John Oswald Sanders’ studies at the NZ Bible Training Institute in 1924 were cut short after six months when his father’s illness required a return home to Invercargill to support his parents. His aspiration of overseas mission service was set aside as Sanders (commonly called “J.O.”) picked up his former profession as a lawyer. However, that was not the end of his involvement with NZBTI or overseas mission. Principal Joseph Kemp had been so impressed by the potential of this young student that he invited him to join the staff of the Institute. In March 1926, at age 23, Oswald Sanders moved his parents to Auckland and took on the role of Secretary-Treasurer, and instructor in evangelism. One aspect of his job was helping to raise funds for a new campus in Queen Street. He worked alongside Joseph Kemp until Kemp’s terminal illness in 1932, after which Sanders was appointed Superintendent, shouldering the administrative running of the College, and taking on Kemp’s teaching load.
Oswald Sanders had a tremendous work ethic as he sought to develop the Institute at a time when NZ was in an economic depression. He edited the Institute’s Reaper magazine, initiated a BTI bookroom, raised funds for the purchase of a printing press and the Academy building in Queen Street (which later became the home of the BTI Bookroom), and was instrumental in founding the United Māori Mission in 1936. He chaired the Ngaruawahia Easter Convention for 13 years, preached regularly at evangelistic outreaches, and spoke at various conventions. Requests for his convention addresses saw the beginning of a prolific writing ministry – during his lifetime he published over 30 books, mostly on the Christian life (1). Over two million copies were printed, translated into some 23 languages.
In his biography, This I Remember, he recalls the lessons God taught him as a student and staff member at NZBTI.(2) His first experience of God supplying his financial needs came about when, as a young indebted student, he received an unexpected cheque sufficient to meet his fees. The acceptance of an invitation to join the staff at NZBTI seemed to be blocked by his father suffering a nervous breakdown. However, shortly after Sanders took a step of faith and accepted the role, his father fully recovered. During his years at the Institute he experienced occasions when the Holy Spirit sovereignly came upon the student body. Walking to church one Sunday evening, he felt a strong urge to return home and pray for blessing on the College. The next morning, as he gave a devotional message to the students, there was an unusual air of expectancy. Kneeling to pray together, the whole student body was gripped in a spirit of prayer. Lectures were abandoned for three days as they waited on God – for many, these were life-changing days. Sanders carried these lessons with him into the next challenging chapter of his life.
In 1945, J.O. Sanders accepted the call to become the Australasian Director of the China Inland Mission (CIM). In 1954 he was appointed General Director at a critical time in the leadership of the mission. The expulsion of all CIM missionaries from China after the Communist take-over had raised questions about whether CIM had a future at all, and he rose to the challenge of instilling a new vision into what became the Overseas Missionary Fellowship (OMF).
Upon retiring from OMF in 1969, he spent the next two decades teaching around the world (including lecturing at his old Institute) and writing books. He spent 1973-74 as Principal of the Christian Leaders’ Training College in Papua New Guinea. In 1980 Oswald Sanders received an OBE “for services to the Bible College of New Zealand” and in 1992 was bestowed with the highest award of the Australian College of Theology, Doctor of Theology, during the 70th anniversary celebrations of BCNZ. He died in October that year, one week after his 90th birthday.(3)
J.O. Sanders was first married to Edith Dobson in 1931 and they had a son Wilbur. Edith died of cancer in Melbourne in 1966. In September 1968, at the NZBTI campus in Henderson, he married Mary Miller, a widow, long-time friend of Edith and Oswald, and daughter of Joseph Kemp. Mary died in December 1972.
1. His first book in 1937, Divine Art of Soul-Winning contained lectures he gave at NZBTI. One of J.O. Sanders’ books was Expanding Horizons: the story of the New Zealand Bible Training Institute (Institute Press, Auckland) 1971, written at the time of this College’s 50th Jubilee.
2. J.O. Sanders, This I Remember: Reminiscences of J. Oswald Sanders (Kingsway Publications, 1982)
3. Material for this article was drawn from J.O. Sanders’ reflections “Full Circle” in the Jubilee Issue of The Reaper, 1971; his book, This I Remember: Reminiscences of J. Oswald Sanders (Kingsway Publications, 1982), and The Reaper (Vol. 74/No.6, Dec-Jan 1993). A short biography of his life, written by Dr Peter Lineham, can be found at: https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4s3/sanders-john-oswald