Amy Carmichael: Mother to India
Dedicated in passionate pursuit of God’s calling on her life, Amy Carmichael has been an inspiration to many missionaries over the past century.
Who was Amy Carmichael? Amy Carmichael was an Irish missionary to India. She is known for opening a safe house called Dohnavur Fellowship after rescuing children from being trafficked in the Hindu temples. She served in India for fifty-five years without a furlough, and in the last twenty years of her life, she remained bedridden. She wrote several books and poems about her deep love for Christ. Her dedication to serving God has inspired many Christians to become missionaries and to remain steadfast in their faith.
Amy Carmichael’s story motivates us to develop a strong sense of justice and inspires us to act upon what we know is right.
The Timeline of Amy Carmichael’s Life
- 1867: Born in Millisle, Ireland
- 1883: Makes profession of faith in Jesus
- 1885: Establishes the Welcome Evangelical Church
- 1887: Ministers in the slums of Manchester, England
- 1893: Goes on a first missionary journey to Japan
- 1895: Moves to India for long-term missions
- 1896: Goes to live with Rev. Thomas Walker and his wife, they were missionaries in Southern India
- 1901: Founds the Dohnavur Fellowship
- 1918: Adds a home for young boys to her ministry
- 1931: Becomes bedridden after tragic accident, but contributes to minister
- 1951: Dies in India
Carmichael’s Faith in Childhood
Amy Beatrice Carmichael was born on December 16, 1867, in a coastal village in Northern Ireland called Millisle. She was the eldest of seven children and often got them all in trouble with her schemes and ideas. Her parents were sincere Christians who taught how to love and serve God.
As a child, Amy’s favorite color was blue. She was discontent with the fact that she was born with brown eyes and used to pinch her youngest brother’s cheeks to see the prettiest color of blue as his eyes filled with tears.
Her mother taught her from a young age that God would answer her prayers if she prayed. So, every night before Amy went to bed, she prayed for God to change her eyes to the color blue.
In the morning, she would wake up, jump out of bed, and run to the mirror–only to be disappointed to see two brown eyes staring back at her. Her mother then explained that sometimes God answers ‘no,’ and that she had to accept that God gave her brown eyes for a reason. Amy Carmichael would later come to realize as an adult that her brown eyes helped her gain access to the Indian temples.
As a teen, Amy attended Harrogate Ladies College for four years. In 1883, when she was fifteen, she was brought to the realization that she needed to put her faith in Jesus Christ. Her mother had always taught her about who Jesus was, but it never fully clicked in her heart until she was singing, “Jesus loves me.” Years later, Amy wrote:
My mother had often talked to me about the Lord Jesus and, as I sat on her knee, she had sung hymns to me. I had felt the love of the Lord Jesus and nestled in his love just as I had nestled in her arms. But I had not understood that there was something more to do, something that may be called coming to him, or opening the door to him, or giving oneself to him.”
Called to Minister
When Amy was sixteen, her father lost his job and moved his family to Belfast, Ireland. However, when Amy was eighteen, her father grew ill and died, leaving the family alone with unstable finances. During the next ten years, Amy stayed home to help her mother take care of and tutor her younger siblings.
One cold and dreary Sunday morning Amy and her brothers were returning home after church when they saw an old beggar woman with torn and muddy clothes step out of an alley. Filled with compassion, Amy and her brothers began to help the woman down the street. As people from the church came filing out of the building, Amy suddenly grew embarrassed for helping the beggar woman and turned to hide her face in shame. As she continued to walk with the woman, Amy noticed a fountain in the center of the road and looked at it intently. Then she heard someone say:
“Gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, and straw–the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If the foundation survives, he will receive the reward.”
Amy looked around and saw no one speaking. She immediately knew that God was showing her that she appeared kind on the outside by helping the woman, but in her heart, her motives were wrong. She later searched the Bible and found the words she had heard in 1 Corinthians 3:12-14. She then went down on her knees and promised God that she would only do things to please him.
Another time, Amy was having some tea and biscuits with her mother in a small teashop. As they enjoyed the warmth of their tea, Amy saw a dirty little beggar girl with her nose pressed against the window. Being cold and wet and having no money for food, the young girl could only stare inside and watch people eat. Amy then made another promise to God that she would give her money to the poor.
These two moments dramatically shifted the rest of Amy’s life and she decided to be bold in serving those who were less fortunate.
Discovering the Shawlies
Amy Carmichael made a weekly trip to the slums of Belfast with a local pastor to hand out tracts and food. It was during those times when she began to meet and discover the ‘shawlies.’
Shawlies were local girls her age and younger working at the mills in poor conditions for fourteen hours a day and wore shawls instead of hats to protect them from the cold because they earned very little money.
As Amy share God’s love and hope with them and got to know them, she found out that they were eager to learn more about Him. She then started Bible studies in the church hall of Rosemary Street Presbyterian Church. She also began bringing them to the church services, but they were not openly received by the congregation.
Meanwhile, the Bible class grew and a new building was needed to accommodate five-hundred people. Amy and the young girls began to pray for a new building where they could meet regularly.
In 1887, Amy found a mill owner who gladly gave her one plot of land to build the new church on.
With one donation of £500 from a Miss Kate Mitchell to purchase a tin building, the Welcome Hall was founded. The ministry flourished and hundreds of girls gathered together to worship the Lord. Today it is still there, now known as the Welcome Evangelical Church, in Belfast, Ireland.
In 1888, as the Carmichael family faced bankruptcy, Amy’s mother moved the family to Manchester, England. Here, Amy decided to move into a rat-infested apartment among the people in the slum areas. The streets were dangerous and the conditions terrible, yet Amy remained steadfast and unmoveable in her faith while spreading the love of God to the poor.
The cost was great, as Amy’s health began to deteriorate, but she knew that the most important thing was to obey God’s will for her as she said, “Nothing is too precious for Jesus.”
Amy soon became desperately ill and suffered from neuralgia–a disease that attacked her nerves and made her whole body weak and achy, often keeping her in bed for weeks at a time. Due to this fact, she was told that she needed to take better care of her health. She then moved into the estate of a family friend by the name of Robert Wilson and stayed with him and his sons for two years. While she was never officially adopted, she used the hyphenated name Wilson-Carmichael as later in 1912. It was also during her two-year stay that she first heard the missionary Hudson Taylor speak at a Keswick Convention. As she listened to his words, she felt the Lord telling her to go be a missionary–yet she did not know where or how.
Becoming a Missionary
For years, Amy Carmichael had wanted to be a missionary. Now, after hearing from Hudson Taylor, the desire grew so strong that it hurt. As she prayed, she wrote down the reasons she thought that it could not be God’s intention for her life.
One of the first things she wrote was about her sickness. Yet, as she was praying, she sensed the Lord speaking as if he were standing with her in the room, saying, “Go.”
She replied back: “Surely, Lord, You don’t mean it.”
Again she sensed the voice of God saying: “Go.”
After writing to her widowed mother about the desire that the Lord had placed on her heart, she surrendered herself fully to the Lord’s plans. She questioned whether she should really leave her mother all alone. Amy’s mother wrote back saying that the Lord had already spoken to her about it and that Amy must go.
With joyful anticipation, Amy began the process of looking for a missions agency to send her. She first applied to the China Inland Mission, which was founded by Hudson Taylor, and lived in London at the training house for women. There she met Mary Geraldine Guinness, the daughter-in-law of Hudson Taylor, who encouraged her to pursue missionary work.
However, due to her health, Amy was rejected from CIM. Her illness would slow her down and would not be beneficial for an effective ministry. She also did not have any experience in Bible school like other missionaries, and at that time, it was unheard of for a single woman to be a missionary. In those days, the role of a woman was to take care of their home, get married, and have children–not go to a foreign country to preach the gospel.
After much prayer, persistence, and perseverance, Amy was finally accepted as the first Keswick missionary to the Church Missionary Society (CMS). Her first assignment was in Japan with three other missionary women. On March 3, 1893, as the boat sailed away from the harbor, tears flooded down Amy’s cheeks in praise and thanksgiving to God for providing a way to serve Him as a missionary.
Ministry in Japan
On the journey over to Japan, Amy had a great deal of influence on the crew members and passengers. She had a constant passion to witness for Christ, and even the captain accepted Christ after observing how cheerfully Amy faced the dirt and insects onboard the ship.
Upon arriving in Japan when she was 26 years old, Amy found the Japanese culture hard to adapt to. In addition, the missionaries with which she worked with hardly seemed care about reaching people with the good news of Christ and would sit around gossiping.
The language was also extremely difficult for her to pick up, yet that did not stop Amy from witnessing to people. Every day she would ask God for a certain amount of converts that day. There were times when she thought she had made a mistake in asking for a certain number, but each time God proved Himself faithful to bring the exact amount of people she had asked for to come to faith.
Amy’s interpreter, Misaki San, suggested that she wear a kimono, the Japanese cultural dress. Yet Amy preferred her western dress because she was cold and her neuralgia was bothering her. One day, the two women visited a sick woman who seemed interested in the gospel.
Just as Amy was about to ask if she would repent and believe in Jesus, the woman caught sight of her fur-lined gloves and asked what they wore, sidetracking the conversation and preventing the sharing of the Gospel. On the way home, Amy cried bitterly and repented to God for letting something so little come between another’s salvation. She promised that never again would she risk so much for so little. From then on, she wore a kimono while witnessing.
While in Japan, Amy’s confidence in the power of prayer is what made her faith so strong. She cast out demons in the name of Jesus on multiple occasions and continued to pray for new converts every day.
One account tells when before Amy was going to visit a Buddhist village, she asked the Lord what she should ask of Him before she went. The Lord gave her impression to pray for one soul the first day, two the second day, and four two weeks later. In those weeks, more souls came to Christ than the long-term missionaries had seen in a year. Afterward, Amy’s neuralgia kept her in bed for a month.
Whenever someone came to faith, Amy’s illness got worse. Two weeks later after having been in bed for a month and a half, the Lord impressed on her to ask for eight souls. The other missionaries criticized her and told her that she wasn’t asking in faith but in presumption.
She was astounded that they advised her to just pray for a blessing over people instead of praying for them to come to Christ so that she wouldn’t be disappointed if it didn’t happen. Amy responded that she was terrified to ask for souls in her own strength and would never do such a thing.
An older missionary agreed with her and read God’s promise from Jeremiah 32:27: “Behold, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh. Is anything too hard for me?”
Those eight souls came to Christ on that next visit, and after that, Amy never received any more impressions for the number of souls.
Amy Carmichael’s neuralgia became so bad that the doctors told her that she must leave Japan for a more suitable climate.
She returned to England after only fifteen months of being in Japan and was content that it was not God’s will for her to be there long-term. However, her recovery was long and spiritually agonizing. If God had called her to missions, why would He block the road so heavily?
Ministry in India: Minning for Hidden Jewels
In 1894, Amy received an invitation from a friend to join the Church of England Zenana Mission in Bangalore. She then served for a brief time in Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka.
Amy Carmicheal then arrived in South India in November 1895, where she would remain for the duration of her life.
India was known as the Crown Jewel of the British Empire with its colors and beautiful culture. The climate was easier on Amy’s health, as the heat did not make her body ache as much. The first missionaries she stayed with only complained about the pagans and were more concerned about themselves instead of spreading the gospel. Thus in 1896, Amy went to go live in the Tinnevelly district with Reverend Thomas Walker and his wife who were CMS missionaries.
Thomas Walker was a blunt man, but a committed Christian who began teaching Amy the difficult Tamil language, and would snap at Amy for getting a word wrong, although Amy often snapped back. Before she was fluent in speaking the language, Amy traveled the dusty and dry Indian countryside with a group of Indian women called the Starry Cluster, telling anyone who would listen about Christ.
Amy didn’t follow the usual missionary way of working, but wore Indian clothes, such as the traditional sari, and lived amongst Indian women who had been persecuted after being converted to Christ from Hinduism. Unlike Amy’s work in Japan, it was shameful if a person converted to Christianity. Some would be shunned from their homes; others tortured or murdered. Multiple women and young girls would come to Christ at a time, often seeking sanctuary from the temples where they served as prostitutes.
One day, a small Indian girl, Preena, a girl sold into temple slavery by her widowed mother, was collecting water for the temple near where Amy was speaking. As Amy told the gathering women about a God who loved everyone the same, no matter what caste they were in, Preena stopped to listen. The God she talked about did not put people in different classes as the Indian caste system did. The young girl was very interested in what Amy was saying but knew she must not be seen listening to the white woman. She instead hid Amy’s words into her memory and hurried back to the temple.
However, that week, Preena was to be chosen to be dedicated one of the main gods. Preena tried to run away but was caught and, as her punishment, her hands were branded with a red-hot poker.
Scared and afraid, Preena remembered Amy’s kind words about a God who loved her and decided to risk running away again. She managed to escape and arrived at Amy’s door. When Amy saw her, she knew that she could not send her back. The little girl would be beaten and maybe even killed if she returned. Amy could have been charged with kidnapping and thrown into prison for taking the young girl in, but it was a chance she was willing to take.
As Amy began studying the Hindu caste system more in-depth, she learned that Hinduism encouraged the temple slavery of children.
Deeply rooted in the religion was the practice of selling little girls and boys who were unwanted to ‘marry’ the Brahmin temple priests. Amy became increasingly aware of the fact that many Indian children were dedicated to the gods by their parents or guardians, became temple children, and lived in moral and spiritual danger. Amy’s encounter with Preena opened her eyes to the injustice of children prostitution and she devoted the rest of her life to fighting against it.
Ministry for Indian Children
As the ministry of the Starry Cluster grew, word soon spread about Amy’s rescue mission in the temples. Babies, children, and teenagers began to show up on her doorstep until the family was over fifty in number. Amy realized then that her time of traveling and evangelizing was over.
In 1901, Amy Carmichael and the Walkers moved to Dohnavur, India. There, Amy founded Dohnavur Fellowship, which became a home for former child prostitutes. She devoted the next fifty-five years of her life in India rescuing children from the temples and raising them as her own. She eventually became known by the children and the community as “Amma,” which is Tamil for ‘mother.’
When the Hindu priests found out what Amy was doing, they were furious. Often the girls’ families or other women from the temple would track them down and demand the girls back. It was worse when the children became Christians, as they were bitterly persecuted by their uncles, grandparents, and families.
In 1901, a family pressed charges against Carmichael, which could have resulted in Amy going to prison. Yet Amy was undeterred. If a child came seeking refuge, they were instantly given a home and hope for eternal life. The case was not dismissed until 1914.
When Amy stepped into the struggle to end the wicked service, she found that even the missionary community condemned her work. Although people-trafficking was not new, they thought she exaggerated the situation of temple prostitution. The truth of what went on behind the temple scenes was so hard to get people to understand, that Amy found she must pretend to be an Indian and visit the temples herself. She would dye and stain her light skin brown with coffee or tea bags, and her brown eyes helped her fit right in as a Hindu. No one would guess that the dark-skinned woman wearing a light blue sari, which was associated with the lowest caste, the untouchables, was a missionary from Ireland.
Mother to India
Amy Carmichael’s ministry at Dohnavur Fellowship began to transform Indian society and provided a safe refuge for over a thousand children in her lifetime. Every child that came into her house was given a new name and loved unconditionally with the love of God.
When children were asked what drew them to come to Amy, they often said: “It was love. Amma loved us.”
Although Amy never tried raising funds, she was in constant conversation with God for all the money and medication that was needed to sustain the ministry. In 1912, Queen Mary recognized her work and helped fund a hospital at Dohnavur. By 1913, the Dohnavur Fellowship was housing one-hundred-and-thirty girls, and over thirty Indian Christian women volunteered to serve in the ministry.
In 1918, Amy added a home for young boys, many of whom were born to the former temple prostitutes. They were taught to love and fear God and eventually when the children grew up, many of them married Godly spouses and served with Dohnavur.
In 1931, Amy Carmichael had an accident where she broke her leg and ankle. Her hip and back were badly damaged and she was unable to fully walk again. Along with her neuralgia, she was kept in bed for the remainder of her life. The last twenty years of her mission at Dohnavur Fellowship were directed from her bedroom.
While her movements may have been limited, her ministry was not. She passed on the duty of rescuing children to the Starry Cluster and began writing books and poems about her intimate relationship with God and her love for Jesus. In those twenty years of permanent bed rest, she wrote thirty-seven books, mainly poems, as well as sixteen additional books of the missionary work in India. Presently, only a few of her books are still in print but they still have a great inspirational impact on people today as a spiritual witness.
In 1948, three years before Amy died, temple prostitution was outlawed in India. Amy’s perseverance and tireless labor in spite of great opposition eventually led to laws regarding the prevention of child abuse. While trafficking is still very much in effect in India today, Amy Carmichael’s presence has made a great impact on Indian culture.
On January 18, 1951, Amy Carmichael passed away peacefully at Dohnavur at the age of eighty-three. She had served faithfully for over fifty-five years in India, with fifty of those years dedicated to service at Dohnavur Fellowship. She had never married or left India to return to Ireland or England. A birdbath under a tree in Dohnavur honors her memory. On it is inscribed a simple word: Amma.
Amy Carmichael’s Legacy
Even after her death, the work of Amy Carmichael continues. Today, Dohnavur Fellowship continues to care for children rescued from dangerous situations, now supporting around five-hundred people on four-hundred acres with sixteen nurseries and a hospital. Rescued women are free to come and go as they please, and some have joined the community permanently. Children now can receive an education, and baby boys are adopted out rather than remain in the community.
Amy once said, “When I consider the cross of Christ, how can anything that I do be called sacrifice?”
Amy’s life clearly shows that the Lord is in charge of our lives if we continually place trust Him. Her life as a missionary has inspired many others to pursue missions, including Jim and Elisabeth Elliot. My favorite quote of Amy’s is: “It is a safe thing to trust Him to fulfill the desire that He creates.”
In 2016, Welcome Evangelical Church, which Amy Carmichael started for the shawlies in Belfast, Ireland, opened the Amy Carmichael Centre, with the purpose of keeping alive her original desire to care for the whole person as Christ does. Her books are still popular reads among many Christians and her poems are treasured in the hearts of many missionaries who desire to have that deeply devoted passion for Christ.
May we be deeply inspired to live our lives completely devoted to Christ so that He may be glorified and love others unconditionally.
Featured image of Amy Carmichael courtesy of www.radiusinternational.org.
Kenneth E. Ortiz (M.Div.) is a professor and recruiter at Bethlehem College and a pastor at Cities Church. He has 15+ years of vocational ministry experience. He’s also a podcaster, author, and Ph.D. student. Kenneth lives in Bloomington, MN with his wife Malaina, they have one daughter.