Born April 21, 1897, in a tiny farming community in the hills of western Pennsylvania, Aiden Wilson Tozer influenced the evangelical community as few have. His ministry included roles as pastor, author, editor, Bible conference speaker, denominational leader and, to many, a reliable spiritual mentor. For thirty-one years he achieved prominence as pastor of Southside Alliance Church in Chicago, serving there from 1928 to 1959.
Many regarded Tozer as a twentieth-century prophet. His contribution to Christians of his generation was a degree of insight regarding biblical truth and the nature and state of the Evangelical in his day. With the innate ability to express his perceptions in a beautiful, simple, forceful manner, Tozer was often the voice of God when the words of others were but echoes.
Some referred to him as the conscience of evangelicalism. As such he recognized modern Christianity sailing through dense spiritual fog and pointed out the rocks on which it could flounder if it continued its course. His spiritual intuition enabled him to sense error, name it for what it was and reject it — all in one decisive act. In a few short sentences he could tear to pieces the spurious arguments of others. Whether writing or speaking, Tozer always ministered to those hungry for God.
His Chicago ministry was remarkable, the seeds of which were carried far and wide. Not that he was ever popular in the sense of jostling crowds and a buzzing of excitement round him. In the forenoon his church was full; however, in the evening a select company of worshipers gathered out of a wide city which prides itself on its discernment in mental and spiritual things. Those attracted by his preaching knew, with conviction, there was none like it anywhere. People awaited Tozer with expectancy, knowing that they would hear old truths robed in fresh and sparkling, sometimes startling, expressions.
His goal and objective in preaching was to lead the listener straight into the presence of God. Therefore, everything that would distract from the message, and particularly from God, he ruthlessly cut out.
Tozer’s method of preaching was the strong declaration of biblical principles, never merely an involvement in word studies, clever outlines, or statistics. Listening to his recorded sermons or reading any of his numerous books, the observer will notice the absence of alliteration. His style was the simple unfolding of truth as naturally as a flower unfolding in the sunlight.
Tozer usually assigned himself a chapter, a book or a theme for his preaching schedule. He felt it helped to keep him on track in preparation. Often he would go to his study in the church to prepare sermons or write editorials. His heart and mind were, as he put it, “dry and uninspired as a burnt shingle.” Opening his Bible and possibly a hymn book, he would kneel at an old couch and begin worshiping God. In this posture his heart would overflow with matter and soon he would be writing ferociously. Several sermons or editorials would be completed at one time.
Sermon preparation was an unrelenting discipline. At times he might have sermon outlines written out for two or three weeks in advance. Of course, there were those times when it did not come that easy and the outline would not come as he wanted. It did not matter if he was riding a bus or train, or if someone was driving him to an appointment across town, as soon as he would get settled in his seat, out would come a book. This might be a book he was reading at the time, or a spiral notebook in which he would make notes for a sermon or article. He was constantly studying, reading, writing and thinking. Hours were spent mulling over a word or phrase.
He meticulously prepared sermons that were majestic and profound. He learned to use crisp, precise, climactic sentences. Not possessing a strong voice, his message nevertheless penetrated the soul. You never forgot what he said.
Tozer’s forte was his prayer life. His entire ministry of preaching and writing flowed out of his fervent prayer life. He often said, “As a man prayed so was he.” What he discovered in prayer soon found expression in sermons, articles, editorials and finally in his books. The major part of his preparation was prayer. True preaching always begins in prayer. Any sermon that does not originate in prayer is just not a message from God, no matter how learned the preacher is. Preaching must be the present voice of God to a particular people.
Tozer early realized that to be effective in preaching he would have to develop sensitivity and precision in the use of words. He developed an aversion to dead words and led a vigorous crusade against overworked cliches.
The reading habit Tozer acquired as a young man developed, and as a pastor his appetite and acquisitions increased. In New York, Chicago, and other cities Tozer frequently rummaged through the offerings of secondhand bookstores. He had a good eye for the unusual, and his library held books with which the average reader is unacquainted. He read theology, history, philosophy, poetry, and literature in general, and was irresistibly attracted to the ancient writers, particularly the church fathers and Christian mystics.
High above all other books he placed the Bible, which he read diligently. With dictionary, lexicon, and concordance at hand he sought the etymology of all doubtful words. He devoted long hours to memorizing the Scriptures and great poets. The accuracy and appropriateness of his quotations in sermons and writings reflected his familiarity with many branches of learning. He seemed to always have at hand what he wanted when he wanted it.
According to Tozer, every preacher must develop the habit of observing good reading. For example, Tozer cautioned against reading a good book. He said many good books are published every year; the problem with the majority of these is they are merely rehashing what someone else has written. In your reading don’t become enamored with the latest release. Go back to the classics, he often counseled, and learn from them. Read some of the great Puritan authors and some of the mystics. Read and memorize good poetry. Observe how these writers express themselves. Become word conscious. Pay attention to words and the effect they have. Get and use a dictionary. Nothing takes the place of using the right word. Flaubert used to say there are no synonyms; find the right word and use it. Tozer’s trademark in his preaching was that he always seemed to have at his command the right word.
Tozer, whatever else he may have been, was a thinker. He would mull an idea over in his mind for weeks, sometimes months. He was fond of saying, “I refuse to allow any man to put his glasses on me and force me to see everything in his light.”
A voracious reader, he would read a bit, then think and meditated on what he had read. He often said, “You should think ten times more than you read.” Consequently, his sermons were not shallow emotional appeals. There was hard thinking behind them and Tozer forced hearers to think. He had the ability to make you face yourself in the light of what God was saying.
In preaching, Tozer held his Bible in his left hand and with his right hand would follow his notes. He always preached from an outline, usually a piece of 8×10″ paper folded in half, with notes carefully written on both of the inside halves clipped to the page of his Bible. All the time he preached, Tozer rocked back and forth on his toes.
Especially in his own pulpit, the first few minutes appeared as though he was slowly, deliberately reading from a manuscript, which, of course, did not exist. He never ran up and down, he rarely moved, he never made any demonstrations. Instead of shouting, he used crisp, precise, climactic sentences. He spoke in a quiet voice and learned how to emphasize things by snapping the sentence with a word. His idea of sermon craft was, “Get the idea down and the words will take care of themselves at delivery.”
Tozer’s illustrations were sometimes grotesque, but he always communicated his point. Always he spoke in figures, even in private conversation. This was due, no doubt, to his training and reading and meditation. In Tozer’s published works his illustrations, and for the most part his humor, are edited out.
A lively imagination and eloquent descriptive powers gave force and vividness to his presentations. His special love for poetry and the hymns of the church gave wings to his preaching and writing. Psalm 104, which the King James Version says is a meditation upon the majesty and providence of God, is full of allusions to nature that thrilled Tozer’s heart and he often preached from it. At the close of one such sermon an auditor exclaimed, “He out-Davided David!”
Toward the end of his ministry Tozer enlisted his church’s prayer for a personal struggle. “Pray for me,” he requested, “in the light of the pressures of our times that I will not just come to a wearied end — an exhausted, tired old preacher, interested only in hunting a place to roost. Pray that I will be willing to let my Christian experience and Christian standards cost me something right down to the last gasp!”
On May 12, 1963, A. W. Tozer’s earthly labors ended. His faith in God’s majesty became sight as he entered into the presence of God. Even though his physical presence is far removed from us, Tozer continues to minister to those who are thirsty for the things of God.

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