Amy Wilson Carmichael
The Lord’s Power Made Perfect in Weakness
This morning I will be presenting a biography of missionary Amy Carmichael. This is the fifth year in a row I have done this and have covered such people as William Tyndale, Ulrich Zwingli and David Brainerd. Let me explain why I do an annual biography. The first reason is to highlight Reformation Sunday, which looks back to Martin Luther’s nailing of the 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg church. Here is a painting of Luther testifying before Diet of Worms in 1521 with Emperor Charles V in 1521. Listen to his final response to the emperor and council.
Also, I do these biographies to interest you in reading on your own. I read this in about four hours. Parents you can read these to your kids, as I know many of you do. I want to inspire you to read them and show you how easy it is to do so. With that in mind, let’s look at the life of Amy Wilson Carmichael.
I am no expert on the life of Amy Carmichael, but to me her life is best illustrated by this passage in 2 Corinthians.
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor. 12:9-10)
Amy’s life was filled with excitement and tremendous ministry, but it was also filled with hardship and disappointment. And here is how these two go together so well. It was her hardship and disappointment that always led to exciting and tremendous ministry. In fact, I would say that without the hardship and disappointment we would know nothing of her life. The power of God was perfected in her weaknesses.
Her life did not begin with hardships as she was raised in a well to do home near Belfast, Ireland. Despite her relative prosperity, even at an early age, Amy had a heart for the poor and down-trodden. When she was a young girl, maybe ten or eleven years old, she and her mother enjoyed tea and scones in a tearoom in Belfast. While they were eating, a dirty beggar girl stood outside the window looking at the rich people eating their plates of food while she went hungry. That scene deeply moved Amy and when she went home she wrote this little poem.
When I grow up and money have
I know what I will do.
I’ll build a great big lovely place
For little girls like you.
Little did Amy know that she would spend the majority of her life’s ministry slowly building a big lovely place for little girls caught in the cycle of poverty and oppression. If you know anything at all about Amy Carmichael, you are probably familiar with her orphanage work in India, but that is not how her ministry began.
She started ministry in her teens when she would go to town and invite children’s Bible club. We might call it a Backyard Bible Club but what made this club so special was Amy’s love for the children and her love for the Scriptures. She loved the children so much that she wanted them to know the Scriptures and the God of the Scriptures. She also started a Morning Watch Club which was a more intensive discipleship group for children where they pledged to read the Bible and pray. Together with one of her friends she started a boy’s school for young boys who slaved away in the factories of Belfast. She would teach them reading and writing and end the school session with Bible reading and prayer. At this point she is only eighteen years old. Here’s a challenge for our older teens and younger twenty something’s in the church. Could you start your own Bible study with the purpose of inviting your co-workers or neighbors? Or what about starting a prayer group with a single purpose—praying for your unsaved friends? If you have any interest at all, I have a really useful six week class that you can copy and use for free. Just say the word and I’ll be glad to get you started. Young adults want a challenge…
This is why we try to involve our young people in ministry at an early an age as possible. We don’t feel a person should wait until they are in their twenties or thirties before they get engaged in ministry. We have young kids as helpers in Children’s Church and the nursery. We have young people running the powerpoint, singing and playing on the worship team, serving as greeters, running the sound system. For heavens’ sake—kids built a good portion of the building we are in! Parents, please do all you can to be involved in ministry so that you can bring your kids with you. Serve in Children’s Church so your child can learn and serve with you. As you know, our church is planning a multi-generational mission’s trip next April. We have a meeting this Thursday for anyone interested in going on the trip. The possibilities are almost endless.
Amy’s ministry was just getting started. She was invited to the slums of Belfast to help with the City Mission. Now get this—she couldn’t wait to get to the slums and start helping with ministry. On one of her trips to the slums she noticed an old woman who was all hunched over and wore a shawl over her head. When she took off the shawl Amy was shocked to see that this girl was no older than she was. She was one of the young poverty stricken girls who worked in the factories making quality goods that were sold at cheap prices. They couldn’t afford a hat to cover their heads so they wore their shawls over their heads and were known as “shawlies.” Her heart went out to these young shawlies and so Amy immediately began to invite them to Bible studies.
Can you see the pattern of her life? Even though she became famous for her orphanage, her primary ministry had always been the work of sharing the gospel. Here she was, nineteen years old, no job, no husband, not even a boyfriend (can you imagine the horror!) and all she wanted to do in life as to share the gospel with emaciated, lice-infested factory workers. The Lord blessed her ministry and the group of converts and disciple grew so fast they were too large for the church they had been using. Amy had a vision of building their own church facility. All on her own, she researched the best and cheapest kind of building and laid out an entire plan. She was the architect and visionary of the whole project. The only problem was that her father had died the year before—her first real hardship in life—and had left the family with just enough money to live on. She didn’t have a single shilling for the project.
Does this sound familiar? They didn’t have their own building. They didn’t have any money. It sounds just like our church a little over two years ago, doesn’t it? So what do you think Amy did? Just like we did, she held a capital campaign. But unlike us and every other church who constructs a church building, she didn’t ask for any money. She drew out the plans. She calculated the cost at 500 British pounds, which in today’s U.S. economy would be about the same price we paid for our building—but hers’ seated 500 people! Later she would meet the famous George Mueller who never asked anyone for a dime in all of his years of running large orphanages. Perhaps she was influenced by Mueller or maybe she made the decision on her own, but she never asked anyone for money. However, like George Mueller, Amy did share her plans with anyone who was willing to listen. Before too long a wealthy friend of hers decided to donate the entire amount to complete the project. In 1889 her new building was completed and the number of shawlies attending Bible studies and classes swelled to four hundred.
Amazingly, Amy had accomplished all of this by the time she was 21 years old. She called her new ministry center, The Welcome, and to this day there is a church in Belfast, Ireland called the Welcome Evangelical Church that has been meeting weekly for over 120 years.
Amy worked hard in ministry and she needed a lot of help to run the ministry of The Welcome, but she was also very particular about who she allowed to help. This biographer writes, “Amy wasn’t a person who believed that any help was better than no help. Some people offered to help her because they felt sorry for the shawlies. They wouldn’t do. Others offered to help because they felt a need in their lives to “do a little charity work.” They wouldn’t do either. Amy tuned away more help than she accepted. She allowed only those people to help her who would serve the shawlies out of dedication to God. Nothing less was good enough for Amy, who knew that when difficult decisions had to be made she needed Godly people around her, not do-gooders.”[i]
Not long after this, a second great hardship entered her life. The money that Amy’s deceased father had provided for the family ran out. A friend of the family offered Amy’s mother a job as director of a rescue shelter in England. Amy could have lived in a cottage outside of town, but since she wanted to keep ministering to women working in the factories, she chose to live in the slums of the city of Ancoats. Ancoats is now dilapidated neighborhood outside of Manchester, England, but then it was a major center for manufacturing and smoke belching factories. The living conditions were absolutely deplorable. The place was infested with rats and bugs. At night she pulled the covers up tight around her neck to keep the bugs out of her nightclothes and in the morning she stomped her boots on the floor to send the rats and bugs running. One of her biographers describes why she chose to live this way. “She needed to know for herself that it was possible to live a happy Christian life in the midst of hardship and squalor.”[ii] Most of us, including me, tend to run away from hardship and squalor, but Any ran toward these things.
Like her ministry in Belfast, her new ministry in the slums began to grow as she invited more and more women to Bible studies. Just as the ministry was exploding she got very sick and nearly died. She was so sick that she had to leave the city to recuperate. Do you see the culmination of hardships and disappointments? Her father died, she had to leave behind her ministry in Belfast when her money ran out and now she had to leave behind this new, vibrant ministry due to her sickness. She could have gotten very depressed and disappointed but I could not find any hints of complaint.
In order to recover from her illness, she went to live with an older man named Robert Wilson. Wilson was co-founder of the Keswick Convention which was an evangelical organization which held tent meetings all over the United Kingdom. The Keswick Convention started in Belfast and Amy had heard Hudson Taylor speak there several years prior. After she recovered, Amy lived there for a year, becoming the administrator of the Keswick Convention, arranging all of the Keswick meetings in the British Isles. She became acquainted with George Mueller and was on very friendly terms with Hudson Taylor. She became like an adopted daughter to Wilson and she took on his name for her middle name.
While serving so faithfully there, she heard a nearly audible voice from the Lord saying, “Go ye.” Amy knew that the Lord was speaking to her through the words of Matthew 28, “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel.” She felt a call to go to China and since Hudson Taylor knew her so well, he immediately approved her for service in China. Do you see how her sickness, which had seemed like a disappointment at the time, had turned into a tremendous blessing? What if her father hadn’t died? What if the money had not run out? What if she hadn’t nearly died while ministering in the slums? All of her prior hardships worked together to lead her to missionary work in China with the famous China Inland Mission. But all of her hopes and dreams came crashing down just before she sailed for China. While having a routine physical exam, the doctor decided that she was far too weak to be able to endure the harsh life of living as a missionary in China. Her prior illness had disqualified her for the mission field in China.
Later Amy wrote, "It is a safe thing to trust Him to fulfill the desires which He creates.” She was confident that God had called her to the mission field and she would trust him to show the way. About four months later she felt the call to go to Japan and through friends of Robert Wilson, she was quickly approved for service. Interestingly, she sailed to Japan by way of China. The ship to China was rat and bug infested—a disgusting place for anyone, let alone a young, petite Irish woman. Was Amy used to dealing with rats and bugs? This is what she had dealt with every day in Manchester. Her amazing attitude at enduring the awful conditions led to the conversion of the ship’s captain. Once again God used her prior trials for his glory.
She had a fruitful ministry in Japan. In one small village where she ministered, the Christian population tripled in a matter of a few weeks. Amy became the first missionary to get rid of her western clothes and adopt Japanese clothing in order to better reach the people. Where do you think she got that idea from? She most likely picked it up from her friend, Hudson Taylor, who was extremely controversial for setting the same pattern in China.
While she was in Japan, Amy began to feel intense loneliness. She had been content as a single woman up until that point but now she was wondering if the Lord’s plan was for her to marry. She found a cave and prayed for several hours. Now there’s an experience few of us have had. Most of us don’t ever pray for several hours, let alone while in a cave. She received a word of encouragement from the Lord during her time of prayer: “None of those who trust me shall be lonely.”[iii] If you understand the story of Amy Carmichael, you will know that one thing she never experienced for the rest of her life as loneliness.
I’d like to address the young ladies in our church for a moment. Most of you will not be called to a life of singleness like Amy Carmichael, but all of you could learn from her example. First, how many of you have prayed for your future husband? For many of you that is a novel idea. As I mentioned last week, we just attended the wedding of Brittney Gordon. Brittney’s mom, Rheta, used to pray for her kids every single day, including their future husband or wife. Brittney got to know her husband during college while on a six week mission’s trip through Asia. She had a crush on him for several years but never pursued him. Brittney graduated from college and followed the Lord’s leading to serve as a missionary in China for a year. While she was serving the Lord in China and reaching out to university students who needed Christ, much like Amy Carmichael, and with the same gentle spirit, her friend Kyle flew to China to see her. That visit started a closer relationship with led to their engagement and wedding last Saturday.
As I think about it, Brittney’s life of faith and service very much mirrors that of Amy Carmichael except that Amy was called to a life of singleness and Brittney was not. But the difference between Amy, Brittney and most other teen girls is that most girls are pursuing guys with much more effort than they are pursuing the Lord. Instead of pursuing guys and letting God follow behind, why not pursue God and let the guys follow behind? If you pursue guys you will eventually get the guy you deserve but probably not the best choice, but if you pursue the Lord, the guys who follow behind will be the ones who want a girl who is pursuing God.
After fifteen months in Japan Amy again became desperately ill. The doctors diagnosed her with “Japanese head” which had the symptoms of headache, weakness and dizziness. Sounds a bit like the swine flu to me! She went to live with Robert Wilson again, who himself was recovering from a stroke. Her sickness and weakness had once again led her out of the mission field where she had been so fruitful. But he would not let this deter her. A friend invited her to India to a place near the mountains where there was a more temperate climate. She thought that perhaps Amy would be able to tolerate it better. In 1895 when she was 28 years old, Amy sailed for India, not knowing that she would spend the next 56 years in India and never again return to England or Ireland
She quickly adopted the dress of the local women, but went a step further—instead of dressing in the colorful saris of the upper castes, she chose to wear plan looking saris of the poorest women. She immediately started to have conversations with the local women and saw a few converts. These new converts lived together and formed their own band of missionaries who would travel into surrounding villages to share the gospel. Listen to how Amy described this in one of her books. (Things As They Are)
There have been times of late when I have had to hold on to one text with all my might. “It is required in stewards that a man be found faithful.” (1 Cor. 4:2) Praise God it does not say successful! One evening things came to a climax. We all spent a whole afternoon without getting one good listener. We separated as usual going two and two to the different quarters of a big sleepy straggly village. Life and I went to the potters. Life spoke most earnestly and well to an uninterested group of women. After she had finished one of them pointed to my hat the only foreign thing about me which was visible. Oh that I could dispense with it. Not one bit did they care to hear. One by one they went back to their work and we were left alone.[iv]
If you were to measure the success of Amy’s ministry by numbers, then her greatest success happened in Belfast before her 21st birthday. But Amy knew that God did not measure by numbers but by faithfulness. She continued to plug away, sharing the gospel every chance she got and loving the Indian women with all of her strength. The orphanage, for which she is most well known, started almost by accident. As she ministered to the local women, her home became a place for young girls seeking asylum from awful circumstances. Some of them eleven or twelve years old fleeing arranged marriages with men in their sixties. Others escaped from Hindu temple where they were enslaved as child temple prostitutes. All of these young girls would find love, protection and the gospel of Christ at Amy’s home. Eventually little boys and started showing up at her doorstep so she started a home and school for boys.
In one of her books, Amy wrote, “One can give without loving, but one cannot love without giving.” She loved and gave, and gave and loved for the next 56 years of her life. When she was 63 years old, she fell in a hole and damaged her spine. She was disabled for the remaining 20 years of her life and could only walk a few steps at a time or be out of her bed for more than an hour or so. Do you think she was disappointed by this disabling injury? Do you think she felt sorry for herself and gave up all hope? The last twenty years of her life and that time off of her feet was the most productive time of writing and allowed her to finish the majority of the thirty five books that she published. Most of what we know about her life’s work was written during her years of disability.
Amy died a few weeks after her 83rd birthday. Amy did not like attention and that is one of the reasons there are so very few pictures of her. She is buried in a garden at the orphanage where many of her children were buried. She made them promise not to place a grave marker over her, but they compromised and placed a stone birdbath over her resting place that had a single word engraved—Amma, which was the local word for “mother.”
The orphanage and school called Dohnavur Fellowship that she started still exists today. Remember that poem she wrote as a little girl?
When I grow up and money have
I know what I will do.
I’ll build a great big lovely place
For little girls like you.
Her work lives on through that school and through the church she planted in Belfast. The Lord’s power was made perfect in the weakness of Amy Carmichael. May we learn from and change by her example.
November 1, 2009