In “Amy Carmichael,” Iain H. Murray tells the story of the famous missionary who worked in India for decades.
Carmichael (1867-1951) was from a wealthy, devout, Northern Ireland family. The children attended elite, English boarding schools until her father’s flour mill failed and he died suddenly at 54 in 1885. For years afterward, she helped raise her four younger siblings and ministered to poor people, which increased her burden to aid the less fortunate abroad.
Robert Wilson, a rich Christian man whose own daughter had died, “adopted” Carmichael. He helped, encouraged and supported her personal growth and missionary work until he died in 1905. She often called herself Wilson-Carmichael to honor him. She followed his advice: “Let us build for the years we shall not see.”
The China Inland Mission, founded by Hudson Taylor, rejected Carmichael’s missionary application due to poor health. In 1893, she went as a missionary to Japan and then Sri Lanka, returning to England in 1894. In 1895, Carmichael went under an affiliate of the Anglican Church Missionary Society to India’s southern tip and never returned home for her remaining 55 years.
She witnessed extreme suffering, such as Hindu caste discrimination and “suttee”—widows being burned alive on their husbands’ funeral pyres.
Fellow missionary Thomas Walker mentored Carmichael, helping her learn the Tamil language and evangelize.
As a child Amy had prayed for blue eyes like her mom. In India, she learned that God’s “no” could be better than “yes” because her brown eyes and hair coupled with native dress (unconventional and disapproved by almost all missionaries) and coffee-stained skin allowed her into temples to rescue girl sex slaves married to Hindu gods.
Reaching hostile Hindus was hard, but she finally saw converts, such as 7-year-old Preena, who escaped temple prostitution. An earlier unsuccessful escape got her hands branded. She similarly rescued Muttamal and smuggled her to Sri Lanka and China to thwart opposition by Hindus and a corrupt, British colonial judge. Six years later she returned to thank Carmichael.
Carmichael founded Dohnavur Fellowship, which included a hospital and extensive outpatient ministry. It rescued hundreds of children, especially temple-slave girls. While India formally outlawed such sex trafficking in 1948, it continues today.
Carmichael saw her loneliness and sorrow as her sharing Jesus’ same experiences. She wrote of ministry disappointments: “Failure or success as the world understands these words is of no eternal account. To be able to stand steady in defeat is in itself a victory.”
A huge challenge was that many Anglican ministers and missionaries denied Biblical inspiration. They succumbed to popular falsehoods: negative criticism of Scripture and evolutionary theory. In 1925, Carmichael felt forced to quit the Missionary Society and fire Dohnaver’s prominent minister and later Anglican bishop, Stephen Neill. Fortunately, the Missionary Society gave Dohnaver its independence.
Carmichael’s strong stand for Scripture kept her ministry advancing, while many denominations seeking “scholarly” approval gradually lost their saltiness and missionary zeal. Carmichael claimed God’s promise: “‘Those who honor me I will honor, but those who despise me will be disdained’” (1 Samuel 2:30).
Carmichael led building campaigns while caring for, discipling and schooling children of all ages. Her 35 books helped spread the ministry’s story and bring global prayer and financial support, while never requesting money. Her visiting mom wrote in 1904: Amy “scarcely had leisure even to eat. She is mother, doctor and nurse, day and night.”
While inspecting a construction project in 1931, Carmichael fell and remained bedridden for most of the next 20 years. But only death could stop this dynamo. Her focus remained on serving others. While her earlier books covered missionary work, later ones covered what it meant to live in Christ in all the difficulties of life.
Richard Penn is a member of Southeast Christian Church and has helped start three Filipino churches.