Single women missionaries have always been a dominant factor in the great history of global mission. Amy Wilson Carmichael was one of these women. Born in Ireland on December 16, 1867 to a wealthy family, Amy was the oldest of seven children. Her childhood of relative ease ended with the death of her father as she approached her eighteenth birthday. His death plunged the family into financial insecurity and Amy was now faced with the responsibility of raising her brothers and sisters.
During this time Amy was spiritually influenced by the Keswick conventions sweeping through Europe. An emphasis during the conventions included a focus on missions and the needs of the world. During one of these meetings Hudson Taylor spoke of the four thousand who die ever hour without Christ. Amy later wrote in her journal, “Does it not stir up our hearts, to go forth and help them, does it not make us long to leave our luxury, our exceeding abundant light, and go to them that sit in darkness?”
At the age of 24, Amy first set out into that darkness. Her destination was Japan where she served for fifteen months before suffering severe health issues. Although Amy’s time in Japan was short, it was a time of much growth and training that would continue to profoundly impact her ministry. It was here she begin wearing the traditional Japanese dress, an innovation that would continue later in her ministry in India. All the workers and children in Amy’s ministry wore Indian clothing and had Indian names.
A year later, after receiving medical attention, working briefly in China and a brief furlough at home, Amy set sail for India. At first Amy rejected the idea of India as “much too easy,” possibly due to the British presence there at the time. Her first several years were spent as part of an evangelistic team. By 1901, Amy’s focus had shifted from traveling evangelism to the rescue of orphans who were dedicated at Hindu Temples to the worship of the gods. This was the beginning of the Dohnavur Fellowship; a group of women dedicated to the rescue and upbringing of these orphans who were used as sexual servants in the temples. Amy’s missionary career in India lasted over 55 years without a furlough.
A spirit of service and a love for those who others considered “unlovable” always dominated Amy’s ministry even in Europe before she begin ministry cross-culturally. In her early twenties, she worked with a group of young ladies called “shawlies” because of the shawls they wore on their heads. The proper members of Amy’s church were shocked that someone would reduce them self to teaching the Bible to these low members of society.
Again in India much of the missionary community shunned Amy’s ministry to orphans. Some believed the temple children did not exist while others looked down on the acts of service and emphasis at Dohnavur to the education, physical care and character building of each child. On one occasion Amy asked a visiting missionary to help her carry a bucket, the missionary replied he would rather “carry his Bible.” Amy felt that service was an essential part of missionary work, although she did not always readily embrace the sacrifices it took to have this spirit of service.
Once back in Ireland, as Amy and her family were returning from church they chanced upon an old woman carrying a heavy bundle of rags. Amy and her brothers took the bundle and helped the old woman to her destination. To Amy, this act of sacrifice and kindness was “hated.” As they turned and walked along, they passed by the other Churchgoers and worried what these “respectable people” would think. Before bringing the woman to her destination Amy and her brothers passed by an elaborate Victorian fountain.
A voice impressed upon Amy’s heart the words from 1 Corinthians 3:12-14. “Gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble. If any man’s work abide.” That afternoon Amy sought God privately in her room anguishing over the idea of what would last in eternity from her own life. The lessons of obedience and sacrifice from that day would echo through the rest of her life.
Apart from the sacrificial love Amy gave so many she is also remembered for her writing. Amy wrote over 35 books from the field, many being written after and accident in 1931 that left her bedridden until her death at the age of 83. Once Amy sent a book home for publication that was denied publication and returned with the request for a rosier picture of mission work. The publisher was worried many would feel disdain at the harsh reality of the mission field she had portrayed. Amy sent the manuscript back without any changes except for title, renaming it “Things as they Are.” On writing to missionary candidates she’s been quoted as saying, “bring to India a strong sense of humor and no sense of smell.” To another candidate she Amy wrote the poignant truth that above all mission work offers one thing and one thing only, “A chance to die.”
Elliot, Elisabeth. A Chance to Die: The Life and Legacy of Amy Carmichael. Grand Rapids: Revell, 1987.
Tucker, Ruth. From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983.