As a student at Kansas State University in the mid-1980’s I was forming my ideas about what the Christian life was all about. I suddenly found myself making decisions that previously I had no choice in the matter. For instance, where would I attend church, or for that matter will I wake up on Sunday morning and go to church anywhere? I was helped immensely by the staff and members of The Navigators. For it was in this fellowship of other believers that I learned the importance of growing in Christ. The Navigators, among other things, taught me that my personal Salvation in Christ was only the beginning of my walk, not the end.
Some thirty years later Rovonne and I spent some time at Glen Eyrie (Navigator Headquarters) and my thoughts and emotions were once again drawn back to my time in The Navigators. There in the small bookstore I came across a biography of Dawson Trotman written by Betty Lee Skinner. Within the pages were the details of the life of the man who started The Navigators.
This biography was different than any other I have read. Skinner is obsessed with detail which is helpful in giving the reader an accurate historical record of Trotman’s life. However, I found myself getting lost in names, places, and numbers. Certainly some of the information was helpful and even needed. I especially feel the names of minor players in the life of Trotman could have been eliminated. This would have helped the reader to understand who the key players in Trotman’s life really were.
As for painting a picture of who Dawson Trotman was, the book was successful. Trotman was a man of unstoppable passion. He was a man who rid his life of anything that would stifle his growth in Christ and unashamed to challenge others to do the same. His drive to memorize Scripture verses is inspiring. Trotman would often spend hours a day working on this discipline. If he wasn’t memorizing Scripture he was praying. If he wasn’t praying he was ministering to people. He wasted no time. When those he ministered to complained about not having time to prayer or memorize verses – Trotman was not sympathetic. He challenged them to change their lives in order to practice the Christian disciplines. Skinner tells of one incident where from the pulpit Trotman called out Billy Graham early in his ministry. Graham took this a challenge rather than an offense. When Graham began his evangelistic crusades it was Trotman who persuaded him on the importance of follow-up. Graham agreed and put Trotman and The Navigators in charge of it.
Trotman had a teacher’s heart. He was constantly looking to develop and improve materials that would help him communicate biblical truth and facilitate Scripture memory. His Topical Memory System filled with foundational Bible verse cards, Hand Illustration, and The Wheel are all tools still used today by Navigators and others. Skinner recounts a time when Trotman built an actual mechanical wheel to use on his trip to China and India.
An overbearing spirit was one of Trotman’s weaknesses. On more than one occasions he was charged with such by different individuals. Skinner recounts one example,
In the hearts of two or three . . .was a growing rebellion against Dawson’s leadership as dictatorial, a trait that he would have stoutly denied, pointing to his respect for each person’s wishes and leading from the Lord wherever they differed from his own. But the intensity of his burden and conviction and the velocity of his impact on those around him doubtless alienated some and stepped on toes as in early years (p. 344).
One point that Skinner unwittingly brought out is Trotman’s misuse of Scripture verses and his seemingly unwillingness to emphasize systematic thought when reading the Bible. One case in point is given when Trotman was addressing Navigator staff concerning global expansion of the organization. On page 343-344 Skinner writes that he gave “hard-hitting messages from the first chapters of Deuteronomy on commands to ‘go up and possess’ the land and to hold the ground gained ‘by little and little’ (Deut. 7:22).” As wonderful and applicable as this may sound, the Navigator expansion is not what Moses had in mind when he wrote Deuteronomy 7. THis passage of course is addressing Joshua’s future conquest into the Promise Land. One can certainly excuse some misapplied Scripture references, the Lord know I certainly have done so, but this type of use of Scripture was predominant in the life of Trotman. In my view, so much so that he used Scripture for his own advantage in some instances.
With these criticisms in mind – it is very important to also understand that Dawson Trotman was truly, A Man who Trusted God as the subtitle of the book records. I believe it could legitimately be said that Trotman’s goal in life was to inspire, challenge, and equip the lay person for ministry. Ministry was not merely for the paid professionals (i.e. pastors and such) – but it was for the people of the Church universal. I find his life and mission truly inspiring and challenging.
It is hard for me to recommend this book simply because the writing is so detailed in its treatment of numbers and people that it gets in the way of the story. But if you are looking for a biography that will make you feel like a spiritual midget – this is the one, for Daws (1906-1956) was indeed a spiritual giant.