India
Education

Carmichael, Amy Beatrice (1867–1951), missionary

She was born in Millisle, Co. Down, the daughter of prosperous middle-class Presbyterian parents and educated Harrogate and Victoria College, Belfast. From an early age, Amy became involved in religious work in Belfast, holding prayer and Bible meetings for children and school-friends. She organised classes for the mill girls of Belfast which were so successful that a new hall was built to accommodate them.

Robert Wilson, a Quaker and co-founder of the Keswick Convention, became a major influence in her life. While staying at his home in Cumberland, engaged with the religious work of her host, she received the ‘call’ to missionary work. Carmichael arrived in south India in 1895, associated with the Church of England Zenana Mission. She later joined the Church Missionary Society and finally formed her own group of sisters. She spent seven years travelling in the Tinnevelly district (south India), before settling in Dohnavur, Tinnevelly. This was to be her home until the end of her life.

A central concern of the Christian community which Carmichael established there was the fate of young girls (devadasis), ceremonially married to the deity in the temple, an ancient ritual which degenerated into prostitution. These girls and, from 1918, boys, who were vulnerable to exploitation, were a central focus of her mission which provided such children with a Christian home, as well as education and training which would equip them for adult life. The settlement gradually expanded, with outposts in the village, nurseries, schools, a hospital, and a house of prayer added as needed; within forty years the community at Dohnavur numbered more than 600. Despite growing numbers, however, the pattern of life was that of a family, not an institution, with the evangelists sharing in the practical work of teaching, doctoring, nursing, engineering, and farming.

Amy was a prolific writer, particularly after a fall in 1931 which severely restricted her movement. She published thirty-eight books, mostly on the work at Dohnavur. They were reprinted and translated into many languages. They inspired and influenced later generations of young Christians. Passionately committed, and unconventional by any standards, the intensity of her faith and her frankness about the difficulties of missionary work in India often attracted the hostility of other Europeans. She adopted Indian dress and insisted that those who worked at Dohnavur would do so without expectation of a salary.

Knowledge of her work began to spread, however, and others were more appreciative of the Dohnavur initiative. In 1919 she was awarded the kaisar-i-Hind medal for services to the people of India. A greater cause for celebration was the passing of the 1947 act of the Madras state parliament which made it illegal to dedicate young girls to temple service, a cause given wide publicity by Amy's intervention and in works such as Lotus Buds (1909) and Things as They Are (1903).

Carmichael

 

Perhaps the greatest testimony to her leadership is the fact that the community survived both the ending of British rule in India and her own death in 1951. Continuity was ensured by adapting both the ethos and the work of Dohnavur to the India of the late twentieth century, and although the fellowship members are now all of Indian nationality, the work still continues today.

Source: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Picture: Amy Carmichael