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Who was Biddy (Mrs. Oswald) Chambers? Part I

If you are a fan of the devotional My Utmost for His Highest, you have one person to thank: Biddy Chambers.

Born Gertrude Hobbs in 1884 England, “Gert” suffered annual bouts of bronchitis as a child, thus limiting her time in school. Determined to excel and one day be secretary to the Prime Minister of England, she studied shorthand in Pittman’s Correspondence School.Biddy Chambers, Oswald Chambers' wife, My Utmost for His Highest, who wrote My Utmost for His Highest?, Bible Training College, Mrs. Oswald Chambers

According to Oswald Chambers biographer David McCasland in Oswald Chambers: Abandoned to God:

“Knowing that many young men and women could take shorthand, she decided to outdistance the field in speed and accuracy . . . [her mother and sister] took turns reading articles and book selections as Gertrude transcribed them into shorthand. Not to content to function like a machine, Gertrude listened for the sense and context of what was read. Along with speed and accuracy, she sought understanding as well.”

Her daughter Kathleen Chambers described Biddy as being “very clever,” and noted  she “was brilliant at shorthand.” Her speed was alleged to be 250 words per minute–which is faster than people speak.

She took her first job in Woolwich Arsenal, Kent, working for General Sir William Morris. Eventually she became secretary to a barrister (attorney) in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. She typed legal briefs without mistakes.

In 1908 her friend Marian invited Gert to join her in working in the United States.

Gert decided to go.

Meeting Oswald Chambers

Biddy Chambers, Oswald Chambers' wife, My Utmost for His Highest, who wrote My Utmost for His Highest?, Bible Training College, Mrs. Oswald Chambers

Oswald and Biddy; photo courtesy Wheaton College Special Collections library

Gert first met Oswald Chambers in 1905 when he spoke for a week at Eltham Park Baptist church near London.

His brother Arthur pastored the church and in years to come Oswald stepped into the pulpit as needed. While he struck up a friendship with the Hobbs family, Oswald was focused on serving God, not on finding a wife.

When Gert decided to travel to the United States in May 1908, her mother knew Oswald planned to sail on the same ship. She wrote and asked him to keep an eye on her daughter.

I’ve written about that trip in this blog post: Oswald Chambers Finds a Wife.

Oswald had a sister named Gertrude, and suggested the nickname (he liked to give people in his inner circle nicknames) Beloved Disciple, or B.D. for short. That quickly became Biddy.

What did Biddy look like?

bibliographyBiddy was twenty-five years old, with soft brown hair, twinkling blue eyes and a friendly smile. She reached to Oswald’s chin and had “an infectious chuckle,” according to her daughter.

An intelligent lover of animals and children, she was well read, played the piano and liked to walk. She rose early in the morning to pray, shorthanding all her prayers into an exercise book that she threw away when full.

“She was always very mindful of others’ creature comforts. It was very important to her to have a home,” Kathleen recalled.

(Kathleen’s reflections come from a video she made discussing her mother and in Searching for Mrs. Oswald Chambers: One Woman’s Quest to Uncover the Truth by Martha Christian).

Oswald and Biddy wrote and visited each other in the US and became engaged in late 1908. You can read about Oswald and Biddy Chambers’ Solemn Promise here.

They wed May 24, 1910.

The Bible Training College

The next year, Biddy became the Lady Superintendent of the Bible Training College when Oswald became the principal. It was there that she began to take notes of everything Oswald said in his lectures.

As McCasland explained:

“Biddy . . . took shorthand notes of Oswald’s lecture. If they used Biblical Psychology as a topic for the correspondence course, she could type explanatory pages and lesson outlines . . . It kept her stenographic skills sharp and helped focus her attention on what he said. Shorthand was her way of listening.”

At the Bible Training College, Biddy kept the ledger up to day, typed letters, oversaw the cooking, took care of visitors and poured many cups of tea.

The Bible Training College was busy every day with lectures, praying and the coming and going of some 24 live-in students.

With Oswald lecturing, grading correspondence courses or traveling, Biddy assumed a large responsibility for the smooth operation and peace of mind at the school.

Their only child, Kathleen Marian Chambers, was born at the college on May 24, 1913.

At holidays, she joined her husband and friends in Scotland where they hiked the hills and worshiped God out of doors.

All of this was excellent preparation for what came next in their lives. You can read part two, Biddy Chambers in Egypt, here.

Biddy Chambers, Widow, part three is here.

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Biddy Chambers, Oswald Chambers' wife, My Utmost for His Highest, who wrote My Utmost for His Highest?, Bible Training College, Mrs. Oswald Chambers

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6 Comments

  1. iyamrocky

     /  November 28, 2017

    This is wonderful. However you do have some paragraphs duplicated at the beginning – just thought you’d like to know.

    Reply
  2. Lynne

     /  January 11, 2018

    I think it was terrible that Oswald didnt provide for his family in the event of his death. Surely life insurance was available. Biddy and Kathleen were left destitute.

    Reply
    • Michelle Ule

       /  January 11, 2018

      Lynne–

      You’ve asked an interesting question about life insurance in 1915. I don’t believe it was readily available to “average” folks at that time and even purchasing it would not have been something OC would have done.

      I talk quite a bit about his attitude toward money in my book and David McCasland does the same in Oswald Chambers: Abandoned to God.

      Basically, OC believed the people of God should provide for one another and we should accept whatever God brings our way.

      He traveled the world penniless–because his needs were met everywhere he went. It exasperated his father, and yet OC’s life was a demonstration of that belief.

      He was not a member of the British Army, but of the YMCA which I do not believe had a life insurance policy–I wasn’t able to track that down.

      Even had he been a member of the Army, the pension that widows was received was tiny.

      Some would argue that Biddy’s insurance was the trunks full of notes.

      When she returned to England following the war, she visited a publisher who looked through what she had and her description of her ideas. He didn’t see anything worth publishing and declined.

      That a difficult time for Biddy, but it also released her to the freedom to self-publish any way she liked. She turned down a job to run another Bible Training College and chose to live in relative poverty because she believed God had told her to put Oswald’s books together.

      She never took a dime from the sale of the books, needing, because of cash flow, to turn the profits from one book over into the production of the next book.

      Following the success of My Utmost for His Highest, a group of friends organized and called themselves The Oswald Chambers Publication Association. They helped her manage the business end and eventually prevailed upon her to take a stipend for her work.

      She didn’t want to do that, prefering to trust God would send the necessary funds, but eventually they worked something out.

      “My mother never believed for a second that God made a mistake,” Kathleen Chambers said, “even where money was concerned.”

      Frankly, I thought how they handled money was one of the more controversial aspects of my book but few interviewers ever asked.

      Best wishes and thanks for your comment,

      Reply
  1. Biddy Chambers in Egypt (Who was Biddy Chambers? Part 2) | Michelle Ule, Author
  2. Biddy Chambers, Widow (Who was Biddy Chambers Part 3) | Michelle Ule, Author
  3. Reading Biddy Chambers' Emotions | Michelle Ule, Author

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