I am about to finish a very interesting biography of Oswald Chambers (1874-1917). You may know him as the author of the perennial favorite devotional, My Utmost for His Highest. On and off for most of my life I have read this little devotional work. At points in my journey I have received great encouragement and blessing from this book. There have been times, too, when I was critical of it–for various reasons mostly stemming from my own pride.
However I never knew much about the man and the life behind the book. In his 1993 book Abandoned to God: The Life Story of the Author of My Utmost for His Highest, David McCasland does a fine job of telling the story.
Chambers really does seem to have lived an extra-ordinary life. He was born in Aberdeen, Scotland in 1874. He would die in Zeitoun, Egypt 43 years later (1917). Chambers was an artist-talented in sketching in pencil, charcoal, and pen. He was a poet. He gained admission to the Royal College of Art where he received the Art Master’s Certificate in 1895. He turned down a scholarship to study in the great artistic centers of europe and enrolled in the University of Edinburgh in 1895. His program was one that would not grant him a university degree, but would provide two years of intense studies in art and the classical humanities. He excelled in his studies and was named to the Third Prize in Fine Arts by Professor Baldwin Brown and received a First Class Certificate with high commendation for his essays.
Chambers surprised his family and friends, not least of which were his university professors, by opting to enroll in a small theological college in 1897. Dunoon College was a residential theological college devoted to the preparation of ministers for service in the non-conformist churches of the United Kingdom. It was founded by the Reverend Duncan MacGregor, a highland Scotts baptist. According to McCasland, “The Gospel training college at Dunoon grew out of [MacGregor’s] dissatisfaction with the conventional academic approach to ministerial training. On his own, he assembled a few students, set up some chairs in his small church vestry, and began to teach them from his heart and life.” (McCasland, 64).
The college was not, however, academically lightweight. All students studied Hebrew and Greek as well as homiletics and theology. The difference from the traditional theological college came in the small, intimate context. In such a small community, members of the college really knew one another and worshipped together.
After Chambers completed his studies, he stayed on a tutor in moral philosophy. During this time Chambers was suffering from spiritual depression. He wrote in a letter, “I determined to havel all that was going, and went to my room and asked God simply and definitely for the baptism of the Holy Spirit, whatever that meant. From that day on for four years, nothing but the overrruling grace of God and the kindness of friends kept me out of an asylum. God used me during those years for the conversion of souls, but I had no conscious communion with him. The Bible was the dullest, most uninteresting book in existence, and the sense of depravity, the vileness and bad-motiveness of my nature was terrific.” (McCasland, 71).
In 1902 this dark night of the soul gave way to a clearer sense of the proximity of God, and of the existence of God’s love. It came during an ‘after meeting’ which is (I believe) the time following a service of worship in which those convicted by God were able to linger in prayer and receive counsel. Chambers describes the experience: “I had no vision of God, only a sheer dogged determination to take God at his word and to prove this thing for myself” (MacCasland, 83). He left the meeting having experienced the beginnings of a change.
A couple of days later he was asked to speak at an evagenlistic meeting. He recounts, “…I had no vision of heaven or angels, I had nothing. I was as dry and empty as ever, no power or realization of God, no witness of the Holy Spirit…” He spoke and forty people professed faith (MacCasland, 83). Far from being encouraged by the meeting, Chambers left the converts to those working the meeting and went to his mentor, MacGregor. During his conversion, something inside of Chambers melted and the change he so longed for took place.