A.W. Tozer: Biographical Essay
By Rev. Dr. James L. Snyder
Born April 21, 1897, in the mountainous region of western Pennsylvania, Aiden Wilson Tozer influenced his generation like no other individual.
During his lifetime, Tozer, as he preferred, earned the reputation of a twentieth-century prophet. His spiritual gifts afforded him a degree of insight regarding biblical truth and the nature and state of the evangelical church in his day. Able to express his perceptions in a beautiful, simple, forceful manner, Tozer was often the voice of God when the words of others were but echoes. He saw through the fog of modern Christianity, pointing out the rocks on which it might flounder if it continued its course.
Just before his 17th birthday, Tozer heard a street preacher on a corner in Akron, Ohio, as he walked home from his job at a rubber factory. He could not shake off the simple message. “If you don’t know how to be saved,” the preacher said, “just call on God, saying, ‘Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.'” Wrestling with God for some time at home, Tozer emerged from his attic sanctuary a new creature in Christ.
Under the tutelage of his future mother-in-law, Tozer progressed rapidly in the things of God. She encouraged him to read good books, study the Bible, and pray. She also urged him to preach, often gathering people in her home to hear him.
In 1919, without formal education, they called Tozer to pastor a small storefront church in Nutter Fort, West Virginia. In these humble beginnings Tozer and his new bride, Ada Cecilia Pfaust, launched a ministry that was to span some forty-four years in The Christian and Missionary Alliance. Other churches in Indiana and Ohio would follow.
In 1928 Tozer received a call from The Southside Alliance Church in Chicago. Not too anxious to leave his congregation in Indianapolis, he pushed aside the invitation. After some persuasion Tozer agreed to go and preach, but he offered no guarantees.
That first Sunday in Chicago was notable. Francis Chase, a commercial illustrator, and close friend of Tozer’s, remembered that first service. “He said very little and I didn’t expect much. He was slight with plenty of black hair, and certainly not a fashion plate as we say. He wore a black tie about 1 1/4 inches in width. His shoes were even then outmoded; high tops with hooks part way up. I introduced him and left the platform. He said nothing about being pleased to be there or any other pat phrases usually given on such occasions, but simply introduced his sermon topic, which was, “God’s Westminister Abbey,” based on the eleventh chapter of Hebrews.”
Writing to a friend after accepting the call to Chicago, Tozer confided, “As soon as I passed the city limits of Indianapolis I had a favorable earnest of my decision. There swept over my soul a sweet peace and I knew that I was in the will of God.”
From the first, his approach to preaching captivated the congregation — with superior language and phrases — and his splendid voice and diction. Numbering around eighty people when Tozer began, the congregation had to build larger facilities in 1941 to accommodate about 800. Many felt there were only two great churches in Chicago: Moody Memorial Church with Harry Ironside and Southside Alliance Church where Tozer pastored. Hundreds of people, especially nearby college students, flocked to his services.
From 1951 to 1959 Tozer’s ministry enlarged when WMBI, the Moody radio station, broadcast a weekly program originating from his church study. His ministry to the nearby Bible colleges was his special delight. Tozer pastored the Southside Alliance Church from 1928 until 1959, when he accepted the call from the Avenue Road Alliance Church in Toronto, Canada.
Tozer was fond of saying, “I refuse to allow any man to put his glasses on me and force me to see everything in his light.” He literally burned the midnight oil in his quest for truth. Giving himself to the study of the great classics in religion, philosophy, literature, poetry, the church fathers and Christian mystics. His special love for poetry and the hymns of the church gave wings to his preaching and writing.
A voracious reader, he would read a bit, then think and meditated on what he had read. He often said, “You should think ten times more than you read.” He never read a book merely to say he had read it. Always a book was to lead him on in his quest for God. In an editorial on the subject Tozer said that the best book was the one that starts the reader on a train of thought and then bows out, its work finished.
In 1950 Tozer was elected editor of the Alliance Weekly, now the Alliance Life, official magazine of The Christian and Missionary Alliance. The committee that presented Tozer’s name said of him, “His clear and forceful style and Bible-loving Christians will approve his unique presentation of a Christ-centered gospel . . . everywhere.” That proved prophetic, as under Tozer’s leadership the magazine doubled in circulation. The Alliance Weekly, more than anything else, helped establish Tozer as a spokesman to the evangelical church at large. Someone observed that the Alliance Weekly was the only magazine subscribed to solely for its editorials. Many subscribed to the Alliance Weekly simply for Tozer’s pungent editorials and insightful articles.
They simultaneously published his editorials in Great Britain. H.F. Stevenson, editor of The Life of Faith magazine in London, England, said, “His survey of the contemporary scene was as relevant to Britain as to his own country, so that his articles and books were read avidly here also.”
Tozer’s forte was his prayer life. He often said, “As a man prayed so is he.” To him the worship of God was paramount in his life and ministry. He believed that true service would flow out of pure worship. His preaching and his writings were but extensions of his prayer life. What he discovered in prayer soon found its way into his sermons, then articles and editorials and finally into his many books.
Tozer greatly appreciated craftsmanship and excellence. His writings reveal that he demanded the utmost from himself. Wide reading and a disciplined mind provided him tremendous resources for the apt expressions that flowed from his tongue and pen. Often he would say, “There’s a right word; use it.” Invariably he had the right word at his fingertips.
The great care with which he produced his books established him as a devotional writer of a classic nature who will long be read when we forget his spoken ministry. He labored diligently to develop a style and strength of expression that continually attracted attention.
Tozer’s lively imagination and descriptive powers gave force and vividness to his presentations. He spent hours meticulously producing sermons that we could describe as majestic and profound. Instead of shouting, he used crisp, precise, climactic sentences. His voice and delivery were rather quiet, but the sermon penetrated the soul.
Through his preaching and writing Tozer issued a clarion call for evangelicals to return to authentic, biblical, personal and inward positions that characterized the Christian church when she was most faithful to Christ and His Word. As he expounded the Scriptures, analyzing, or explaining a biblical truth, listeners were brought face-to-face with decisions they would never forget or regret.
As an intellectual beast of prey, Tozer could tear the faulty arguments of an author to pieces. He seemed to have a spiritual intuition enabling him to scent error, name it for what it was and reject it in one decisive act.
J. Francis Chase, close friend for more than thirty years, shares this insight into his work habits.
“He told me once that he would often go to that little dismal loft in the church to write some editorials. He said his heart and mind were as dry and uninspired as a burnt shingle. He would open his Bible, possibly a hymnbook, kneel at that old couch, pick up a pencil, and then the Holy Spirit would come upon him . . . . To keep up with what flooded his soul he would have to write ferociously. Four or five editorials would be completed at one time.”
The freshness of his writings amazes some. A close friend and colleague, Dr. Nathan Bailey, late president of The Christian and Missionary Alliance, explains, “In his writings he left the superficial and the obvious and the trivial for others to toss around, giving himself to the discipline of study and prayer that resulted in articles and books that reached deep into the hearts of men.”
Tozer’s method of preaching was the strong declaration of biblical principles, never merely an involvement in word studies, clever outlines or statistics. Listening to his recorded sermons or reading any of his books, the observer will notice the absence of alliteration. He thought alliteration was artificial. His style was the simple unfolding of truth as naturally as a flower unfolding in the sunlight.
Much like that of Will Rogers, we can describe Tozer’s humor as good, honest, homespun wit. He was not a storyteller or joke-teller, but in the turn of a phrase, a sharp observation through satire or a homely illustration, he got his point across.
Of course too much humor can be ruinous to any sermon, and Tozer struggled to keep his humor under control. Raymond McAfee, long time associate of Tozer in Chicago, said, “I could always tell by the content of humor in his preaching just how tired he was. When his discourse convulsed the audience, he was tired, his guard was down, and humor sneaked through.”
In the true and best sense of the word, Tozer was a mystic. He placed great emphasis on the contemplation of divine things resulting in the God-conscious life.
The last literary project of Tozer’s, completed just before his death and published several months after, was The Christian Book of Mystical Verse. This was a compilation of a wealth of mystic poetry that had warmed and blessed Tozer’s heart throughout the years. In the introductions of that book he defined his meaning of the term mystic.
“The word ‘mystic’ as it occurs in the title of this book refers to that personal spiritual experience common to the saints of Bible times and well known to multitudes of persons in the post-biblical era. I refer to the evangelical mystic who has been brought by the gospel into intimate fellowship with the Godhead. His theology is no less and no more than is taught in the Christian Scriptures. He walks the high road of truth where walked of old prophets and apostles, and where down the centuries walked martyrs, reformers, Puritans, evangelists and missionaries of the cross. He differs from the ordinary orthodox Christian only because he experiences his faith down in the depths of his sentient being while the other does not. He exists in a world of spiritual reality. He is quietly, deeply, and sometimes almost ecstatically aware of the Presence God in his own nature and in the world around him. His religious experience is something elemental, as old as time and the creation. It is immediate acquaintance with God by union with the Eternal Son. It is to know that which passes knowledge.” (The Christian Book of Mystical Verse, Christian Publications, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania).
In his daily walk and ministry, Tozer had a sense of God that enveloped him in reverence and adoration. His one daily exercise was the practice of the presence of God, pursuing Him with all his strength and energy. To him, Jesus Christ was a daily wonder, a recurring astonishment, a continual amazement of love and grace.
Toward the end of his life, Tozer remarked, “I have found God to be cordial and generous and in every way easy to live with.” For almost fifty years Tozer lived in God. He was not a perfect man; He had his faults and “warts,” possessed a disposition that caused him grief and heartache. Although never nasty or venomous, at times he had to apologize to those he inadvertently hurt when he spontaneously popped their balloons of pretense, pomposity and posturing.
Toward the end of his ministry he requested of his congregation: “Pray for me in the light of the pressures of our times. Pray that I will not just come to a wearied end — an exhausted, tired old preacher, interested only in hunting a place to roost. Pray that I will be willing to let my Christian experience and Christian standards cost me something right down to the last gasp!”
On May 12, 1963, A.W. Tozer’s earthly labors ended. His faith in God’s majesty became sight as he entered His presence. At the funeral his daughter, Becky, said something typical of what Tozer himself would have said. “I can’t feel sad; I know Dad’s happy; he’s lived for this all his life.” And so he had. Although his physical presence is far removed from us, Tozer will continue to minister to those thirsty for the things of God.###
Editor’s note: In his important and authoritative book, Authentic Fire—A Response to John MacArthur’s Strange Fire (pp. 50-55) [Excel Publishers], Dr. Michael L. Brown, refers to A.W. Tozer along with Oswald Chambers as two of several spiritual luminaries of past eras who typically are not associated with Pentecostalism and its belief in and operation of the Gifts of the Spirit, in particular. Brown states that Tozer “was someone who believed in the baptism of the Spirit subsequent to salvation as well as the ongoing operation of the sign gifts.” He also states:
What most people do not know about Tozer was that one of his principal mentors was F.F. Bosworth, a balanced Pentecostal pioneer known for his healing ministry and his book, Christ the Healer, widely considered to be one of the best books written on the subject. According to Tozer biographer, Lyle W. Dorsett, Bosworth “introduced [Tozer] to a biblical and fruitful healing ministry, as well as to a balanced and sober view of all the sign gifts, including tongues.” And, he writes, “if Tozer did not stress Christ as Healer, he conducted meetings in tandem with Bosworth where hundreds and even thousands experienced genuine physical healing.” Dorsett also notes that Tozer learned from his mother-in-law about “the baptism and power of the Holy Spirit.”
Brown concludes: “So, two of the most spiritually-deep, Christ-centered authors of the last century, Oswald Chambers and A.W. Tozer, both read far more today than in their lifetimes, were involved in the Pentecostal movement and were heavily impacted by the gifts and power of the Spirit.”
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