James L. Snyder has authored a highly readable biography of A. W. Tozer, the CMA pastor and writer best known for his book The Knowledge of the Holy. Everyone should periodically read and re-read Tozer, and his life’s story is worth knowing too.
Tozer was born on a Pennsylvania farm at the end of the 1800s. At age 15, he moved to Akron, Ohio, and started working in the factories. He was converted to Christ two years later. Instantly he felt a ravenous hunger to learn about the Lord.
Tozer married, joined the Christian and Missionary Alliance, and started pastoring in West Virginia, though he had received no formal theological training. In 1928, he became pastor of Southside Gospel Tabernacle in Chicago. The church grew steadily but not spectacularly. At no time during his pastorate there did the Sunday morning congregation average more than 400 to 500 people.
In some ways, he wasn’t good at tending his flock. He was seldom in their homes or hospital rooms. He didn’t particularly want to chat with them before or after Sunday services. He usually entered the service during the first hymn, and retreated to his study right after the benediction until most attenders had left. He was something of a recluse. He devoted time to prayer, Bible study, and sermon preparation.
Tozer’s ministry of writing came to the forefront after he was hired as editor of his denominational magazine, The Alliance Weekly. His editorials were so pungent that people of all denominations subscribed to the magazine just to read his columns.
Tozer also went on wrote nine books. One is entitled The Pursuit of God. It was written under unusual circumstances. Tozer was invited to preach in Texas. He boarded the Pullman at Chicago’s old LaSalle Street Station and had a very small compartment—a roomette—containing a bed and a small writing table. As the train lugged out of the station, Tozer sat at his table with his Bible open before him and began to write. About 9 p.m., the porter offered to bring him some food. Tozer ordered toast and tea and kept writing. He wrote all night long, the words coming to him in torrents. By the time the train pulled into McAllen, Texas, he had a rough draft of The Pursuit of God.
Tozer stayed at Southside Tabernacle in Chicago for 31 years. When it appeared his church needed to relocate he resigned to let someone else take over the work. He ended up in Toronto, where he became the preaching pastor of a church for the remaining five years of his life.
It was while he was in Toronto that he finished his greatest book (in my opinion), a book on the attributes of God entitled The Knowledge of the Holy. He began the book saying:
What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us. The history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man’s spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God…. We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God.
It is my opinion that the Christian conception of God current in these middle years of the twentieth century is so decadent as to be utterly beneath the dignity of the Most High God and actually to constitute for professed believers something amounting to moral calamity.
In 1963, Tozer suffered chest pains, entered the hospital, and passed away there at the age of 66. I have a theory that if we could have walked in Tozer’s study following his death, we would have found five book on this desk — the same five books we need on our own tables.
- A Bible. When he was converted at age 17, he was living in a crowded house with no privacy, but he found a small, unused space in the basement behind the furnace. He claimed the spot, cleaned it, made it comfortable, and there spent hours in prayer and Bible study. He felt that the Christian’s work flowed from his/her worship. Without time alone with God in His Word, our work is worthless.
- A Prayer Book. Tozer was known for his intense prayer life. His purpose in praying was primarily to pursue the presence of God. He said, “Prayer at its holiest moment is the entering into God to a place of such blessed union as makes miracles seem tame and remarkable answers to prayer appear something very far short of wonderful by comparison.”
- A Hymn Book. The last book assembled by A.W. Tozer before his death was A Christian Book of Mystical Verse, a collection of his favorite hymns and poems.
- A Devotional Book. Every Christian needs to learn the secret of lectio divina, the art of sacred reading. Tozer so loved to read that he would sometimes buy a round-trip ticket on a train just to procure a few hours of privacy for study and prayer. “The cost is worth it,” he said, “And besides, I like riding the train!” Much of his inspiration came from reading the ancient Christian mystics, like Fénelon. It’s good to have a small collection of devotional books, reading them slowly, a page at a time, prayerfully and thoughtfully. A good place to start would be with one of Tozer’s books.
- A Date Book. Tozer would have subscribed to Eugene Peterson’s advice that our appointment calendars are the way to get unbusy. We get to our calendars before anyone else does and make appointments with ourselves for our time with the Lord, with our families, and with our books.
Psalm 46 says: “Be still and know that I am God.” If we don’t learn how to be still, and can’t learn to know God as we should and as we must.