February is Black History Month, so today we put the spotlight on an early black leader in the history of the Restoration Movement: George Philip Bowser.
Born on February 17th, 1874, in Maury, Tennessee, George Philip Bowser (1874-1950), was a brilliant and courageous preacher, teacher, publisher and school-planter. Bowser’s father was killed when Bowser was young, after which his mother moved the family to Nashville where she was able to find work.
Bowser mastered five languages in addition to English while attending Walden College (Greek, Hebrew, French, German and Latin), and it was while in Nashville that Bowser was baptized into Christ, thanks to the discipleship of Sam W. Womack and others.
Bowser founded – and struggled to maintain – several schools designed to educate black preachers and church workers. Every school that Bowser launched – like Silver Point Christian Institute near Cookville, Tennessee (1907-1914) – was done so apart from white oversight and provision (except for a disastrous effort in Nashville in 1920, where the all-black student body at this all-black school was still expected to enter through the building’s back door. Bowser refused to abide by this expectation; thus, that effort was doomed from the outset.)
Other schools that Bowser started included the Bowser Christian Institute in Fort Smith, Arkansas (1938-1946), and, with the help of his proteges (J.S. Winston, R. N. Hogan and Levi Kennedy), the Southern Bible Institute in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1948. SBI had 45 students the first year, and the following year, it was relocated to Terrell, Texas, and became Southwestern Christian College, a Church of Christ college that continues to this day.
In 1902, 1903 or 1905 (the year of origin is speculated), Bowser began publishing Christian Echo, a paper marketed to black Churches of Christ. The Christian Echo was published intermittently throughout the rest of Bowser’s life and continued on under the leadership of Bowser’s own protégé, Richard Nathaniel Hogan (1902-1996). According to historian Don Haymes, very little of this primary source has survived, with only three libraries holding any issues of the Echo prior to 1950 and the earliest issue only dating back to 1939. All of that surviving material, along with an issue from 1935 that survived in someone’s private collection, has now been preserved on microfilm by the American Theological Library Association.
Bowser died on March 23rd, 1950, and in 1985, R. Vernon Boyd chronicled Bowser’s life and ventures in the book, Undying Dedication: The Story of G. P. Bowser (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1985; 105 pages).
As a preacher among the Restoration Christian Churches today, I am grateful for Bowser’s determination in planting schools designed to raise African-American leaders who would further the gospel of Jesus Christ with knowledge, power and skill. In this modern era of supposed full integration, we might think that an effort like Bowser’s is no longer needed. For that to truly be so – particularly in the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ branch of the Restoration Movement – our colleges would be producing black preachers, teachers, youth ministers, worship ministers,
counselors and church planters at a far better rate. And not just black leaders, but Hispanic leaders, Asian leaders, Arab leaders, and leaders from the indigenous peoples of this land, too.
Until our campuses and graduating classes become far more diverse than they presently are, we cannot be satisfied. So then, let us carry forward the work of George Philip Bowser and others like him.
Sources used for this post:
Haymes, Don (1998) “Reading About Race Relations In and Out of the Churches,” Leaven: Vol. 6: Iss. 2, Article 16. Available at: http://digitalcommunications.pepperdine.edu/leaven/vol6/iss2/16
Foster, Douglas A., Blowers, Paul M., Dunnavent, Anthony L., and Williams, D. Newell. The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005 (pp 217-218).