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 and 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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