Amy Carmichael (1867-1951) was an Irish missionary, author, and founder of the Dohnavur Fellowship in Dohnavur, India. Apart from her work as an evangelist, she is best known for rescuing and providing much-needed shelter to India’s exploited devadasis and their children. She was a prolific author, writing more than 30 books during her lifetime. Carmichael spent most of her life living among the devadasis and their children in India, and never returned to her native Ireland, Four years before the great missionary’s death, India officially outlawed the dedication of girls to Hindu temples.
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The Early Years
Amy Beatrice Carmichael was born in the town of Millisle, County Down, Northern Ireland on December 16, 1867. She was the eldest of seven children of staunch Presbyterians, David and Catherine Carmichael. The Carmichaels moved to Belfast around 1883, and it was in this city that they established the Welcome Evangelical Church. It was in this church that Amy first honed her skills as an evangelist and as a missionary.
Amy’s earliest mission work was the founding of a Sunday morning class for Belfast’s mill girls. These women were called ‘shawlies’ because they preferred to wear shawls instead of hats. The Sunday morning class was held in the hall of the Rosemary Presbyterian Church.
The Sunday morning class was a huge success. The number of ‘shawlies’ that attended the class grew so much that Amy was forced to look for a bigger place to hold a meeting for 500 persons. As fate would have it, she received a donation amounting to $500 from Miss Kate Mitchell.
One of the mill owners she ministered to also donated a plot of land where the hall could be built. The plot of land is located on the corner of Heather and Cambrai Streets. The Welcome Evangelical Church established by the Carmichaels still occupies this plot of land in the city of Belfast.
Amy suffered from neuralgia, a condition that often kept her weak and in pain. However, this didn’t stop her from serving those who need to hear about Christ. In 1887, she attended the Keswick Convention where she heard about the founder of the China Inland Mission, Hudson Taylor. Hearing about the legendary missionary inspired her to become one, too.
Among the Devadasis of Southern India
In 1889, Amy relocated to Manchester to start a ministry among the mill girls who worked there. She later joined and trained with the China Inland Mission, but her trip to Asia was postponed because of poor health. She cut ties with the China Inland Mission,and joined the Church Missionary Society instead.
She had a short stint in Japan in 1893 under the auspices of the Church Missionary Society before illness forced her to return to Britain. In 1895, Amy joined the Church of England Zenana Mission. She was sent to Sri Lanka, but ill health once again interfered in her work.
Amy then traveled to Bangalore, India to recuperate and join the rest of the missionaries of the Zenana Mission. It now seemed that her illness was a boon as it was in India that she would finally find her vocation and her permanent home.
While she was recuperating, she studied the Tamil language and preached to the locals along with Thomas Walker, a prominent CMS missionary. Amy and other English missionaries were assisted by several Indian women converts. They later relocated from Bangalore to Dohnavur, Tamil Nadu, where she founded the Dohnavur Fellowship.
Devadasis were a common sight in South India when Amy Carmichael worked there. Devadasis were young girls that were considered by Hindus as female servants of god. Girls, sometimes as young as four, were dedicated or ‘married’ to the Hindu goddess of fertility, Yellamma, and sent to one of her temples to serve the goddess.
Devadasis held a high status in medieval India, and were trained in classical dance and music. They lived in temples, performed and danced in religious rituals, and were supported by kings and wealthy patrons of the temples. But the social status of devadasis gradually diminished. Some became concubines of priests, kings, and other prominent men of their communities. As the centuries passed, the roles of devadasis changed. Instead of dancing and performing religious rituals, these women became nothing more than temple prostitutes.
Most of the young girls given to the temples came from poor families who want to unburden themselves of another mouth to feed. Other girls were daughters of devadasis themselves who had nowhere to go. Many devadasis were nothing more than sex slaves for the men in charge of the temple and prominent men of the village. Many lived their whole lives as devadasis in temples and brothels, while others managed to escape.
One of the devadasis that escaped a temple in Dohnavur eventually sought shelter with Amy Carmichael. Some of the villagers demanded that the young girl be returned to the temple or her family, and they even threatened Amy if she did not give up the child. However, Amy stood her ground and sheltered the girl in spite of the threats.
This young girl was not the last devadasi Amy Carmichael took under her wing. Several devadasis left the Hindu temples to seek shelter with the Dohnavur Fellowship. Amy and her team of missionaries at the Dohnavur Fellowship also rescued young girls from this plight.
Amy Carmichael never married or had children of her own, but she was ‘amma’ (mother) to the girls under her care. She and other missionaries of the Dohnavur Fellowship donned Indian dresses not only to blend in but also as a sign of respect to the Indian culture. The Dohnavur Fellowship was at first dedicated only to providing shelter for female devadasis and their daughters. It was not until 1918 that the fellowship admitted the sons of former devadasis.
Amy was not just a missionary and a precursor of modern social workers. She also wrote books chronicling her life and her work in Japan and India. A prolific writer, she wrote more than thirty books and devotionals from 1895 until her death in 1951.
Amy Carmichael suffered a fall and was severely injured in 1931. Unable to continue her work because of the serious injury, she nonetheless continued to live in India and wrote books during the last twenty years of her life. Amy died and was buried in Dohnavur in 1951. She was 83 years old.
Hill, Myrtle. “Carmichael, Amy Beatrice (1867–1951), Missionary.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004, doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/59081.
Sharpe, Eric J. “The Legacy of Amy Carmichael.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research, vol. 20, no. 3, 1996, pp. 121–125., doi:10.1177/239693939602000307.
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