By Jesse Jost
Leonard Ravenhill, the late passionate revivalist claimed to advise every “Bible student with whom I have contact by phone or letter or in person: Buy all the books Dr. A.W. Tozer has written and digest them.” He said that to know Dr. Tozer was a great blessing. To pray with him was to be in the Holy Place!”
Aiden Wilson Tozer (1897-1963) was a pastor, writer, and passionate God-seeker. His writings continue to stir hearts and light deep desires to really know God. Tozer’s writing played a big role in my spiritual formation, so I was eager to read a biography of him called “A Passion for God: The Spiritual Journey of A. W. Tozer” Written by Lyle W Dorsett.
Tozer had his own blind spots and weaknesses, but he would have been the first to point those out. His desire was not to glorify himself but to point people to God. I found his life fascinating. So if you have been impacted by Tozer and were curious about the man behind his books, here are my notes on his life.
Aiden was born the middle child of Jake and Prude Tozer. His grandmother was his only spiritual influence, but was a pain and critical of Prude.
Aiden’s sister was told to watch the bread in the oven; Gma came over and said the stove needed more wood. The house caught fire, but Gma kept the girl busy saving only Gma’s stuff. The fire fractured the family.
Aiden’s father, Jake Tozer was a stern, depressed caustic, distant man. He worked hard farming but never made any money. When Tozer was 14, the family moved to Akron, Ohio, where Tozer’s oldest brother got their father a job at B.F. Goodrich. Aiden tried to sell things on commission on trains but was no salesman.
He became converted at 17 at a tent meeting. Met his future wife Ada shortly after. Ada’s mother was his spiritual mentor for a while. Aiden soon was revealed as a gifted speaker and discovered that he was called to the ministry of teaching and speaking.
He married Ada after courting for three years. On their honeymoon they went on a teaching trip and were shocked to hear that Aiden had been drafted by the Army and had to report the next day. They needed to beg money to get him to the base. He enjoyed his three months in the military, but the war ended before he saw combat.
Aiden dove right back into ministry. He was mentored by Pentecostal F.F. Bosworth, who was provincial but passionate about the healing ministry. Aiden was also mentored by Paul Rader, who was deeply educated and urban, and inspired Tozer to further his education.
Tozer never finished high school or went to seminary, but he read widely and voraciously. He loved history, literature, classical and enlightenment philosophy, and medieval mystics. He despised psychology and sociology. Later he would grow to love the writings of C.S. Lewis and view him as an original thinker.
Aiden was happy with his Christian Missionary and Alliance church in Indiana but was called to a church in Chicago. He reluctantly checked it out. His sermons astounded the congregation and they begged him to come. He finally agreed. Tozers packed their 5 boys (they ended up with 6 boys and a daughter Rebecca) and moved to Chicago.
Tozer loved all the used bookstores and the bigger libraries. He accepted criticism as a pastor. His dress was seen as hick. His goal became to dress in a way that was not a distraction, dressing simply but staying current. He also toned down his distracting mannerisms, but overall his sermons were fresh and unique. College students from Wheaton and Moody loved his style and content.
Tozer was sometimes insensitive to his wife’s emotional and practical needs. He would leave for speaking engagements without consulting her. Tozer was an anti-materialist and always turned down raises. His congregation saw this as saintly. Ada, his wife, saw it another way; he was insensitive to her as she struggled to feed their large family.
She gained 35 lbs. with her fifth son, Rolland who later felt she blamed him. He would often see tears in her eyes. Ada pushed down a lot of inner pain inside but refused to slander Aiden. She could be humorless and tactless and also harsh, beating Rolland several times for his bed-wetting. She would warn that she would have Aiden beat him when he got home. Aiden would take the boy downstairs and close the door and beat the stairs while telling Rolland to whimper.
Tozer wrote a couple of biographies they made him more well known. In 1949, he wrote “The Pursuit of God” nonstop on tablets while on an overnight train ride. By morning it was finished, and sold very well when published.
Tozer was known to love little kids, but his own sons felt he was distant from them. Tozer went to the nursery because he refused to shake parishioners’ hands after his sermons. He felt their flattery would hurt him and those giving it. He struggled with pride, though he might have felt more humility if he had been aware of what he was doing to his wife and sons.
Tozer had bouts of melancholy and depression (as did Ada, especially after the kids left). He said, “If you want to be happy, don’t pray for discernment. “ He was bothered by the move towards entertainment instead of worship and how churches were copying business models for growth rather than relying on the Holy Spirit. He was also harsh towards religious movies, but later confessed that he had been too harsh.
Tozer loved preaching and studying. He would spend hours on his knees in prayer and kept extra prayer pants that he would change into so as not to ruin the creases on his dress pants. Other men would find Tozer prostrate on the floor in worship. Tozer struggled with people and did not enjoy pastoral visits. He refused to host or visit extended family on either side. He disliked small talk but did not criticize Ada, who had a heart for the needy and would also invite the poor to their Sunday meals.
In the late 50s, Tozer retired so he could spend more time writing and studying but was invited to a CMA church in Toronto. He refused but when told all he had to do was speak twice on Sunday, he accepted in 1960. He had three very successful years there including writing “Knowledge of the Holy” which is still a huge best seller.
On May 12, 1964, he had chest pains and died that night. He had encouraged Ada to reach out to Leonard, a widower ten years her senior. Ada married Leonard a year later, and found he was the husband she deserved; she felt very happy. “Aiden loved Jesus, but Leonard loves me.”
Aiden confessed a few days before he died, “I’ve had a lonely life.” Which is sad, because Ada said the same thing.
Despite his faults as a father, his kids became devout, well-educated Christians. Tozer is still very popular today. He said, “I don’t go to the Bible to get a sermon. I go to see God, and get my sermon from my time with him. “ His passion for God still is felt today.