‘We follow an undefeated Leader… There is joy in such combat, though there is horror too.’ These words, penned by Amy Carmichael, give us a glimpse into the paradox of her missionary labours.
The year 2017 marks the 150th anniversary of Amy Carmichael’s birth (16th December 1867). After embracing the claims of Christ as a young lady, Amy began to care for the souls of those nearest her. This concern was particularly exhibited in her evangelistic efforts among the shawlies, poor women who worked in the local mills and wore shawls instead of hats. She worked among them with considerable success initially in her hometown in Ireland and later in Manchester.
In 1887 Amy attended the Keswick convention where she heard Hudson Taylor. Feeling constrained to devote herself to missions, she applied for Taylor’s organisation, the China Inland Mission. Although she was prevented from sailing at the last minute for health reasons she was eventually able to go to Japan in 1893 through the support of the Keswick Mission Committee. She was only there 15 months, but while there an incident occurred that challenged her. One day she was speaking with a devout Buddhist man. Amy told him the gospel. He exclaimed: ‘If this be so, you are as an angel from heaven to us; but if it be so, we want to see it lived. Can you show it to us?’ Another event like this occurred later in India. An old Hindu man asked Amy, ‘We have heard much preaching, can you show us the life of your Lord Jesus?’ Later, at a missionary convention a woman confronted Amy, ‘What is the use of such meetings? You missionaries say one thing and do another!. .. We Indian Christians observe. We observe you not only when you are at work but when you are off work, too. Is there anything remarkable about you? Are you burning-hot people? We look to you to show us patterns, and you are showing us crooked patterns.’ Crooked patterns or a demonstration of the reality of Christ—the choice was clear for Amy.
She eventually settled in southern India where she was aided by a missionary, Thomas Walker, and his wife. Thomas was a man of unusual integrity and spiritual earnestness. Later Amy wrote a biography about him entitled This One Thing. In it, she described Walker as ‘granite on fire’, one who stood for the ‘highest always and everywhere’. His uncompromising devotion to Christ was a formative element in Amy’s early missionary labours.
Amy was surprised on the 17th March 1901, when a young girl came to her at the Walkers’. Amy later wrote, ‘The child told us things that darkened the sunlight’. In fact, they learned that girls were being sold to the Hindu temples and trained to be prostitutes in the service of their gods. That young girl, Preena, had escaped her captors. As Amy and the Walkers investigated this practice, it became clear that this was to be Amy’s area of ministry and they all moved into the abandoned mission station at Dohnavur. There Amy was able to establish a safe environment for girls and later boys, to be raised and educated in a Christian environment. It was a happy place where children dressed in bright colour and mixed song and worship with schooling and chores.
Amy was also a gifted writer. She was concerned that the glowing missionary reports of the day were not truthful. Amy wrote about the dual danger of Hinduism (she lived in a district with 3000 Hindu temples) and nominal Christianity. Missionaries were using Hindus in Christian schools, and many of those who professed Christ would only help with various ministries if they were paid. Her unvarnished report came out in a book entitled Things as They Are: Mission Work in Southern India. Many were enraged by Amy’s open criticism of European missionary practices, and there was a collaborative, though unsuccessful, effort to remove her from India.
Years later an incident occurred which altered the last twenty years of her life. In October 1931 Amy was walking through the construction site of their new hospital. She fell into an uncovered pit, breaking her leg and twisting her spine. Medical efforts failed to restore her to full mobility, and for the next twenty years, she was an invalid. During this period she wrote many of her books. Through these books, her impact spread far beyond the thousands of children she rescued. It is to these writings that we now turn and consider a critical theme that runs through them all—the theme of militancy in the life of the believer.
Amy viewed the missionary as a soldier; consequently, the themes of battle and valour were woven throughout her publications. Her writings tend to expose our too-soft assault on the kingdom of darkness while putting spiritual steel into our compassion. She often repeated the following prayer:
From prayer that asks that I may be
Sheltered from winds that beat on Thee,
From fearing when I should aspire,
From faltering when I should climb higher,
From silken self, O Captain, free
The soldier who would follow Thee.
Amy admired the older writers who also spoke in battle language. Below is a passage from Pere Didon which she was fond of quoting:
I do not want people who come with me under certain reservations. In battle you need soldiers who fear nothing… This sacred work demands not lukewarm, selfish, slack souls, but hearts more finely tempered than steel, wills purer and harder than the diamond.
Amy was not a fan of fiction, but she enjoyed relaxing with a biography. Among her favourites were the biographies of ancient generals which she found bracing.
Where did Amy find the spiritual capital to fuel a lifetime of tireless labour and love? Early in her ministry, she received a letter from home during a difficult period. Its message was simple, ‘Do not cool. Look to Him to keep you burning and shining’. For Amy, this required an enduring vigilance. She frequently reminded her coworkers, ‘All we want, all we need, is God’s ungrieved presence with us always’. Later, she wrote in her small book God’s Missionary:
Comrades, in this solemn fight, this awful conflict with awful powers, let us settle it as something that cannot be shaken. We are here to live holy, loving lives. We cannot do this unless we walk very, very close to our Lord Jesus. Anything that would hinder us from the closest walk that is possible to us… is not for us.”
One hundred and fifty years after Amy’s birth, we find her words penetrating our self-justifying defences. Living in lands where it is so easy to live easy lives, we need her soldier-like example, until we also look out on our mission fields and say, ‘We cannot do this unless we walk very, very close to our Lord Jesus. Anything that would hinder us from the closest walk that is possible to us… is not for us’.