"Missionary life is simply a chance to die" - Amy Carmichael

Amy Carmichael (1867-1951) was a missionary to India, and was one of the most respected missionaries of the first half of the twentieth century.

She was born in Ireland to a well-to-do family, who raised her as a Christian (Presbyterian). In her Methodist boarding school as a young teenager she accepted Christ as savior. Shortly after, her family's circumstances changed when her father died and the family's finances were severely reduced.

Amy Carmichael As a young women.
From AmyCarmichael.org

She and her mother moved to Belfast, and Amy began visiting in the slums and saw the women there who worked in the factories...or who didn't work at all. Women who worked in the factories wore shawls instead of hats, and were pejoratively called 'shawlies.' Amy's heart went out to them, and she began a ministry for them in care and love, and fully dependent on the Lord to provide. The church crowd looked down on Amy's ministry to the slum women and the shawlies and in fact were rather shocked.

A few years later she moved to Manchester from Belfast and formed another ministry to the young women in the factories and the slums. Amy received a call to be a missionary in Japan. However, Amy was not a well women, suffering from neuralgia. She went anyway, but the language was difficult for her. After a period of disappointment in the behavior of the missionaries there and more illness, 15 months later, Amy sailed for Ceylon and then for home, convinced that Japan was a mistake. After a lengthy recuperation, at age 28, she sailed for India.

Once again, Amy became ill, this time with dengue fever, and again, the missionary ladies' meetings were simply tea-drinking gossip-fests. She felt not just disappointment this time, but despair. However, her early convictions of the Lord's provision, sovereignty, and love sustained her, and falling to her knees in submission, Amy trusted that the Lord would not leave her desolate.

He didn't.
Amy Carmichael with Indian children. From "Things As They Are"

Feeling led to move to the very south of India, Amy lived with a Christian missionary family and began an itinerant mission among the people of the slums, just as she had in Belfast and Manchester. Hinduism was very strong there, and with it, temple prostitution of children. Many, many girls were sold to the temples for the ritual perverted prostitution. In 1901, Amy met her destiny.

A young temple prostitute, 7 years of age, had been sold to the temple priests but repeatedly ran away. On this particular time, an older Indian woman brought the runaway to Amy, by then, known as a loving and understanding woman. The girl's name was Preena, and as she sat in Amy's lap and talked of the perverted rituals done to her by using the rag doll Amy had given her to demonstrate, Amy became shocked. Upset beyond words, she resolved to love these children sacrificially, and Amy's mission became clear. She had found her place of service. It was 1901.

For the next 55 years, without furlough, Amy Carmichael rescued young children and women from temple prostitution or from being sold to the gods and goddesses. A few years later, she began rescuing boys, many of them born to the girls who had been prostituted. Once again, as in Manchester, Belfast, and Japan, some of the other missionaries looked down on Amy for loving the unlovable.
Old India, from Carmichael's "Things As They Are"

Influenced and inspired by George Muller, Amy opened an orphanage, the Dohnavur Mission Orphanage which still ministers today. Many children were thus rescued, taught the Gospel, and loved by Amy and the staff. Soon, Amy was called Amma, which means mother in the native language. She loved sacrificially and constantly.

In addition to her mission work among the children of India, Amy was also known as a poet and a writer. In one of her books, she was so realistic about mission work that her manuscript was rejected. The editor's note requested a rosier picture. Instead, she didn't change a thing, but simply re-titled the manuscript, "Things As They Are" and pursued publication with renewed vigor. Of course, the book was eventually published. (You can read it here on Project Gutenberg or order through Amazon).

Even at that, within a few weeks of the publication of Things as They Are, some in England doubted its truth, and notes were sent from different parts of India conforming the truths that Amy was sharing about life in the slums, the caste system, ritual temple prostitution, and more.

Here is one such confirmatory note, proclaiming the truths of the 'more pessimistic' side of missionary work.

From Rev. T. Stewart, M.A., Secretary, United Free Church Mission, Madras.
This book, Things as They Are, meets a real need—it depicts a phase of mission work of which, as a rule, very little is heard. Every missionary can tell of cases where people have been won for Christ, and mention incidents of more than passing interest. Miss Carmichael is no exception, and could tell of not a few trophies of grace. The danger is, lest in describing such incidents the impression should be given that they represent the normal state of things, the reverse being the case. The people of India are not thirsting for the Gospel, nor "calling us to deliver their land from error's chain." The night is still one in which the "spiritual hosts of wickedness" have to be overcome before the captive can be set free. The writer has laid all interested in the extension of the Kingdom of God under a deep debt of obligation by such a graphic and accurate picture of the difficulties that have to be faced and the obstacles to be overcome. Counterparts of the incidents recorded can be found in other parts of South India, and there are probably few missionaries engaged in vernacular work who could not illustrate some of them from their own experience.
Missionary Elisabeth Elliot and her husband Jim were greatly inspired by Carmichael. I wrote of the Elliots and their missionary work in the jungle of Papua New Guinea last week. In an Elisabeth Elliot newsletter from 2002, Elisabeth quoted Amy Carmichael's realistic challenges of missionary work. She wrote,
“I would never urge one to come to the heathen unless he felt the burden for souls and the Master’s call, but oh! I wonder so few do. It does cost something. Satan is tenfold more of a reality to me today than he was in England, and very keenly that awful home-longing cuts through and through one sometimes—but there is a strange deep joy in being here with Jesus. “Praising helps more than anything. Sometimes the temptation is to give way and go in for a regular spell of homesickness and be of no good to anybody. Then you feel the home prayers, and they help you to begin straight off and sing, ‘Glory, glory, Hallelujah,’ and you find your cup is ready to overflow again after all.”
From her own eye-opening experience of personally reduced circumstances, to further eye-opening first-hand visits to the slums of Belfast, to the disappointments of fellow missionaries and church goers too well-to-do to help the poorest or most downtrodden, to Japan to Ceylon to England to India, which eventually brought her to Tamil region of south India, Amy Carmichael is a picture of sacrificial love and strength through God's grace and provision. At the end of her life, Amy was bedridden for a period of years. It was at this time she flourished in writing her devotionals and poems and books. There are so many publishers have lost count even as the originals have disappeared. A standard number is that Amy wrote 35 books.

In a letter from a prospective missionary, one young woman asked Amy what it was like to be a missionary. Amy wrote back, "Missionary life is simply a chance to die."
Amy never returned to England. She remained in India and it was there where she died in 1951. She did not want an elaborate grave nor a tombstone. Her place of bodily rest is marked simply with a birdbath the children erected, and a single word. Amma.

Of Amy Carmichael's struggles, a very few recounted here. This short essay of a remarkable life does not include the illnesses, riots, rumors, prison threats, arsons against her, and much more. Amy better than anyone knew that missionary life many times meant death, threat of death, or near-death. The Tamils were NOT hungry for the Gospel and in fact called Amy a "soul-stealing woman." She endured the earthly worst.

However, Amy also exemplified the spiritual best. Every day in India, Amy died to self and sacrificially cared for the country's cast-offs, abused, neglected and poor. She endured with God's strength and provision, and she left a legacy that inspired a new generation of missionaries. God always raises up a banner for His name, and for half a century in India, His banner was named Amy Carmichael.


Further Reading:

Amy Carmichael—A Portrait of Sacrifice

Amy Carmichael: the Torchlighters episode for children

Amy Carmichael: Facts and Extensive reading List


  1. Thank you so much for this essay. I read a book about her a couple of years ago and it was good to be reminded of her story. Have a blessed week.


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