Dawson Trotman grew up as an active member of his local church in Lomita, California in the 1920s. He had made commitments to Christ on two occasions, and was known for his excellent outward life. However, he was a compulsive liar, and also had a habit of theft. These habits continued unabated, despite numerous attempts to curb them by the force of will. After he graduated high school, he admitted that he could not do it, and gave up all pretense. He became a pleasure-seeker, gambler, and womanizer (although remaining sexually pure). One night he got too drunk to find his car, and was arrested by a police officer. He admitted that he hated his life, and knew his mother was very worried about him. Several days later, he visited the church group he had attended at high school. The youth were divided into teams, and one of the ways to get points for your team was to memorize verses. So he memorized the ten verses on salvation, and then another ten the next week. One day, while he was walking along, one of the verses came to mind that whoever believes in Christ will have eternal life. He liked that idea, so he asked God how to do that, and God answered with John 1:12 “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become sons of God, even to them that believe on his name.” And told God that he wanted to receive Jesus. From that point on, he devoted his life to God. Over the course of the next months he quit smoking, cursing, gambling, lying. He told everyone what had happened to him.

Dawson gave himself completely to the service of God. He was working in a lumberyard, and slowly began evangelizing there. He would spend hours in the hills praying. Since the 20 verses he had memorized had made such an impact on him, he began memorizing one verse a week. He made it a point to tell the Gospel to one person every day. He sought to have others join him in these disciplines, and was occasionally successful. His remaining time was spent seeking how lead people closer to Christ. He spent much time with various groups of boys, discipling them and trying to work out an effective system of discipling people. He worked with students at Biola Seminary, which was close by, to expand these boys’ clubs. A big part of these clubs was disciplined following of God, in which memorizing the Bible played a key role. Dawson was willing to pour his life into someone, but only to someone who was willing to follow the disciplines, because he viewed them as essential.

He remained an active leader in the club at his church, and after God physically prevented him from asking the girl he was dating to marry him, he gave up on girls. The women in charge of the club asked him to escort the young gals home, and on one of these trips he met Lila Clayton, then in eighth grade. On impulse, and not knowing how young she was, he asked if she’d be his sweetheart. She was pleased to be, and he dated and discipled her until she graduated and turned 18. They were married soon afterwards. They had a great relationship, and Lila proved to be a great aid in ministry. She was an able host when Dawson inevitably invited many people to their house. One point that was frequently noted was how she was able to make tasty meals that could accommodate any numbers of people, despite last-minute arrivals.

About this time, Dawson began to be burdened for the sailors in the Navy port nearby. He began witnessing to the sailors and then began inviting them to his house for discipleship, as he had realized that although he had led many people to the Lord during the days when he was witnessing every day, most of them were no longer continuing in the faith. Discipleship was important. Eventually he identified four essential areas: memorizing the Bible, evangelizing, discipleship, and prayer. These he passed on to the sailors who would come to his house. He encouraged the sailors to witness to the sailors on their ship, and begin Bible studies with those who became Christians, teaching them the Christian life, just as Dawson was teaching them. Dawson called these men “key men,” and prayed for a key man on every ship in the fleet. This system was effective, and eventually there were key men on most ships. Calling themselves “Navigators” (following a tradition of fishing and sailing metaphors for Christian groups), many sailors became Christians. These corresponded by mail with Navigator headquarters (i.e. Dawson), who would answer their questions and send additional Bible study material as they finished it. By the end of World War II, Navigator staff had increased to a sizable number of people, complete with a printing press and additional Dawson/Lila-style homes in several cities.

After the war, Dawson sent key men to the Army camps as well, but so many people came to Christ that they were overwhelmed and were unable to follow their discipleship principles and the ministry eventually faded. However, Dawson did start some groups with businessmen who, as he put it, wanted to “get down to business” with the Lord, and had slowly growing success in the Navigator style there. This also helped out with funding, which had previously consisted of Dawson having complete faith that the Lord would provide somehow, and sure enough, sailors would bring him random checks at the last minute for exactly the right amount. (So much so, that they were surprised whenever there was extra, but inevitably the extra covered a need that was soon to happen.)  Dawson also had a partnership with Charles Fuller, the radio evangelist. Through the businessmen’s groups, Dawson met Billy Graham, and over a few meetings of over the course of several years, substantially influenced him. He also influenced Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade. In the summers, Dawson organized summer meetings with the sailors and other groups that he administered, in order to have an opportunity for intense discipleship and training of the leaders.

The Nagivator work slowly expanded, requiring that they move headquarters in to a mansion in San Diego (it was perfect for inviting people over!). Dawson took a trip to South American with Wycliffe, and encouraged many of the key men who were finishing their time in the Navy to go overseas with Wycliffe. Later, he became involved with training the church members who did follow-up at Billy Graham’s Crusades. Then he was asked to come to Europe, to speak to people in those countries. He came back convinced of urgent needs all over Europe, and after later trips, in China, India, South America, and Africa. Dawson began praying for key men to go to these countries. He realized that while an evangelistic event could bring many people to Christ at once, it was far more effective to invest in a few men to bring them to be Christ-centered, who would then do the same. In a few years, far more people would be reached for God than through events. Dawson died in a lake accident in the summer of 1956 at age 50, while rescuing a non-swimmer who had been thrown from the boat. In his eulogy, Billy Graham said that Dawson had influenced more people than anyone he had ever known.

Dawson seems to have been a man who loved discipline and, as a leader, had a tendency to be autocratic. Even in at the end, he was still directly involved in daily affairs at the Navigators. This is both good, in that he was involved in ministry as well as directing it, but bad in that he probably should have delegated things like choosing the color of paint. His autocracy seems like it had a tendency to alienate people less structured than him, and his insistence on discipline and adherence to his philosophy, while intended to bring people into Christ-likeness, sometimes had excess rigidity to it. However, all who knew him said that he was always ready to pour his life into others and bring them to Christ-likeness. And the discipline was effective in bringing many closer to God, even those who initially resisted it. Skinner notes that discipline imposed externally is not effective unless there is an internal desire to follow it, and also that people rarely achieve their potential without discipline.

Several things that I read struck me as particularly important. First, you cannot abandon your spiritual babies. One of the sailors had led someone to Christ and asked Dawson to follow up with him. Dawson responded, “Listen Mack. You are going to look him up, write him a letter, and see that he is taken care of and begins to grow. You are his spiritual dad and he’s your responsibility. No, you’re not gonna park you baby on my doorstep.” (p. 157). Second, effectiveness in witness is related to how much Scripture you have memorized. One time, speaking at a church gathering, when one of the sailors incorrectly quoted the one verse he did know, Dawson said “This man is on a destroyer flotilla based at Treasure Island. And what’s God doing on his shop? Nothing!” That sailor’s friend confirmed it to him on the ride home: “Daws was right in what he did. God isn’t working on your ship.” He “began to dig in and soon the results showed on his ship and in his life.” (p. 206)  I am unsure if memorizing is necessarily the key; it is probably reading and thinking about the word of God that is important. However, I have been finding that it is much more effective illustrate points with the Bible than merely presenting the principles (it being God’s double-edged sword [Heb 4:12] and all). Doing this in an impromptu setting, such as evangelism, is aided by memorizing verses. Third, pursue excellence and a better way of doing ministry. Dawson insisted on excellency: if it is to be done, it should be done well. When sailors printed Navigator materials with the machine at headquarters, Dawson insisted that the output be excellent, because anything less is not honoring to God. Part of excellence was searching for a more efficient or effective way of doing things. One of the youth clubs had a much better memory retention rate than the others, and it was because they said the verse number after, as well as before, the verse. Seeing this, he implemented it in all the groups.

Daws was given by one of the (Navigators) missionaries that I support as a gift to all her supporters. One of the main strengths of the book is that it details daily minutiae of Dawson’s life, thoughts, and values, and it is kind of like being mentored by him. In Axioms, Bill Hybels notes that indirect mentoring through reading biographies or observing someone’s life from a distance, can be as effective as in person. Daws has that kind of effectiveness, transmitting Dawson’s key values strongly enough for me to absorb some of them. However, the minutiae gets in the way of seeing a coherent picture of the spiritual lessons that should be learned, and has a tendency for the book to seem somewhat incoherent at times. Still, although the writing has some serious failings, if you are looking for a mentor, as I was, this book is a good choice.
Review: 7 (writing 5, effectiveness 9)
The writing is, in my opinion, decidedly average. It is hard to understand the importance of any individual item or lesson. Sometimes a lesson is important to Dawsons’s life and will reappear later; sometimes it will not, but it is presented the same in either case. Occasionally the grammar was hard to follow. I suspect that the book suffers from having too much research and being unwilling to leave out any nugget, however small. However, the effect of all the nuggets is that while the big picture suffers, the reader gets an excellent of how Dawson would react to different situations. And, until you know this, do you really know a person?