July 22, 2024
Society of the Burning Heart and a Passion For God – The Spiritual Journey of AW Tozer

“I’ve had a lonely life.” This is a statement made by Dr. Aiden W. Tozer not long before he died in 1963, aged 66. The truth is he “kept almost everyone he knew at a personal distance” all his life.[1] It is only by tracing back his heritage that we gain but a glimpse of why he was so distant.

He grew up in the tough mountain territory of Pennsylvania in the foothills of the Alleghenies. His father Jacob was a hard working, uncompromising man, completely estranged to sentimentalism. Although he was always very thankful of his heritage, Aiden shouldered a huge burden for the family from about the age of ten, after a fire tragically burned down the family home. Educationally, the McGuffey Readers played a huge role in the Tozer children’s education giving strong, Christian-based, moral direction. The fire that significantly interrupted much of the family dynamic the Tozer’s had, was later seen as something that brought good, but only after some major pain of adjustment. The fire marked the end of an era and Aiden was never a boy again.[2]

Some books are refreshingly spritely in their representation of truth, and Lyle Dorsett’s portrayal of the 20th Century prophet, Aiden Wilson Tozer, a.k.a. A.W. Tozer, is abundant in its accuracy and thoroughly researched.[3] This article is based upon, and summarises, Dorsett’s book.

The “Society of the Burning Heart,” and “meeting God in adoring silence” were always what captivated Dr. Tozer. He quintessentially loved his Lord Jesus Christ, first and foremost in his life. Wrapping the mysticism of God with inerrancy of the biblical Word regarding the theology of the Godhead, Tozer was as spiritually fervent and complete a minister anyone could find. Attracted to Christianity when he heard Matthew 11:28-30 preached, he was burdened and weary for Christ and he found an early encourager to invest spiritually from his soon-to-be mother-in-law, a Spirit-filled zealot for worship.[4] This released within him a call of God that would endure faithfully for the next forty five years.

Even though he was called and very soon responded, he and his new wife Ada were caught seriously short by World War I, with Aiden being conscripted in bizarre circumstances that would have proved to be a major test of his calledness. This part of the story is truly bewildering — an inspiration of faithfulness.[5]

His ordination on 18 August, 1920 was marked for the reason that he did not celebrate with others afterward; he sought “his Saviour in the secret place” preferring to be alone to pray and seek God’s face.[6] His Prayer of a Minor Prophet[7] reflects his ardent desire to follow his ‘awful, wonderful, entrancing’ God. He prays for protection against the “curse of compromise, of imitation, of professionalism.” He said in it, “I am a prophet, not a promoter, not a religious manager.” He asked for God instead to “drive [him] to the place of prayer.” [8]

Notwithstanding the assertion he was one of the most highly regarded pastors of the 20th Century it’s ironic that Tozer was “no example of how to do pastoral work.”[9] Yet he was a tower for all ministers, youth, and college-aged people he mentored. His teaching and preaching ministry were said to be of the highest class. Young people saw him as an authoritative figure because he lacked ambition and never pushed his own barrow; he was dignified to an inch.

One of the toughest critics of his own ‘profession,’ he made his share of enemies both in ministry and beyond. He seriously lamented the decay he saw in the then modern-day church and its compromise regarding biblical principles. Dr. Tozer attributed the ‘personality boys’ penchant for spiritual compromise as ‘nervousness,’ and too subject to the world.

Tozer’s strong points were many. First, he was an anointed lover of the Godhead. He loved Jesus Christ more than anything or anyone. He worshipped him in truth and spent as much as five or six hours a day (his entire morning six days a week) praying and reading the Bible. He was also quite fiercely ecumenical provided other denominations and leaders supported biblical inerrancy and didn’t compromise biblical ideals for worldly ones.

He was a voracious reader, powering through more books and authors in a week than some people would in a lifetime. He also read very broadly into the sciences, history, poetry, philosophy, the arts, and ethics, as well as the early Church Fathers, influences in Church history, and theologians. Second-hand bookstores and libraries were frequent haunts. He took literally the wonder of Psalm 8 and believed strongly in learning all he could about creation. The cliché “All truth is God’s truth” was no cliché for A.W. Tozer, and “he was every bit as driven” as secular men, but his motives were “to know God and make Him known,” not make money.[10] Above all “he became magnificently obsessive about the shaping of the soul into Christlikeness.”[11]

Tozer loved children and routinely met with the children in the Sunday School after services instead of fielding plastic platitudes from well-meaning parishioners after his weekly sermons. Many a mother was delighted that their famous pastor sowed into their son’s and daughter’s lives in this way.

Tozer’s prayer life was astonishing in anyone’s language. He would pray kneeling or prostrate on the floor often moaning or weeping as he bathed in the Presence each day. Unflinchingly inerrant in his view of Scripture he would use only the Bible in much of his daily reflections and meditation. His prayer life was the major feeder for his preaching as he sought to know the will of God through personal experience rather than write a ‘self-made’ sermon. He strongly desired to “experience [truth] before proclamation [of it].”[12]

Tozer’s not-so-good points were probably surprisingly numerous — which is a huge encouragement to the rest of us — in sum, the ill-equipped, which is all of us. He had the gift of discernment, but using this gift often left Tozer depressed, as he lamented destructive influences affecting the Church and individuals. He often warned his associate pastor Raymond McAfee, “If you want to be happy, don’t ask for the gift of discernment.”[13]

Althought Tozer was capable in the home, he was anything but an affectionate husband and father. None of his children, with the possible exception of his last, Rebecca, could say they enjoyed any real sense of intimacy with their father; Tozer saved his affection for his Lord. On marrying again after Tozer’s eventual death in 1963, Ada Tozer said, contrasting husbands, “Aiden loved Jesus Christ, but Leonard Odam loves me.”[14] A summarisation of Aiden and Ada’s relationship revealed they both lived lonely, emotionally separate lives. Aiden would often travel and preach, leaving Ada behind. Dr. Tozer also never encouraged fraternisation with his family or Ada’s and even actively discouraged it; family holidays were also not his thing.[15]

Dr. Tozer, it’s already been mentioned, was not a pastoral carer. He was an opinionated prophet, and even could be called separatist at times.[16] He sensed a “sharp spiritual contradiction” between most pastors and believer’s heads and hearts; that in fact they were not ‘seekers still.’ “They seek and find and seek no more,” he said. This was a hideous dichotomy for Dr. Tozer, and it irritated him no end. He simultaneously held biblical inerrancy and spiritual experience like no other. He had nothing but “disdain [for ministers] for materialism, consumerism, and worldliness.” He freely criticised ministers and churches for any evidence he saw of this.

Far above all, Dr. A.W. Tozer stands out as the prophetic light of the middle 20th Century; his legacy has been felt very personally and indelibly through Chicago, Illinois, and through the surrounding States within the U.S. Dorsett’s offering is remarkably well researched and written. It’s a book hard to put down. The book is also a resource; I’ve gone back to it at various stages.

Copyright © 2008, S.J. Wickham. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.

[1] Lyle W. Dorsett, A Passion For God: The Spiritual Journey of A.W. Tozer, (Chicago, Illinois: Moody Publishers, 2008), p. 17.
[2] Ibid, pp. 33-38. Again, Aiden was aged 10 when the fire occurred.
[3] This book is heavily cited.
[4] Ibid, p. 51.
[5] ibid, p. 57.
[6] The full Prayer of a Minor Prophet is widely available and is printed verbatim on pages 65-68 of Dorsett’s book.
[7] This work was finally published in the Alliance Weekly in 1950.
[8] Ibid, pp. 65-68.
[9] Ibid, p. 135. This quote is from Rev. Ed J. Maxey who assisted Tozer for two years during the mid-1950s.
[10] Ibid, p. 94.
[11] Ibid, p. 21.
[12] Ibid, p. 136.
[13] Ibid, p. 134.
[14] Ibid, p. 160.
[15] Ibid, p. 143-4. This reference applies to the two previous sentences.
[16] Ibid, p. 138-9.