Amy Carmichael (1867-1951) was a little Christian dynamo who emerged from Ireland to make a huge mark in India through the gospel and fruitful living. Before going to India, she went out from her happy but disciplined childhood to evangelize in the slums of Belfast and Manchester. Although this biography plods rather than moves, Miss Carmichael's life and success as a missionary to India becomes, before long, the biographer's main focus. By the time Amy Carmichael died, nearly nine hundred persons (p. 372) had been gathered under her spiritual wing in the safety and service of Christ.
What sort of woman could manage to accomplish so much good in spite of so many whirling conflicts and confusing circumstances all around? She was extremely modest, even to the point of showing no ankle (p. 297.) She was very innocent concerning evil, but at the same time very scrupulous to avoid stirring up sexual desire by her manner of dress (p. 298.) She was humble to the point of being ashamed at the blurb that was put on her book's dust jacket (p. 235), and could take no pleasure in her accomplishment because of that blurb. She refused to use gimmicks to attract souls to the gospel (pp. 84, 126.) She did not make appeals for money (p. 189) and refused to accept funds from the government to fuel her ministry (p. 252.) Even money sent during a financial crunch, because it was sent under misapprehension, was sent back, not once but twice (p. 258.) What ministry is that conscientious today? She even refused an inheritance offered to the Fellowship (p. 306.) How different from 'the Bible Answer Man' who regularly asks for inheritances over the radio! She had scruples over killing bugs unnecessarily (p. 206, 214.) She 'shrank in dread' from the practice of 'using pictures of Christ,' a valid scruple if ever there was one, for depicting the Lord is to defile 'holy ground' (p. 93.) She endeavored to be 'dead to the world' (p. 37), hence the title for this book, or 'dead to self, alive to God,' which meant that natural hopes and plans were stifled in order for the voice of God to be heard (p. 57.) She was determined, if she could not find it, to develop that Christian love she read about in 1 Peter 1.22 (p. 69.) She was deeply convinced of what she believed to be true. A leader convinced of what needs to be done will not be dissuaded from following the 'Pattern Shewn in the Mount' (pp. 189, 253.)
It seems plain, even though undeviating leadership is necessary in one sent by God to establish a spiritual foothold on foreign soil, that Amy Carmichael was autocratic to a fault, which begs us to consider her faulty side, as that may be shown by some negative points gathered in summary form from this account of her life. Maybe it is just due to a lack of precision that she advises us to be on guard against the foe of spiritual joy (p. 254.) Can a fruit of the Spirit be our foe? Next, if we should not explain things to our Father, if we should never press him as though he were unwilling, if we should never suggest to him what to do, as Miss Carmichael teaches, then what will be left for prayers to consist of? (p. 365.) The Psalmist is always explaining and suggesting, is he not? God knows everything, but the Psalmist explains and suggests anyway, all the time. And Jesus, both by parable and command, insists that we press in prayer to a God who seems to suspend answering! That's where importunate prayer comes in! (I suspect her Keswick affiliation might be the source of her strange opinions on prayer.) Her most noticeable fault, though, concerns the effect (it seems harsh to be this candid) of her prudish ignorance (pp. 298-300.) She seems to have had the gift it takes to live unattached (pp. 287, 302.) She understood that to push for the same in the lives of others is wrong (p. 287.) But celibacy was imposed upon others by her. She discouraged marriage in her favorite recruits (p. 286), who usually happened to be fair-skinned girls, by the way (p. 214.) She even arranged for married couples to separate (p. 299.) Her comments on portions of Scripture pertaining to the role of women all but prove that Victorian restraint was all that held her back from breaking right into the role of man (p. 347.) The seed of feminism must be alive in, and eager to pounce from, that woman, Christian or not, who is bold enough to hold that 'men's work was spiritually at a lower level than the women's' (p. 300.) That doctors have something to answer for in refusing to give suffering patients a gentle push into the other world is an ugly piece of feminist belief as well (p. 338), for what feminist is against the 'right to die?' To delight in startling pedestrians by suddenly dashing near them on a horse (p. 119), or to imitate an uneducated dialect (p. 304), these are the kinds of peculiar faults that might be found in anyone at all. But some of these other faults are too serious to take lightly. They leave a disreputable mark on the life and legacy of Amy Carmichael.
Although Amy Carmichael is not a notable, nor very quotable, poet, some godly, stylish couplets may be found in her stanzas. And Elisabeth Elliot is not without her own sense of dash. She draws an eloquent, contrasting parallel between 'dockside partings' and travelers who simply disappear 'into the jetway' (p. 64.) She can shoot out the lyrical line: 'Ceylon, a wonderland of rest to their sea-weary eyes' (p. 67.) Take one more: 'Dohnavur bungalows in a bullock bandy with bells jingling' (p. 265.) I don't know the meaning, but there's a pretty sound there. Because of occasional stylistic encounters, 'A Chance to Die' might seem like a page-turner.
'A Chance to Die' is about a life filled with meaning, purpose, pain, and conquest. Needless to say, such a life has no need of novels, fiction, or fairy tales (pp. 116, 205, 303.) And reading about a life like that should be more exciting than reading a good novel or fiction of whatever sort. But this one isn't. I've heard it from translators that after they've gotten the book they are translating all correctly penned into another language, they have yet to do this further draft into which some spirit will be blown. That is what Elisabeth Elliot forgot or failed to do. She collected the data, but blew very little spirit into her findings. I am very surprised that I managed to finish reading 'A Chance to Die.' This biography lacks thought, and therefore spirit. Nothing contained in the book can make up for this fault, for because of it the book is unreadable. This is not the definitive history of Amy Carmichael's remarkable life. However, because it shows the ways around so many obstacles that romantic missionaries are bound to stumble at, I would certainly reread it before entering upon missionary work; and once on the mission field, I would keep this book close by for frequent inquiry.