James Edwin Orr was born in Britain on 15 January 1912 in Belfast in northern Ireland, of American-British parentage. He was one of the five children of William Stewart Orr and Rose Orr (nee Wright). He studied at the College of Technology, Belfast.
In 1930 or 1931, after spending some years as a baker, Orr began evangelizing, not only in Britain but also elsewhere in Europe, North America, Australia and South Africa. During these years he also wrote several accounts of his tours of preaching.
On 15 January 1937 he married Ivy Muriel Carol Carson. They would have four children. After their marriage the Orrs evangelized in Australia (1979), China, Canada and the United States of America.
In 1939 Orr enrolled at Northwest University. On 15 January 1940 he was ordained into the Baptist Christian ministry, at Newark, New Jersey, USA. He received his MA from Northwest University in 1941, and his ThD from Northern Baptist Seminary in 1943.
During World War II he served as a chaplain in the US Air Force in the Pacific.
After the war he continued his studies and took his PhD at Oxford University in 1948, with a thesis on the second evangelical awakening in Britain.
In 1949 he and his wife made the USA their permanent base, while continuing to travel the world promoting church revival and renewal. They eventually travelled to 150 countries.
In 1966 or 1967 Orr became a Professor at the School of World Missions, in Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California. He remained a professor there until 1981, and a professor emeritus thereafter. Of him Billy Graham wrote, "Dr. J. Edwin Orr, in my opinion, is one of the greatest authorities on the history of religious revivals in the Protestant world.
From 1951 he was influential in the Campus Crusade for Christ, and was one of the five original board members of that organization.
He wrote numerous books—many of them histories of evangelical revivals—and authored a number of hymns. One of them—"Cleanse Me"—was selected for inclusion in Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions and The One Year Great Songs of Faith. The words of "Cleanse Me" are based on Psalm 139:23-24 and Psalm 51:2; it is set to the Maori folk tune PO ATA RAU (translated as "Now Is The Hour"). It was written in 1936 when Orr was at an Easter revival meeting in Ngaruawahia, New Zealand, where he heard and was enchanted by the Maori Song of Farewell. "Cleanse Me" has been recorded numerous times, with performances by Bill and Gloria Gaither, Irene Bridger, Kenon D. Renfrow, Lloyd Williams, the El Paso Wind Symphony, and Nick Reynolds and Tom Parsons available from one online music store. Nowadays "Cleanse Me" is commonly rendered to "Search Me, O God" and the PO ATA RAU tune named MAORI in hymnals.Orr died on 22 April 1987, at Ridgecrest, North Carolina, USA.