Below you’ll find a brief portrait of the author of My Utmost for His Highest—one of the best-selling Evangelical books of all time, written by an obscure Scottish preacher who died during the First World War. For a full biography, I recommend David McCasland’s Oswald Chambers: Abandoned to God.
Oswald Chambers was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1874. His mother, Hannah, was of Scottish Highland descent, his father, Clarence, was an English Baptist clergyman.
The Chambers family was not poor, but neither was it well-off: Oswald was clearly expected to follow his father into the ministry. Yet his heart from a very young age lay elsewhere, for he loved to draw and paint, and he had dreams of being an artist. He also had talent, and when the time came for college, he won a scholarship to the Fine Arts program at Edinburgh University.
By all accounts, Oswald did well in school, but alas: even artists have to eat. Though he’d been selling illustrations, with some small success, throughout his university years, as a way of paying his living expenses, eventually he was forced to admit failure. Feeling that he was out of all other options, he consented to take a place at an obscure Bible college in Dunoon, a town in the Scottish Highlands, where he would teach. All this was done with much agony and uncertainty, which he recorded in his journals and letters, though he also expressed some hopefulness that his “art dreams” would be realized out in the wilds, where he would surely have time to paint. In other words, though Oswald acquiesced to moving to the Bible college, he remained intent on pursuing his original course.
Suffice to say, things didn’t work out the way he’d hoped. Skipping ahead a few years, we find Oswald in a fit of misery, ripping his old notebooks to shreds, and declaring that he must seek a new way forward. Eventually, he would abandon his art entirely, having found something else.
The something else Oswald found was entire sanctification, a state of being which is summed up in its name: total holiness, total sinlessness, total devotion to God. It came to Oswald through the Holiness Movement, which has deep roots in modern Evangelicalism, and which was enjoying a kind of vogue in Great Britain at the time (the first decade of the twentieth century). Oswald had heard Holiness preachers at his college, and he’d traveled to Keswick, in the English Lake District, where a great Holiness meeting was held each year.
During his time at the Bible college, Oswald had been lecturing and preaching (usually as a guest preacher at small churches in the vicinity). After he found Holiness, he became increasingly confident and prolific; in fact, he felt that he’d been born again by the Holy Spirit, and that God was now using him as a vessel, that the power of his own words were not his but the Spirit’s. He’d always been deeply intellectual, consuming astonishing amounts of literature that ran the gamut from theology to modernist philosophy to fantasy fiction, and he’d always strived to incorporate what he read into his sermons. He continued in this vein, but now he was set free: he never took notes or planned his sermons in advance, but rather spoke as the Spirit moved him. Many among his audience found him intellectual and obtuse, but many others were delighted.
After Oswald left the Bible college, he began working as a traveling missionary preacher for a nondenominational organization called the Pentecostal League of Prayer (Pentecostalism hadn’t been born yet as an official movement or church, and the League had no affiliation). He traveled to America and Japan and all around his home kingdom. In 1908, while on board a ship bound for America, he struck up a friendship with a girl from home, Gertrude Hobbs, a stenographer who was headed to New York to look for secretarial work. They fell in love, and were married in 1910, the bride changing her name from “Gertrude Hobbs” to “Biddy Chambers,” after the two names Oswald had given her: the last was his own, and the first was from his nickname for her, “B.D.”, for “Beloved Disciple.”
Shortly after the wedding, Oswald and Biddy took permanent positions running the Bible Training College, a missionary-training school in London, for the Pentecostal League of Prayer. Oswald taught courses, and Biddy, in addition to serving as superintendent, took shorthand notes of his lessons. In 1913, they had a baby girl, Kathleen.
When the war came, Oswald immediately felt called to serve in some way, and he offered himself to the YMCA as a chaplain. In 1915, he shipped out to Zeitoun, Egypt, to minister to troops stationed in the camp there. Biddy and Kathleen followed shortly after. At first, the Chambers ran their little slice of the camp much as they had the Bible Training College, even christening their tent “the BTC Hut.” Oswald preached to the men, and Biddy took notes; in 1917, she turned one sermon, on the book of Job, into a booklet, and shipped it off to a printer in Cairo. She and Oswald planned on continuing in this vein for the rest of the war and beyond; in fact, they’d had grand publishing dreams nearly since their first meeting.
Then in 1917, disaster struck: Oswald was taken ill with appendicitis and rushed to the army hospital, where he died of a blood clot (a complication of surgery). He was forty-three.
There ended the life of Oswald Chambers, an obscure preacher with nothing but some articles and booklets to his name, none of them well-known. His afterlife, though, would tell a different story: he would become one of the best-selling authors of all time and a darling of the American Evangelical movement, with over fifty books to his name, one of them a trademarked brand (not least because it’s a favorite of George W. Bush). It’s also a story of publishing in America in the mid-twentieth century, of the rise of the Evangelical media industry, and of the intertwining of religion with American politics.
At heart, though, it’s the story of a wife’s devotion to her husband: Biddy Chambers was the mastermind, creator, and sustainer of the Oswald Chambers publishing industry, which she ran for nearly fifty years, until her death, in 1966. I tell that story in my book, My Utmost: A Devotional Memoir, which you can read more about here.
If you’d like to see photographs of Oswald, read portions of his work, and look at his artwork, visit the wonderful site run by the Oswald Chambers Publications Association, a group set up by Biddy in the thirties, which still exists today.