Tozer meets Fénelon: a dialogue across the centuries

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Tozer meets Fénelon: a dialogue across the centuries

Tuesday, 15 June 2021  | Rex Dale

Of course Aiden Wilson Tozer did not actually meet François Fénelon. Tozer was the pastor of a modest church in Southside Chicago in the twentieth century, while Fénelon was Archbishop of Cambrai, northern France, in the seventeenth century. One day Tozer was going through the shelves of one of his favourite used bookshops. Most of the books he was familiar with. But then his eyes fell on one that was totally new to him. He paid for it and took it home to peruse it. The book was Fénelon’s Spiritual Counsel. Tozer felt at once that this was a highly significant moment for him. He saw at once that Fénelon understood the workings of the human heart to an unusual degree. Tozer was to discover that the book was out of print and practically unobtainable. So though he freely lent books from his personal library, this one could be consulted by others only under his watchful eye.

Tozer and Fénelon’s lives differed enormously, and we shall go into that. Yet Tozer felt an immediate bond with Fénelon through the printed page. Though centuries apart, both writers came to similar conclusions about challenges that can affect the believer and showed a way through.

A.W. Tozer

Let us first look at something of the life of Aiden Wilson Tozer. For me it is always of great interest to study the beginnings of a person’s life and the influences that shaped the person. In his time, Tozer pastored several churches, but is better known as the pastor of a lesser-known denomination in Southside Chicago, and later as the preaching minister of a church in Toronto. He did not appear in the popular press, was no mega-church leader. He was never invited to the White House and, if he were, he probably would have declined.

Tozer grew up in rural Pennsylvania in an area where a small farm could yield barely enough to survive on. As difficult as life was, Tozer would look back on farm life with some fondness as he recalled the animals he was required to tend to. He received a good basic education, but never completed school.

Tozer’s brother Zene, an ‘ideas man’, was a strong influence and persuaded the family to move to Akron, Ohio, where there was a rapidly expanding tyre industry. Jobs were available and the pay was good. By now, Tozer’s appetite for learning was accelerating, so in his job cutting rubber he would prop up a book and memorise poetry. And he now had money to buy books.

The Tozers had no Christian convictions, but neither were they anti-church. One day Tozer felt the urge to enter a church where he heard a man quote the words of Jesus: ‘Come unto me all you labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest’. It seemed like the voice of God to him, though it was ever so faint.

I like to dwell on a person’s spiritual life experience. People come to Christian belief in such an assortment of ways. But in Aiden Tozer’s case it was not all straightforward. Tozer was a loner and, without a suitable environment, he was not going to flourish. He was 17 and his home life did not encourage him to grow in an understanding of the Christian life. His Christian experience then apparently lapsed. Then one day a friend persuaded him to take a journey on a dangerous river. They were inexperienced teenagers on a raft dealing with conditions they had never encountered before. The river was fast-moving and Aiden and his friend lost control. The raft capsized into the foaming waters. They very nearly drowned. As a result, Aiden decided to deal with life in a more determined manner. Accordingly, he made his way home, patched up family relationships and quickly got a new job with Goodyear. He also decided to attend church. The Grace Methodist Episcopal Church was nearby, so why not this one?

This is just a small part of Tozer’s early Christian experience. There is a great deal more to relate and one can find it in Lyle Dorsett’s 2008 book, A Passion for God: The Spiritual Journey of A. W. Tozer. But there is enough here to give you an idea of how very different Tozer is from François Fénelon, as we will see. Tozer’s formal education did not go far. However he received a good basic education at the hands of some fine women teachers. Central to an education at those times was McGuffey’s Reader, a six-volume collection of readings that included Judeo-Christian values, but also quoted Plato, Socrates and others. As in many rural communities where Tozer grew up, there could be an anti-intellectual climate. But McGuffey’s Reader gave youth a glimpse into a wider world of reading that, if they chose, they could later enter into.

The reader must have had a great bearing on the development of Tozer’s youthful mind. He acquired a taste for learning and in years to come he would become a very discerning writer. His brother Zene also encouraged him in the use of the mind. In later years, when he joined the Alliance Church and became a pastor, Aiden worked under someone who discerned that he had an enormous mental appetite. So he was given appointments in places where there were good libraries and second hand bookshops. As if that was not enough, Tozer met Paul Rader, a highly educated minister, who had been with a mainline denomination but had decided to throw in his lot with the lesser-known denomination that Tozer belonged to. Rader impressed upon Tozer the importance of building up a good library of one’s own.

Tozer was later to enter Christian ministry, without training. He became part of what we call the wider Evangelical community, but did not fit comfortably in it. For instance in a time when people read Scripture according to a plan he would say that, when a particular verse or passage is pressed upon your heart and mind by the Holy Spirit, we should stay with that until He has finished with it and done His work in our hearts, even if it takes days, weeks or even months. This seems to echo Luther.

In reading about Tozer, one might suppose that he always read his Bible with relish. But it was not so. In a discussion on staleness in the Christian, he says that on one day we can read a particular part of the Bible and feel its power, but then on the very next day we find the very same passage does almost nothing. Tozer counsels to accept that in faith and to move on. His approach was often described as ‘mystical’. For Tozer, our religious experience needs to go beyond gathering doctrinal facts: Christian truth needed to enter our hearts.

In one chapter he talks about Americans’ passion for things ‘instant’ and how this has affected Christian thinking. He believed that this focus on instant Christianity goes against the law of development that is observed throughout nature. When teachers insist that every Christian is a saint, it ignores the fact that some Christians grow to an unusual degree in the face of difficult circumstances or are particularly afflicted by infirmities and sins. Tozer was concerned by the preoccupation with the initial act of believing, to the exclusion of growth. This he believed would lead inevitably to disappointment, which the believer would be unprepared for and not know how to deal with.

Tozer also continued to read widely. He noted that, while John Wesley declared himself to be ‘a man of one Book’, he read widely and encouraged his followers to do the same. Wesley and Tozer were not ones to coast through life just on the reading they had done in the early part of their lives. Tozer kept reading. In later years he encouraged his seven children in their intellectual pursuits. Since he did not drive a car, he had to be collected by someone to be taken to a preaching appointment. The driver always knew that as soon as Tozer was in the car he could expect a discussion on someone like Wesley, Eckhart, Burns, Shakespeare, Keats, Byron, Wordsworth and others - and of course Fénelon. We shall turn to him now.

Francis (François) Fénelon

In Fénelon we find a very different person from Tozer. Fénelon came from an aristocratic family that had fallen on hard times. Fénelon’s early studies were at home, probably because of the family’s reduced circumstances. Fénelon was precocious and made rapid advances in his studies, even though his health was not robust and he was prone to sleeplessness. He made the most of the opportunities of learning, and because it seemed natural that he should enter the Church, opportunities to extend his learning presented themselves. His proficiency in his particular line of study - Greek and Latin classics, as well as rhetoric, philosophy and later theology - grew rapidly and he was eventually admitted to the French Academy. With that came his appointment to become Archbishop of Cambrai. You might imagine that with such a distinguished career Fénelon would have a smooth ride to the end of his life. But there were two events that were to change his life drastically. The first event was that he wrote a book (Telemaque) that, under some disguise, was seen as a criticism of King Louis XIV’s reign. The disguise was not sufficient and the King and his advisors saw through it.

The next and more important event was when he made contact with Madame Guyon, a teacher and writer on spiritual matters. Madame Guyon had gone through some very difficult life experiences and in it all had come to a new understanding of the inner life and the meaning of prayer. In 1688, Fénelon decided to meet Madame Guyon. After their meeting he felt an urge to correspond with her.

Madame Guyon had come to her beliefs at some considerable cost. She had gone through a harrowing experience when everything in her personal life was bringing her pain. In her distress she cried out to God, studied her Bible, consulted books on the spiritual life and consulted those who might shed light on her situation. This went on for some years, but then she came through it mentally, spiritually, and physically. Guyon began to be welcomed as a speaker and writer. It was a time of excess in France, especially in Paris, when people lived extravagantly. But some began to feel a strange sense of emptiness. With everything available to live an exciting life, why was there this sense of disappointment? Some, though not all, began to enquire about Guyon’s teachings.

This was the background to Fénelon’s enquiries. In their meetings and correspondence, Guyon put it to Fénelon that his life might need to be turned around and that this could indeed be a battle. In the few conversations Guyon and Fénelon had, Fénelon listened carefully. He also read her letters with great respect. As Guyon predicted, there was a battle. Later, Fénelon was to write: ‘I need humiliation more than most men, by reason of my naturally proud character, and because God requires a more absolute death to all pride of me’. To a correspondent he said: ‘We need very diligent faithfulness to God in the smallest things…. The smallest things become great when God requires them of us’.

Madame Guyon’s teaching began to be known as ‘Quietism’, a term that some looked on favourably and others did not. Quietism could mean that the struggle against God was over and the soul was living a life of simplicity and in a rich sense of the love of God. For others it was seen as a disregard for the sacraments and indifference to good works. People took sides. At first Guyon had become an influence in the French Royal Court, where her book A Short and Easy Way of Prayer was accepted as a guide to private devotion. Her sponsors were Fénelon and Madame de Maintenon. Guyon’s book of devotion had been given theological approval. But that was to change completely. The King became insistent that religion in France was to be uniform. Deviations were not to be tolerated. So Guyon came under enormous pressure. Fénelon decided to support her, believing her to be not intentionally heretical. He disliked some of her words and phrases and wanted her to express her thoughts in a different way, but as for the heart of her beliefs he was in total sympathy. The essence of Guyon’s belief, Fénelon affirmed, was that ‘in His will is our peace’.

Fénelon decided to write a book of his own, Maxims (Sayings) of the Saints. He decided that with his wider education he could preserve the essence of Guyon’s writings and shed some of her extreme statements that could be a distraction, giving it acceptance to a wider readership. The book was written. But the reception was not good. Fénelon’s old friend Bishop Bossuet turned against him. Bossuet had the ear of the King. The King was told that Fénelon’s book was not actually wrong, but that subtly the reader could be led gradually to wrong conclusions. Fénelon was banished to Cambrai. At Cambrai, after reflection and prayer, he started to receive numerous letters seeking spiritual advice. He responded to each correspondent and copies of his letters were kept. After his death the letters would be put into book form and was called Letters to Men and Women or sometimes Spiritual Counsel. The book purchased by Tozer in a Chicago bookshop. It was their meeting!

I have in front of me my own copy of Fénelon’s Letters purchased in March ’64 at that amazing little shop, the Gospel Bookshop, in Perth, Western Australia. I purchased the book when I was having health problems that were not life threatening but that considerably reduced my ‘quality of life’. It is interesting to see what I had underlined and the notes I had made on the inside cover. The other book I have before me, purchased many years later, is That Incredible Christian by Tozer. Both are books of spiritual counsel and in some respects they are similar, but in others, because they are addressed to very different people, there are differences.

Looking again at Letters, it is interesting to see what particularly got my attention then and what appears that I had missed. Derek Stanford, in his introduction to the book, remarks that Fénelon’s advice always came from his own, often painful, personal experience. It was not knowledge that had been obtained cheaply, and that gave the letters special value. But he held his views with humility and never made a deliberate show of his learning. ‘Arguments are a great waste of strength’, he wrote. ‘If one does not take care, one’s whole life can slip away in theorising, and we need a second career (life) to put it into practice. There is always a risk lest we fancy ourselves to have advanced in proportion to our theories about perfection (maturity)’. Again he says: ‘Humble your mind, rather than insisting on your opinion, even when it is right’.

Quietism, in some places, had a reputation for being anti-intellectual. Fénelon taught that the intellect was not to be repudiated, but to be kept in its place. Writing on prayer and conscious pleasure, he said that while the two may go together and often do, one may have times of prayer and not feel conscious pleasure. True prayer is not just about good feelings but about the mind and will.

It is interesting to compare Fénelon’s Letters with Tozer’s book, The Incredible Christian. Both are manuals for living the Christian life. Fénelon’s Letters are, as we noted, addressed to particular people who were facing certain challenges. Tozer’s book is addressed to the wider Christian public to expose what he saw as the weaknesses of twentieth century Christian thinking, though his book is also meant for individual use.

Fénelon often dealt with people whose experience had begun in a life of excess of food, dress and partying, which was common among wealthy people, and who had become weary of it all. In France there was even excess in the matter of religion, but even this did not work on the soul and bring rest. Fénelon told such people that becoming world-weary was to be welcomed, that it could be a threshold to a rich life with God.

Tozer and Fénelon on the Christian’s affliction

We shall now look at some passages from each writer and see how they wrote about problems that can afflict the believer. Here is Tozer writing on the subject of staleness in Christian experience:

Von Hugel speaks of the ‘neural’ cost of prayer and advises that we should sometimes break off thoughts of heavenly things and go for a walk or dig in the garden. We have all known the disappointment felt when returning to a passage of Scripture that had been so fresh and fragrant the day before only to find the sweetness gone out of it. It is the Spirit’s way of urging us on to new vistas. I notice that in the wilderness God kept Israel moving….

To stay free from religious ennui we should be careful not to get into a rut, not even a good rut. Our Lord warned against vain repetition. There is repetition that is not vain, but oft-repeated prayers become vain when they have lost their urgency…. And above all we should never seek to induce holy emotions. When we feel dry it is wise to either ignore it or to tell God about it without any sense of guilt.

In short, we can keep from going stale by getting proper rest, by practising complete candour in prayer, by introducing variety into our lives, by heeding God’s call to move onward and by exercising quiet faith always.

Staleness may not be a condition that affects everyone, but for those who are aware of it, they can be encouraged by the writer's admission of it, and his offer of his way out of it.

Now we shall look at a passage from Fénelon. Here he addresses the problem of living in the whirl of life and why, for social reasons, people are drawn into entertainments when, if they had the choice, they would choose to spend their time in other ways:

Some people would fain always be grumbling and bemoaning themselves about the amusements in which they are obliged to take part; but for myself, I must say I do not at all sympathise with such unbending strictness. I like a much simpler line of conduct, and I believe such to be more acceptable to God. Where amusements are innocent in themselves and come in the ordinary way of things, according to the state of life to which God has called a person, I think it is enough if she shares in them moderately, and as in God’s sight. A stiff constrained tone - harsh unbending, disobliging manners - only tend to give worldly people a mistaken impression of religion, whereas they are quite sufficiently inclined already to misjudge it, and to think that God can only be served in a gloomy, dull life.

Most people, when setting about their reformation or conversion, are much more anxious to spend their lives in doing some difficult or unusual thing than to purify their intentions and to renounce self-will in the ordinary duties of their position; but this is a mistake. Far better make less outward alteration as to actions, and more inward change in the heart which prompts them.’

Fenelon could not have anticipated an age when huge amounts would be spent to provide entertainment for every waking hour, some of which gets courser by the day. Nevertheless he offers some good guidelines for managing it.

Then, addressing the problem of living in a world of mostly ‘dissipation’ without being smothered by it all, Fénelon suggests certain precautions:

I would have you lay, as the foundation of all else, regular reading and prayer. I am not speaking of mere reading to satisfy intellectual cravings or theological controversy. Nothing could be more useless, unfitting, or dangerous for you. I mean plain reading, apart from all argument, confined to practical matters, and adapted to nourish the soul. Avoid all that excites your mind and lessens that blessed simplicity which renders it docile and submissive to the Church’s teaching. If you read, not that you may be learned, but in order to know better how to mistrust self, your reading will be very profitable. Join prayer to your reading, and meditate on the great truths of religion. This you may do by fixing your attention on some act or words of Jesus Christ. Then when penetrated with the truth you have been contemplating, apply it earnestly and closely to the correction of your own special faults.

I like Fenelon’s words on the nature of reading. As someone who is naturally argumentative I have needed to take to heart his warnings about reading to satisfy intellectual cravings or to stoke theological controversy. His advice cannot be bettered when he urges us to fix our attention on some act or words of Jesus Christ. Then when it has penetrated, to bring it to bear on our special faults.

The reading of Tozer and Fénelon is a great spiritual exercise, though I would caution against reading too much at once. It is remarkable that, though separated by a great gulf, they should come to such similar views. Some parts can be difficult. But if you return to them later, sometimes much later, you will find them easier and suited to your particular need.

At the time Tozer wrote there was a danger of truth losing its power. Quoting Coleridge, Tozer said that truth can be so readily accepted that it loses its power and ‘lie bed-ridden in the dormitory of the soul’. He recommended that neglected Christian truths be revitalised only when, by prayer and long meditation, we isolate them from the mass of hazy ideas with which our minds are filled and hold them steadily and determinedly in the focus of the mind’s attention.

For many, so it seems, the Christian life does not present great challenges. But for others of us, we need the help of someone who has gone before, someone like Tozer or Fenelon. We don’t look to them for infallible answers. But we look to them for insights, a steadying hand and a revival of the pilgrim spirit.


Reading list

A. W. Tozer, The Crucified Life: How to Live Out a Deeper Christian Experience, with an introduction by James L. Snyder (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2011).

François Fénelon, The Best of Fénelon, revised and updated by Harold J. Chadwick (FL: Bridge-Logos Publishing, 2002).

Fénelon’s Letters to men and women, letters selected and edited by Derek Stanford, published by (London: Peter Owen Ltd, 1957).

Lyle Dorsett, A Passion for God: The Spiritual Journey of A. W. Tozer (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008)


Rex Dale, a retired professional, has studied many books that throw light on life’s experiences. He is the author of Insights From Graeco-Roman Times – A Christian Response, which gives an overview of the period leading up to Christ’s coming.


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