illness. After a time of recovery and applying to a new mission board, Amy arrived in Bangalore, India, in 1895. At 28 years old, she was at the beginning of a groundbreaking and consequential missionary career. She never took a furlough and never returned home to Ireland.
Amy Carmichael settled in southern India where she served for a time with a missionary, Thomas Walker, and his wife. She applied herself to learning the Tamil language and the Indian customs and caste system. From the beginning, Amy bucked traditional missionary protocol by refusing to wear European clothing or to sleep in a bed, choosing instead to wear saris and sleep on a mat on the ground, like the Indian village women to whom she ministered.
In March 1901 a little girl named Preena (“Pearl-Eyes”) came to Amy. Preena was 7 years old and had just escaped from a nearby Hindu temple, where she had been held against her will. The Hindu temple system at that time had temple prostitutes, and Preena had been sold to the temple to be trained in prostitution. She had tried to escape twice before but was caught both times. As a punishment for her attempted escapes, Preena was beaten, and her hands were branded with hot irons.
On her third attempt to escape her misery, Preena ended up at the door of Amy Carmichael. It was a divinely appointed meeting, and Amy saw it as such. The young missionary determined to save Preena despite the protests of the local Hindu temple. Eventually, Amy was allowed to keep Preena. And so Amy Carmichael found what was to be her life’s work. For the next fifty years, she gave herself to saving unwanted, abandoned, and abused girls like Preena and the babies that were born to the temple prostitutes.
The Walkers helped Amy find a place where she could care for the girls who were coming for help. Amy’s new place of ministry was Dohnavur, situated in Tamil Nadu, thirty miles from the southern tip of India. Thus began the Dohnavur Fellowship. The children kept coming, and they called Amy “Amma,” the Tamil word for “mother.”
Amy Carmichael lived by the motto “Love to live, live to love.” She made sure that Dohnavur was a safe place for the children to learn about the love of Jesus. It was a happy place full of singing and learning and prayer. The children dressed in brightly colored clothing as they participated in chores and tended to their lessons.
Amy Carmichael insisted on telling the truth to people back home about work on the mission field, resisting the temptation to whitewash the facts or romanticize her occupation. Her unvarnished presentation of truth took form in her book Things As They Are: Mission Work in Southern India, published in 1905. Many back in England were appalled by her frankness concerning the conditions she faced and by her criticism of current missionary efforts. Some pushed to have Amy recalled from the mission field. Fortunately for the children of south India, Amma remained.
Amy Carmichael loved and respected Indian culture, insofar as it did not conflict with biblical principles. All members of the Dohnavur Fellowship wore Indian, not European dress, and the children were given Indian names. Amy often traveled long distances to rescue even one child from suffering. In 1904, Amma had 17 girls under her care. By 1913, the Dohnavur Fellowship was home to 130. In 1918, the family expanded even more, adding a home for young boys, most of whom were children of temple prostitutes.
In Amy Carmichael’s lifetime, the Dohnavur Fellowship helped approximately 2,000 children. The facilities grew to include nurseries, school buildings, boys’ and girls’ housing, a House of Prayer, and a hospital. Amy had a conviction against asking people for money, preferring to rely on prayer: “If we are about our Father’s business, He will take care of ours. There is no want in the fear of the Lord, and it needeth not to seek help” (Amy Carmichael, Nor Scrip, p. 92). Never did the Dohnavur Fellowship put out pleas for finances. In every circumstance, even with so many mouths to feed, the Lord always provided.
The ministry of Amy Carmichael, with her hundreds of children, illustrates the truth of Jesus’ words: “Truly I tell you, . . . no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life” (Luke 18:29–30).
In 1932, Amy Carmichael was badly injured in a fall. Her injuries left her bedridden for almost 20 years, until her death. From her room, Amma continued to minister to the Dohnavur family, writing copiously and receiving many visitors. Amy Carmichael died in 1951 at the age of 83. She is buried at Dohnavur Fellowship; in accordance with Amy’s wishes, a simple birdbath marks her grave.
Today, the Dohnavur Fellowship is still in operation and still fulfilling Amy Carmichael’s vision to help needy children. The property covers over 400 acres, has over fifteen nurseries, and can house approximately 500 children at once.
Amy Carmichael wrote 35 books, including histories, biographies, and books of poetry. She was as eloquent as she was prolific. Besides Things As They Are, her books include Gold Cord, Raj: Brigand Chief, Lotus Buds, Toward Jerusalem, and the classic devotional If. Amy’s writings are full of the themes of commitment, surrender, love, and the deeper spiritual life. Here are some quotes from Amy Carmichael:
“If there be any reserve in my giving to Him who so loved that He gave His Dearest for me, then I know nothing of Calvary love” (If, p. 48).
“If I am content to heal a hurt slightly, saying Peace, peace, where there is no peace; if I forget the poignant word ‘Let love be without dissimulation’ and blunt the edge of truth, speaking not right things but smooth things, then I know nothing of Calvary love” (If, p. 25).
“If I covet any place on earth but the dust at the foot of the Cross, then I know nothing of Calvary love” (If, p. 68).
“Prayer is like a child who knows the way to his Father’s house and goes straight there . . . . Sometimes there are hindrances, and then an old story comes to mind: When he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion” (Gold Cord, p. 358).
“To say that evil is rapidly disappearing does not make it disappear. But it charms the devil, who is never so pleased as when he and his doings are underrated or ignored” (Gold Cord, p. 29).
“We cannot love each other too much, for He said ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’ We cannot set the standard too high, for it is not ours to move about as we will: it is our Lord’s, and He has set it high” (Kohila, p. 46).
“Prayer is the core of our day. Take prayer out, and the day would collapse, would be pithless, a straw blown in the wind.”
“Ours should be the love that asks not ‘How little’ but ‘How much’; the love that pours out its all and revels in the joy of having something to pour on the feet of its beloved; love that laughs at limits—rather, does not see them, would not heed them if it did” (God’s Missionary p. 34).
“The amazing thing is that everyone who reads the Bible has the same joyful thing to say about it. In every land, in every language, it is the same tale: where that Book is read, not with the eyes only, but with the mind and heart, the life is changed. Sorrowful people are comforted, sinful people are transformed, peoples who were in the dark walk in the light. Is it not wonderful to think that this Book, which is such a mighty power if it gets a chance to work in an honest heart, is in our hands today?” (Thou Givest . . . They Gather, p. 7).