For years Oswald Chamber’s book, ‘My Utmost for His Highest’ has been sitting on my bedside table and I read it most evenings before I go to sleep. It’s a very rich, no compromise devotional that is always challenging and is entirely without fluff.
Mrs. Oswald Chambers was the woman behind this worldwide bestselling devotional and Michelle Ule has written a warm and lively account of her life. Gertrude Hobbs was born in London in 1884. Her father’s early death made her determined to help her mother financially. She took a Shorthand correspondence course and mastered the skill and then learned to touch type. She wanted to be the first female secretary to the prime minister of England and before long had a job as a typist at the Woolwich Royal Arsenal
Gert was in her early twenties and it was around this time that she met Oswald Chambers whose sermons provided opportunities to practice her stenography skills.
Oswald visited the Hobbs home over the next two and a half years, enjoying the company. He had decided earlier that he didn’t have the income to support a wife or a home and considered his relationship with Gert and her sister as purely platonic.
When Gert was twenty-five she had the opportunity to sail to America where a friend had said a job was available in a law office in Brooklyn. Her mother was relieved to find that Oswald would be on the same ship and wrote to him to ask if he would look out for her daughter on the voyage. Gert also considered their relationship to be nothing more than simple friendship.
Over the course of the voyage they had time to get to know one another. By the time they reached America and both went their separate ways, they understood that God had brought about an unexpected change to their personal plans and Oswald had given Gertrude a nickname, something he did to those closest to him – Biddy.
About a year later they were married and in 1911 Oswald started the Bible Training College (BTC) in London. Biddy played an important role by using her skills to take down everything he said in shorthand.
When World War I broke out Oswald took Biddy, along with their daughter who was born two years previously, to Egypt where he was to serve as a YMCA chaplain to troops.
Ule describes their time in Egypt during WWI, their work with the troops, and their young daughter Kathleen’s interactions with the soldiers and others around them. I enjoyed the personality sketches of both husband and wife and their whole-hearted devotion to their ministry. Something that struck me was Oswald’s attitude to his daughter’s upbringing which was unusual for the time and especially for those involved in ministry. He advised Biddy to pay close attention to Kathleen and not rely on sympathetic others to tend her. This was something she recalled often in the years to come.
In 1917, Oswald came home one evening feeling unwell – stomach complaints were common in Egypt so he didn’t go to the hospital in case he could be taking the bed of an injured soldier if he went. Even when he had severe pain in his side he still refused to go until twelve days later when the pain became unbearable. He finally agreed to see a doctor and was diagnosed with a ruptured appendix and had immediate surgery.
This was before the advent of antibiotics and even though the surgery was successful and he seemed to be recovering, he developed complications and died. He was forty-three years of age.
Oswald was given an unusual honour. He had a full military funeral and was buried in the Old Cairo cemetery with the soldiers he loved.
Biddy stayed on working in Egypt until the armistice in 1918 and hostilities ceased. With her now six year old daughter, they paid a final visit to Oswald’s grave in Cairo and then sailed back to England.
Biddy had traveled to Egypt three and a half years before, following Oswald’s lead into a ministry given by God. With Oswald and dreams for a post-war Bible school dead, Biddy needed to create her own life in an England roiled by societal changes. She carried in her heart a charge to produce Oswald’s dictated material into readable form. The way seemed open, the demand called, her skills provided, and a trunk full of BTC notebooks beckoned.
My Utmost for His Highest was born out of Biddy’s shorthand notes of Oswald’s lectures and sermons and was first published in England in 1927. It was popular from the very start and has never been out of print.
Mrs. Oswald Chambers is a well-written biography that I thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend. The woman behind this wonderful devotional book was inspiring.
Returning to post-war England as a widow with a young child and no pension, she continued to serve God and blessed the world with the words of Oswald Chambers. She opened her home to a continual stream of neighbours and visitors and continued her ‘ministry of interruptions.’
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