A. W. Tozer – ‘a man of God’
P. D. Johnson reports on the eleventh annual church history lecture at Cowley Hill Free Church, Borehamwood.
As every homeowner knows, when building work needs to be done it is best to call in a workman whose honesty and competence has been proved in the past. This policy has been followed for several years by the pastor and members of the church at Borehamwood when deciding just who they should invite to deliver their increasingly popular annual church history lecture.
It was, therefore, with pleasure and a sense of anticipation that we welcomed back, for the fifth successive year, Pastor Geoffrey Thomas of Aberystwyth on 27 March 2010. It was also gratifying to notice that by the time Pastor Tom Hill opened the proceedings the chapel on Cowley Hill was comfortably full.
This time, our lecturer took us across the Atlantic, where he introduced us to the fascinating and instructive story of the life and ministry of Aiden Wilson Tozer (1897-1963). How many of those Christ destines for leadership and influence in his church begin their lives in obscurity and humble circumstances.
Nobody who saw the young Aiden Tozer scampering about his father’s farm in the hills of Western Pennsylvania could have known the gifts latent in the boy, or foreseen the years before him of remarkable usefulness in the Christian ministry.
Neither was there anything about those early influences that augured much for the future, for he was brought up in a home where ignorance and superstition abounded, and his education was rudimentary. ‘Nevertheless the counsel of the Lord, that shall stand’ (Proverbs 19:21), and the Lord began in his own sovereign time and way to work out his purposes for this chosen instrument.
A devastating fire, which consumed the family farmhouse yet spared the family, was the beginning of the end of Aiden’s farming days, and in 1912 the Tozer family moved to the bustling city of Akron, Ohio, to take advantage of the job opportunities available at the Goodyear plant.
It was here three years later in 1915 that young Aiden Tozer experienced that greatest blessing – an early conversion. One day, he came across a small crowd at a street corner, and was perfectly astonished to find them listening to an open-air preacher.
The preacher’s words that day went home to at least one heart. ‘If you don’t know how to be saved, just call on God saying, “God be merciful to me a sinner” and God will hear you’.
Under conviction of his sin and his need to find a pardoning God, Tozer returned home, sequestered himself in the attic, and did not emerge until the Lord had spoken pardon and peace to his soul. His ‘pursuit of God’ had begun.
Aiden Tozer’s experience of conversion was followed by a time of chastening after he and a companion narrowly escaped death by drowning, when their home-made raft sank after striking rocks during a reckless sail down the Ohio River.
It was a humbler and more sober young man who submitted to baptism by immersion with the Brethren, and then joined Grace Methodist Episcopal Church. And it was at Grace Church that Aiden first met, and later married, godly, young Ada Cecelia Pfautz. She was from a farming background and her family, like Aiden’s, had come to Akron for work.
Ada was to bear Aiden six sons and one daughter, and prove a loving stay and helpmeet throughout the remainder of his life. Aiden Tozer soon took his first tentative steps as a preacher, his gifts soon becoming recognised by those who heard him.
The ‘burden of the Lord’ was upon him, and eventually he came to see that he must give up his work at Goodyear and fully devote himself to the work of the Christian ministry.
The Lord in his wisdom did not throw the young preacher in at the deep end, but so ordered things that Tozer underwent a kind of ministerial apprenticeship in three short pastorates, where he learnt the disciplines of regular study, sermon preparation and public preaching to a regular congregation.
Then, when the time was ripe, the Lord opened the way in 1928 for Tozer to take up the pastorate of Southside Gospel Tabernacle, a church in downtown Chicago belonging to the Christian and Missionary Alliance. This was a post he filled with great success for the next 31 years.
It was now that Tozer’s preaching gifts began to really blossom. Besides his growing congregation at Southside, many others requested him to speak at conferences and special meetings. Radio work came in due course, so that for the rest of his days Aiden Tozer was never short of public speaking engagements outside his own church.
But his gifts were not limited to preaching. He also possessed literary ability to a marked degree. He was a born writer, and his passion for literature led him to read widely. He particularly loved the Puritans, Christian mystics, poets and the Authorized Version of the Bible.
He soon developed a lucid, edifying style of writing which was altogether his own. His literary ability led to him being invited to take the editorship of the denominational newspaper The Allianceweekly, a role in which he produced many timely, relevant and instructive columns.
And how A. W. Tozer used to redeem the time! There is a story told of how, on an overnight train from Chicago to McAllen in Texas, he sat up all night in his compartment, fortified with just tea and toast, working on a manuscript.
When the Pullman rolled into McAllen station early next morning, Tozer had completed writing what was to become a bestseller – The pursuit of God – now translated into 16 languages.
The late Dr Lloyd-Jones used to remind us that a Christian never acts in isolation; what he does invariably affects other people. Dr Tozer was no exception to that rule, and we must now note some of his shortcomings.
So absorbed did he become in his public work, especially as a conference speaker, that he was rarely at home. How often must Ada have longed for the company and support of her husband, especially when the full tally of her offspring reached seven. And did he really have to shut himself away in his study for so long on the occasions he was at home?
Little wonder then, that family worship was not observed in the Tozer home, and that his sons, though not his beloved daughter, felt their father had become remote from them. Another adverse effect was that pastoral work at Southside Tabernacle usually had to be left to other people.
Just as the failings of God’s servants are faithfully recorded in Scripture, so the annals of subsequent church history record the shortcomings of eminent ministers like Tozer. But they are written to warn us against similar mistakes.
Tozer’s flaws underline the importance of studying and obeying the New Testament precepts governing a Christian husband’s behaviour towards his wife and children, and a Christian pastor’s duties in shepherding his flock.
The steadily worsening law-and-order situation in downtown Chicago eventually forced the church at Southside Gospel Tabernacle to relocate and build a new meeting-house. Dr Tozer felt that this new situation called for the services of a younger man, and tendered his resignation as pastor in June 1959.
After much prayer and careful consideration, he yielded to the insistent calls from the Avenue Road Church in Toronto, where his ministry continued to be much blessed, and his health seemed much improved following a successful heart operation.
His literary work continued apace, and it was in this Canadian city that he completed a fine work on the attributes of God, entitled The knowledge of the holy.
But a man lives only for as long as the Lord has a work for him to do. In May 1963, Tozer was admitted to a Toronto hospital suffering from chest pains. Shortly after his devoted wife had gone home from visiting him on the evening of 11 May, Tozer received another visitor. His Lord and Saviour had come to take his servant home to the mansion he had been preparing for him in glory.
Aiden Tozer’s earthly remains were brought back across the border, where they were interred in a small cemetery in Akron, Ohio. In due course, his friends and relatives, many of whom were also brothers and sisters in Christ, inscribed on his headstone the simple epitaph – ‘A man of God’.