Reviewed by Aimee Byrd
I love reading biographies of strong women in the faith. Ian Murray provides this in his biography, Amy Carmichael, ‘Beauty for Ashes.’ Some women in the church are truly magnetic. It appears that Carmichael had that combination of delightful disposition, strong convictions, and perseverance that was attractive to friends, family members, and new acquaintances even before her amazing missionary work and accomplishments.
As I was reading about Carmichael’s strong resolve to be a missionary, her amazing work in India rescuing children from the evil horrors of temple prostitution, thereby establishing the Dohnavur Fellowship and providing a Christian home for hundreds of children, I was greatly encouraged by her unwavering love of our Savior. It also made me think about how such dynamic women can use their attractive personalities for the good or the detriment of the faith.
That got me thinking about another Aimee (unfortunately spelled like my name)—Aimee Semple McPherson. While Amy Carmichael established a refuge for abused children, risking her own life and providing gospel nurture and physical care, Aimee Semple McPherson established a whole new denomination and spread the damaging faith-healing movement at her own gain. In doing so, she tore up her family, possibly faked her own kidnapping, and in the end died of a drug overdose.
Both Amy and Aimee left a legacy. Both of them were even beautiful women. Murray didn’t write of Amy Carmichael’s beauty, but you can see it right there on the cover of the book. And as you read, you can’t help but be captivated by the beauty of a woman who is such a life-giver (to borrow the language of Susan Hunt). It seems that she has a beauty that grew and a beauty that was shared in an appropriate way. She had a close relationship with her mentor on the field, Thomas Walker, as well as with his wife. Murray included photos in the book of Amy with the children throughout her ministry, as well as one of her at age fifty-seven, still beautiful.
Carmichael was fifty-seven around the height of Aimee Semple McPherson’s popularity as an evangelist. Although McPherson’s beauty and charisma attracted many, it was seductive, calculated, and life-taking. What a contrast of two dynamic women in the church.
What captivated me most in this short biography was Amy Carmichael’s perseverance to the end. She remained in South India for over fifty years until her death, serving her Lord all the way. Following the words of Hudson Taylor, Carmichael did not fundraise, but prayerfully trusted the Lord to provide as he would see fit. And yet her trust in the Lord’s provision and providence did not foster any passivity. Carmichael exercised a fighting faith that I so admire. This was a faith that acted based on her conviction for truth to be known and lived. And this was a woman who not only lived according to what Christ has done, but for the goal to reach the crown at the end and reveal what he is doing. She had a faith that looked forward.
And that is the faith and beauty to which I aspire. Not many of us are called to such a radical ministry as Amy Carmichael. But her life is an inspiration and a reminder to hold fast to the confession of our hope to the end. Unlike Aimee Semple McPherson who seemed to concoct endless drama for her own fame, Amy Carmichael’s beauty has not faded because she pointed us to Christ.
Even at the end of her life, after a horrible accident left her unable to serve the Dohnavur Fellowship with the aggressive physical capacity that she had all those years, she still led and managed to fruitfully serve the Lord in that mission until the end, even through great pain. Carmichael used this season of her life to pour into her writing. In the opening of the book, Murray expressed that, to his surprise, Amy Carmichael’s books are not only fit for the Christian women’s genre. “Not only are her writings a significant part of missionary history, they show how female authors can be the forefront of devotional evangelical literature, just as they are at the forefront of hymnody devoted to Christ” (xvi). He peppers Carmichael’s writing throughout the book, which has given me a desire to read more.
A Human Like Us
And yet Amy Carmichael was not without her flaws. I am glad that Murray carefully included some of those in the end of his biography as well. There seemed to be some contradiction in her life, having such a high regard for Scripture and yet succumbing to a type of subjective guidance in revelation that challenges the sufficiency of Scripture. She also appeared to allow her fervency for missionary work to lead to a belief that it is “as distinct and irrevocable as the vow to be taken as a Nazarite” (126). And a strong personality such as Amy Carmichael’s could certainly be over-bearing on others. Murray deals with these claims in a fair manner, one that helps us remember that Carmichael was not in a category free from sin and error on this side of the resurrection either. This is important to note.
Murray has set out to raise interest in the writings of Amy Carmichael and the work that continues in Dohnavur. He has certainly succeeded.
And as an ending side note, I also think that biographies such as this one and Karen Swallow Prior’s on Hannah Moore give great inspiration to single women in the church. Both women were life-givers who enjoyed appropriate, intimate relationships with many in the church. They both press us to think about our own legacy in the faith. Too bad Hannah’s name wasn’t Aimee.
Aimee Byrd is a wife and mother of three and the author of Housewife Theologian. She is also the “Residing Housewife Theologian” here at Books At a Glance.
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Amy Carmichael, 'beauty For Ashes': A Biography