Sanders was born in Invercargill, New Zealand, into a godly home. His father was an accountant with a large manufacturing company. He and his wife were earnest Christians and active participants in their church and other Christian ministries. Oswald and his older brother Sandy and sister Rita grew up in a “happy, loving Christian home. Books, music, laughter and genuine piety formed the very elements of their daily life. In the evenings the family gathered around Margaret [Sanders’ mother] at the organ, singing hymn after hymn” (Roberts 18).
Oswald seems to have gotten from his father his very shy personality, “his fun-loving nature and his love of books and words” (Roberts 19).
When he was about four or five, he witnessed prayer meetings that went late into the night for three months and led to a deep and lasting revival. “I can still recall vividly the thrilling sense of the presence of God and the joyous praise and song,” he wrote decades later (This I Remember 13). “It was listening to those meetings that developed in him a ‘sensitivity to the spiritual’ that was to influence his whole life and ministry” (Roberts 20). When he was eight and a half years old, he and his sister Rita responded to the invitation to receive Christ at an evangelistic meeting. He always dated his conversion from that event.
Around this time, his mother suffered a change in personality, slipping into a deep depression. “Oswald, already struggling with acute shyness, responded by learning to suppress his emotions and to avoid disappointment by concealing desire. He began to adopt an air of aloofness as a cover for his shyness. The mask became fixed, and for most of his life all but his intimates [saw] him as a person who always appeared to be in command of the situation; a person not easy to know” (Roberts 20-21).
In contrast, he developed an increasingly strong bond of affection with his father and with his sister Rita.
He always excelled in school, winning prizes in Latin, French, and History his senior year in high school, when he was still only fifteen. A lifelong love of tennis developed at this time also.
At age sixteen he became a law clerk and began studying law part-time. He gained his degree in 1922. When his boss became seriously ill, Oswald had to run the law business himself, which he did with extraordinary skill and success. This experience also deepened his bond with his father, who often advised him about accounting matters.
Outwardly successful, “inside he was covering deep emotional hurts, and he was spiritually hungry. For some years his Christian experience had not been satisfaction; he frequently knew the bitter taste of spiritual defeat. Now the longing for a closer walk with God had become acute” (Roberts 26). In December, 1921, he attended the Pounawea Keswick Convention, where he heard the Rev. Evan Harris teach on the “glorious possibilities of the Christian life.”
At the missionary meeting of the Convention, he had “an overwhelming sense of God. The warmth of the Lord’s presence melted my heart. There came a terrific sense of release, of guilt gone. The sense of the Lord’s presence in my heart was so acute that I hardly dared to breathe, lest I lose it… The Lord absolutely transformed my life, the Holy Spirit changed my appetite” (Roberts 29). The last clause refers to a new desire read spiritual books. In the following weeks, he devoured F.B. Meyer’s exposition of John’s Gospel and books by R.A. Torrey, and found that he could read the Bible for an hour a day and enjoy it. He later said, “Pounewea was the turning point of my life” (Roberts 30).
Given this description of the radical transformation of his life at Pounewea compared to the condition of his soul before then, we may, perhaps, conclude that this was the time when he was truly converted and born again.
During the missionary meeting, he had a very strong sense that God was leading him to be a foreign missionary. Thus, when he was offered a partnership in the law firm, he declined, believing instead that he should begin training for service as a missionary. He applied to the New Zealand Bible Training Institute in Auckland and was accepted.
He attended the Bible Training Institute from April to October 1924, but had to interrupt his studies to go home and care for his father, who had suffered a nervous breakdown. Returning to Dunedin, he joined the law firm of John Wilkinson, a friend of his father’s, and worked to support his parents.
At this time, he also began open air preaching in the city square, proclaiming the gospel in a highly challenging setting, with other speakers vying for the attention of the audience and hecklers challenging what he said. He honed his speaking skills in this difficult laboratory while discovering that he had a passion to share the saving message of the gospel with those who did not know Christ. The more he preached, the more zealous for evangelism he became. This early practice of evangelism kindled a fire in him that burned until the end of his days. He preached with such persuasive power that invitations to speak in churches and then at conferences began to come to him, leading into a lifelong career as a preacher, Bible teacher, and revivalist.
Wilkinson was the Chairman of the New Zealand branch of the China Inland Mission. Soon, he assigned Sanders to work as his secretary one day a week, shouldering the cost himself. From his youth, he had known of the China Inland Mission from his father’s role as prayer secretary. As they interceded for CIM workers all over China, Sanders became familiar with their names and the names of the places where they labored. Now, he found himself corresponding with missionaries and their supporters at home. A year later, Wilkinson asked him to join the New Zealand Council.
He also collaborated with a friend in publishing a Christian magazine called Maranatha. Though the journal ceased publication after two years, the work gave Sanders a taste for communicating God’s truth through writing that, like evangelism, endured for a lifetime and led to the publication of dozens of books and countless articles.
Sanders had made such an impression on the faculty and staff of the Bible college that they asked him to join the staff as field representative of the college, then in 1926, as secretary treasurer, and assistant to the principal with classroom duties as instructor in evangelism. A believer in action as a form of learning, he joined the students in daily evangelistic outreach to the community.
On December 19, 1931, having been in love with her for six years, he married Edith Mary Dobson. She became his indispensable companion and helper, fully sharing his commitment to Christ and to the work of the gospel. They had one son, Wilbur.
When the principal of the Bible Institute died in 1932, Sanders was chosen to take his place, not only as the administrator, but as editor of the college publication, The Reaper, and as instructor of theology, Bible, and New Testament Greek, which he had to teach himself. Faced with an overwhelming sense of inadequacy, he turned to God for strength.
“He may have lacked ‘paper’ qualifications, but he had certain other invaluable qualities. The most important was a heart for the work… He had a good mind, well-developed study methods and a retentive memory. His legal training had taught him how to analyze a problem, isolate the principal elements, and reach valid conclusions. Not least, he had a remarkable capacity for hard work, his seemingly endless stores of energy often astonishing those close to him” (Roberts 61).
Crucial to his success then and later was his habit of redeeming every minute. Early in life, he had learned that a great deal of reading could be done in fifteen minutes of free time before lunch every day. “No financier ever gave more careful thought to the most profitable ways of investing his funds than Oswald gave to the investment of his time” (Roberts 62).
“The new Principal must have appeared a rather formidable figure. Tall, erect, brisk and purposeful in his movements, he was always neatly dressed, his high forehead topped with tight, dark curls. But it was the piercing eyes behind the narrow-rimmed glasses which held the students. [He was also known for] the sternness of his manner,” which he perhaps assumed because he was still only thirty-one years old, younger than some of the students (Roberts 63). At the same time, he possessed a “strong humorous streak hidden behind that stern exterior” (Roberts 63).
Sanders served the Institute (later called The Bible College of New Zealand) for twenty years. For many students, his Wednesday morning talks, called “The Clinic,” in which he exposed the problems of the spiritual life and applied the Scriptures to overcome them, and the Sunday morning devotional messages on the “great facts of God: who He is, what He has done and what He has promised,” remained in their memories as highlights of their time at the Bible College (Roberts 65). On more than one occasion, he would be so moved by what he shared that he broke down in tears in worship.
During those years, the “cocoon” of self-protection that he had woven around himself began slowly to be shed, largely under the influence of Edith’s love for him. “They were very, very much in love. It developed him and he became a much more normal kind of man. Although Edith was shy, she really brought him out,” observed a longtime friend (Roberts 66). Stories abound of his essential kindness and gentleness toward those in need.
He converted the board room into a bookshop, which did a thriving business. In addition to his other duties, he also served as chairman of the annual Ngaruwahia Easter Convention in the north of New Zealand.
In March 1946, sensing a strong leading from God, he left his position as principal of the Bible college to become the Australian representative of the CIM. Over the years, as he traveled throughout the continent, he strengthened the home side of the CIM even as China was crumbling in chaos and eventually fell under the rule of the Communists in 1949.
Meeting in Bournemouth, England, in November, 1951, the home and field directors of the CIM decided that the current General Director must resign. Two years later, they offered the position to Sanders, who was dumbfounded. “I knew the problems and cares involved, and felt neither qualified for nor desirous of the position,” he recalled later (This I Remember 19). After God spoke to him and his wife in different ways, he wrote, “Despite my almost overwhelming sense of inadequacy, I gladly accepted both the privilege and the responsibility involved in accepting the appointment” (This I Remember 21).
“While Sanders had no experience as a missionary, he ably led the reorganization of the CIM into the Overseas Missionary Fellowship (OMF). An incisive and clear-headed activist, he reestablished a sense of direction, promoted the mission to the public, particularly its expanding American support-base, inspired disappointed missionaries, and sought opportunities for the mission in new fields… His work restored to the OMF its premier position among interdenominational missions and gave it a strategic role in the development of East Asian churches” (Lineham 590).
Under his leadership, in 1964 the OMF leadership took the momentous step of deciding to include qualified Asian believers as full members of the Fellowship, thus transforming the mission into a truly international organization.
The Cost of Leadership
Sanders’s ceaseless travels took their toll on his health, necessitating a time of rest in Australia, but they proved too much for Edith. She had to stop accompanying him in 1964. In 1966 she died of cancer, leaving Oswald in profound grief. Theirs had been a very happy marriage for thirty-five years, and he was terribly lonely.
Edith had told Oswald that he would find another life partner. In September, 1968, he married Mary Miller, a widow and an old friend of Oswald and Edith. To his immense sorrow, she died in December, 1972.
Upon his retirement in 1969, he continued to teach worldwide and to write. He and Mary had moved into a house in Auckland. He also served two years as the principal of the Christian Leadership Training College in Banz, New Guinea. Returning to Auckland in 1974, he lived with his sister Rita, whose husband had died, and his beloved niece Beryl. He was devastated when Beryl died in 1975. Rita and he had had been extremely close when they were young, and now she gave him essential support as a companion and prayer partner. One can imagine his desolation when she also died in 1981. Robin and Peggy Adair, his niece and nephew, welcomed him into their home for daily meals, thus lessening his loneliness a bit.
These repeated bereavements he accepted as from a loving God, who does all things well. He recognized, too, that they opened new channels of feeling and sympathy in his heart, and threw him more and more upon the Lord for comfort and strength. Such losses equipped him for a wider and deeper ministry to hurting people. People who heard him speak in his later years said that he was “better than ever,” for they found in him “an added depth that evokes deeper responses in their own hearts, and always there is the freshness of a mind and heart that draws its life continually from the living spring” (Roberts 183).
Throughout his speaking career, he appealed greatly to young people, whom he enjoyed. They appreciated his consistent life and his clear exposition of the Bible coupled with practical wisdom about how to apply God’s truth to daily life and decision making.
Contribution to Chinese Christianity
Though he went to China only once, in 1947, Sanders had a many-faceted and profound impact on the growth of Christianity among Chinese. On that first visit, God used his preaching to bring renewal and even revival in several places. In the midst of rampant inflation and civil war, he brought powerful messages of hope. He addressed the newly formed Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship annual conference in Nanjing and met the celebrated Pastor Wang Mingdao and Pastor Mark Ma, the initiator of the Back to Jerusalem Movement.
The Holy Spirit used his messages to spark a revival at the Chungking (Chongqing) Theological Seminary. “The Holy Spirit began to convict of sin. All consciences were quickened, causing remembrance of forgotten sins. The light of the Holy Spirit penetrated the inmost recesses of the heart, so that we could not but repent,” wrote Marcus Cheng, the principal of the seminary (This I Remember 95). Students and faculty alike sought forgiveness from each other and made restitution for wrongs done to each other. “Then followed dedication, as they placed themselves anew at the Lord’s disposal” (This I Remember 96).
Many years later, Sanders wrote, “I did not find it difficult to love the Chinese, and they were almost always friendly and approachable, while their hospitality at times was embarrassing. I will not soon forget their innate courtesy, their deep and often sacrificial love for our common Lord” (This I Remember 79-80).
As General Director of OMF, he supervised the deployment of former CIM missionaries to Hong Kong, Taiwan, and countries with large Chinese minorities: Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Laos, and Indonesia. OMF workers helped churches to grow through leadership training, Bible teaching, ministry among students, and literature.
In Taiwan, for example, Campus Evangelical Fellowship became the pioneer and largest ministry among college students, with a strong literature arm, Campus Press, that has grown into the most influential Christian publishing house. As a former Bible institute principal, Sanders gave hearty support to the founding or strengthening of Bible colleges, training institutes, and seminaries. In Singapore, the Disciple Training Center broke new ground with its program of community life, learning, and practical ministry.
Oswald Sanders possessed a rare combination of abilities, gifts, and passions. He had a “phenomenal capacity for hard work, hard travel, and a tight preaching schedule” (Roberts 188). After learning hard lessons from a burnout early in his career, he developed the ability to balance work with rest and exercise.
After his dramatic experience of God at the Pounawea Keswick Convention, Sanders promulgated Keswick teaching throughout his career, with great effect. With an emphasis upon realizing the potential for substantial victory in the Christian life based on full confidence in the saving work of Christ and the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit, these doctrines led many formerly nominal Christians into a vital relationship with Christ through daily reliance upon him. Theologians have criticized aspects of Keswick doctrine for what they say is a very weak understanding of Christian conversion and an unbiblical description of sanctification, however.
In his own evangelistic ministry, Sanders looked for evidence of real repentance and faith, and rejoiced to see thousands of lives made knew. This writer believes, nevertheless, that he may not always have given adequate weight to what the bible says about regeneration and genuine conversion, and that he sometimes painted too rosy a picture of the “Victorious Christian life.” (Read a brief article describing the critique by J.I. Packer of Keswick teaching.)
Overall, however, his writings combined faithful biblical exposition with penetrating and practical application to daily life. Spiritual Leadership has become a classic. It bears repeated readings and careful reflection. Sanders read widely, thought deeply, and wrote with extraordinary wisdom and insight, made more persuasive by his own consistent life and superb qualities as a leader.
From the first, his heart burned with a zeal for the lost that impelled him into lifelong evangelistic preaching, first in New Zealand and Australia, and then around the world. He combined earnest proclamation with clear Bible exposition. As a teacher of the Scriptures, he had few rivals and was in constant demand. The depth of his spiritual life and understanding of God made him a powerful revivalist; he often saw outpourings of the Holy Spirit upon his audiences.
At the same time, he knew the necessity of prayerful waiting upon God for guidance, private surrender to the Lord and to his will, and intense wrestling with God. His use of logical reasoning from the Scriptures did not lead him to neglect the realities of spiritual warfare against Satan; he knew that the battle is often won primarily in solitary intercession with God. His powerful writings on prayer issued from a life of constant communion with God in worship, confession, thanksgiving, and intercession.
Like Moses, however, he was mighty both in word and in deed. His administrative skill and diligence brought him invitations to lead two missionary training institutes and the OMF, the largest Protestant missionary organization in East Asia. Adept both at careful planning and bold action, he made hard decisions without looking back. To a remarkable degree, Sanders listened long and carefully, summed up complex matters succinctly and accurately, and brought men of strongly divergent opinions to unity of purpose.
“He could be blunt in his opinions, but was also pastorally sensitive and was able to keep the mission steady in the face of evangelical controversies over such issues as the charismatic movement” (Lineham).
In his early years, and indeed for several decades, Sanders seemed to many to be austere and rather stern, leading younger workers to feel a bit afraid to approach him. His boundless energy and optimism, coupled with an impressively tall and robust physique, seemed to put him in a different class from others. Later, however, having experienced many trials and multiple bereavements, he changed so much that Michael Griffiths, his successor as OMF General Director, said, “It is hard to remember that I ever thought him stern and austere. In later years the sheer warmth of the man is something I treasure greatly” (Roberts 191).
I remember vividly arriving late to an OMF prayer meeting in Taiwan and having to take the last available seat, next to Mr. Sanders, who was in his eighties at the time. After his clear and winsome Bible message, he turned to greet me. His handshake was so firm that it hurt! When I mentioned that the OMF Medical Director had told me that he and I shared a common malady – sharp pain in the heels that in his case made even lying in bed uncomfortable – he replied, ‘Yes, it is one of my many thorns” (referring to Paul’s thorn in the flesh). Even then, he was very impressive in every way, especially his warmth and kindness.
Throughout his life he was shy and quiet in most company, and seemed to live in a “cocoon” of self-protection. Later, as we have seen, he shed this protective shield and learned to overcome his shyness. Despite his many skills and strengths, Sanders always struggled with a sense of inadequacy that made him tremble in the face of his daunting responsibilities, but this threw him upon God’s strength time and again.
Oswald Sanders was conscious that God as pleased to use him in remarkable ways around the world, and he delighted in this, yet without becoming proud or self-important. Arnold Lea, the Overseas Director of OMF under Sanders for many years, saw him as being “the most unselfconscious person” he had ever known (Roberts 190). Sanders himself wrote, “I am conscious of being a very ordinary person with only modest gifts, but God has been pleased to use these gifts beyond my dreaming, insofar as I have yielded them to him. As I grow older the imperfections of my service become painfully clear, and that, in turn, makes me realise that for any blessing that has resulted, the glory is His, not mine” (Roberts 11-12).
From his early days, Sanders wrote prolifically on the Christian life, with many of his books being translated into German, Korean, Spanish, French, and other languages. Several of his books were also translated into Chinese and continue to be read.
See a full list of his works, which total forty titles.
Some of his most popular books are:
- A Spiritual Clinic (1958)
- Cults and Isms (1962)
- Effective Evangelism (1999)
- Effective Prayer (1961)
- Enjoying Intimacy With God (1980)
- Enjoying Your Best Years (1993)
- How Lost Are the Heathen (1966)
- Incomparable Christ: Person and Work of Jesus Christ (1952)
- Overcoming Tension and Strain (1980)
- Prayer Power Unlimited (1993)
- Spiritual Discipleship (1994)
- Spiritual Leadership (1967)
- This I Remember (autobiography) (1982)
- What of the Unevangelized? and Effective Evangelism: What Happens to Those Who Have Never Heard the Gospel (1966)
Lineham, Peter. “Sanders J(ohn) Oswald”. In Anderson, Gerald H., ed. (1999). Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, p. 590. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing.
Lyall, Leslie T. A Passion for the Impossible: The China Inland Mission, 1965-1965. OMF Books, 1965.
Roberts, Ron and Gwen. To Fight Better: A Biography of J Oswald Sanders. Overseas Missionary Fellowship, 1989.
Sanders, J. Oswald. This I Remember. Kingsway Publications, 1982
–––. Spiritual Leadership. Lakeland, 1967.
“40 Best Quotes from J. Oswald Sanders’ Classic Book Spiritual Leadership”: factsandtrends.net/2016/08/11/40-best-quotes-from-j-oswald-sanders-classic-book-spiritual-leadership. Accessed February 12, 2020.
More quotes from Sanders can be found at: www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/78560.J_Oswald_Sanders. Accessed February 12, 2020.
Three articles by Sanders can be found at articles.ochristian.com/preacher22-1.shtml. Accessed February 12, 2020.
Mark Tanious writes helpful reviews of three of Sanders’s most popular books: www.9marks.org/review/book-review-three-books-by-j-oswald-sanders. Accessed February 12, 2020.
Trevin Wax offers another insightful review of Spiritual Leadership: www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/trevin-wax/revisiting-oswald-sanders-spiritual-leadership. Accessed February 12, 2020.