This week we are starting a new series on the history of Christian missions. In studying such a history, one will see that there are many powerful individuals and ministries. The main source we will rely on is Ruth A. Tucker’s From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions (please see the Recommended Books page on our blog). Today’s post focuses on Amy Carmichael.
Carmichael (1867-1951) was a missionary in India, where she ministered for over fifty-five years. Carmichael “founded Donhavur Fellowship and wrote some thirty-five books, a number of which were translated into more than a dozen languages. One of them, Gold Cord, has had sales of more than a half-million” (Tucker, 2004, 298-99). These facts alone make her a very intriguing person for our blog series. The fact that she had a 55-year ministry is nothing short of amazing, made more powerful when one considers that she never took a furlough (Tucker, 300). Also, the fact that she wrote 35 books with one of them selling 500,000 copies shows her impact came in several different forms.
Her ministry focused on serving children, including “child widows, temple prostitutes, or orphans” (Tucker, 300). Carmichael saw herself as the mother of these children in need. Her ministry flourished, as Tucker notes that “twelve years after she began her ministry she had 130 children under her care” (Tucker, 300). The numerous amount of children under her charge warranted others who likewise were willing to act as parents to them. As a result, Carmichael often urged that her fellow workers were supposed to remain unmarried. She started the Sisters of the Common Life for single women in order to have more women acting as mothers to the numerous children in the ministry (Tucker, 300).
The fact that she was in India for 55 years without a furlough caused Carmichael to likewise deny others’ requests for time off from the ministry (Tucker, 301). She was no doubt intensely focused on their work and thought that time away from the mission would lead to a weakened sense of calling and purpose. In fact, many of her critics accused her of running too tight of a ship and of being a dictator, mostly by those who tried to work with her (Tucker 302). One individual, Stephen Neill, ended up writing about his time working with Carmichael and noted that her authoritarian model was not always helpful, especially if someone came in with new ideas and goals (Tucker, 302-3), which he tried to do.
Overall, we are left with an image of a dedicated, organized woman who spent most of her life serving the children of India. She was gifted with incredible endurance, intelligence, and a deep desire to serve God’s calling in her life. Carmichael’s writing career was rather prolific, directly testifying to her intelligence and communication skills. However, one must also recognize that her dedication often came across to her coworkers as extreme, harsh, and too authoritarian. One has to wonder if she went too far in serving God.
This begs the question of whether or not one can “go too far” in following God. One need only interview people who have “flamed out” of pastoral ministry to find out that regular rest is often necessary in order to continue functioning in the ministries into which God has called a person. Pastors, missionaries, chaplains, nuns, monks, etc. need time to recuperate from their service. Amy Carmichael never took a furlough for over 55 years. Such a model would almost be unheard of on the mission field today. Often, missionaries travel back to their home country to raise support to continue serving in their respective mission fields; however, missionaries also take time to rest and reinvigorate themselves in order to continue serving God to the best of their physical, mental, and spiritual abilities.
Amy Carmichael was a very devoted missionary who left a lasting impact on all with whom she came into contact. Much of it was positive, but some was also negative. I can’t help but wonder if the negative would have been lessened had she taken time off here and there to rest.
I close by asking those of you in ministry positions and other lay offices what your opinion is of such a model. Do you take regular furloughs/ vacations? Is such a model too “American,” worldly, etc? What level of exhaustion is okay in order to keep serving God’s calling in your life? Can one maintain Carmichael’s ultra-focused ministry model, or was she just particularly gifted by God in order to do so?