John honors the life and legacy of Aidan Wilson (A.W.) Tozer—a man of global influence, fully dedicated to The Lord and His Church.View Transcript
Recently, I was asked if I had been to see A.W Tozer’s grave site. I confessed that it hadn’t yet made my list of what to do upon moving to Ohio. As we talked, I pulled out my phone, asked Google for A.W. Tozer’s birth date, and to my interest, discovered that he was born April 21, 1897-125 years ago this month. Alliance family, let’s take this moment to honor one who has influenced us all. “I wish that from the time I was converted at the age of 17, I had gone straight forward, but I didn’t, and most of us have not. We zigzag on our way to heaven in place of flying a straight course.”
He was born and grew up amidst the lovely forest, hills, and streams of Western PA- just 20 miles from Punxsutawney, and half that from Mahaffey Camp and Conference Center. He finished eight grades of school, and by age 15, had moved to Akron where he took up employment at the Goodyear rubber plant. One day, he heard an elderly preacher on the street. The message struck the teenager’s heart. A.W. retreated to the attic of his parents’ home and found Christ as his Savior—it was just before his 18th birthday. He was the first in his family to be saved.
Leadership was obviously upon the youth. Within a year, he started to take part in street meetings and lead neighborhood prayer gatherings. He joined an Alliance church in Akron, and his spiritual training began to deepen. Five days after his 21st birthday, he was married to Ada Pfautz, whose godly life and spiritual counsel influenced him greatly. They would eventually have six sons and a daughter, but before their newlywed year was over, A.W. was called the serve in the U.S. Army in what we now call “World War I.” He never had to see combat as just months later, on November 11th, 1918, world leaders made agreements to bring the war to an end.
Shortly after being discharged, Aiden and Ada moved to West Virginia as he was now “Pastor Tozer,” serving in both Fort Nutter and Morgantown. I’m not sure what it says about his early ministry, but it encourages a few of us that he would pastor no less than five churches by the time he was 31. And for the next 31 years, settled into what was then Southside Alliance Church in Chicago. During this time in Chicago, he began to publish books, served for four years as Alliance vice president, was elected to the board of directors, and eventually became editor of the Alliance Weekly, now Alliance Life. In his “spare time,” he was a popular speaker at conferences, and for nearly a decade, provided a weekly Saturday morning broadcast called, “From the Pastor’s Study” over Moody Radio.
According to those present, as a board member, A.W. would sit through board debates “sphinx-like, thinking his own thoughts in silence and mystery. He’d even excuse himself from the meeting if he felt the discussion tedious or debate not critical. However, when the issue was vital, he would lay open the question under debate with razor-sharp skill. His arguments invariably carrying the day, but if someone ever felt his debates were a personal attack, he was the quickest to apologize.”
He believed strongly, as he once told a 23-year-old L.L. King, that if God had used a message, it was worthy of using again. When he invited King to preach in his pulpit, he instructed the young man not to use a new sermon, “but one [he] knew had been blessed of God to the listener’s profit.” Tozer himself preached a message from Psalm 16 at least 31 times.
According to then president, King, A.W. had a “voracious appetite” for reading; “His knowledge of authors, ancient and modern, was impressive.” King once called Tozer “an intellectual beast of prey capable of tearing an author’s faulty arguments to pieces.” Yet, King described Tozer as “shy . . . friendly . . . but maintaining a certain aloofness.” A.W. disliked the practice of shaking hands with people after a service and didn’t appreciate people who monopolized his time or who, in his words, had “diseased personalities.” According to King, Tozer’s preference was to linger at the front of the sanctuary after a service and talk to people in need. His natural reticence, combined with his significant workload, made pastoral visitation difficult. The story is told that when he visited a member of his church at her bedside, she responded, “I didn’t know I was that sick.”
From the stories about his personality and the writings we’ve all read, many of us are surprised when we learn he had a quick wit and a wonderful sense of humor, often leaving congregations erupting in convulsive laughter. Much of this humor was in the form of “asides” that, to the disappointment of some of us, were removed from manuscripts when his sermons were put into print. For example, in preaching at a Wheaton chapel on an October Wednesday morning in 1952, Tozer spoke with passion about compassion.
He sought to be wounded with the compassion of Christ Himself: “Religion without compassion, to me, is a skeleton without meat and without life. Now, I worry a little in my life about myself, probably more than I should, that I don’t love people more. You know, some people just spill all over, their eyes are always wet, and they have a handkerchief handy continually because they just love you so much. But sometimes they weigh me down a little bit. There used to be a fellow I knew that always wanted to grab me and kiss me, and the trouble with the fellow was he always had a two days’ growth of beard. I never could know how that was. I never could figure when he had shaved because he always had a two days’ growth. If he’d had four days’ growth, it would’ve been soft, but it was just long enough to be mean.”
At age 62, Aiden and Ada accepted one more call, and he became the preaching minister at Avenue Road Church in Toronto, Canada. Just four years later, a blood clot in his coronary artery took his life. And yes, you can visit his grave site in Akron. He never traveled outside of North America, yet his books and sermons have had international influence. He’s been gone from this earth for nearly 60 years, but his legacy in The Alliance and beyond long outlives him. We probably all have our own favorite Tozer book or quips.
Let me share a few of my favorites for us to reflect upon today. Some reveal his passion for God. “To have found God and still pursue him is the soul’s paradox of love.”
And, “We have been snared in the coils of spurious logic, which insists that if we have found Him, we need no more seek Him.”
He called us to a sense of urgency: “When you kill time, remember it has no resurrection.”
And, “A man by his sin may waste himself, which is to waste that which on earth is most like God. This is man’s greatest tragedy, and God’s heaviest grief.”
He called us to step out in faith: “We can afford to follow Him to failure. Faith dares to fail. Resurrection and judgment will demonstrate before all worlds who won and who lost. We can wait.
His tender relationship with the Lord was a common thread: “Did you ever stop to think that God is going to be as pleased to have you with Him in heaven as you are to be there?”
His advice was wise: “Whoever defends himself will have himself for defense, and he will have no other. But let him come defenseless before the Lord, and he will have for his defender no less than God Himself.”
And, “When I understand that everything happening to me is to make me more Christ-like, it resolves a great deal of anxiety.”
His prophetic voice often warned of some danger of the age: “The vague and tenuous hope that God is too kind to punish the ungodly has become a deadly opiate for the consciences of millions.”
And that prophetic voice was often turned toward us, the Church: “One hundred religious persons knit into a unity by careful organization do not constitute a church any more than 11 dead men will make a football team.”
And his classic: “I remind you that there are churches so completely out of the hands of God that if the Holy Spirit withdrew from them, they wouldn’t find it out for many months.” There’s an obvious irony in one: “We can be in our day what the heroes of faith were in their day—but remember, at the time, they didn’t know they were heroes.”
I was two years old when Tozer passed. My father, Paul Stumbo, was 20 years his junior and remembered being in conferences with A.W. Buried somewhere in my moving boxes is a photo of an Alliance pastor’s conference with Tozer in the front row and my father in the back. I bring you Tozer’s story today, not to idolize the man, but we do and should honor those whose lives have been lived in dedicated commitment to the Lord and His Church. Of the likes of Tozer, the Apostle Paul said, “Those who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 3). For me, the reflection on his life and the writing of these words calls me again to live well and to finish well. In a day when so many falter or flee, there are still those who finish and finish strong. Let’s be of that number. I close with one more reading of Tozer’s message to the young college students on that October day 70 years ago.
Oh God, wound me with the incurable homesickness so I’ll never settle down in this world and feel at home here—never feel at home. I don’t care for many spirituals—I think white people have spoiled them—but there’s one spiritual I like to hear sometimes, and that one says that I can’t feel at home in this world anymore. That’s what I meant. I just can’t feel at home anymore in this world. The whole center of things has been shifted to another world from this. Now, you say, ‘That’s fine for an old fellow who’s lost half his hair and the other half’s turned gray, but what about me? Here, I’m young. I’m full of zing and all the rest. What about me?’ I tell you again and repeat that anything God can do for an old man, God can do for a young man or a young woman, and don’t think age makes you spiritual. Age simply may make you intolerable, and it often does. I know what George Mueller meant, or was it George Mueller, when he prayed, ‘Oh God, don’t let me live to be a wicked old man.’ And I have found people who knew God in their youth, and they’re still Christians. Their names are written yonder. They’re God’s children, but they’re terribly hard to live around, and they’re just nasty Christians. They’re Christians, all right. Thank God for justification and imputed righteousness because that’s the only hope those boys will ever have. They’ll get there all right, ‘Clothed in His righteousness alone, faultless to stand before the throne.’ But nobody wants to stand around them here very much because growing age and increasing years hasn’t sweetened them. It sours them, and they’re critical of everybody and everything. They forget they were ever born. They thought they were 50 years old when their mother brought them forth, and they forget youth, and they forget the mighty throbbings and yearnings and dreams that belong to youth. So, age doesn’t make you holy; God makes you holy through Jesus Christ, the blood of the lamb, and the indwelling Spirit.