Do any of you have a friend who would be willing to risk her life to help you?
Biddy Chambers had such a friend in Mary Riley. Without Mary’s help, presence and encouragement, one of the most beloved devotionals, My Utmost for His Highest, might never have come into print.
The two were the same age, thirty-one, in 1915 when an opportunity arose for Biddy and her two-year-old daughter to travel to Egypt. Biddy’s husband Oswald, a noted Bible teacher, was serving as a chaplain at a YMCA camp north of Cairo during World War I.
Prior to sailing to Egypt, Oswald requested permission to bring his wife and child since Egypt was not yet a war zone.
The YMCA authorities considered his shocking request—no one else had a wife or child with them– and said yes. Biddy and Kathleen could come, along with a nurse.
How many of us have a friend who would volunteer to sail through winter U-boat infested waters to a war zone with a small child to live in an adobe bungalow in the Egyptian desert surrounded by Australian and New Zealand troops?
How many friends would volunteer to pay their way to live in a land of pestilence and illness in an era before antibiotics when summer temperatures regularly hit 130 degrees?
Mary Riley volunteered. She loved Biddy, Oswald and Kathleen and through her attendance at the Bible Training College (BTC) they ran in London prior to the war, she wanted to serve God, no matter where he sent her.
She also was a terrific cook and the ministry Oswald envisioned at Zeitoun camp could use her.
Three months after Oswald’s departure, Biddy, Mary and Kathleen caught a small ship. A passenger ship hit a mine and sank in the English Channel the day before they sailed. They passed two U-boat-sunk ships ruins in the Mediterranean Sea. The danger was real.
Once in sunny Egypt, they must have taken a deep breath when they saw their humble dwelling with sand as the floor.
Both women rolled up their sleeves and plunked a pith helmet on their heads. Mary cooked in the outdoors with the help of an Army orderly. Basically camping, she and Biddy turned the Zeitoun YMCA camp into a center of hospitality. They never knew how many people would drop by for dinner.
As one soldier wrote about Mary and Biddy’s arrival: “They kept open house for us all. Whatever they had they shared, and with little Kathleen running around and attending the Sunday services where she lustily sang the hymns, and Miss Riley’s cooking, we began to feel almost as if we were home again.”
When they went “up the line” to a more primitive camp, Biddy and Mary concocted fruit trifle to serve desert-weary soldiers at free teas on Sunday afternoons.
As one officer said, he would “forgo the comfort of a chair and sit on the sand to get such a meal,” as prepared by Biddy and Mary.
Oswald himself appreciated the women’s toil under arduous conditions, “it takes some vitality, morally, physically and spiritually to be cheerful in weather,” like they had in Egypt.
Mary mourned with Biddy when Oswald died unexpectedly from appendicitis in 1917. She helped keep the camp running while Biddy and Kathleen grieved.
At war’s end, the three sailed to England together in far less perilous seas.
Mary Riley did not have to lay down her life for her friend, but she was willing to do so when she accompanied the Chambers family to Egypt.
Biddy could not have traveled nor done the ministry she performed while in Egypt without Mary. Mary helped with Kathleen’s care (as did others), cooked and ministered to the soldiers while Biddy attended her husband’s lectures and “took down” in shorthand everything Oswald said.
From her notes, and those Biddy took at the BTC, Biddy compiled all 30 Oswald Chambers “authored” books in the years following his death.
For that reason, you can say that without Mary Riley’s friendship with Biddy and Oswald Chambers, readers for the last 90 years would not have had the bestselling devotional, My Utmost for His Highest.
We should all thank God for the friendship of Biddy Chambers and Mary Riley!
About the Author
Michelle Ule is the biographer of Mrs. Oswald Chambers: The Woman Behind the World’s Bestselling Devotional (Baker). You can learn more about her, as well as Biddy and Oswald Chambers, at her website, www.michelleule.com