Biddy Chambers: A Sacramental Life

Biddy Chambers: A Sacramental Life

Published in 1927, My Utmost for His Highest has sold more than 13 million copies and has never been out of print. Over the course of its 90+ year history, it has been translated into 40 different languages, and Oswald Chambers’s unique and timeless wisdom is quoted far and wide.

However, until recently, little thought has been given to the fact that My Utmost was not published until ten years after Chambers’s death, and that it was his wife, Gertrude “Biddy” Hobbs Chambers who took on the mammoth task of compiling and editing nearly twenty years’ worth of sermons and lessons. Michelle Ule has traced this process in telling the story of the woman behind the world’s best-selling devotional: Mrs. Oswald Chambers.

“It Is God Who Engineers Circumstances”

Trained as a stenographer, Biddy learned to type as well with the goal of financial stability and the lofty hope of one day becoming the first female secretary to England’s prime minister. While she remained very private about her spiritual life, it’s clear that her spiritual journey began under the ministry of Oswald Chambers’s brother Arthur. At some point after she was baptized, Oswald led a week-long mission at his big brother’s church, representing an early interdenominational para-church organization, the League of Prayer.

To riff on Jane Austen, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a [budding ministry], must be in want of a wife,” and although Chambers did not come seeking, he found, and to frame it with his own words:

“Love is not premeditated, it is spontaneous, i.e., it bursts up in extraordinary ways.”

The “bursting up” was followed by a long distance courtship which evolved into an on-the-road marriage in which Oswald and Biddy crossed the Atlantic and covered the Eastern U.S. as far south as Maryland, as far north as Maine (!), and as far west as Ohio, with Oswald speaking at camp meetings and Biddy faithfully taking shorthand at every venue.

When the newlyweds returned to England, they soon took up residence and took on leadership roles in a Bible Training College started by the League of Prayer.  While Oswald lectured, Biddy served as the school’s superintendent and together they grew into the kind of wisdom that taught them the folly of playing the role of “amateur providence” in other lives and the deep faith that comes with depending upon God for every need to be met.

A man of “perpetual motion” (55), Chambers became a bit of a celebrity in his small circle with everyone wanting a piece of his day. In quietly cherishing his words and in unraveling the administrative nightmares of life together in an educational setting, Biddy began to live her way into a calling of her own in an era when a Christian woman was largely seen as an adornment for the arm of her more influential husband. After the birth of their daughter Kathleen in 1913, summer traveling and school-year activities resumed in full force with a small, blonde curly-haired addition to the ministry team.

“God’s Purpose Is Never Man’s Purpose”

When England entered World War I, the Bible Training College era come to an end, and the Chambers family traveled together to Egypt where Oswald served as a YMCA chaplain. Early in their parenting life, they committed themselves to raising Kathleen themselves and keeping her with them, rather then sending her off to boarding school as was the custom of that day.

Life in Egypt was characterized by a “ministry of interruptions” in which Biddy Biddy Chambers: A Sacramental Lifeand Oswald made themselves available to anyone who needed to hear the Truth. “Washing the disciples’ feet” often meant feeding hordes of service men under challenging circumstances, and, for Biddy, it always meant patiently recording every word of her husband’s many sermons and devotionals. With amazing prescience for this time, Oswald referred to Biddy’s great contribution to their ministry in his letters:

“As for Biddy I love her and I am her husband, but I do not believe it is possible to exaggerate what she has been in the way of a Sacrament out here — God conveying His presence through the common elements of an ordinary life.”

When Oswald passed away in Egypt on November 15, 1917, from complications following a ruptured appendix, God’s Word to Joshua became a comfort to Biddy:

“As I was with Moses, so will I be with thee. I will not fail thee, nor forsake thee . . .Only be strong and very courageous.” (Joshua 1:5)

Amidst the fires of sorrow, Biddy continued what Oswald had begun and was comforted by the understanding and appreciation of the servicemen she and her husband had served together. One by one, she began producing books and pamphlets taken from her careful notes and publishing them at her own expense, and this became the scaffolding of her life in England when she returned home to a “home” that did not feel like home with a young daughter who had no memory of the family there and who was used to living amidst the bustle of an Army camp.

“Faith is Deliberate Commitment to a Person Where I See No Way.”

Because Chambers had not been employed by the military, Biddy had no pension, and times were lean for her and Kathleen as they moved from one situation to another, always typing, always publishing, and always just short of enough resources to make ends meet. The notion of publishing a daily devotional work that compiled Oswald’s teaching followed on the heels of the enthusiastic response to a devotional calendar Biddy had produced. Thus, it was in October 1927, in the days when Lewis and Tolkien were lunching at the Eagle and Child pub, when Winnie the Pooh was holding court at the London Zoo, in the year that Amy Carmichael’s Dohnavur Fellowship came into being in India, and that someone made the first transatlantic phone call to North America that My Utmost for His Highest was first published in England.

Biddy went on to run a boutique publishing house, editing and launching Oswald’s writings to an enthusiastic readership that still profits from his words — and from her skill and determination. Personally, my appreciation for Chambers’s work has been heightened by this introduction to his wife’s story. Because I learned that Biddy carefully chose the meditations for Oswald’s birthday, their wedding day, and the anniversary of his death, I want to make a notation in my copy to remind me that the message for that day is specifically assigned.  As a single mum who persevered through two world wars and lived all her days under challenging circumstances, Biddy Chambers lived out the title of her husband’s book, offering her utmost in faithfulness and focus for His highest purposes in her own life and in the lives of her readers every day.


This book was provided by Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

I have begun to experiment with including an Amazon affiliate link here in my book reviews. If you should decide to purchase Mrs. Oswald Chambers: The Woman behind the World’s Bestselling Devotional click on the title here, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Headings have been quoted from My Utmost for His Highest.

Images are shared from the Michelle Ule’s Pinterest account.

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Michele Morin

Michele Morin is a teacher, blogger, reader, and gardener who finds joy in sitting at a table surrounded by women with open Bibles. She has been married to an unreasonably patient husband for nearly 30 years, and together they have four sons, two daughters-in-love, two grandchildren, and one lazy St. Bernard. Michele loves hot tea and well-crafted sentences, poems that stop her in her tracks and days at the ocean with the whole family. She laments biblical illiteracy and advocates for the prudent use of “little minutes.” She blogs at Living Our Days, and you can connect with her on Facebook or Twitter.

90 thoughts on “Biddy Chambers: A Sacramental Life”

  1. I’m thrilled to read this review Michele. I have been wanting to read this book for a long time and received it for Christmas. As a pastor’s wife, I’ve always admired Biddy, since I first heard her story. Looking forward to finally reading more about this dear woman and how God used her. ~ Abby

    Liked by 5 people

    1. My appreciation for Chambers’s work shot through the roof in my reading of Biddy’s bio — mainly because I’d always felt as if the readings were so disjointed. Well . . . having been pieced together from stenographer’s notes ten years after Oswald’s death, it’s a miracle they ever survived in any form.
      I know you’ll be inspired by Biddy’s story. Kinda cool, too, that she had a cute nickname like you. 🙂

      Liked by 4 people

  2. In 1996 I was struggling with a stressful family crisis. In need of distraction I escaped to my favorite Christian bookstore one day. No plan to search for anything in particular. I wandered around for a few minutes and, minus a focus, I was headed back out when I had a strange compulsion to go to the far right wall. My Utmost for His Highest was displayed on the shelf, cover face out. I picked it up and turned to the devotional for that day. The words vibrated on the page.

    From that day on, My Utmost has been my go to companion to my Bible reading. I love this update about his wife. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I love knowing that you read this every day. I bought a copy ages and ages ago and have never made it all the way through, but Biddy’s story renewed my interest, so I’m back at it again, this time with much more appreciation.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. If/when you run into difficulties figuring out the day’s reading, you’re welcome to join me at Michelle Ule, Writer facebook page. There, I provide an “Utmost Response” every day. I’ve been doing this since August and my walk with God, understanding of Utmost and appreciation of Biddy–which was already high–has soared.

        There’s so much meat in Utmost, and my goal in writing Mrs. OC was to encourage and spike interest in this most faith-deeping devotional.

        Thanks for writing this post.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Sarah, it’s good to know that you enjoy My Utmost. I’ve been reading quotes from it for years and hearing people I respect extol it’s greatness, and I’m happy to be diving into it myself this year.
      Thanks for reading.

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  3. I had no idea that this book wasn’t published until after Oswald’s death, Michele! And no idea all that his wife, Biddy, did to make sure his wisdom and godly encouragement were and are shared with the masses. I love hearing the backstory of a faithful spouse, since I can relate in many ways as a pastor’s wife. Thanks for faithfully sharing these great gems with us!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oswald and Biddy had finished putting together “Baffled to Fight Better,” and had reviewed the galleys when OC died on November 15, 1917 (and that day’s devotional is powerful). Biddy spent the rest of her life–49 years–putting together Utmost and 29 other books using her notes.

      She also had the sobering experience of knowing they all burned up in the warehouses surrounded St. Paul’s Cathedral during the 1940 London Blitz. The plucky Biddy’s response: “If that’s the end of the books, God will provide something else for us to do.”

      Truly, she was astonishing woman.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. This sounds like Elisabeth Elliot’s book These Strange Ashes. (Title based on a line from one of Amy Carmichael’s poems.) She suffered a series of losses in her early missionary career, and had to come to the same conclusion.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m looking forward to reading this one! Sounds really good.

    You may also like, “Oswald Chambers, Abandoned to God: The Life Story of the Author of My Utmost for His Highest” by David McCasland. I thought it was really well written and enjoyable.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. I remember hearing about David’s book when it was advertised on Christian radio so many years ago. Not being a fan of My Utmost at the time, I never bothered to read the bio., but maybe I’ll track it down now.

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  5. It was so interesting to hear how the book came together and of Biddy’s “behind the scenes” work. I loved, too, how you or Michelle couched it in the times along with Lewis and Tolkien, Any Carmichael, etc. And that first photo – quite a height difference!

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    1. Biddy was sitting down! 🙂

      OC was 6 feet tall and Biddy about 5 feet, 5 inches–both tall for their times.

      It was very surprising to realize she was bicycling past where the Inkling were gathering during her time living in Oxford. Of course I’d love to know if she met them–but Biddy burned any letters or papers of her own. All glory went to God through OC’s writing.

      Which was a challenge for a biographer, but “triangulating” what I did know about her with her friends’ letters and reflections helped.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I loved this peek into the story behind “My Utmost,” and I especially loved hearing about the humble character of Biddy. One little line was a fun surprise for me, as during one of their American visits, they stayed with the “Hittles of Ohio.” I had an Aunt (who will be in one of my upcoming “Legacy” posts) who was a Hittle in Ohio! Fascinating to think that some of my relatives may have “known” or at least heard Oswald Chambers speak! Thank you, Michele and Michele, for this great review, and this great book!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Wow, Michelle, that would be really amazing! My Great Grandparents were George and Martha Hittle. Their daughter Lois Hittle, told my mother about loving the “chautaqua circuits.” They lived in Northwest Ohio during those years when Oswald & Biddy would have traveled through there. Are any of those names mentioned?

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      1. Yes, me, too, and one of the Chambers’s contemporaries (Amy Carmichael) helps me with that. She said of things we don’t “prefer” to “see in it a chance to die.”
        My imagination conjures the notion that people were more stalwart and rugged back in those days, but I think, instead, that the ones we admire, who “rose to the top” of the historical huddle, were simply obedient to God and took Him at His Word. Therefore, God was able to do amazing things through them.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks for the great (as always) review of this book. Oswald Chambers has been a part of my devotional life since the mid-1970’s and I had heard about his wife putting this gift in all of our hands previously, but I have not read the book with the details you have highlighted here.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I have not read this book, Michele, but of course after reading this post, I want to. I can’t help but think that Biddy added her own style of writing to her husband’s message. Not all speakers are good writers, after all. What an inspiring story of an extraordinary woman!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Well, at the very least, she added her organizational skill to the project. She had boxes (BOXES) of material in storage over the years, so when she came back to England after OC’s death, she had a monumental task ahead of her just to work it all into a usable form.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. It’s interesting you would mention Amy Carmichael, Michele–I was just looking at her biography written by Elisabeth Elliot titled “A Chance to Die,” a minute ago . . .

      As to Shallow’s (!) comment, I had quite a discussion while at the Wheaton event celebrating 100 years of OC’s legacy last fall, on that very topic. No one has seen her notes, few can even read shorthand anymore. We know Biddy wrote the titles to the readings and gleaned the Scripture text from what the excerpts she took from OC’s talks for that particular theme.

      She corrected grammar and smoothed the lines for reading–who knows what else she did?

      Regardless, she obviously was an extraordinary compiler/editor and servant of God. She learned shorthand and typing for the aim of becoming British Prime Minister’s first female secretary (which didn’t happen until 20 years later during WWI) but instead became the secretary to the God of the Universe through her transcriptions.

      Biddy’s life made for a terrific story that was a dream to write.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, she did, and that was really her whole focus in the years after Oswald passed away and their daughter grew up. I also loved that she stuck with her mothering role in spite of pressure to do otherwise.

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    2. She did, Joanne, and as a “retired” military wife, I know so many successful men who have been able to be what God created them to be because of their resourceful, talented, hardworking wives. I probably should have dedicated the book to all my friends! LOL

      Liked by 1 person

  9. What a fascinating life! The story of a spouse or person behind the scenes who was influential intrigue more than the person sometimes. I bet you loved this book.

    I also love the focus on a woman who even though she was not as known as her husband was faithful and influential. I like reading about strong women. Thank you for sharing your insight.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Reading about women from the past who fit that description of “strong women” always inspires me because we’ve added a few elements to that designation that come across to me as shrill and self-conscious. There’s a quiet strength that comes from following God and putting others first that I want to emulate and enjoy when I see it in others.

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      1. Yes. Biddy had many trials and challenges to overcome, but she persevered and did the task because she knew God had called her to that purpose–a wonderful heritage.

        At the same time, she took risks. Sailing across the Atlantic Ocean by herself with $400 (equivalent) in her pocket to take a job in America demonstrated that old British pluck. It was that trip, however, that enabled her to actually get to know OC and vice versa. They both recognized the leading of God, but her mother was not happy about her daughter sailing away like that by herself.

        Until, of course, she realized OC would be on board and thus, she wrote a letter . . . 🙂

        Several times Biddy made choices I wouldn’t have made, which turned out in a magnificent way for God’s glory.

        Like

  10. This is a fascinating story, Michele, and it makes me want to dig out my copy of “My Utmost For His Highest” which I haven’t looked at for a long time. It’s interesting to learn more about the story behind the book!

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Michelle, the number of books you consume continues to amaze me! Yet, we are the benefactors of your passion. Some years ago my mom sent me my dad’s copy of My Utmost for His Highest. It’s not only a cherished book because it was daddy’s but for the wisdom on each page. Thanks for sharing the fascinating story of how this book came about and the faithfulness of his tireless wife.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I love that you have your dad’s copy. Was he an underliner and note taker?
      I’m underlining in my copy this time, and I’ve scratched in the dates Michelle mentioned in her book, because apparently Biddy took special care to align birthdays and the date of OC’s death with appropriate readings.

      Like

  12. Oh Michele I love this post!!!!! My favorite line:
    “Biddy Chambers lived out the title of her husband’s book, offering her utmost in faithfulness and focus for His highest purposes in her own life and in the lives of her readers every day.”
    Throughout history women were making a difference and the telling of it has been stifled…until this season. We as women are so blessed to be living in these times so different for our sisters before. I think they should be printing those books noting her as editor on the front. Somehow notated. Her story is so powerful. Thanks so much for sharing.
    Much love,
    ~Sherry

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Truly, we do live in amazing times–the ability to learn about so many heroines of the faith who hid in the past. Biddy was one herself–she got rid of her letters and notes. She didn’t want to be in the limelight, preferring the focus be on the God whom her husband spoke about. Her name doesn’t appear in any of the books, though occasionally she signed her initials B.C.

      Even in the biography she put together about OC in 1933, she omitted herself whenever possible. It was a challenge to put some of this together as a biographer, but her friends left information and I could “triangulate” where she was through their comments. The year I spent researching her life was a wonderful spiritual experience for me–and I’m still growing as a result.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I can just barely imagine how pleased Biddy would be to know the impact her sacrifice and dedication has made in the lives of so many. And it’s wonderful to be discovering just how many people actually read from My Utmost each day. Biddy created a devotional as well as a fellowship of readers.
      Sherry, it’s always good to hear from you.
      Blessings to you!

      Like

  13. TRUE CONFESSIONS: You know there are times I “speed-read” your posts but today? I read every single word. I read Oswald’s bio years ago and knew most of this – Biddy, dearest Biddy, without her I wouldn’t have grown and matured in my faith as progressively as I did reading MUFHH every day for over 20 years. It is by far, my utmost favorite! Such depth. Such knowledge. Such truth. And this: “Thus, it was in October 1927, in the days when Lewis and Tolkien were lunching at the Eagle and Child pub, when Winnie the Pooh was holding court at the London Zoo, in the year that Amy Carmichael’s Dohnavur Fellowship came into being in India, and that someone made the first transatlantic phone call to North America that My Utmost for His Highest was first published in England.” 1927 (one year after my Mom was born). Michele, you are my literary mentor and special heart friend. I hope I win this book (is this a giveaway? wink wink wink)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. There was so much going on during that time in history. Of course, one of the challenges of begin as time bound as we are is that we don’t know the significance of an event (usually) until we are viewing it from the rear view mirror.
      I’m always glad to know when you’re reading here, Susan. Your insights are always helpful and encouraging.

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  14. Oswald Chambers sounds very familiar.You have brought out their story in a beautiful way.I have always wanted to know what a good devotional looks like,I’m definately going to look for this book,it sounds great.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. I am so excited to stop by today, Michele! I pull my old “My Utmost For HIs Highest” Journal out at the first of the year and am re-reading it this year. I so love his writings and I loved reading more about he and Biddy’s life together. Blessings, friend!

    Liked by 2 people

  16. This is fascinating, Michele. Before today, the only thing I really knew about Oswald Chambers was that he suffered from depression, and I don’t know if that is even true. (Is it?) It’s so interesting to learn that in today’s terms, he was the “content provider” and his wife was the editor/ghostwriter/publisher! This makes me want to find my copy of “My Utmost for His Highest” and go through it again. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    1. OC suffered through a “dark night of the soul,” that lasted for four years while he was at Dunoon Bible College. His gloom lifted following a meeting of the League of Prayer circa 1901 where he was baptized by the Holy Spirit and never looked back. By the time he met Biddy in 1907, he was a preacher/teacher for that same League of Prayer, speaking all over the British Isles and traveling to America for camp meetings.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Wonderful that Michelle jumped in and answered this, because I had heard the same things somewhere, but couldn’t say whether it’s accurate or not.
      I had the same response to the information about Biddy and her life. Somehow it adds another layer of relevance to OC’s words.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. What an incredible couple, and what an amazing woman! I had not heard of Biddy Chambers before, and I’m very grateful you shared this post with us at the Hearth and Soul Link Party, Michele! I hope you have a wonderful week ahead.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ha!
      You are the very first person to mention the Jane Austen thing, and I had second thoughts because of corniness or whatever, but I just couldn’t resist. Thanks for solidarity in the Austen geek camp.

      Like

      1. Hi, Michelle, just wanted to let you now that I shared more about you and Biddy in my most recent recap post, and there are comments in which folks continue to express appreciation for your good work. Someone somewhere (maybe Twitter?) wondered if you have another book in the works . . .?

        Like

  18. to never have been out of print is an amazing achievement and a fantastic testament to an incredible book. Thanks for being part of our linky #ablogginggoodtime

    Liked by 2 people

    1. So very true, Mackenzie. It’s because the book stands the test of time. Dr. Ken Boa said it works because OC only used Bible illustrations. His talks were given more than 100 years ago–can you imagine contemporary illustrations: “Think about when a horse clops down the street pulling a wagon . . . ” It would never work.

      Since August, I’ve been writing an “Utmost Response” every morning on my writer FB page. While I’ve read Utmost for nearly 20 years, having to really think, pray and dig into them each morning has revealed far greater spiritual dimensions than I ever realized before. (Then again, maybe I’m getting older and wiser?). I come away even more astonished, impressed and blessed.

      OC’s Holy Spirit-inspired words, compiled and edited by Biddy have drawn fruit that we’ll see in eternity. Such a blessing and encouragement!

      Liked by 1 person

  19. Thanks for asking, about current writing, Michele.

    Currently, as in today, I’m editing a WWI novel I wrote several years ago which led me into the OC and Biddy research in the first place. It’s not contracted yet, but I’ll self-publish it in the fall if I don’t find a publisher this spring.

    The book is a coming of age story about a young woman stenographer who wants to be a foreign correspondent and over the course of WWI grows emotionally, professionally and spiritually–in large part because of knowing OC and Biddy.

    OC and Biddy are “marquee” characters–real people interacting with fictional characters in a book I’ve invented through the direction of the Holy Spirit!

    Readers of Mrs. OC might be interested to read the crazy, amazing, blessed “coincidences” that happened to me while writing the biography. A free Ebook, Writing about Biddy and Oswald Chambers, is available to my newsletter subscribers. http://mailchi.mp/6bf6344f4e0d/january-2018-newsletter

    I’m also contemplating, praying, researching another biography of a surprising Christian woman.

    Like

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