Kneeling bedside, three-year-old Amy Carmichael begged God to make her eyes blue. Sadly, for the toddler, the prayer didn’t spark a miracle.
But decades later as a grown woman, after she had left Ireland to make her home in the then-British occupied India, she remembered her prayer as a child. With her fair skin, she would never truly blend in with the locals. But her brown eyes matched those of the people she lived among—and that was one less distraction when trying to build relationships as a missionary.
Carmichael moved to India at the age of 27 and never left. Much of her ministry was marked by disrupting cultural norms on temple prostitution. Her prayer life, a constant of her ministry and well-documented in her books and personal writings, revealed her boldness, stubbornness, and grit in circumstances that deeply challenged her—characteristics she needed in her efforts to share the love of Christ with hundreds of women and children over her lifetime.
The oldest of seven children, Amy Carmichael (1867–1951) was raised in a well-to-do Christian family in Millisle, Northern Ireland. She came to faith in Christ as a teenager while attending a Wesleyan Methodist boarding school in Yorkshire, England. But her time at school was cut short when she was forced to return home due to her family’s financial difficulties.
The family moved to Belfast for business, where her father died of pneumonia. Carmichael threw herself into serving others, beginning with her siblings—a pattern of self-sacrifice that would carry through to her dying day. Such hardships caused Carmichael to cling to the Word and cry out to God in prayer, not only for comfort but for practical help.
At one point, Carmichael’s mother gathered the children to tell them that they had run out of money. The family’s immediate reaction was not to worry, but to ask God to provide. These early experiences cultivated Carmichael’s dependence on God. “Luther said, ‘He is not strong who is not firm in need,’” she later wrote, reflecting on Proverbs 24:10 for her devotional, Edges of His Ways. “So, let us ‘be strong in the Lord, and in the power of His might.’”
One outcome of this prayerful reliance was Carmichael’s ministry among the “shawlies,” a group of underprivileged women who worked in the local Belfast mills. She received permission from her pastor to use the church hall for hosting a special meeting for the mill girls. But many church members—who were prejudiced against the poor, unchurched women from the slums—didn’t approve of this. They may have been relieved when the group outgrew their space and started praying for a new location in which to worship.
God answered their prayers through an elderly woman, who donated 500 pounds for the construction of a building on a small piece of land, purchased from the owner of a local mill. Thus, the Welcome Hall was built, a space that eventually became a center for working people in the community and that still exists as a church today.
At the invitation of Robert Wilson, who later became an adoptive father to her, Carmichael attended the 1888 Keswick Convention, a movement that sought to help people know God more. During the conference, she felt burdened by “the cry of the heathen” and compelled to commit her life to Christian service.
Two years later, while thumbing through her prayer log, Carmichael heard the words, Go, ye. And in obedience to those words, she soon became the first official Keswick missionary.
Carmichael originally planned to minister in China with China Inland Mission (CIM), but she was turned down on health grounds. This rejection did not change her conviction that God had called her to share the gospel overseas, however, and just a little over a year later in March 1893, Carmichael was accepted to the Japanese Evangelistic Band and boarded a ship.
Not long after she arrived in Japan, an elderly woman eagerly listened while Carmichael shared the good news of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection—but she became distracted by the missionary’s fancy fur gloves. The conversation stirred a new conviction in Carmichael, and she resolved to follow the example of Hudson Taylor, missionary to China and CIM founder, who wore the same clothing as the people he engaged with in an attempt to minimize distractions for the sake of the gospel. Donning traditional Japanese clothes, Carmichael, alongside her co-laborer Misaki-san, saw their ministry begin to bear fruit.
However, she began to suffer from debilitating headaches and neuralgia. Having been advised to leave Japan and rest, she traveled to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) but was called home to Ireland to take care of Wilson, who had suffered a stroke. When Carmichael later returned to the mission field, it would not be to Japan but to a place where she would spend the rest of her life.
‘How brave are we’
A century before Amy Carmichael arrived in India, William Carey opened the door to missions in the country, translating the Bible into more than 15 languages and sharing the gospel to people from all social and economic classes. Burdened for the lost, Carey argued for the urgency of missions for every Christian, inspiring many English speakers to go overseas.
But upon her arrival in Bangalore, Carmichael found that she did not fit in with the existing missionary community. At one point, she wrote derisively:
Onward Christian soldiers,
Sitting on the mats;
Nice and warm and cozy
Like little pussycats.
Onward Christian soldiers,
Oh, how brave are we,
Don’t we do our fighting
To her relief, a more serious missionary couple, Thomas and Catherine Walker, invited her to work with them in Tinnevelly (now Tirunelveli), a city in southern India, where she stayed for over a decade. The couple had an itinerant ministry, traveling to villages on foot or by ox cart. With the Walkers’ help, she learned Tamil, the local language.
Though Carmichael wore the local sari, she rejected the customary jewels and bracelets, saying “jewels were out of place in [God’s] own chosen workers—His separated ones”; to wear them would be to conform to “the law of the fashion of this world.” A group of newly converted believers followed her example, claiming Jesus as their jewel and calling themselves the “Starry Cluster” for Christ’s light that shown through them.
During her travels with the Walkers, Carmichael encountered a temple woman who was “married” to the gods. Later, she learned that the woman was a prostitute who spent her life in sexual service to the priests and worshippers in Hindu temples. Poor families would often sell their children to the temples, where the children became sex slaves—a practice that outraged Carmichael, who demanded social action.
“The discovery of this system was like a sword in Amy’s missionary soul,” Elisabeth Elliot later wrote in her biography of Carmichael, A Chance to Die. “Something must be done. Someone must find a way somehow to touch these women for God.”
In March 1901, Carmichael and the Starry Cluster arrived in Dohnavur, a place of refuge for persecuted Christians that had been established in 1827. The Dohnavur complex included small huts, houses, a church, and a group of nominal Christians. And it wasn’t far from a Hindu temple in Great Lake, which housed temple girls who were “married” to various Hindu deities.
One day, a girl named Preena escaped from the Hindu temple and asked to be taken to Carmichael. “From that day she became my mother, body and soul,” Preena later wrote, and through her, Carmichael’s eyes were further opened to the child trafficking in the temples.
Soon after, Thomas Walker was recruited to teach divinity students in Dohnavur. So the Walker family, Carmichael, and the Starry Cluster settled down in what would eventually become the Dohnavur Fellowship—a sanctuary for abandoned, abused, and traumatized children, with Carmichael as their full-time “Amma,” or mother. Hundreds of children received an education and health care, and learned to worship, work, and play together.
Dohnavur was an insulated atmosphere directed by Carmichael’s tough convictions. She was sometimes harsh, especially in her disciplinary tactics, which included putting ink on the tongues of children who lied and hanging a sign that said “LIE” around the offender’s neck, actions that in her eyes were all done in love.
“It matters that we should be true to one another, be loyal to what is a family—only a little family in the great Household, but still a family, with family love alive in it and acting as a living bond,” she later wrote. “To those of us who have lived this life for years it is inconceivable that one to whom this loyalty means nothing should wish to be one of us. It is not at all that we think that ours is the only way of living, but we are sure that it is the way meant for us.”
Prospective missionaries who wanted to join this “family” were thoroughly vetted by Carmichael, whose high regard for holiness lent itself to an unbending, puritanical approach and often created friction between her and the missionary community.
In 1924, for example, the Neill family arrived. The parents were medical doctors and their son, Stephen, came to help with the rescued boys’ ministry. But conflicts soon arose between Stephen and Carmichael regarding treatment of the children at Dohnavur, and their matched determination, quick tempers, and differing views made it difficult to foster trust. Though the exact cause of the conflict remains unclear, the Neill family eventually left.
Soon thereafter, Carmichael withdrew from the Church of England’s Zenana Missionary Society because it was linked with the Christian Missionary Society, which no longer affirmed the inspiration of Scripture. These incidents may have moved her to develop a code of principles in 1926 to affirm that Scripture was the very Word of God.
But her conflicts with missionaries and societies were secondary to the practical, seemingly boundless needs of the growing Donhavur family, which required constant intercession. As detailed in Amy Carmichael: Rescuer by Night, she journaled at one point, “Prayer is the core of our day. Without it, the day would collapse.”
Her team prayed for supplies, a nursery for the children, a vehicle, a hospital, a chapel house, and against spiritual warfare. This conviction even manifested in a House of Prayer that was later constructed in the middle of the compound, its towering windows overlooking the garden, nurseries, schoolrooms, and medical buildings.
Carmichael never took furlough or returned home to Ireland, even after falling into a pit, dislocating her ankle and breaking her leg. As Elliott later wrote, the incident happened the same day the missionary had prayed, “Do anything, Lord, that will fit me to serve Thee and help my beloveds.”
Carmichael was left with limited physical mobility and was largely bedridden for the last two decades of her life. But she continued to minister by penning words of encouragement, authoring a total of 35 books during her lifetime.
After serving in India for 55 years, Amy Carmichael died on January 18, 1951. Through her ministry, over 1,000 Indian children received an education, gained access to medical care, experienced the joy of belonging to a family, and heard the good news of the gospel.
To this day, Carmichael’s legacy burns brightly through Dohnavur Fellowship, where her great-grandchildren continue to share the love of Jesus Christ with others in need. And her words continue to minister to all who seek to live wholeheartedly for the Lord.
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
Thy soldier who would follow Thee.
From subtle love of softening things,
From easy choices, weakenings,
(Not thus are spirits fortified,
Not this way went the Crucified,)
From all that dims Thy Calvary,
O Lamb of God, deliver me.
Give me the love that leads the way,
The faith that nothing can dismay
The hope no disappointments tire
The passion that will burn like fire,
Let me not sink to be a clod,
Make me Thy fuel, Flame of God.
Hunter Beless is the host of the Journeywomen podcast, the author of Amy Carmichael: The Brown-Eyed Girl Who Learned to Pray and Read it, See it, Say it, Sing it!, and she loves doing ministry in her local church. You can subscribe to "Scraps," her monthly newsletter, at hunterbeless.com.