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J. Edwin Orr

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Dr. James Edwin Orr (1912–1987) was an Irish-born evangelist who visited most of the world's countries whilst living by faith, evangelising where he could, a scholar and author recognised as an expert in the study of revivals, a popular speaker, and the author of the well-known hymn, "Search me, O God". He held academic qualifications from five different universities on four different continents, was a life fellow or fellow of several geographical and historical societies, and was involved with a number of Christian organisations.

James Edwin Orr
Born 15 January 1912 Belfast
Died 1987
Parents William Stewart Orr

Rose Wright

Spouse Ivy Muriel Carol Carlson
Religious affiliation Baptist
Converted 15 January 1921
Converted under Rose Orr


Some men read history, some write it, and others make it. So far as the history of religious revivals is concerned, J. Edwin Orr belongs to all three categories.

Start of ministry

When Orr was 19, he approached a friend about doing open-air preaching, although neither had any experience with preaching. Playing a ukulele and with his friend singing out of tune, a crowd gathered to see what was going on, then Orr preached.[1]

They then formed a group of 24 young men who prayed then went onto the streets and preached as Orr and his friend did. After someone asked if God answered their prayers, Orr decided to keep a record. So every prayer was recorded in a notebook. The first prayer was for a musical instrument which would have more volume than the ukulele that Orr was using, such as a banjo mandolin or a piano accordion Five days later Orr got a telephone call from a friend of a friend who wanted to join the group, and he had a banjo mandolin.

Later, he checked his notebook and found that every prayer had been answered. He set out to preach around England, and wrote a book of his experiences, Can God —?: "10,000 miles of miracle in Britain". However, a sceptical newspaper claimed that he would have a much harder time living by faith in a communist country than in God-fearing Britain. So he accepted the challenge, and set out for Russia, preaching in various other European countries on the way and before he returned to Britain. This started him on his many journeys to foreign countries. [1]


See the Research page for a timeline of Orr's travels.

Orr is said to have visited more than 150 of the world's 160 countries[note 1], with Albania and Mongolia being among the few not visited. He is said to have visited every country in Africa, the South Seas, and the Americas.[2]

After returning from his trip to Russia and northern Europe in 1935, he undertook another trip to southern Europe, then, still in 1935, to Canada, and followed this by visiting all 48 states of the United States. In 1936 he visited Australia, New Zealand, and Africa, including South Africa. It was in New Zealand during Easter 1936 that he heard the tune that he used for his hymn, Search me o God. Still in 1936, he visited Norway again. He returned to South Africa to marry in January 1937, and in 1938 visited Ulster and again visited Australia.[3]

In 1939 Orr was back in Canada, where his daughter was born, and where he briefly took on the role of pastor at the People's Church in Toronto. While in North America, he studied at Northwestern University in Chicago. In 1940 he was ordained in Newark, and visited Central America and the West Indies. His son was born in Chicago in 1942, and by the end of the year he had enlisted with the U.S. military, and served as a chaplain. With the air force, he visited New Guinea, Borneo, the Philippines, and China. Leaving the air force in 1946, he hitchhiked across Korea, China, and India on his way to Cairo, then went to South Africa, from where, after a two-month rest, he travelled up through Africa, including crossing the Sahara on his way back to England.[3]

Another son was born while he was in Oxford from 1946 to 1948, and there he earned his doctorate. Finally, in 1949, he settled down, living in California, although he continued to travel around the United States speaking. In the 1950s he returned to Australia (twice), Britain, Canada, New Zealand (twice), South Africa (twice), and India, and visited Brazil. The early 1960s saw his return to Britian, Scandinavia, and Denmark. In 1966 he became a professor at Fuller Theological College in Pasadena, a position he held until 1981.[3]

Academic achievements

Orr was ordained in Emmanuel Baptist Church in Newark, in January 1940.[3]

Orr studied at Northwestern University in Chicago, and earned an M.A. there in 1942.[3]

At the end of 1942 he enlisted in the United States armed forces, and went to chaplaincy school at Harvard University.[3]

In 1948 he received his Ph.D. in history from Oxford, and the following year his dissertation was published as the book The Second Evangelical Awakening in Britain.[3][4]

In 1969 he received a D.D. in African History from the University of South Africa, followed by a Th.D. from Serampore University in India the following year, and a Ed.D. from Th.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles the year after that.[3]

Orr held several roles with the Evangelize China Fellowship from 1947 until his death.[2], and was Life Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, the American Geographical Society, the Royal Historical Society, and a Fellow of the American Historical Association.[2][4]

At the time of his death, he was president of the Oxford Association for Research in Revival.[4]

Revival research

Orr's interest in studying revivals was sparked by discovering that both his paternal grandparents were converted during the revival that broke out in Ireland in 1859. He published numerous scholarly works on revivals, and became recognised as the world's leading authority on revivals. Billy Graham said of Orr:

Dr. J. Edwin Orr, in my opinion, is one of the greatest authorities on the history of religious revivals in the Protestant world. I think that God has given him one of the greatest and most unique ministries anywhere in the nation . . . I know of no man who has a greater passion for worldwide revival or a greater love for the souls of men.[5]

Many of Orr's book were on the topic of revivals, as were his academic studies. He was friends with Evan Roberts, one of the leaders in the 1905 Welsh revival.

Australian historian of Christianity, Robert Evans, wrote that "Every student in the field of evangelical revivals in Australia (as in many other countries) is seriously indebted to Dr. J. Edwin Orr."[6]


See the Research page for a list of Orr's publications.

Orr was a prolific author, with over 40 books to his credit, and over one million copies sold, translated into various languages.

His earliest books were stories of his travels around the world evangelising, starting with his 1936 book Can God?, subtitled 10,000 miles of miracle in Britain, the story of his travels around Britain. There followed further books on his travels to Russia, the Middle East, Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand, and South Africa.

A number of his books were histories of revivals, some of which were the results of his academic studies. The Second Evangelical Awakening in Britain, for example, was based on his Oxford doctoral research.

Orr continued to publish books on revivals, evangelism, and the Christian life until his death, at which time he had several manuscripts in preparation,[4] which were finalised and published after his death.

Whilst attending the Easter convention in Ngaruawahia, New Zealand, in 1936, Orr heard a Maori song, and was taken by the tune. He wrote new words for the tune, based on Psalm 139:23-24, which is known as "Cleanse Me" or "Search me O God".[7] The first verse reads:

Search me, O God, and know my heart today,
Try me, O Saviour, know my thoughts, I pray:
See if there be some wicked way in me:
Cleanse me from every sin and set me free.

Living by faith

Orr "lived by faith", meaning that for much of his life he had no paid job, but relied on God to provide his needs. He relates many examples of this provision in some of his talks, including the following two.

Arriving in Denmark

Orr arrived in Copenhagen in 1935 with the equivalent of about one dollar in his pocket, not having arranged a place to stay, and with the temperature being zero. He recalled being given the name of a Lutheran Christian there, so he looked up Nils Sorensen in the telephone book. There were five people of that name, but he didn't want to use his little money calling them, so he took note of the addresses and, despite not speaking much Danish, asked directions from passersby to the nearest address. It took him an hour and a half to reach the first one. Arriving at the apartment, he asked the lady who came to the door if Nils Sorensen was there. He didn't understand her reply, so he asked again. Again, he didn't understand her reply, and before he could ask again, she closed the door on him. He started to leave, but she called him back. He still didn't understand her, but this time she had in her hand a copy of his first book, with his photograph on the cover. She invited him in and she called her husband, who was at work, on the telephone, and had him talk to Orr. He spoke reasonable English. He told Orr, "This sounds incredible. Miss Anna Christenson of the China Inland Mission sent me your book last week and told us to pray that you come to Denmark. ... I prayed that you'd come, but I did not expect you to come so quickly! And now you telephone me from my own house! Surely that is the hand of the Lord!" Sorensen, not realising that Orr had no accommodation booked, told him to cancel his hotel booking because he was going to put him up in a hotel where he knew the management. The hotel didn't have any single rooms left, so put Orr in a family suite without charging extra.[8]

A dentist for Mrs. Orr

After arriving in Adelaide in late May 1938, to join her husband,[9] Mrs. Orr had an impacted wisdom tooth removed. She was told that following the operation she would have to remain quiet and return to the surgery each day, as she would have a lot of bleeding. However, Orr was due to speak in Ballarat, so on Friday 3 June 1938[10][9] they travelled to Ballarat on The Overland, the overnight train from Adelaide to Melbourne. On the train, Mrs. Orr bled considerably, but was tended to by another woman travelling on the train who saw Mrs. Orr's plight. The woman had cotton wool and a flask of hot water, and plugged the hole to stop the bleeding. The woman was an Anglican returning to Melbourne whose husband was a dentist in Melbourne, and had brought the materials because, after praying before leaving Adelaide, she felt that she would meet someone with toothache.

On arrival in Ballarat, they were met by a representative of the minister's fraternal, despite Orr failing to telegram his arrival time. The person who met them turned out to be the senior dentist in Ballarat, so when he heard the problem, he took them straight to his surgery for further treatment.[8]


Orr was born to William Stewart Orr and Rose Orr (née Wright) in January 1912 in Belfast. William Orr grew up in Pennsylvania, having been taken to America by his father, who took out American citizenship. William Orr returned to Ireland to marry, so it was there that J. Edwin Orr was born, but with dual Irish-American citizenship.[11]

In January 1937 he married Ivy Muriel Carol Carlson, who was born in South Africa, a descendant of Norwegian immigrants. Mrs. Orr, who was employed in the South African civil service, spoke Afrikaans at work, Norwegian with her family, Zulu to the servants, and English.[9]

The Orrs had three children, Carolyn Astrid, Alan, and David. Carolyn was born in Toronto in 1939, and the sons were born in Chicago in 1942 and Oxford in 1946.


  • Includes biographical information, talks (both audio and video), articles, pictures, and information about Orr's books.

External links


  1. There are now about 195 countries, but there were fewer in Orr's time. See further information on the Research page.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Orr, J. Edwin, Dr. Orr's Personal Testimony (audio).
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Dr. & Mrs. J. Edwin Orr, Evangelize China Fellowship.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 Highlights in the Life of J. Edwin Orr,
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 [1] Newsletter of the American Scientific Affilieation - Canadian Scientific & Christian Affiliation 30:1, February/March 1988
  5. J. Edwin Orr, Full Surrender, Introduction, Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1951, ISBN 978-0551051638, quoted by
  6. Rev. Robert Evans, Early Evangelical Revivals in Australia, 2007, preface.
  7. J. Edwin Orr, Full Surrender, p. 76, Marshall, Morgan, & Scott, 1951, ISBN 978-0551051638.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Orr, J. Edwin, Dr. Orr's Personal Testimony Talk given at Wallace Memorial Presbyterian Church, February 1983
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 When Norway Meets Ireland, The Advertiser (Adelaide), 4 June 1938, p. 27. Retrieved April 12, 2011.
  10. Edwin Orr Party Campaign To Finish This Week The Advertiser (Adelaide), 1 June 1938, p. 12. Retrieved 11 April 2011.
  11. Robert Evans and Roy McKenzie, Evangelical Revivals in New Zealand, Authors and ColCom Press, 1999, ISBN 978-0908815890
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