Why We’re Still Reading ‘My Utmost for His Highest’ 80 Years Later

How Oswald Chambers unwittingly became one of the most popular devotional writers of all time.
Why We’re Still Reading ‘My Utmost for His Highest’ 80 Years Later
Image: Shutterstock

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died young—nearly 20 years earlier (this year marks the 100th anniversary of his death)—and who was mostly unknown and unpublished on American soil.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.

A Complex History

To understand Utmost’s richness and lasting appeal, it’s necessary to know a few key things about the book’s provenance. One is that it was not, technically speaking, written by Oswald Chambers, but rather by his wife, Biddy Chambers. Biddy was a trained stenographer who took notes of her husband’s lectures and sermons over the course of the roughly seven years they were married. After he died (during the First World War, while serving as chaplain to British Commonwealth troops in Egypt), Biddy decided to dedicate her life to transforming those notes into books, and to overseeing their publication. In fact, she established a publishing empire—albeit a staunchly non-profit one, from which she never drew more than a modest salary—devoted solely to her husband’s works. That empire still thrives today.

Her involvement with the books is significant for Utmost because Utmost is one of the most heavily edited of Chambers’s works. Its entries, which run to around 250 words apiece, have been drawn from dozens of sources. These have been chopped up, cut down, and rearranged—with skill but also with abandon. A tour through Chambers’s other books, of which there are more than 50, shows how much Biddy left on the cutting-room floor when she compiled Utmost. Crucially, she left context: the historical, literary, artistic, and philosophical contexts that Chambers—a wide-ranging reader, professional painter, and amateur philosopher—used to shape his entire body of work.

When I began, six years ago, to research the origins and influences of My Utmost for His Highest, I started with Chambers’s own intellectual context: What did he read? What writers influenced him most heavily? I discovered a thinker steeped in the culture and philosophy of the later 19th century, a thinker who used his distinctly modern (that is, liberal and voracious) approach to reading to craft a unique vision of daily Christian practice.

It also became clear to me that, as much as Chambers was a product of his time—he lived from 1874 to 1917—his work was also timeless, serving as an unlikely bridge between his world and ours. Unlikely because similar books by Chambers’s contemporaries have long ago fallen out of print and out of the popular Christian consciousness. Yet the late-19th-century strain of Christian thinking that dominates Utmost has never fully vanished from the American evangelical experience, however subsumed it has been in different movements and conversations that arose in the decades following the First World War.

Central to this strain of thought is the question posed by that first entry of My Utmost for His Highest: the question of the individual. Like many of his contemporaries, Chambers was obsessed with the question of the individual’s autonomy and power. He was full of the 19th-century complaint against modernity, a complaint focused on the Industrial Revolution, which, in sending people en masse into factories and offices, had reduced them to “cogs in a machine.” He bemoaned the “commercialized” existence of modern men, for whom money seemed to determine worth. He distrusted the various political and philosophical ideologies that seemed to demand total allegiance from their followers—ideologies like nationalism, capitalism, socialism, communism, Darwinism, positivism, progressivism, rationalism, and scientism.

Also and equally, he was against the religious ideologies that seemed to shut out science and rationality in the name of blind or unthinking faith. As a student of philosophy, he had an acute awareness of the mind’s tendency to be led astray by its own ideas and perceptions, to “believe its own beliefs,” and he was suspicious of the kind of charismatic leaders who, through “propagandistic” teaching or preaching, sought to win converts to their agendas.

In short, Chambers’s vision of the individual was of a creature who was all too easily enslaved, by forces both external and internal. His vision of society was equally harsh: It was “civilization, organization, and Churchianity,” and it needed to be “smashed.”

Influenced by Nietzsche?

One 19th-century figure who was particularly important in shaping this strain of Chambers’s thinking—and who may come as a surprise to contemporary readers—was the Prussian philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche had argued, in essence, that civilization (and particularly Christianity) worked by enslaving people, turning them into weaklings. As a solution to the problem, he’d envisioned a kind of self-actualized individual, a being who would create his own values, rather than deriving them from a system, a religion, or the past.

Chambers appreciated Nietzsche’s assessment of Western culture. “Diseased and wild” though Nietzsche was, Chambers wrote, he had “seen things as they are,” just as the Old Testament figure Job had. Where Chambers veered sharply from Nietzsche was in his assessment of why things were the way they were, and in how they might be set aright. Chambers thought that sin, corruption, and enslavement were the basis of life on earth not because of civilization or religion but because of the Fall. But humans had already been given a way out: the Cross, which empowered, rather than enfeebled. Humans didn’t need to become self-realized, because they had a great, powerful model in Christ. They needed to be realized in and actualized by Christ.

Christ, in Chambers’s rendering, was the ultimate individual: free from the corruptions of human society and the confines of his own fallible mind, made so by a profound act of will, and determined to live “entirely for him and for him alone.” God’s power was Christ’s because Christ had willed himself to obey. Thanks to the Cross, this power was freely available to all who chose to claim it.

Chambers’s embrace of a rugged, powerful Christ places his thinking squarely in the tradition of Muscular Christianity, a movement that swept Britain and America in the late-19th century (think Billy Sunday shadow-boxing the devil on his preaching platform, or Teddy Roosevelt admonishing Americans that he didn’t “want to see Christianity professed only by weaklings; I want to see it a moving spirit among men of strength”). But while most entries in this genre might now politely be described as “of historical interest,” Chambers’s writings continue to resonate.

Why this is so has to do, I think, with the grander purpose Chambers saw in this individualistic Christ, and in the independent Christians Christ inspired. The life separated unto God was a necessity for the Christian disciple, Chambers wrote, but this didn’t mean that God isolated us, nor that he’d forgotten our responsibilities to kith and kin. Christ’s own life, which had been lived solely for his Father, had also been one of “public activity,” led in the company of others, and devoted to working ceaselessly on their behalf. Indeed, Christ’s life had spread out to encompass the entire human race, to draw it into oneness with God and with himself. So, too, Chambers thought, would our lives, if we allowed God to use them as he saw fit.

A Community of Christian Readers

As my years as an Utmost reader progressed, and as I moved further along my Christian path, I began to experience these truths for myself. “The measure of the worth of our public activity for God is the private profound communion we have with him,” Chambers wrote. Nourishing “the life of God” in myself—through prayer, reading, and the conscious devotion of my activities to God—I found that my life with others was nourished as well. The two existed in harmony, rather than antagonism, as I’d used to think.

More surprising to me has been the relevance of the other side of Chambers’s equation: the imperative to cultivate independence from ideology, from “civilization, organization, and Churchianity.” It is clear to me now that our time is just as full of “isms” as Chambers’s was; we are just as full of complaints against the world and the world’s systems as were the citizens of the late 19th century. In the United States, different markers—where we live, the kind of work we do, our party affiliation or political “bent,” our race, our denomination—often threaten to define us even more strongly than our relationship with Christ.

Or rather, Chambers would say (turning his gaze ever outward), they threaten to define others in our eyes. And therein lies the true danger. “I do not believe in the type hunt,” Chambers wrote. “Every human being is his own type, therefore take him as a fact, not as an illustration of a prejudice.” God, he pointed out, does not work en masse; God creates individuals, each one a “single, solitary life.” To maintain an independent mind, a mind separated unto God, was to look fiercely for the God-given individuality of all his creatures, affording them the dignity they deserved.

This, in Chambers’s view, was the ultimate goal of maintaining our independence: that we might fully love others as we ourselves have been loved by God, who “hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” This was the thread Chambers saw running through the gospel: “We are not raised up alone, but together.” It is the thread that runs through Utmost, too, the thread that has drawn and will continue to draw generations of single, solitary individuals into a community of Christian readers.

Macy Halford is a writer living in France. She is the author of My Utmost: A Devotional Memoir(February, Knopf).

December
Subscribe to CT and get one year free.
Christianity Today
Why We’re Still Reading ‘My Utmost for His ...