Amy Carmichael: Missionary ‘Amma’ to India

ImageIn the preface to her book A Chance to Die, Elizabeth Elliot writes:

I “met” her when I was fourteen. She was my first spiritual mother. She showed me the shape of godliness. I saw that the chance to die, to be crucified with Christ, was not a morbid thing, but the very gateway to Life.



Amy Beatrice Carmichael was born on December 16, 1867 in the village of Millisle on the north coast of Ireland. She was known as poetic and tomboyish. She grew up happy and content in a family that taught her Christian discipline. After the death of her father in 1889, the family moved to England where Amy founded “Welcome Hall”, a home for children. Although the family lived in the slums, it prepared her for the rigors of India. An elderly widower by the name of Robert Wilson (affectionatly called the Dear Old Man, or “D.O.M”) became a friend of the Carmichael’s and Amy took care of him as if she was his daughter. He would be become Amy’s sole financial supporter for the rest of her life.

In 1892 she believed God was calling her to be a missionary. After brief stints in Japan and China, she spent fifty-three years in India without furlough. Never married, she was a tireless, demanding worker. She despised apathy, saying “the saddest thing one meets is the nominal Christian” (p. 117).  While in India, Amy founded the Dohnavur Fellowship, a refuge for children in moral danger. Many of these children had been orphaned or sold to the temple. Through the compassion of “Amma” (mother), many children were protected and brought into the kingdom of God. Carmichael’s “respectability” began in 1912 when she received recognition from Queen Mary. She became well known throughout the world because of her books and poetry. Later in life, she had numerous health issues; a tragic fall left her bed ridden for many years until her death.


  1.  Amy learned empathy at an early age. After the death of her father, she threw herself into serving others. She became like a second mother to her brothers and sisters. This, however, never replaced the special bond she had with her mother. Contrary to many overprotective Christians homes today, Mrs. Carmichael gave Amy overwhelming support in her attempts to the mission field.

     Dearest Amy, He has lent you to me all these years. So, darling, when He asks you now to go away from within my reach, can I say nay? No, no, Amy, He is yours—you are His—to take you where He pleases and to use you as He pleases. I can trust you to Him. (p. 55)

    Amy learned to love people’s souls, saying, “O to be delivered from half-hearted Christians. Don’t come [to India] if you haven’t made up your mind to live for one thing—the winning of souls” (p. 142) . She had a great compassion to reach troubled children, making every effort in India to save children from the dreaded caste system. Her primary focus was building the character of the youth, often crying in prayer for more children to come to Dohnavur. Truly, Amy had empathy, all this despite being Irish. “We Irish don’t cry,” said her Irish friend. “Tears don’t come.”

  2.  Amy’s youthful self-sacrifice carried her all through life. Amy was appointed editor of her family newspaper called Scraps. All the children assumed pseudonyms. Not surprisingly, Amy chose the name “Nobody”. When writing reports from India, her letters were not filled with exaggerated stories of dramatic conversions. “We shall have all eternity to celebrate the victories”, she said. “But we have only the few hours before sunset in which to win them” (p. 162). The mere suggestion of someone choosing missionary work because it was noble and grand, or a mission field because it was pleasant, horrified her. When looking for workers, she would say, “We want the offscouring sort” or “I would rather burn out than rust out.”

     Missionary work is a grain of sand, the work untouched is a pyramid…Face it. Look and listen, alone with God. Then go, let go, help go. But never, never, never think that anything short of this is being ‘interested in missions” (p. 94).

  3.  Amy persevered in the midst of setbacksAmy committed to missionary service before she even knew where she was going. After deciding to serve in China, she was rejected by the doctor of the China Inland Mission. When sailing to Japan one year later, her boat was caught in a typhoon and was left at the dock in Japan in very precocious situation.

    As she told the story later, she said she laughed till she was positively aching at the absurdity of the whole affair. A foreign port. Nobody to meet her. Not a word of any language she could understand. The girl from the Irish village on the North Sea, standing in the pouring rain beside her pile of luggage on the shore of Japan, laughing. “I knew [things] would come right in the end” (p. 68).

    Amy met her first missionary stint with failure. She left Japan after just 15 months because the language and the weather were too difficult.

  4.  Amy’s oversensitivity bordered on asceticism. When told that her books were popular, she replied, “Popular? O Lord, burn the paper to ashes if that be true.” “In a weak moment” she allowed her picture to be taken, but later called the decision “horrid”. Amma had a great distaste for luxuries, saying, “I wanted to have no possessions except what I could carry in a big handkerchief!” But missionaries today would do well to learn from Carmichael’s distain for wealth and popularity. Speaking from experience, Elizabeth Elliot writes:

    If it were possible to poll all the missionaries who have worked in all the world in all of Christian history, it would be seen that missionary work, most of the time, offers little that could be called glamour. What it does offer, as Amy wrote, is “a chance to die”. It offers a great deal of plodding and ploughing, with now and then a little planting. It is the promise of rejoicing, given to those who “go forth weeping, bearing precious seed” (p. 178)

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