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    Read, orange and gray shapes of color.

    Reading Amy Carmichael Today

    By Katelyn Beaty

    March 2, 2020

    Reading about the heroines of Christian missions, it’s hard not to envy their sense of adventure. There’s Lottie Moon and her band of Baptist missionaries riding across China, on one trip visiting forty-four villages in eleven days. There’s Betsey Stockton, a freed slave who attended classes at Princeton Theological Seminary before sailing to Hawaii in 1823 to educate children. Elizabeth “Betty” Greene is the evangelical Amelia Earhart, a jungle pilot who co-founded Mission Aviation Fellowship after serving in World War II. In her biography, Greene recalls that she once was asked to transport a certain Marine Corps general, who didn’t think women should fly planes, across Peru. After Greene made a dead-stick landing on a stretch of the Amazon River, the general seemed to feel differently about women pilots.

    The story of modern missions is the story of adventurous women. They are remembered for their radical service to God, yes, but also for challenging conventions of womanhood, even while affirming traditional gender roles. Together, their biographies attest to a time when women, though often restricted in their own cultures, could travel the globe as evangelists and entrepreneurs. Global missions gave them a chance to preach, teach, and lead in ways they couldn’t have back home.

    By the late nineteenth century, more women than men were in the missions field. These women seem largely unhindered by Victorian ideals of separate spheres for men and women and the idealization of marriage and motherhood. To be sure, many of the missionaries were wives and mothers. But many others were prepared to forgo marriage and motherhood as well as home and homeland for the sake of their cause.

    Such was the case for Amy Carmichael. Born into a devout Presbyterian family in Ireland, it seems she possessed a nascent calling to give her life to God. By age twenty, after the death of her father, she was caring for her younger siblings and for Belfast mill girls, who worked grueling hours in poor conditions with few protections. In response, Amy raised funds to build an outreach hall for the mill workers. Here and throughout her life, Amy’s natural stubbornness and compassion combined to inspire acts of great service.

    Amy’s role models were men: Dwight L. Moody, Robert Wilson, and Hudson Taylor, the father of modern missions and founder of China Inland Mission. After hearing Taylor speak at a revivalist Keswick Convention in 1887, Amy heard God say, “Go ye.” She understood that, despite her physical weakness owing to neuralgia, she would follow in Taylor’s footsteps. After a brief stint in Japan, she landed in India, the locus of her ministry. She never returned home.

    Dohnavur, the village in southern India where Amy Carmichael lived until her death in 1951, would soon become an oasis of children’s laughter and verdant gardens. But along the way there were many obstacles to confront, both within and without. Amy faced loneliness, discouragement, and discord among her staff, in addition to the threat of disease and malnutrition, cultural barriers, and local animosity. Some locals accused her and the other missionaries of kidnapping children. Amy was convinced, however, that her greatest opposition was Satan, who wanted to keep Indian children trapped in the “darkness” of Hinduism.

    What sounds like cultural imperialism to our ears takes on a new dimension when we learn the fate of many children dedicated to the service of Hindu gods. In the book Lotus Buds, Amy recounts a conversation with a medical missionary who says she heard “frightened cries, indignant cries, sometimes sharp cries as of pain” from the temple next door. After inquiring with police, who assured her that the children were “only” being beaten, the missionary realized that the children were being sexually abused.

    But Amy also showed a shrewdness rare among missionaries operating in countries ruled by the British Empire. She saw that poor families turned to temple prostitution for economic and social security. One mother whose children participated in the rituals contrasted the glory of having her daughter dance before high-caste Hindus with “the groveling life of your Christians.” The mother defended the temple practices as ancient custom, and said changing them would be arrogant. Here, we recall generations of Christian missions that led to so much cultural destruction done in the name of Jesus around the globe. But Amy found a way to honor India’s beliefs and customs while opposing the abuse. “The thing we fight is not India or Indian, in essence or development,” she writes. “It is something alien to the old life of the people. . . . It is like a parasite which has settled upon the bough of some noble forest tree – on it, but not of it.” Today, development workers might recall Amy Carmichael’s sensitivity while addressing female genital mutilation in Africa and the Middle East. Likewise, missionaries who hope to end polygamy in sub-Saharan Africa might address the underlying poverty that leads many women to seek economic security in a shared husband.

    Like many women in the missions field, Amy Carmichael remained single for life. According to biographer Ruth Ann Tucker, she struggled early on with a fear of the future, and the possibility of lifelong loneliness. During her fifteen months in Japan, she went to be alone with God in a cave. “The devil kept on whispering, ‘It is all right now, but what about afterwards? You are going to be very lonely.’” Amy prayed desperately, and God answered, “None of them that trust in me shall be desolate.” If Amy struggled with singleness for the next fifty years, she does not mention it much in her writing. In fact, she might have wished for more time alone. As more children arrived at Dohnavur, Amy (now “Amma,” or mother) struggled with the responsibilities of mothering and homemaking. In Overweights of Joy, she notes that a whole year has passed since she last wrote. “For we can only write in odd corners of time, and sometimes time does not seem to have any odd corners. Quiet is even rarer.” By 1913, 140 children were in her care, and several English and Indian women had joined her in the work. By 1916, Amy Carmichael had established the Sisterhood of the Common Life, a Protestant order that imitated medieval communities of celibate men and women. The sisters were expected to remain single; if they intended to marry, they had to leave. Absent a husband and biological children, Amy nonetheless stitched together a family in the form of her rescued children and her sisters in the mission. At the time of Amy’s death, the Dohnavur family numbered around nine hundred.

    Many of Amy Carmichael’s admirers – most notably Elisabeth Elliot, widow of slain missionary Jim Elliot – have seen in her an icon of submissive femininity in her whole-life surrender to God. In one of her popular essays on womanhood, Elliot writes that the essence of femininity is surrender: first, in the surrender of “her independence, her name, her destiny, her will, herself” in marriage vows and the marriage bed, and later in her bodily surrender to welcoming new life in her womb. “Perhaps the exceptional women in history have been given a special gift – a charism – because they made themselves nothing,” writes Elliot, who goes on to compare Amy Carmichael to Mary the mother of Jesus.

    Indeed, Amy Carmichael’s books repeat the theme of sometimes painful surrender to the will of God, a constant battle between self-will and submission to a higher calling. Yet we would be mistaken to only see in her missions a lesson in acquiescence. Her life’s work is nothing if not an expression of determination, grit, and leadership – attributes that Elliot and others would very well call masculine. Dohnavur grew as it did precisely because she had initiated and led a campaign to rescue children from the world of temple prostitution. According to scholar Nancy Jiwon Cho, Amy Carmichael developed in her extensive writing a “particular theology” that displays “hope for the development of an authentic Indian Christianity that responds to the experiences and needs of Indians” – a theology that would inspire subsequent generations of Christian women and men alike. If men are like Christ in their role as initiator, protector, and provider, it’s hard not to see in Amy Carmichael an expression of such Christ-like masculinity: in initiating rescue efforts, protecting the most vulnerable, and providing a home and spiritual comfort for hundreds of people. Then again, the self-surrender that Amy Carmichael writes about is also the surrender of Christ to the will of his Father. Thus, Amy Carmichael provides not so much a lesson in feminine submission as in Christian submission. There is no biblical call to take up one’s masculine or feminine cross – only to surrender all to the will of God.

    By the time of Amy Carmichael’s death in 1951, women’s global missions had started to lag. According to journalist Wendy Murray, the modernist -fundamentalist controversies earlier in the century, coupled with postwar prosperity and the baby boom, had circumscribed women’s roles to the home. The mainstream feminist backlash to these narrower roles spurred its own conservative Christian backlash – what Ruth Ann Tucker has called a “neofundamentalism” that arguably continues to this day. Major missions organizations such as the Southern Baptist International Mission Board have in recent decades emphasized “proclamation ministries” such as direct evangelism and church planting – activities these organizations still reserve for men. Consequently, the number of women joining such missionary efforts has dwindled. American evangelicalism arguably remains in a neofundamentalist mode as a reaction to radically shifting gender norms in the culture at large. If she lived today, would Amy Carmichael be free to be Amy Carmichael?

    Nevertheless, Amy Carmichael’s life testifies that God raises up women in all times and places to take the gospel to the literal ends of the earth. Priscilla joined her husband to spread the good news in Rome, Greece, and Asia Minor in a time when women were largely seen as property and unfit for education. The aforementioned Betsey Stockton received seminary education as a freed slave, her very presence in a university classroom a testament against the racism woven into US law and custom. Amy Carmichael stepped aboard boats and trains to make her home halfway around the world, in a remote Indian village, to preach good news for the poor and freedom for the captives.

    Many young people dream of embarking on such an adventure, to rescue trafficking victims, lift people in developing countries out of poverty, or otherwise “change the world.” But Amy Carmichael’s intrepid spirit and daring exploits are not the only reason her words still resonate a century later. Her thoughts show a struggle common to every person who sets out to follow Jesus – the greatest adventure of all. In founding and guiding a community of women committed to providing a home for children, she learned what it takes for an individual to remain on such a demanding path, and what it takes to hold such a community together. The insights she imparts in dozens of books – many written during long years of convalescence and contemplation after a crippling accident – though specific to her time and place, are not just for women called to missionary work. Whatever the way we each might be called to serve God and humanity, Amy Carmichael’s words in this little book can be a guiding light through the times of storm and drought that we will surely face.

    Contributed By

    Katelyn Beaty is the author of A Woman’s Place: A Christian Vision for Your Calling in the Office, the Home, and the World (Simon & Schuster) and serves as acquisitions editor for Brazos Press, a division of Baker Books. She lives in Brooklyn.

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