Born JULY 24, 1874“We will all feel very much ashamed if we do not yield to Jesus the areas of our lives He has asked us to yield to Him. It’s as if Paul were saying, ‘My determined pur-pose is to be my utmost for His highest— my best for His glory.’ ” So begins Oswald Chamber’s commentary on Philippians 1:29 for January 1 from the best-selling devotional of time.
Long before My Utmost for His Highest was published, Oswald threw his life of devotional living into the sermons and Bible lessons that would become the Christian devotional classic. Bit by bit, God molded the Scottish preacher whose meditative thoughts would draw future generations of readers closer to God.
AN ARTISTIC CHRISTIAN
Oswald’s childhood interests included reading and drawing. He wanted very much to be an artist. When he was 15, the young man who loved the thought of painting pictures with words as well as with brush and canvas surrendered his life to God. He described the experience as a “radiant, unspeakable emancipation.”
His father, Clarence, a Baptist pastor, had been ordained into the ministry by Charles Spurgeon. On their way home from a service conducted by Mr. Spurgeon, the teenage Oswald told his father he wanted to become a Christian. His father replied that he should do it before they got home. They stood on the sidewalk while Oswald prayed. Eventually, the words for December 28 of his famous devotional would say, “we should continue to turn to God as children, being continuously converted every day of our lives.”
While growing in his faith over the next few years, Oswald taught Sunday school and worked at the local YMCA.
By his 18th birthday, Oswald had become very proficient at drawing. He spent two years at London’s National Art Training School. His plans: promote the truths of God’s word through art, music, and poetry. He continued preparing himself at the University of Edinburgh. But some-thing changed his plans.
Oswald sensed a new purpose for his life: to paint God’s word verbally rather than on canvas. In 1897, Oswald entered Dunoon College to study for the ministry. He was ordained two years later.
A NEW CENTURY
While at Dunoon, Oswald went through a phase of spiritual struggle. He emerged with a fresh zeal to live closer to God. He called the experience “an entire consecration and acceptance of sanctification at the Lord’s hands.”
The Pentecostal League of Prayer on campus enhanced Oswald’s prayer life. The group petitioned God regularly for a widespread spiritual revival. Oswald wanted it for himself and for all other Christians.
In 1906, Oswald joined Charles and Lettie Cowman in Japan (Lettie would later write the popular devotional Streams in the Desert). The Cowmans founded the Tokyo Bible School. Oswald later traveled to the United States with Japanese evangelist, Juji Nakada to preach as representives of Tokyo Bible School.
After a few years, Oswald became a traveling preacher on his own. Wherever he went, he held his listeners’ attention. He had a commanding voice, a strong vocabulary, and the ability to make God personal to present relevant applications of scripture.
INFLUENTIAL CLAPHAMOswald went to America to preach in 1908. On the ship, he met a stenographer named Gertrude Hobbs. On May 25, 1910, Oswald and Gertrude (whom he affectionately called Biddy) married. Crossing the Atlantic that day, Oswald couldn’t have suspected the impact Biddy would have spreading his biblical messages.
Together, Oswald and Biddy opened a the Bible Training College in Clapham in 1911. A century earlier, Clapham was associated with the work of William Wilberforce and other Christian social reformers known as the “Clapham Sect.”
The lessons Oswald taught the students in Clapham wouldn’t be forgotten. Some of them become the basis for My Utmost for His Highest. In 1913, Biddy gave birth to their only child, Kathleen.
HIS UTMOST FOR EGYPT
When World War I broke out, Oswald felt called to a new venue. He closed the college and went to Egypt to serve as a YMCA chaplain. In Zeitoun, Egypt, just outside of Cairo, Oswald’s sermons continued to draw listeners who responded by drawing closer to God. Every time Oswald preached, Biddy recorded the sermon in shorthand.
As many as 400 soldiers came to hear his first message, which he titled, “What is the Good of Prayer?” Oswald and Biddy won many soldiers through their hospitality. Oswald’s sense of humor also drew them. He once posted a sign advertising his meetings with the words, “Beware! There is a religious talk here each evening.”
Before his death in 1917, Oswald published only one book, Baffled to Fight Better. Late in 1917, Oswald’s appendix burst. He was rushed into surgery. Two weeks later, before he could fully recover, a blood clot in Oswald’s lungs ended his physical presence on earth. He was buried in Cairo with military honors.
LABOR OF LOVE
Oswald’s influence had only begun. In 1924, Biddy began reviewing the hundreds of pages of shorthand notes of Oswald’s sermons. She compacted and compiled what she considered the best into 365 daily devotions. The first edition was published in 1927. In 1935, Dodd, Mead & Company published My Utmost for His Highest, giving it a larger circulation.
Upon her own death in 1966, Biddy had overseen the publication of dozens of books with her husband’s name on the cover and with his pithy, practical words promoting spiritual devotion inside.
Today, over 85 years since it first went to press, My Utmost for His Highest continues appearing on lists of Christian bestsellers (for July 2013, see http://christianbookexpo.com/bestseller/all.php?id=0713).
Here are some of Oswald’s notable sayings, once publicly preached, which keep preaching every year to readers around the world:
“It is the unseen and the spiritual in people that determines the outward and the actual.”
“Faith is deliberate confidence in the character of God whose ways you may not under-stand at the time.”
“Holiness, not happiness, is the chief end of man.”
“We have to pray with our eyes on God, not on the difficulties.”
“Jesus Christ carries on intercession for us in heaven; the Holy Ghost carries on intercession in us on earth; and we the saints have to carry on intercession for all men.”
“Many of us suffer from temptations from which we have no business to suffer.”
LET ME KNOW: How has Oswald’s story informed, encouraged, or otherwise helped you? I welcome your comments.
- Larsen, Timothy, ed. Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003.
- Petersen, William and Randy Petersen. 100 Christian Books That Changed the World. Grand Rapids, MI: Revell, 2000.
- Temple, Todd and Kim Twitchell. People Who Shaped the Church. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 2000.
Find books by and about Oswald Chambers here: http://www.christianbook.com/Christian/Books/easy_find? Ntt=oswald+chambers&N=0&Ntk=keywords&action=Search&Ne=0&event=ESRCG&nav_search=1&cms=1&search= and here: http://www.amazon.com/Oswald-Chambers/e/B001H6KURO.
Daily readings from My Utmost for His Highest: http://utmost.org/.
YouTube- (Interview with Oswald and Biddy’s daughter, Kathleen)
- Part I: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ROHGB8QW2Qc.
- Part II: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qj9eFeoD6a4.
- Part III: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NL76OnhBRLs.