When My Utmost for His Highest first appeared in the United States, in 1935, few could have predicted that the little book of daily readings would become a defining text of American evangelicalism. Its author was an obscure Scottish preacher who had died young—nearly 20 years earlier (this year marks the 100th anniversary of his death)—and who was mostly unknown and unpublished on American soil.
Yet Utmost swiftly won a following among American evangelicals—and not just any following. Among the book’s earliest readers were Billy Graham, Bill Bright, and Henrietta Mears. Bill Wilson and Bob Smith, the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, started early group meetings by reading from the book. The association with prominent Evangelical figures would continue through the decades: Jerry Falwell is remembered as a devotee, and George W. Bush has spoken often of his love of the book.
But it isn’t just the famous names that account for Utmost’s lasting popularity. That honor belongs primarily to the millions of readers who have incorporated the book into their daily time of devotion. Giving copies to their family members and friends, they have passed Utmost down through the generations, establishing it as a trusted spiritual guide.
Growing Up with Utmost
Like many Evangelical children, I was raised to trust Utmost, and to read it as part of my daily “quiet time” with God. In the house in Dallas, Texas, where I spent my childhood, there were always copies of it lying around. This was thanks to my grandmother, who, upon seeing a five-for-two special one Sunday at the church bookstore, had taken the lot. When I was 15, she gave one of these copies to me.
My first impression of Utmost was that it was extremely important. The elegant title, which was printed in an ornate gilded typescript on my copy; the high-toned language; the onion-skin paper: all spoke to a certain nobility, a seriousness of purpose. This was confirmed by the first entry, the one for January 1. It was entitled “Let Us Keep to the Point,” and it admonished readers that they must, through “an absolute and irrevocable surrender” of their will to Christ, begin to live “entirely for him and for him alone,” regardless of what it might cost the people in their lives. This was a theme Chambers would explore throughout the book. A Christian “might prefer to belong” to his mother or his wife or his friends, Chambers wrote, but this was not possible—not if that Christian was serious about belonging to Christ.
At 15, entries like the one for January 1 stirred a complex array of emotions. I remember being awed by Chambers’s intensity, by his boldness in sweeping aside the claims of family and society over the individual. I felt those claims strongly. Like most 15-year-olds, I was hyper-aware of my parents (whose control I was testing) and of my social group (whose judgments I sought and feared). But I was also devout. I sincerely believed that if I thought or did anything apart from Christ, apart from God’s will, I would reap only thorns and thistles. Chambers’s admonishment seemed to clarify the issue. I cared too much what others thought, he seemed to say, and I should learn not to: Christ taught that I must not.
This was my first, un-nuanced reading of a book I would carry with me as I grew. As I continued to read it, I discovered that its messages are intended to unfold over the course of a year, or of many years. This is why there some people have been reading Utmost for decades on end (my own romance with the book is now entering its 22nd season), and why the influence it established over the course of the 20th century has carried on into the 21st.