Today marks the anniversary of the founding of The Navigators, now a discipleship charity known for its student ministry – but originally begun as a mission to sailors by a man named Dawson Trotman. Who was he, and why does he matter?
Dawson Trotman, known to friends as ‘Daws’ became a Christian at 18, and was soon inspired to share the good news he had learned with others. On March 3, 1933 Trotman began The Navigators, through which he and his friends reached out to sailors in the US military. Trotman was inspired by the principle of sharing life 1-1 with another, and through this relational model, sharing the gospel with many.
He taught a sailor called Les Spencer about Jesus, spending many hours studying the Bible, praying, and memorising Scripture. Spencer’s life was changed, and when a fellow sailor asked him what had happened, Spencer brought him to Trotman.
‘Teach him what you taught me,’ Spencer said.
Trotman responded: ‘You teach him!’
This vision of teaching people to teach others, echoing the call of Jesus’ Great Commission and Paul’s in 2 Timothy 2.2, is sometimes called ‘passing on the baton’. It begins with one, but it can ultimately reach out to many. Spencer taught his sailor friend about Jesus, and eventually 125 sailors on the U.S.S. West Virginia had come to know Christ.
Dawson’s mission began with one sailor, but he began a movement which spread across the Navy, and the rest of the military, so that by the end of World War Two thousands of men had caught the vision of ‘spiritual multiplication’ through ‘life on life’ discipleship. It is an approach that The Navigators maintain to this day.
Another iconic legacy of Trotman’s is that of memorising verses of Scripture, with a focus on particular themes around Christian living. The ‘Topical Memory System’ is a popular tool of The Navigators born out of that spirit, and has helped many over the decades to store vast amounts of God’s word in their minds, and share it with others.
Trotman also became close friends with the legendary evangelist Billy Graham, who enlisted Trotman’s help in providing discipleship and Bible teaching for the many converted at Graham’s famous crusades.
Today, The Navigators have come a long way since their beginning on the U.S.S. West Virginia. The Navigators began a pioneering mission to China in 1949, and now have ministries in over 100 countries all over the world. They serve many in different stages and walks of life, encouraging them to know the depth of life with God and to share it with others in a profound way.
In June 1956, Dawson went boating with some friends. One girl on the boat was unable to swim, and a wave threw Dawson and the girl overboard. Dawson saved the girl, but he himself drowned.
Billy Graham would preach at Dawson’s funeral, where he mourned the loss of his friend who ‘had personally touched more lives than anyone I have ever known’. As Graham said, in life and death, Dawson ‘lived to save others’.