The Topical Memory System

Dawsons TMS Materials on Display The Topical Memory System is one of The Navigators’ most well-loved study methods. How did the TMS come to be?

In 1926 Dawson Trotman came to faith in Christ through Scripture memory. One day on his way to work, a passage that he had memorized for a church contest flashed in his head: John 14:12 “Verily, verily I say unto you, He that heareth my word and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life.” He also remembered John 1:12, “But as many as received him, to them gave he the power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name.” Dawson gave his life to Christ that day. Because Scripture memory had played such a big role in his conversion, Dawson remained committed to the discipline the rest of his life. He wanted to help others grow in this practice.

Dawson knew that people needed help and motivation to memorize Scripture. In 1928 he created a system of 85 verses that he thought all believers in Christ should know.  He talked to 100 people and asked them to memorize these verses, but only one person mastered all 85. Clearly, this system wasn’t very effective. The following year he pared down the number of verses to 49 and issued them to students at BIOLA. In a journal entry from 1929 he wrote, “Definite memory of Scripture – definite continual reading of Scripture – builds the prayer life and growing that makes the working vital Christian indeed fruitful.”


In the 1930s Dawson Trotman decided to apply the principles of meditation to his Scripture memory efforts. At the end of the day he would recite to himself “His Word, Last Word” before drifting off to sleep, as a way to make sure that the very last thing that he thought about was a verse of Scripture

In the mid-1930s, Trotman helped the first Navigator sailors mark key verses in their Bibles in hope that they would memorize them, but he soon found that the sailors weren’t approaching memory work with the rigor that he had hoped. These busy sailors an easy way remember Scripture.  Trotman decided to model a new system after the The Navigator Wheel and its spokes representing the Word, Prayer, Living the Life, and Witnessing.  Trotman chose three verses for each of the disciplines, printing them on twelve cards. He wrote each reference on back, and the verse on the front. Trotman borrowed a sailor’s uniform and made the cards exactly the right size to fit in the front pocket. This approach worked very well because the sailors about the USS West Virginia could take the cards out of their pocket no mater where they were, and check their verses.

In 1935 Trotman and the Navigator sailors expanded the number of verses in this memory system. They chose 105 verses, broken into 35 topics with three verses for topic. During the Second World War, Navigator servicemembers carried these verse cards all over the world.

In 1943 The Navigators revamped this study method and gave it a new name: “The Topical Memory System.” Dawson gathered upwards of fifty leading Biblical scholars of the day and they spent eight months deciding which verses to include in this formalized system. They originally selected 600 verses, reduced that number to 300, and finally selected 108.

Two years later, The Navigators made the TMS into a correspondence course where people could write in for the verse cards. When they had memorized everything, Trotman would sign a completion certificate and mail it back to the dedicated student.  This correspondence course was enormously popular for members of the service because it was portable and efficient. In a journal entry from 1945, Trotman remarks that he met a woman “whose brother was found dead on the battlefields of Belgium. He was highly commended by his commanding officer and chaplain with regards to his fine Christian life. One letter spoke of finding on his body a testament and a packet of verses. They were the Topical Memory System.”

In 1948 Trotman took a trip around the world to observe the spiritual conditions of societies devastated in WWII. His travels through Asia and Europe convinced him of the need to make the TMS available on languages other than English.  The following year Roy Robertson took the TMS in Mandarin to East Asia on his journey as the first international Navigator missionary and soon over one thousand people in that region were working on the TMS. In the last seventy years, the TMS has been translated into dozens of languges including Japanese, Hindi, Portuguese, German, all dialects of English…even Esperanto and Braille!

The Topical Memory System has been a helpful discipleship tool for Christians all over the world. In the 1950s, Trotman, Lorne Sanny, and Don Rosenberger led the follow-up counseling during the Billy Graham Crusades. To help the new converts, The Navigators designed a basic memory set  called the “’B” Rations.” This small pack included the first four verses that a new Christian should memorize: John 5:34, 1 Cor 10:13, 1 John 1:9, John 16:24.

Trotman remarked, “Over 4,000 decisions were made in Shreveport and into the hands of each person went B-Rations. Many have written in for the course. I talked to converts who because of the B-Rations, were fully convinced of the blessing and value of getting into the Word and were pulling ahead with more drive than the average Christian of 2, 5, or 10 years.”

B-RationsBy  end of the 1950s, the TMS had become extremely popular. As of 1957, nearly 66,000 people had enrolled in the course! The Navigators decided to pare down the number of verses in the course from 108 to 60. The Topical Memory System has seen a few different revisions and formats over the years. In 1965 the organization published a supplement to the course, with 36 verses in categories such as Victory, Excuses, Salvation, and Promises. In 1969 the TMS was broken down into three different guidebooks. In 1975, the Scripture cards were published in the New American Standard Bible translation.

Today the Topical Memory System is available in English, Spanish, Indonesian, German, Chinese, Arabic, and Azerbaijani. Although the system is still available on the traditional verse cards, the system has changed with the times. The TMS is now available as an app for your cellphone, which you can even buy temporary tattoos to help you memorize these verses!

–Susan Fletcher

To embark on the Topical Memory system yourself, please check out the following links