Amy Carmichael – Total Devotion
By Katherine Allen
After being asked to contribute to this blog series by writing about a Christian woman who has inspired me in my faith, I found it very difficult to choose between Elisabeth Elliot and Amy Carmichael; two Christian authors and missionaries who both became famous for their unswerving devotion to doing the will of God in their lives, stepping into some of the most dangerous situations imaginable in order to bring the gospel to the unreached and vulnerable in society. Elliot ministered for two years to the same Ecuadorian tribe that killed her husband, eventually resulting in an overall decline in violence in the community and many converts to Christianity; Carmichael worked with young women and girls in India to rescue them from religious rites including forced temple prostitution despite the threat of imprisonment under kidnapping charges.
Both women’s unabashed courage, quiet determination, clear-headed faith and willingness to get their own hands dirty in fulfilling Jesus’ call to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19), as well as their individual relationships with God and firm grounding in Scripture, are attributes that I continue to aspire to in my own walk with Him. They are wonderful examples to women (and men) of how to live wholeheartedly for God. However I finally settled on Carmichael as it is with her that I feel more affinity – which may or may not have something to do with her headstrong personality!
Amy Wilson Carmichael was born in the small village of Millisle in County Down, Northern Ireland in 1867 to devout Presbyterian parents, the eldest of seven children. She was schooled in England, where she was known for being impulsive and something of a rebel, before converting to Christianity in her teens and later moving with her family to Belfast at the age of sixteen. After her father died just two years later, his business having failed, Amy dropped out of school to help her mother look after her younger siblings. It was during this period that she began a ministry with the ‘shawlies’, working-class mill girls in the Belfast slums who were in such poverty that they covered their heads from the cold with shawls as they couldn’t afford hats. She went out to give them food and the good news of Jesus Christ, eventually moving into their neighbourhood to be closer to them. In a characteristically dismissive response to the general disapproval of her church congregation, who were displeased about the girls’ presence in their building for Bible studies, Amy instead set about funding a church to be built in the slums that could seat the hundreds of women coming to worship God. It was just one example of faith that set her apart from her contemporaries.
After spending time doing similar work in the slums of Manchester, she felt the call from God to head overseas while listening to the missionary Hudson Taylor speak at a Keswick convention. Despite suffering poor health, Amy was determined to obey and although her initial attempts to head to China, Japan and then Ceylon (formerly Sri Lanka) were curtailed, she eventually was invited by the Church of England Zenana Missionary Society in 1895 to go to Bangalore, India. She had received no training nor undergone any preparation for her travels; yet she was unhesitant in going (perhaps naively!), immediately beginning to learn the native Tamil language and studying the Hindu caste system upon arrival in order to integrate herself into society and better understand the local people and customs.
In typical no-nonsense fashion Amy quickly began evangelising within the community under the guidance of the Reverend Thomas Walker, a missionary with the Church Missionary Society, soon finding herself in charge of a band of women village evangelists called the ‘Starry Cluster’. In her brutally honest book Things As They Are, in which she detailed the activities of the group, she was also scathing of the efforts – or lack thereof, as she saw it – of missionaries in the region who she felt were ineffectual, referring to their faith as “nominal” and even “dead”. Her values and fierce dedication to bringing the gospel to the lost meant she was angered by anything less than full devotion to the cause.
However it is for her work with young women and girls that Amy Carmichael is most known, rescuing hundreds from religious customs that often amounted to forced prostitution and child marriage. She was enraged by what she termed “merchandise in children’s souls” and flatly refused to send any child that she had taken in back to the Hindu temples from where they had come, withstanding considerable pressure including threats against her own safety. Her ministry grew rapidly and the Dohnavur Fellowship was eventually established in 1901 as a sanctuary. Amy spent the last fifty years of her life caring for these children and teaching them about Jesus, sometimes travelling long distances to search for a single child in order to lift them out of their suffering. It is fitting that she was known to all of them as ‘Amma’ (Mother), although she never married or had children herself.
Amy Carmichael gave her life in service to God and those entrusted to her by Him, not letting personal circumstances distract her from her goal. She embodied truly Christian values of humility, perseverance, kindness and love, actively seeking to make Christ known to the poor and becoming a mother to over a thousand children who needed one. Her legacy lives on in the Dohnavur Fellowship, which still exists today to give a home to abandoned children in south India, and in the many who are inspired by her life’s work.