A Review of Lyle Dorsett, A Passion for God The Spiritual Journey of A.W. Tozer (2008)
A number of us have enjoyed the books of A.W. Tozer (including, The Pursuit of God, The Knowledge of the Holy, and Worship: The Missing Jewel of the Evangelical Church), but few of us know anything about his life and pastoral ministry. Years ago, I read James Snyder’s biography of Tozer and learned a lot from it. However, this more brief biography by Dorsett was based on interviews with Tozer’s family and friends, so it gives a more intimate portrait, though that’s a complicated word to use to describe Tozer.
He was born in 1897 in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains of Central Pennsylvania. The third of six children, Tozer’s family was poor and all the children learned the value of hard work that farm life teaches. His father modeled aloofness and insensitivity to his children. He was irreligious and his family did not attend any church, though he encouraged his children to attend school. Aiden Wilson Tozer finished the eighth grade, but that ended his formal education.
The key event in Aiden’s childhood took place when the family home burned down when he was ten years old... No one was injured but nearly all the family’s possessions were lost. This crisis precipitated the family’s move to Akron, Ohio, following the oldest boy, who had gone there and found work in the tire industry.
Akron brought Aiden into contact with churches and street preachers and he was converted. At Grace Methodist Episcopal Church, a woman took him under her wing and directed him to receive the baptism of the Holy Ghost, an event that occurred when Aiden was nineteen years old. He eventually married her daughter.
Aiden also attended a church in the Christian and Missionary Alliance that proclaimed the fourfold gospel: Jesus as Savior, Sanctifier, Healer and Coming King. The pastor of this church mentored young Aiden and encouraged him in his early attempts at preaching, a calling he was beginning to sense as his own.
He eventually took a call to a C&MA church in West Virginia and so his ministry began, as did his family. They had six boys and a trailer, a girl named Rebecca, born nine years after the youngest of her brothers. Aiden pastored two churches in West Virginia (interrupted by a brief stint in Toledo) and one in Indianapolis, before settling in a church on the south side of Chicago (in 1928) where he remained for thirty years.
Here are some of the highlights and characteristics of Tozer’s life and ministry:
- Clearly, he loved to preach and prepare sermons and was very gifted at this work. However, he disdained other pastoral duties like home and hospital visitation and leading the elders. The wife of one pastoral intern called his church a preaching center and not a real church.
- He had a passion for reading and read books on all subjects. Occasionally he would get on a train, ride for a few hours, and then take another train back, in order to give himself some time for uninterrupted reading in a private compartment. He especially read the medieval and Protestant mystics who spoke of their supreme desire to love Jesus most of all and to be united with him.
- Devotion to prayer characterized his ministry. He would go to his church office in a suit and then, immediately upon his arrival, he’d change into his praying trousers and hit the floor. He often said, “as a man prays, so he is.”
- He was dedicated to evangelism. Tozer would frequently preach in evangelistic meetings in other cities.
- For better or for worse, he was an introvert. He did not like to stand at the door of the church after the worship service and would quickly make his way to the nursery where he would greet and talk to the babies and young children. He made up (very spiritual) excuses for why he didn’t stand at the door, but it seems he was uncomfortable around people. Toward the end, Tozer remarked, “I’ve led a lonely life.”
- He neglected his wife and failed to consult her on key decisions that he made. By and large she suffered silently, wishing and hoping for an intimate relationship with her husband, but he seemed incapable or unwilling to respond. He was intimate with God but not with her. After Tozer’s death in 1963, she remarried a widower, and later commented, “I have never been happier in my life. Aiden loved Jesus Christ, but Leonard Odam [her new husband] loves me.” Ouch.
- He attracted many students from the greater Chicago area to his church on Sunday evenings. They enjoyed his call for radical discipleship and complete abandonment to Jesus. Many came to hear him from Wheaton College and Moody Bible Institute.
- Yet he could not seem to connect with his own children, with the possible exception of his daughter. One son characterized their mother as a “single parent,” and none of them felt like they knew their dad. He was never mean or abusive.
- He rarely drove a car and Mrs. Tozer was dependent on others to drive her around town to do errands. After his death, she discovered that Tozer regularly gave away half of his salary to the church, and that he had not saved up very much for her. He also turned down several raises while his children were young and so Mrs. Tozer had to scrimp and save and mend and sew.
- He liked to shoot a rifle, either in his attic or at a target range and taught his children to shoot a gun. But, by and large, he had few hobbies.
- He made it his aim to focus on the depth of his ministry and let the Holy Spirit take care of the breadth. Tozer was the editor of The Alliance Weekly, the C&MA’s denominational magazine, and contributed many articles to it. Some of his books developed out of these articles.
- Here is how he wrote his most enduring book, The Pursuit of God. He was invited to preach in McAllen, Texas. He took a train down and asked the porter for a writing table, pulled the curtain in his compartment and wrote all day and all night. When he arrived at his destination the next morning, The Pursuit of God was complete.
In the 1940s and 50s Chicago’s south side started to change. Whites moved out to the suburbs and blacks moved in from the south. Many of the latter made it clear they did not want to attend white churches and hoped that the whites would simply leave. Some said so in blunt terms. They wanted white churches to relocate and sell them the church buildings so they could have their own church buildings.
Some of this was black racism, but it was complicated. Whites could move into any neighborhood they wanted, provided they had the money. But banks simply refused to give loans to black families to move into certain neighborhoods, even if they had the cash. And the city council did not want new churches to be built, since they would lose money. In order to build new churches, houses would have to be torn down. The city would receive income from houses via property taxes, but churches paid no tax.
At this difficult time, a church in Toronto approached Tozer with an offer that he ultimately accepted. You come and preach at our church and we’ll get a young guy to do the pastoral work. Their children were grown by this time and Tozer’s time in Canada bore fruit. Unfortunately, he died from complications arising from a heart attack at the age of 66.
This is a nice little biography, though the insight it brings is mainly negative toward the man. Few knew about his awkward family life and most of us would prefer not to know these things about our heroes. Yet the truth is the truth and we should be grateful to Dorsett for filling out our picture of Tozer. Great men often have feet of clay, and though it dims our view of their greatness, it does magnify the God who uses redeemed sinners to do great things. Without hesitation, I urge you to read Tozer’s classics, but don’t follow him in his family life or in his practice of pastoral ministry.