Today marks the centenary of the death of Oswald Chambers, the most published devotional writer of all time – an accolade he never sought.
Indeed, he died before his most-loved book, My Utmost for His Highest, was even compiled and published by his wife, Biddy. Over 13 million copies of My Utmost have been sold worldwide, and 330,000 Facebook members now follow the official Oswald Chambers page. I imagine Chambers would be surprised to learn how his words have travelled over the years and continents.
The shaping of a life
Oswald Chambers was born in Aberdeen in 1874, but his family moved to London when he was 15. Several experiences in his formative years shaped the course of his life. One was hearing a message by Charles Spurgeon. Although Oswald was raised in a Christian family – with his father a minister – he confessed regretfully on the way home that he didn’t respond to the invitation to become a disciple of Christ. Stopping under a street lamp, his father said: “You can do it now!” And so he did.
Another experience was wrestling with God one night. As he had a great ability in art, he had enrolled in the University of Edinburgh to study art and philosophy. But when his freelance work dried up, Oswald found himself grappling with God. He emerged from the night with a clear sense of calling to the ministry. He left Edinburgh and enrolled in Dunoon Theological College. There he lived in community, appreciating how the principal lived with his students, making himself available not only during the lectures but at mealtimes as well. When Oswald and his wife later started a Bible college, they followed this pattern of incarnational ministry.
Yet another life-changing event happened at Dunoon when the preacher FB Meyer came to speak on the Holy Spirit, with Oswald responding by asking God to fill him with the Holy Spirit. It was, surprisingly, the beginning of a spiritual winter. For four years he felt no conscious communion with God, and sensed that the Bible was a dry book. But through this season he came to understand the depth of his own sin, and he committed to follow and honour God wholeheartedly.
A life cut short, but a multiplied impact for God
Oswald married his wife in 1910, and they were to be partners in ministry from the beginning. Because she was called Gertrude, the name of his favourite sister, he christened her “Beloved Disciple”. But that was a mouthful, and so he shortened it to “BD,” which morphed into “Biddy” – the name she became known by everyone.
Oswald and Biddy felt called to a “ministry of interruptions” in their work serving God, whether in the Bible college they set up in London or when he was a YMCA chaplain in Egypt in the First World War. Sensing that God would use them if they made themselves available, they willingly stopped whatever task they were doing to serve the needs of others. This ministry was grounded in a daily time of prayer so that they would be in tune with God and with each other.
Oswald would preach and teach to first their students and later the soldiers in Egypt, and, whenever he did, Biddy would attend and take down his words in shorthand. Her precision in capturing every word and phrase resulted in a treasure trove of his teaching, which later provided her with her calling.
Although she produced 30 books of Oswald’s material, Biddy never mentioned her own name in them
When he was only 43, Oswald became unwell in Egypt, but didn’t seek medical help because he didn’t want to distract the busy medics as they treated injured soldiers. His appendix burst, and he died on 15 November 1917. Yet Biddy and their child Kathleen stayed on in Egypt until the soldiers left in 1919. Biddy continued to serve them teas and showed them hospitality, and also started to print and publish Oswald’s sermons monthly to send encouragement to the soldiers. And thus her compiling and editing ministry was born.
Although she produced 30 books of Oswald’s material, Biddy never mentioned her own name in them. She saw this editing and compiling work as her task from God. She committed herself to serving God through her work with words, and through making herself available to people and to pointing them to Jesus as the source of life.
For the centenary of his death, Utmost Ongoing (Discovery House), a book with essays by 30 individuals, has been released to celebrate the impact of this couple who served God so devotedly. It features stories about how prominent artists, writers, scientists, doctors, pastors and a CEO resonated with the call to be “broken bread and poured-out wine” for God. They share how one book, which has been in print for nearly 100 years, continues to teach, convict and encourage them.
Utmost Ongoing: Reflections on the Legacy of Oswald Chambers is available now