Amy Wilson Carmichael (16 December 1867 – 18 January 1951) was a Protestant Christian missionary in India, who opened an orphanage and founded a mission in Dohnavur. She served in India for 55 years without furlough and wrote many books about the missionary work there.
Amy Wilson Carmichael was born in the small village of Millisle, County Down, Northern Ireland to David Carmichael, a miller, and his wife Catherine. Her parents were devout Presbyterians and she was the oldest of seven siblings. One possibly apocryphal story claims that as a child, Amy wished that she had blue eyes rather than brown, and often prayed that Jesus would change her eye color and was disappointed when it never happened. She loved to pinch her brother’s cheeks to make the prettiest color blue in his eyes. But she always repented afterwards for hurting her brother. As an adult, however, she realized that her brown eye color probably helped her gain acceptance in India.
Amy’s father moved the family to Belfast when she was 16, but died two years later. In Belfast, Carmichael founded the Welcome Evangelical Church. In the mid-1880s, Carmichael started a Sunday morning class for the ‘Shawlies’, i.e. the mill girls who wore shawls instead of hats, in the church hall of Rosemary Street Presbyterian. Her mission among the shawlies grew and grew until they needed a hall to seat 500 people. At this time Amy saw an advertisement in The Christian, by which an iron hall could be erected for £500 that would seat 500 people. A donation of £500 from Miss Kate Mitchell, and another of a plot of land from a mill owners led to the erection of the first “Welcome Hall” on the corner of Cambrai Street and Heather Street in 1887. Amy continued at the Welcome until she received a call to work among the mill girls of Manchester in 1889, from which she moved onto missionary work. In many ways Amy seemed an unlikely candidate for missionary work. She suffered neuralgia, a disease of the nerves that made her whole body weak and achy and often put her in bed for weeks on end. At the Keswick Convention of 1887 that Carmichael heard Hudson Taylor, founder of the China Inland Mission speak about missionary life. Soon afterwards, she became convinced of her calling to missionary work. She applied to the China Inland Mission and lived in London at the training house for women, where she met author and missionary to China, Mary Geraldine Guinness, who encouraged her to pursue missionary work. She was ready to sail for Asia at one point, when it was determined that her health made her unfit for the work. She postponed her missionary career with the CIM and decided later to join the Church Missionary Society.
Work in India
Initially Carmichael travelled to Japan for fifteen months, but fell ill and returned home. After a brief period of service in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), she went to Bangalore, India for her health and found her lifelong vocation. She was commissioned by the Church of England Zenana Mission. Carmichael’s most notable work was with girls and young women, some of whom were saved from customs that amounted to forced prostitution. Hindu temple children were primarily young girls dedicated to the gods, then usually forced into prostitution to earn money for the priests i.e. Devadasi.
Carmichael founded the Dohnavur Fellowship in 1901 to continue her work, as she later wrote in The Gold Cord (1932). A popular early work was Things as They Are: Mission Work in Southern India (1903). Dohnavur is situated in Tamil Nadu, thirty miles from India’s southern tip. The name derives from Count Dohna, who initially funded German missionaries at the site in the early 19th century, on which Rev. Thomas Walker then established a school. Carmichael’s fellowship transformed Dohhnavur into a sanctuary for over one thousand children who would otherwise have faced a bleak future. Carmichael often said that her Ministry of rescuing temple children started with a girl named Preena. Having become a temple servant against her wishes, Preena managed to escape. Amy Carmichael provided her shelter and withstood the threats of those who insisted that the girl be returned either to the temple directly to continue her sexual assignments, or to her family for more indirect return to the temple. The number of such incidents soon grew, thus beginning Amy Carmichael’s new Ministry.When the children were asked what drew them to Amy,they most often replied It was love. Amma (Amy) loved us.
Respecting Indian culture, members of the organization wore Indian dress and gave the rescued children Indian names. Carmichael herself dressed in Indian clothes, dyed her skin with dark coffee, and often travelled long distances on India’s hot, dusty roads to save just one child from suffering.
While serving in India, Amy received a letter from a young lady who was considering life as a missionary. She asked Amy, “What is missionary life like?” Amy wrote back saying simply, “Missionary life is simply a chance to die.” Nonetheless, in 1912 Queen Mary recognized the missionary’s work, and helped fund a hospital at Dohnavur. By 1913, the Dohnavur Fellowship was serving 130 girls. In 1918, Dohnavur added a home for young boys, many born to the former temple prostitutes. Meanwhile, in 1916 Carmichael formed a Protestant religious order called Sisters of the Common Life.
Final days and legacy
In 1932, a fall severely injured Carmichael, and she remained bedridden for much of her final two decades. However, it did not stop her from continuing her inspirational writing, for she published 16 additional books (including His Thoughts Said . . . His Father Said (1951), If (1953), Edges of His Ways (1955) and God’s Missionary (1957)), as well as revised others she had previously published. Biographers differ on the number of her published works, which may have reached 35 or as many as six dozen, although only a few remain in print today.
Carmichael died in India in 1951 at the age of 83. She asked that no stone be put over her grave at Dohnavur.Instead, the children she had cared for put a bird bath over it with the single inscription “Amma”, which means mother in the Tamil language.
Her example as a missionary inspired others (including Jim Elliot and his wife Elisabeth Elliot) to pursue a similar vocation. Many webpages include quotes from Carmichael’s works, such as
“ “One can give without loving, but one cannot love without giving.” ”
India outlawed temple prostitution in 1948. However, the Dohnavur Fellowship continues, now supporting approximately 500 people on 400 acres with 16 nurseries and hospital. Rescued women can leave, or join the community, or return for important occasions, including the Christmas season. Changed policies acknowledging Indian law require that all children born in or brought to Dohnavur are sent out for education in the 6th grade. Furthermore, since 1982, baby boys are adopted out rather than remain in the community.