Born MARCH 25, 1906

Dawson Trotman (Image: courtesy of the Navigators-http://www.navigators.org/us/)

Dawson Trotman
(Image: courtesy of the Navigators-http://www.navigators.org/us/)

The hymn begins, “I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore.” As a young man out of high school, Dawson was figuratively sinking in sin when he tried rescuing his girlfriend from drowning in a lake where they were swimming. They both nearly drowned, until a couple in a boat reached them and pulled them out of the water.

The young man whose father named him after an atheist who impressed him would also need rescuing spiritually. And he would be. Dawson would then spend his life rescuing others. Billy Graham would say while preaching Dawson’s funeral, “I think Dawson Trotman has personally touched more lives than anybody I have ever known.”


Dawson’s high school classmates liked him. They elected him president of the student body. He invited his school friends to the Lomita Presbyterian Church Christian Endeavor Society, which he led. He even picked them up in his car and took them to the youth meet-ings. However, the popular teen didn’t live up to the Christian image he portrayed. He stole money from the student body funds and, within a week after graduating as class valedictorian, went out and got drunk.

He stopped pretending. He plunged into partying. Drinking, dancing, and gambling  became his way of life. Following Dawson’s twentieth birthday (not long after he and his girlfriend nearly drowned), a policeman stopped him for drunk driving. The officer didn’t arrest Dawson that night. Instead, he talked seriously to him about the path he’d chosen. That was only one act of God’s grace in Dawson’s life that weekend.


Dawson attended church the following Sunday. The youth group was in a scripture memorizing contest for a prize. The competitive Dawson joined the event. The next Sunday evening, he was the only one who’d memorized all ten assigned verses. He added ten more for the next week. God’s word soon broke through to Dawson.

While walking to work, one of the verses flashed into his mind. He thought about the phrase “everlasting life.” He prayed, “O God, whatever this means, I want to have it.” Another verse popped into his thoughts. He prayed, “Whatever it means to receive Jesus, I do it right now.” Dawson was finally heading in the right direction.


A set of Dawson's memory verses (Image: courtesy of the Navigators-http://www.navigators.org/us/).

A set of Dawson’s memory verses (Image: courtesy of
the Navigators-http://www.navigators.org/us/).

He began memorizing a Bible verse per day. He joined a group of Christians who publicly shared their faith on the streets. They called themselves the Fisherman’s Club. Dawson’s command of the scriptures he’d committed to memory helped him not only fish for, but catch souls for Jesus.

Dawson started a training program to empower Christians to serve God. In 1935, he gave his organization its present name: the Navigators. He pursued the vision to win souls to Christianity and to disciple them to win others. The Navigators motto became “To know Christ and to make Him known.”

Dawson discipled a navy man named Lester Spencer. The discipler taught the sailor to pray, to read the Bible, and to memorize scripture. Lester approached Dawson one day asking that he train another interested sailor. Dawson told Lester, “You teach him!”

Christian discipleship spread on board Lester’s ship, the USS West Virginia. More than 100 other sailors came to faith in Jesus Christ. Then on December  7, 1941, the USS West Virginia sank during the bombing of Pearl Harbor. By then the Navigators had spread to other ships and other ports. At the end of World War II, military men turned Navigators were stationed on more than 800 navy ships and army bases.


Billy Graham and Dawson (Image: courtesy of the Navigators-http://www.navigators.org/us/).

Billy Graham and Dawson (Image: courtesy of
the Navigators-http://www.navigators.org/us/).

When Billy Graham became a nationally known evangelist in the late 1940s, he sought Dawson’s help. Evangelist Graham wanted materials for the altar workers to use with those responding in his crusades. Dawson obliged.

Dawson’s emphasis on discipling through scripture memorization influenced other evangelistic organizations. Among them, Campus Crusade for Christ, Mission Aviation Fellowship, and Wycliffe Bible Translators improved their discipleship programs.


Memorizing scripture has always been the backbone of the Navigators. It’s helped the organization grow among the military, among college students, and among businessmen and women. NavPress (http://www.navpress.com/), the printing arm of the Navigators, now offers the Topical Memory System in eight different Bible versions.

NavPress also prints a series of Bible studies, The Message Bible, and other spiritual growth resources. These materials have been used on college campuses, where the Navigators have had a presence since 1951. They’ve crossed the oceans to places the Navigators have sent foreign missionaries since 1949.

Since 1953, the headquarters for this vital ministry has been located in Colorado. That’s when the Navigators moved to the Glen Eyrie Camp and Conference Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Image by David Shankbone.

Image by David Shankbone.


In 1956, the Navigators held a conference in New York. On the day of June 18, Dawson and others were riding in a speedboat on Schroon Lake. The backlash of one large wave knocked Dawson and another person out of the boat. He held her above water long enough for others to reach and rescue her. Dawson however, drowned. When Time magazine published his obituary, the caption it printed under Dawson’s picture said, “Always holding someone up.”

That was Dawson Trotman. He wasn’t satisfied with God rescuing him from sin’s deep waters. He rescued others from sinking. But he couldn’t stop there. Dawson pioneered discipleship ministry for the 20th Century, with scripture memorization as its foundation.


LET ME KNOW:  How has Dawson’s story informed, encouraged, or otherwise helped you? I welcome your comments.


  • Fisk, Samuel. Forty Fascinating Conversion Stories. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1993.
  • Rusten, E. Michael and Sharon, “Navigator to Many,” The One Year Book of Christian History (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2003), 170-71.
  • Sala, Harold. “Being A Disciple: Dawson Trotman,” Heroes (Urichville, OH: Promise Press, 1998), 23-25.
  • Woodbridge, John D., ed. More Than Conquerors. Chicago, IL: Moody, 1992.
  • http://www.navigators.org/us/aboutus/history.






About William E. Richardson

I'm married to a wonderful woman named Deb. We're the parents of a son and daughter who bring great joy to our lives. I currently pastor the Assembly of God church in Afton, Iowa.
This entry was posted in Evangelist. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to DAWSON TROTMAN

  1. Spencer says:

    My oldest brother became a Christian through the Navigator’s ministry at Mankato State University (Mankato, MN). Because of his conversion and subsequent witness to me, I too, surrendered my life to Christ!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s