Amy Carmichael: "Amma" to the Motherless

BEN SANSBURN
This is the abridged manuscript of Amy Carmichael's story from our Biography Sunday, December 26, 2019. If you would like to listen to the entire sermon, you can find it here.

THE EARLY YEARS

Amy Beatrice Carmichael was born December 16, 1867. She was born in the small village of Millisle in County Down, Ireland. Amy was the oldest of what would eventually become seven children in the religious, middle-class Carmichael family.

From the time she was young, Amy’s personality stood out. She was leader. She was confident. And she always up for an adventure, or a prank or a laugh. Whether it was at home or at school, if there were giggles, Amy was almost certainly the ringleader of it.

Her four brothers and two sisters were lucky to make it out of childhood with Amy as their older sister. She once convinced them to see how many poisonous laburnum pods they could eat before they’d die. Thankfully all they came away with was a bad stomach ache. There was also the time, when Amy’s parents were out, she led her brothers on a climb out the skylight of their second floor bathroom onto the roof. They got out to the edge only to look down and see their mother and father, having just arrived home, on the front lawn staring up at them.

But Amy gives hope for every parent of a strong-willed child. When God finally got ahold of Amy’s life it was that spirit of adventure, those leadership qualities, that were exactly what he used in his cause.

At age 12 Amy was sent away to the Harrogate Ladies College in England. It was a great opportunity for Amy’s education, but two things happened in the next five years that would radically shift the direction of her life.

The first happened when she was 15. A number of the students from the school had participated in an event hosted by the Children’s Special Service Mission, an evangelistic outreach specifically targeting young people. At the close of the evening session, the speaker led the group of teenagers in singing, “Jesus Loves Me.” At that moment, all her parents distant prayers were answered and Amy gave her life to Jesus. “He drew me [to himself],” she later wrote, and that experience began to change her in all kinds of ways.

GOD'S CALLING

In the fall of 1883, Amy’s life took another big turn. She was forced to return home from boarding school. Her father’s business, a flour mill, had run into some financial trouble. The stress of work and financial hardship took their toll on David Carmichael and a year later, at just 54 years old, he died. After her father’s death, 17 year old Amy took on a motherly role in the family. Her bright, cheerful personality carried the family through this hard season.

By then the family had moved from the village into the city of Belfast. One Sunday morning Amy would have an experience that would shape the trajectory of the rest of her life. Walking home from church with her brothers and sisters, they passed by an old beggar woman staggering out of a side alley. The woman was doubled over under the weight of the bundle of sticks she was carrying. Still dressed in their Sunday best, they stopped to help. They made quite a picture. People stared as they walked past. Amy began to turn red with embarrassment. But as they walked alongside the woman, suddenly out of nowhere, words came to Amy’s mind almost as if someone speaking to her. She heard as clear as day the words of 1 Corinthians 3:

“….gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire…. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward.”

From that moment on, Amy wrote, “nothing is important but what is eternal.” A change began to happen within her. She had always been kind, but she was no longer kind just because that was the right thing to do. Because God had showed her such kindness, she desire to extend that kindness to others. She bubbled over knowing there was so many people God loved and was calling her to love. Her sisters called her new attitude “Amy’s enthusiasms.”

Amy started a children’s Bible club, inviting kids around the neighborhood. She also began to go out with the Belfast city mission visiting the slums. But he most significant expression of “Amy’s enthusiasms” was her growing concern for the “shawlies.”

The shawlies were local girls, often teenagers just like Amy, who worked in the Belfast mills. They often worked 14-16 hrs a day for very little pay in poor conditions. They couldn’t afford warm clothes, so instead they wore a shawl; thus the name shawlies.

Amy began to reach out to these girls, bringing them into the church for Bible studies, activities, and to teach them basic skills. Some of the long-time members of the church were bothered by such girls being in a respectable Belfast church. As their numbers grew, Amy began to pray for the shawls to have a place of their own. God eventually answered and they were able to purchase a building. That building was the start of The Welcome Church — a church that still gathers today in Belfast.

In the fall of 1888, when Amy was 20, the family moved to Manchester. Amy continued working in the slums there, but it was through a summer Christian conference that God would lay a clearer calling on Amy’s life.

While she was listening to China missionary Hudson Taylor speak, much like she had years earlier, she heard two words from Scripture as clear as day: “Go ye….” The words were of course from Matthew 28, Jesus’ commission to his disciples: “Go, and make disciples of all nations….” She wrote in her journal: “Definitely given up for mission service abroad.”

She’d heard this call, but the thought of leaving her widowed mother and her family was almost too much for her. She couldn’t bear the thought that she would bring so much hardship and heartbreak to the people she loved most in life.

She wrote to her mother:

“I feel as if I had been stabbing someone I love - and through all the pain the certainty that it was his voice that I heard has never wavered… though I just feel one big ache all over; yet the certainty is there - he said to me “go” and I answered, “yes Lord.”

Amy’s mother’s reply is a lesson for all of us as parents:

“He has lent you to me all these years, so when he asks you now to go away from within my reach, can I say no? No, Amy - he is yours. You are his. I can trust you to him - and I do.”

THE MISSION FIELD

Amy began preparing to head to China with Hudson Taylor’s China Inland Mission, but she had developed neuralgia while in Manchester and it was determined her health wasn’t suitable for China. Before long she heard about the work of another mission board in Japan and volunteered. She set sail in 1893. She was 26 years old.

On the ship over she led the Japanese captain to faith in Christ. That tells you the type  of woman this was. Arriving in Japan, Amy jumped into the work of language study and training. She started building relationship with local Japanese and saw some evangelistic fruit. But not everything went smoothly. Amy saw a problem she’d soon see in India as well - there was a distance between the missionaries and the locals. In the way they dressed and the way they lived, the missionaries weren’t “among” the people. Amy’s insistence on living with and like the local people would create no little tension over the years with other missionaries.

Amy’s health started to deteriorate over her first months in Japan. The neuralgia she had in Manchester came back and the mission board recommended a different posting. And so, only 15 months after arriving in Japan, Amy made her way back to England to regroup. During the next several months Amy heard of an opportunity in southern India and on October 11, 1895, at 27, Amy left Britain again, this time never to return.

Like she did in Japan, when she arrived in India, Amy threw herself into the work. Language and culture study, relationships, evangelistic efforts, she gave herself to all these things and loved it. And like in Japan, she wanted to be as indigenous as possible. She dressed in a Sari and lived among the people, something that was not common among missionaries at the turn of the century.

Amy had a passion for sharing the gospel with the unreached. The millions of Hindus and Muslims around her in southern India could easily overwhelm a British missionary fresh off the boat, but to Amy it was a cause for prayer. She would give herself to proclaiming Jesus in these dark places.

AMY'S LIFE WORK

In 1901, God brought something into Amy’s life that would again shift the trajectory she was on. This time it didn’t come through a voice or a verse, but in the form of a little girl named Preena.
Preena had been given to the local Indian temple by her mother. The practice of giving children, especially girls, to the temple was an ancient practice in India. A child would be given as a gift to the gods because of a vow, or because of a family’s poverty. Widows would even give their daughters to the temple to make amends for their sin that had caused the death of their husband.

A girl given to the temple was called a devadasi, a temple girl married to the temple’s god. She would be required to take care of the temple and perform ceremonial rituals, but the dark reality was that she was a slave. These girls often suffered untold horrors. The practice was the ancient, religious form of what today we would call sex trafficking.

Preena had tried to escape, but had been caught. She was brought back and her hands had been branded with hot irons. Planning another escape, she’d heard of a kind woman in the village to whom she might be able to run to find refuge. She finally found an opening to flee and ran to Amy’s home. In God’s providence, Amy was just arriving back from an evangelistic trip.

Preena later remembered that first meeting: “Our precious ‘Amma’ was having morning tea. When she saw me, the first thing she did was to put me on her lap and kiss me. I thought, ‘My mother used to put me on her lap and kiss me - who is the person who kisses me like my mother?’ From that day she became my mother.”

The temple tried to take her back, but as Amy wrote later, “The little thing walked straight into our hearts and we felt we’d risk anything to keep her.” Amy wrote later about Preena’s arrival, “[It]…. caused a new thing to begin and I was rooted for life.”

Preena’s arrival brought Amy face to face with the dark reality of child sex trafficking. Amy had heard whispers of it, but suddenly it was standing in black and white right in front of her. And the more she began to ask questions, the darker and more horrible that reality became. Amy knew that God was calling her to do something about it.

She began to go into the temples gathering information and looking for girls to rescue. As a child Amy had looked in the mirror at her deep brown eyes and prayed that God would give her beautiful blue ones. Now, she realized that God’s “no” is often a better answer to prayer than his “yes.” Amy’s dark hair and eyes helped her blend in where other westerners never could. She would use coffee to darken her skin, and risked her life to go into the dark corners others weren’t willing, to find out what was happening. It took a number of years to see the full extend of the horrors happening to these children in the temples.

What Amy found was a dark underworld; a whole variety of ways that temple women and priests obtained girls. Some girls were dedicated to the temple out of a family vow. Others were sold because of the destitution of their parents, or to provide money for required ceremonies and rituals. Once a girl was sold she became the property of the temple. It was a lucrative trade and it wouldn’t be easy to do something about it.

Amy wrote about what she saw in a book called Things As They Are. People back home thought she must be exaggerating. Surely things were not that bad. People wrote her asking to make her stories “more encouraging,” but these were the realities Amy was facing.

For almost three years after Preena, no more children came into Amy’s care. Then unexpectedly, two babies arrived needing a home. Then a teenage girl who’d come to Christ through Amy’s witness. She had defied her parents wishes to go back to their Hindu home. They threatened her, bribed her, and offered her jewels if she’d just come back. “I don’t want jewels,” she replied, “I have Jesus now.”

Amy had always been good with children. There was something about her that just drew them in. By 1904, three and a half years after Preena had showed up so unexpectedly, Amy had become “Amma” to seventeen children — six of those former temple devadasis. She felt her life-work had been given to her.

The mission Amy was a part of knew that different accommodations were needed for Amy and the children. They owned a property in Southern India called Dohnavur that would be a perfect fit. And so in 1905, Dohnavur Fellowship was born.

Dohnavur became Amy’s heart and soul, and she gave everything to it over the next 45 years until her death in 1951. As they had room, more children started to arrive. Children came both as they trusted Christ and couldn’t go back to their Hindu or Muslim famlies, and as they were rescued from the the temples. More land was purchased, more buildings were put up, a school was started, and a hospital built. A boys section was added when they realized young boys were being enslaved in the temples as well.

By the end of Amy’s life, Dohnavur Fellowship had become an outpost of gospel ministry in both word and deed. Its staff, volunteers, and children made a small village of almost a thousand people. And Dohnavur is still going today. One of the great legacies of Amy’s life is that this ministry didn’t end with her death. Many of the children rescued and brought into the Dohnavur family grew up and became its mothers, nurses, and staff.

THE LAST CHAPTER

At the age of 63, Amy suffered a serious fall. She was inspecting a new building on the Dohnavur property. As she walked through it she fell into a pit that had been dug for a future toilet. The fall would bring her into the last season of life.

For the next twenty years she would be slowed massively. Before, she had been nicknamed “the Hare” for the way she would fly around to attend to all the needs of the children. But no longer being able to buzz around the compound giving oversight to all that went on didn’t slow Amy’s passion for God, nor her desire to be used by him. Many people told her she should return to England and finish out her years in retirement. She refused. She wrote this poem just a few years after her accident:

Gone, they tell me, is youth
Gone is the strength of my life,
Nothing remains but decline,
Nothing but age and decay.

Not so, I’m God’s little child,
Only beginning to live;
Coming the days of my prime,
Coming the strength of my life,
Coming the vision of God,
Coming my bloom and my power.


God used her accident in a way even Amy couldn’t have expected. The gift of writing she had exercised sporadically in letters home and a few books, suddenly bloomed. Over her final twenty years, she would write and have published nearly 40 books. And her writing, both about the work in India and her devotional writing and poetry, would leave a legacy to the church that the scope of her work in India never could. God used it as a great gift to his people.

Amy’s 83rd birthday came and went on December 16, 1950. Then, finally, a month later, January 18, 1951, Amy passed. One of her last letters expressed her heart in death: “I am very happy and content. Green pastures are before me, and my Savior has my treasure.”


RESOURCES

Iain Murray, Amy Carmichael: Beauty for Ashes (Edinburgh, UK: Banner of Truth, 2015).
Frank Houghton, Amy Carmichael of Dohnavur (Ft. Washington, PA: CLC, 1998).
Elisabeth Elliot, A Chance to Die: The Life and Legacy of Amy Carmichael (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005).
Janet and Geoff Benge, Amy Carmichael: Rescuer of Precious Gems (Seattle, WA: YWAM, 1998).

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