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Amy Carmichael of Dohnavur – Frank Houghton

February 11, 2016

ACODThe author used to visit my church in the summer holidays when I was a teenager and it took me a while to realise that he was famous! We corresponded until he died. Belatedly, I have been hunting down and reading his books.

The subject of this book died the year I was born. She was born in Belfast in 1867, the oldest of seven children, to a family of Scottish ancestry and educated at home and at what is now Harrogate Ladies College. Her church was so ‘low’ that they didn’t sing hymns on Sundays. Despite this, she read and quoted Thomas A Kempis in later life (and she later formed a religious order called Sisters of the Common Life.). She was also familiar with Thomas Traherne, years before he was rediscovered for English readers and Mother Julian of Norwich.

As a child, Amy wished that she had blue eyes rather than brown, and often prayed that Jesus would change her eye colour and was disappointed when it never happened. She loved to pinch her brother’s cheeks to make the prettiest colour blue in his eyes. But she always repented afterwards for hurting her brother. As an adult, however, she realized that her brown eye colour probably helped her gain acceptance in India.

During her formative years, Amy became a very determined and well-disciplined girl. Her father had taught her to be “tough”, teaching her never to give in to a difficulty. Due to her father encouraging her “tomboy” spirit, Amy learned to deal with physical stress and strain and developed the determination and an obedience to spiritual principles that gave her the vitality she would need to serve God on the mission field. Because of living in a large family, she also developed a tender heart and was sensitive to the needs of others.

In the mid-1880s, Carmichael started a Sunday-morning class for the ‘Shawlies’(mill girls who wore shawls instead of hats) in the church hall of Rosemary Street Presbyterian. This mission grew and grew until they needed a hall to seat 500 people. At this time Amy saw an advertisement in The Christian, for an iron hall that could be erected for £500 and would seat 500 people. Two donations, £500 from Miss Kate Mitchell and one plot of land from a mill owner, 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.

She lived with the family of Robert Wilson after her father’s death when she was 18. While never officially adopted, she used the hyphenated name Wilson-Carmichael.

She felt called to be a missionary call through contacts with the Keswick movement, where she heard Hudson Taylor, founder of the China Inland Mission speak about missionary life; In 1892 she volunteered to the China Inland Mission but was refused on health grounds (had she gone she would most likely have been martyred along with the women who DID go with the CIM) but in 1893 she sailed for Japan as the first Keswick missionary to join the CMS in work led by Barclay Buxton. There she dressed in kimonos and began to learn Japanese. Her letters home from Japan became the basis for her first book, From Sunrise Land. She left Japan owing to health reasons. (suffering as she did from neuralgia, a disease of the nerves that made her whole body weak and achy and often put her in bed for weeks on end.)

After less than two years in Japan and Ceylon, she was back in England before the end of 1894. The next year she volunteered to the Church of England Zenana Missionary Society, and in November 1895 she arrived in South India, never to leave. While still learning the difficult Tamil language, she commenced itinerant evangelism with a band of Indian Christian women, guided by the CMS missionary Thomas Walker. She soon found herself responsible for Indian women converts, and in 1901, she, the Walkers, and their Indian colleagues settled in Dohnavur.

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.

During her village travel, she had become 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’ (Not much interfaith dialogue here, then.) She often said that her rescuing temple children started with a girl named Preena. Having become a temple servant against her wishes, she 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 orphanage first cared for girls who had been temple girls, who would eventually become temple prostitutes. Later the orphanage accepted boys as well. It became her mission to rescue and raise these children, and so the Dohnavur Fellowship came into being (registered 1927). Known at Dohnavur as Amma (Mother), Carmichael was the leader, and the work became well known through her writing. Workers volunteered and financial support was received, though money was never solicited.

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.”

She was gifted enough to do many things but she concentrated on her work with children and turned down various offers, quoting Paul to the Philippians ‘ One thing I do.’

ACOD 2In 1931 she had a serious fall, and this, with arthritis, kept her an invalid for the rest of her life. She continued to write, and identified leaders, missionary and Indian, to take her place. India outlawed temple prostitution in 1948. The Dohnavur Fellowship still continues today.

Reviewing her life, one suggested:

Amy was destined to fulfill a calling to minister to the poor in India. Her mother had no idea of any of this; however, God was molding Amy through a Mother’s hands without her knowing it. When Amy was young, she remembers a common and regular practice of feeding the poor. Mother would cook a pot of soup for the old and the poor. Amy and her brother would have the opportunity to carry this soup into the village and serve it to the needy. Was this a coincidence? I don’t think so.

Amy was the oldest of seven children. Because of this, she often found herself caring for her siblings when they were ill. She developed skills of gentle comfort and care. She had a touch that so ministered to the ailing ones that they often called for her when sick. When Amy was seventeen, her dear Father died unexpectedly after some financial setbacks. The family was thrown into poverty, and Amy became like a second mother to the children below her. Was this just happenstance? I think not. God was molding a vessel. We must help our children to see the bigger picture.

When Amy was twelve years old, her father moved to Belfast, Ireland for business. He was a very Godly and influential man. Many preachers and church leaders stayed at his home. Guess who was sitting for hours, listening to these men talk of doctrines, of souls, of missionary exploits, and of Kingdom building?

When Amy was seventeen, she began gathering the city children together to teach them the Bible on Sunday afternoons. Her heart was being drawn out to the poor. She started a club called The Morning Watch. All who joined the club had to be willing to get up early each day to study the Bible and pray. Saturday, they would get together and share what they learned, or how they failed during the week. She also started a weekly class with the mill girls of the city. These were young factory workers. She was burdened about their purity and their souls, and she labored to salvage them from wreck and ruin. The class grew to 500 girls.

“We went to see an old lady who was very ill. She had not heard the Gospel before, but was willing and eager to listen. So I spoke and Misaki San translated, and our hearts prayed most earnestly. `Lord Jesus, help her. O help her to understand and open her heart to Thee now.’ She seemed to be just about to turn to Him in faith when she suddenly noticed my hands. It was cold weather and I had on fur gloves. `What are these?’ she asked, stretching out her hand and touching mine. She was old and ill and easily distracted. I cannot remember whether or not we were able to recall her to what mattered so much more than gloves. But this I do remember. I went home, took off my English clothes, put on my Japanese kimono, and never again, I trust, risked so very much for the sake of so little.”

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