How would you like to become a bestselling Christian writer, author of a devotional classic that not only still sells well but actually gets read around the world? The only catch is that the book has to come out after you die. That’s the story of Oswald Chambers and his book My Utmost for His Highest.
And yet without one key, hidden figure in the story, there would be no devotional classic. It was Chambers’ wife, Gertrude—whom he affectionately called “Biddy” (from B.D., short for “Beloved Disciple”).
Oswald Chambers died of appendicitis in Egypt 100 years ago. Biddy was widowed suddenly and left with a small child and not much support. But for years she had carefully taken notes from her husband’s talks. So while caring for student lodgers to make ends meet, she transformed those notes into books.
God’s providence through a hidden figure
In God’s providence, Biddy was well-prepared for this unusual task. The Chambers’ daughter Kathleen, as an elderly woman herself, told interviewers that Biddy was a shorthand expert. As a child her goal was to be secretary to the Prime Minister, and she worked hard to transcribe speech accurately—and extremely quickly. She made it to 250 words per minute, faster than most people speak.
She had no plans, her daughter says, to do anything with the notes she took from her husband’s talks. Taking down shorthand was simply her way of listening.
As a child, Biddy’s daughter had basically no knowledge of the work her mother was doing on the old manual typewriter. But our knowledge of Chambers’ distinctive voice as a devotional speaker is due entirely to Biddy’s faithful transcriptions and assiduous typing work.
I looked back over Chambers’ famous devotional after a many-year gap and enjoyed his reflections on that precious promise, “All things work together for good” (Rom 8:28). In less than 300 words (72 seconds of his wife’s shorthand), he manages to actually say things—not all devotional writers can do this. He makes artful allusions to other Scripture passages, and he shows careful attention to the context of the passage.
What must it have felt like for a single mother in 1930s Britain to take words like these from her dead husband and edit them for publication?
The circumstances of a saint’s life are ordained of God. In the life of a saint there is no such thing as chance. God by His providence brings you into circumstances that you cannot understand at all, but the Spirit of God understands. God is bringing you into places and among people and into conditions in order that the intercession of the Spirit in you may take a particular line. (My Utmost for His Highest, November 7th)
Chambers was an early Pentecostal-Holiness figure who would be entirely obscure today if not for the even more obscure, faithful work of his godly wife. He has managed to reach an audience far beyond his denomination and even his mother tongue. My Utmost for His Highest has been translated into more than three dozen languages.
Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. His most recent book is Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (forthcoming, Lexham Press).