Amy (Carmichael), Me, and a Kill Fee

Amy (Carmichael), Me, and a Kill Fee October 14, 2019

By Ruth Tucker

In all my years of writing, I had never heard the term kill fee. Not until the news broke that porn star Stormy Daniels had been paid a large sum to prevent the story of her relationship with Donald Trump from appearing in the National Inquirer. Michael Cohen, the fixer, had worked it out. He killed the article. Only months later I submitted a solicited online article on Amy Carmichael to Christianity Today and I ended up with a measly $75 kill fee.

I had thought the piece was well-written and balanced (not as one-sided as is this short post), and I assumed it would be accepted with few changes. After all, through the years I’ve written many articles for CT, including cover stories. My editor, however, did not like my perspective. Finally, after a number of re-writes, I emailed the Editor in Chief. He wrote back: “I’m not sure what happened here–something weird.  You are an outstanding writer of history.” But the editor held her ground. He encouraged me to work with her which involved still more significant changes. I gave it my best shot—then the kill fee.

Amy Carmichael has long been the Evangelical Virgin Mary—and one of the most celebrated Protestant missionaries of all time. She served in India without home leave for more than 55 years. She founded the Dohnavur Fellowship, an independent mission (including orphanage), as well as the Sisters of the Common Life, a community of women who made vows of celibacy. In addition to all of that, she authored more than 30 books. Her most well-known—and most controversial—activity, however, was that of rescuing Indian girls from temple prostitution. This work was criticized by other missionaries and Indians alike who believed she was exaggerating the problem—and in some cases making it worse. Nevertheless, her stories inspired millions of Christians around the world.

She was born in Millisle, Northern Ireland in 1867. In her twenties, she testified to God’s call to become a missionary. She applied to join Hudson Taylor’s China Inland Mission, but was rejected. She then sought support from individuals associated with Keswick movement and at age 24 sailed for Japan as an independent missionary. With no preparation, she arrived as a stranger—no one to greet her or help her become oriented. Writing home, she complained that language learning was virtually impossible, that resident missionaries fought among themselves, and that the climate was “dreadful upon the brain.” After just 15 months, she relocated: “I simply say that I left Japan for rest and change, that when at Shanghai I believed the Lord told me to follow Him down to Ceylon [Sri Lanka], and so I came.”

Soon after that, she returned home. But in less than a year, she sailed for India, this time her work sponsored by the Church of England Zenana Mission, founded to evangelize women segregated in zenanas (female quarters). But she was not suited to work under the authority of others. She left the Anglicans and established her own mission with no oversight, organizational ties or interaction with resident missionaries. They were too lax in their work. They took vacations and joined together for celebrations. Not those at Dohnavar. Amy did not take furloughs, or holidays; neither would her workers. She made a vow of celibacy, so also her workers.

She also had strong opinions on straight-forward evangelism. Sarel, one of her faithful converts, wished to teach women to knit as a means to evangelism. The wool had been donated—no mission funds needed. But Amy was adamant. This is how other missionaries operated. The true gospel “needed no such frills.”

Amy’s own words and actions reflected her contempt for other mission work: “O to be delivered from half-hearted missionaries!” On one occasion while horseback riding, she saw ahead two Anglican bishops and “various old ladies.” They “parted with alacrity as we shot through, and we caught a fleeting glance at their gaze of astonishment and horror.” That she was amused by their horror is telling. Again, she writes: “Once I ran over a man. I did not mean to—he wouldn’t get out of the way and one can’t stop short in mid-gallop.” Although written in a style to entertain her readers back home, the account was condescending to the people—and culture—with whom she was working.

In fact, Amy seemed to purposely challenge cultural norms and at times to provoke violent incidents with Hindus. Husbands were head of the home—no marriage equality. But Amy, hoping to win another convert, wrote: “Will God move in [her] heart so that she will dare her husband’s fury and the knife he flashed before her eyes? If so, our bungalow will be in the very teeth of the storm, angry men all around it, and we inside, kept by the power of God.”

When she began her work in India, missionary candidates had long been trained to be conscious of cross-cultural ministry. Indeed, William Carey, a century earlier, made every effort to learn about native culture and present the faith in relevant terms. He preached against destructive practices but was humbled by his own struggle to learn language and customs, always conscious that he was an uninvited visitor to their sub-continent.

While Amy adopted traditional dress style, she scorned many Hindu cultural practices. On one occasion, while walking in the countryside with Sarel she noticed a stone cairn—a religious icon. Amy tells of her outrage: these stones in “honor of the false gods, in the midst of the true God’s beauty. . . . We knocked them over and down they crashed.” Such stories troubled other missionaries and short-term volunteers who worked with Amy.

The most noted supporters of Amy’s work who visited Dohnavur were members of the Neill family. Although the parents—both of whom were physicians—and their daughter stayed only a short time, the son Stephen remained for more than a year. He was Amy’s pride and joy, a brilliant Cambridge graduate (later to became an Anglican bishop, a missions professor and author). Yet the relationship soon soured and she dismissed him.

The precise reasons for his dismissal are unclear, but he had organized sport activities for boys outside the compound and disagreed with her on other issues. For him, the year-long relationship had taken a serious toll: “such darkness and suffering that it took me many years to recover . . . and the scars are still there.” Why didn’t he leave with his parents? Amy had a magnetic pull not entirely unlike a cult leader. Stephen remembered his first thoughts on meeting her—”an impression of power.” And he learned quickly that the “smallest disagreement” was not allowed. The wonderful stories about Dohnavur were, in his assessment, no more than “myth.”

Neill was certainly not alone in his criticisms. “There arose during the early years,” according to Elisabeth Elliot, “a fairly strong ‘Get-Amy-Carmichael-out-of-India’ movement among missionaries and Indian Christians.” But Amy felt she had no need to explain herself. She was absolutely convinced she was obeying God. “Our Master . . . demands obedience,” she wrote in Gold Cord. “Sometimes the Spirit of Jesus gave a direct command. . . . Sometimes an angel was sent, sometimes a vision. . . . In the end our God justifies His commands.”

Twenty years before she died in 1951, Amy was seriously injured in a fall and from that point on was bedridden. Yet she soldiered on, fully in charge of her mission to the very end. Today, a Google check of her name generates more than seventeen million results, a clear indication of her renown.




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  • brad

    Dr. Tucker: Thank you for publishing this story . . . even though CT would not. It is both interesting and valuable to consider the larger story of a leader.

  • Stephen Rankin

    The paradoxes in this account fascinate me. Humanly speaking, the strength of will Carmichael expressed undoubtedly served her well, yet the rigidity and stubbornness and the censoriousness toward others who disagreed with her disturbs. Character strengths, inspired by God, with just a degree or two variance, manifest as weaknesses. Her life is a testament to God’s powerful grace and God’s condescension in working through flawed human beings.

  • Jesse H

    None of us operates without good and bad aspects of our ministry.

  • Andrew

    I’m writing from the Philippines. The irony of this piece to me is that Dr. Tucker wants to repeatedly point out how Amy Carmichael ‘had contempt for’ / ‘looked down’ / ‘scorned’ all those around her. Yet in this, and her last piece ‘Shame on John Calvin’, which is titled, begins, and ends with the cry ‘shame on John Calvin’ – the way things are framed is predominantly full of shame. The John Calvin piece had almost nothing to say that was positive. In the west, the advantage is the flaws of leaders can be discussed. But aren’t these also are spiritual mothers and fathers? Aren’t we called to honor them, even if can learn from their mistakes? If not, what kind of family are we?

  • Tucker

    Of course, we should learn from their mistakes and flaws while recognizing our own. But few people have known about Calvin’s shaming Duchess Renee when she outwardly took part in Catholic rituals in order to retain custody of her daughters and keep them out of a convent. Amy is the Protestant Virgin Mary, and it’s important that we don’t turn her into a plaster saint.

  • azbuckeye

    That publications restrict their stories to articles that fit their preferences is nothing new. Compare the coverage of Christine Blasey Ford with that of Janita Broaddrick. Do you think Julia Malone got a kill fee for her efforts on the latter? Nor did I, when a national magazine ended up dropping my commissioned review of a Chicago saloon because it had elements of sports bar about it. Of course it’s annoying and disappointing for rejection of such things, but say la vee, as they say in Paris, Texas.

  • fawnparish

    I have met in person and through history (through books), many remarkable mission leaders whose unilateral, hell be damned style, would not have put them on any one’s emotional healthy list.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that God uses eccentric people often because they do not have fear of man. They are the frontiersmen, who whack through the jungles of propriety and cultural sensitivity, and do things no one else could do.

    One amazing leader who works in East Africa, I invited to speak at a conference in Chicago. She said to me between sessions, “Fawn, I don’t belong here with these people. They are healthy. I am broken. My place is among the broken.”

    History is fully of astonishing leaders who blundered, and stumbled their way into new spiritual topographies … Luther, (scathing heartbreaking statements toward the Jews), C. T. Studd, Bill Pierce the founder of World Vision, the list is long. We honor their courage and we repent of their cultural insensitivities, as we hope others will ours.