We had begun our travels early in the morning across the Indian highways. From Madurai, the journey was not particularly long, and the scenery was pleasant to the senses. Our journey was marked with rice fields, small villages, and greenery as far as the eye could see. The mountains stood in the distance, towering above the plains. It seemed as if we were chasing them, yet never drawing close enough to satisfy my curiosity. Taking a right turn down a narrowing road, we were soon “off the beaten path.” We were getting close to our destination.
I was excited. This was a place that I have longed to visit for some time. I had seen pictures of it, and I had read books about it, but now I was finally here: Dohnavur. But the place itself is not what drew my interest; rather, it was the person who once labored here. This was the place that the Lord had planted one of His choicest of servants: a young lady born in Northern Ireland in 1867, who would ultimately leave the comforts of all she knew to suffer dearly, to live truly, and to lay down her life wholly for a Savior whose love constrained her to follow in His footsteps. Those who knew her well called her “Ammai,” which means “true mother.” History knows her as Amy Carmichael.
Amy gave herself to the people of India for fifty-five years without any furlough. She initially started her work among young girls, rescuing them from the legalized prostitution ring in Hindu temples, many times at the risk of her own life. By 1913, she was caring for about 130 girls; within a decade she had opened up a home for boys as well. The Lord used her to establish a school for these children and a hospital for the townspeople. She authored many books that served to encourage and challenge the church in missions.
Modern missionaries would do great benefit to their own souls and the souls of those around them if they would take heed and listen to her voice. She may have been small in stature and gentle in character, but she was immovable in her convictions. She was determined—unwilling to be sidetracked by anything and always pressing forward toward the prize. After her original plan to serve in Japan proved impossible due to health issues, those closest to Amy tried to convince her to come home. Even then, however, she would not be deterred. She wrote to her guardian (who had made such a suggestion), “Talk of coming home! Did ever a soldier, worth calling one, run away at the first shot! Praise Him—the pain is gone now, and I am strong for the battle again” (p.14).
Amy also refused to deal with souls indirectly. In her day, many were adopting new missionary methods and trends in order to reach people. She viewed these practices as unbiblical and deceitful. Missionaries were promising the people something other than the gospel (such as sewing lessons, for example) in order to attract unbelievers. When the people would come for that which was offered, the misisonaries would then speak of the gospel in small, subtle amounts in an attempt to teach them truth. Amy rejected such methods. She wrote, “I would rather have two who came in earnest than one hundred who came to play. We have no time to play with souls like this. It is not by ceremonial tea making and flower arranging, not by woodworking and sewing learning, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord” (p.12).
This missionary strategy of introducing the Indian to a good secular education, with a hope of introducing a Christian worldview through it, was foolishness to her. Such methods could never penetrate the soul. It was only through the clear preaching of the gospel that the hearts of the Indians would change (p.32). She therefore refused to compromise the message or to deal with the souls of the people through secondary means.
However, that does not mean that she did not value education—she did, so long as it was held in its proper place. She would not attempt to use education merely to influence children toward the gospel; instead, she considered the gospel and the Scriptures to be the very foundation of all education. She believed that the purpose of the school was not primarily to train the mind but to form the character (p.54). Education was not merely a means to improve a person’s social standing or a way to provide material prosperity; it was to be given so that the student could serve Christ and other people more effectively (p.55). She therefore took education very seriously.
Amy would compromise neither the gospel’s message nor its method. She rejected the use of pictures in her presentation of the gospel. To show pictures of Christ was unthinkable to her. She observed that the missionaries and churches that did such things no longer believed in the power of the Word, that those who employed such tactics had to do so because they no longer had any power (p.12).
She also refused to deal with those who supported her back home in any dishonest way. She would not fill her reports with fluff or false numbers, instead writing bluntly about the conditions she was experiencing on the field—the failures, the darkness, the foul practices of the Hindu temples, and the struggles and hardships on the field. She never wrote overly optimistic reports. In fact, some even accused her reports to be falsified because they were so dark, while others urged her to write more encouraging reports (pp.33-34). However, because of their honesty, her reports were circulated throughout England. Upon hearing that her updates were becoming popular back home, she was shocked. She wrote, “Popular? Is that what these books written out of the heart of battle are? Popular? Lord, burn the paper to ashes if that be true“ (p.35). She had not been writing in order to gain popularity or to garner the attention of men, but to call forth from the hearts of men earnest prayer.
When the work grew and some became more aware of the growing needs, many desired to come and be a part of it; still, Amy never sacrificed her principles. She would turn down teachers who desired to help if they were not rooted and grounded in the Scriptures. She said, ”If our children were to grow up truthful, they must be taught by those who had a regard for truth; and not just a casual regard. On this point we are adamant“ (p.53). One of the great heartbreaks in her life was when Stephen Neill, a brilliant man from Cambridge who was proficient in Greek and Latin, came to India to serve the school. He amazingly learned the Tamil language in just six months! However, Amy soon discovered that he had accepted a new view of the Scriptures that had been sweeping through England at the time—he did not believe in the inerrancy of the Scriptures. Thus, with great sadness, she sent him back home (pp.83-87). This man was qualified to teach in the most prestigious universities; however, because of his view of the Scriptures, he was not qualified to teach the poor children of this Indian village.
Some may read of her unwillingness to compromise in such areas and think of her as a cruel, hardened, legalistic, unloving tyrant; but that is far from the truth! She was beloved by all who knew her. She was the mother of all the children for whom she cared. She would lavish the children with hugs and kisses. In fact, it was said that not one child went to sleep at night without a kiss from Amy (p.54). Love is the highest of jewels, and it was the starting point and the end goal of all she did. The Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy, “The goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5). Amy understood this and desired to teach it to all of the children. Every Monday morning, she read 1 Corinthians 13 to them, hoping that the repetition would fix these truths into the hearts and minds of each child (p.56). Her love showed. It was an example for the children to follow, for she served day and night, sometimes skipping meals due to lack of time.
Real love is sacrificial, and it is costly. The same was true for Amy’s love. It cost her dearly. It was a burden that she carried. She felt overwhelmed at times—overwhelmed by the work ahead, overwhelmed by the needs of the people, overwhelmed by the darkness that still covered the land, and overwhelmed by the insufficiency of her own efforts. She felt that her efforts were like ”a snowflake falling on a great pyramid, melting and vanishing as it touched the hot stone.“ Thus, she would have to remind herself: ”Not to yield is all that matters. Failure or success as the world understands these words, it is of no eternal account. To be able to stand steady in defeat is in itself a victory“ (p.78). Yes, she shed many tears, for true love in the midst of a fallen and sinful world demands that. Yet, she would measure failure and success not by visible fruit but by faithfulness. Even when her evangelistic efforts seemed to yield no response from the people—unless it were a request to be left alone—she would remind herself of the Scriptures, often quoting Isaiah 49:24-25: “‘Can the prey be taken from the mighty man, or the captives of a tyrant be rescued?’ Surely, thus says the LORD, ‘Even the captives of the mighty man will be taken away, and the prey of the tyrant will be rescued; for I will contend with the one who contends with you, and I will save your sons’” (p.28). This would help her to move forward and not give up.
And it paid off. The uncompromised arrow of the Word of God, shot by the gentle hands of love and empowered by the Holy Spirit, did find its mark. In fact, one of the great joys of Amy’s life came in 1912 through the preaching of R.T. Archibald. Looking back at this time, she recorded, “A true conviction of sin, true repentance, honest confession, and a changed life that lasted. Not one child then converted went back. Some are mothers of families now, and some are our fellow workers here.” In 1913, thirty souls were baptized (p.75). So often, even today, many boast in numbers that turn out to be temporary; few boast in such perseverance. That is not to say that Amy did not witness professed conversions that did not last—she did. Nevertheless, she refused to allow such things to hinder her love. She once said:
“Better to be disappointed a thousand times—yes, and be deceived—then once miss a chance to help a soul. The love of God suffices for any disappointment, for any defeat. And in that love is the energy of faith in the very sap of hope.” (p.79)
We would do a great benefit to our own souls if we would give heed to her voice. Thomas Walker, Amy’s mentor and friend, a missionary who was already serving in India when she first arrived, would often tell her, “Let us build for the years we shall not see” (p.23). As I stood on the campus where she labored, it was obvious that she took that advice. Although she is no longer there, her handiwork is still evident. I could see it, not just in the beautiful buildings or the Japanese-style architecture that she so appreciated, but especially in the prayers, inscriptions, Scripture verses, and tools that are still prominent throughout the campus. It seemed as if everywhere I looked, I was reminded of man’s weakness and need as well as the Lord’s sufficiency. Etched in stone above the entrance gate leading to her house were the Tamil words “grace” and “salvation.” In the prayer room in her house, reminders carved in wood hung on the walls—“They saw no man save Jesus only” (Matt. 17:8); “They took knowledge of them that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13); and “A very present help” (Ps. 46:1)—reminding all who entered this room of the priority and the importance of communion with the Savior.
A hymn was inscribed in the bell tower of the house of prayer, with each of the walls containing one stanza of this prayer:
Breathe on me, Breath of God;
Fill me with life anew
That I may love what Thou dost love,
And do what Thou wouldst do.
Breathe on me, Breath of God;
Until my heart is pure
Until with Thee I will one will,
To do and to endure.
Breathe on me, Breath of God;
Till I am wholly Thine.
Until this earthly part of me
Glows with Thy fire Divine.
Breathe on me, Breath of God;
So shall I never die
But live with Thee the perfect life
Of Thine eternity.
The sanctuary at that same house of prayer was elegant and impressive in design. I have seen nothing like it in all my travels throughout India. The timber frame trusses were crafted with a wood shipped down from the mountains of a neighboring State. Whether it was the flowers carved into these trusses or the specific design of the arches, each element (I was told) had a Scriptural reference that would be used to teach the children. The building was not designed merely to move the eye; it was designed to be used as a teaching tool to move the heart.
The prayer bench† under the shade of a tree at the entrance to “God’s garden,” the fishbowl† on the bookshelf in Amy's house—everything was used as a tool for instruction or as a reminder of gospel truth.
On her porch, she had a wooden bandy (carriage) wheel† with Tamil words carved all over it. She would use this wheel as an illustration of how all things at Dohnavur must function in unity. At the center of the wheel was a brass hub from which every wooden spoke sprouted, running to the outside of the wheel, where the various Tamil words were engraved. She would use this as a symbol to teach that Christ was the center of all things (the brass hub), each spoke (connected to the hub) representing the various ministries and people at Dohnavur. The outside of the wheel had visual reminders of Christ-like character needed for unity, along with the various campus needs. One thing that stood out to me was the word “laundry” (one of but a few English words). Even laundry was viewed as a ministry that needed to be rooted and grounded in Christ if the minister were to move forward in faithfulness. United in Christ, united to one another in love, and each working in unity for the advancement of His kingdom—it was a beautiful reminder instilled in the hearts of the children.
Amy once said, “Faithfulness in little things is a very great thing” (p.58). This was not just a statement she made; it was evident that this was the way she ordered her life. May we all learn from those who, like Amy, have been faithful in the little things and have run and finished the race well!
Before her death, Amy made it clear that she wanted no memorial stone or recognition once she went home to be with her Lord. To this day, the only thing that marks her grave is a stone birdbath, inscribed with the date of her earthly departure, along with just one word—perhaps the best possible epitaph for this one who served, cared for, taught, and loved so many.