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Bowen, J. W. E.(1885–1933) - Educator, minister, writer, lecturer, Chronology, Provides Shelter during Atlanta Riot

church university methodist episcopal

Amultitalented scholar, J. W. E. Bowen helped to shape African American culture through his service as seminary administrator, minister, writer, and an indefatigable lecturer, and through his actions as a race man. He fought for full assimilation of African American ministers in leadership positions in the Methodist Episcopal Church, which finally led to the church’s acceptance of black clergymen into the episcopacy. He co-founded two journals that addressed African American issues. Many of his views have been preserved in his various works. He may have influenced more students to enter the ministry and attend Gammon Theological Seminary than anyone else on the faculty during his tenure. Bowen was also among such notable black leaders as W. E. B. Du Bois, William H. Crogman, Richard R. Wright Sr., and John Hope, who influenced thinking in the African American community of the late eighteenth and into the nineteenth centuries.

John Wesley Edward Bowen was born in New Orleans on December 3, 1855 (some sources say 1865) to former slaves Edward and Rose Simon Bowen. Edward Bowen had worked as a carpenter while living in Maryland but was forced into slavery after relocating to New Orleans. Determined to be free, he worked hard and purchased his own freedom and later on, in 1858, that of his wife and son John. He joined the Union army during the Civil War.

The ambitious, industrious, and intelligent Bowens wanted their son to be educated; recognizing his fine gifts and talents early on, they exposed him to the best education that they could manage. J. W. E. Bowen (as his name is often listed) studied at Union Normal School and then New Orleans University, a school founded by the Methodist Episcopal Church to provide education for freemen. (New Orleans University merged with Strait University on June 6, 1930, to become Dillard University.) In 1878 Bowen received an undergraduate degree (he was in the school’s first graduating class), and in 1884 he was awarded a master’s degree, both from New Orleans University. From there he moved to Nashville, and from 1878 to 1882 he taught ancient languages at Central Tennessee College, first known as Walden University.

In the autumn of 1882, he enrolled in the School of Theology at Boston University; while a student of theology, he served as pastor at Revere Street Methodist Episcopal Church in Boston. He graduated from Boston University in 1885 with the bachelor’s degree in sacred theology. Bowen was honored at commencement, when he became one of two members of the graduating class in law, medicine, and liberal arts to deliver orations. He and a classmate represented the School of Theology. Soon after graduation, he held another pastorate, this time at St. John’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Newark, New Jersey. Bowen continued graduate study in theology at Boston University, and in 1887 he was awarded the Ph.D., becoming the second African American to earn that degree in the United States.


1855 Born in New Orleans, Louisiana on December 3

1878 Graduates from New Orleans University (now Dillard University)

1878–82 Teaches at Central Tennessee College in Nashville

1882 Enrolls in School of Theology at Boston University; pastors Revere Street Methodist Episcopal Church in Boston

1885 Receives bachelor’s degree in Sacred Theology from Boston University; pastors St. John’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Newark, New Jersey

1886 Marries Ariel Serena Hedges, who dies in 1904

1887 Receives Ph.D. from Boston University, the second African American to earn a Ph.D. in United States

1888 Becomes pastor of Centennial Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore

1888–92 Teaches church history and systematic theology at Morgan College in Baltimore

1889–93 Serves as member and examiner for the American Institute of Sacred Literature

1890–91 Serves as professor of Hebrew at Howard University, Washington, D.C.; pastors Asbury Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C.

1891 Represents Methodist Episcopal Church at conference on world Methodism, held in Washington, D.C.

1892 Serves as field secretary for the Missionary Board

1893–32 Teaches at Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta

1895 Leads three-day conference on Africa at Cotton States Exposition held in Atlanta

1896 Publishes proceedings of the conference on Africa

1896–1912 Serves as delegate to quadrennial general conference of the Methodist Episcopal church

1901 Represents Methodist Episcopal Church at conference on world Methodism, held in Washington, D.C.

1902 Co-edits proceedings on conference for young people, published as The United Negro

1906 Injured in Atlanta race riot; marries Irene Smallwood

1906–10 Serves as president of Gammon Theological Seminary while still teaching

1910–32 Serves as vice-president of Gammon Theological Seminary

1912 Protests racial discrimination in the church and publishes An Appeal for Negro Bishops, but No Separation

1932 Retires and becomes emeritus professor

1933 Dies in Atlanta on July 20

Bowen left St. John’s in 1888 and became pastor of Centennial Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore. While at Centennial, Bowen attracted over seven hundred people to a revival, all of whom claimed to have experienced a conversion at the gathering. Since Bowen enjoyed teaching as well, he continued to teach while attending to his ministry; thus, from 1888 to 1892 he was a professor of church history and systematic theology at Morgan College (now Morgan State University) in Baltimore. After becoming pastor of Asbury Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C, he taught at Howard University in Washington. In the 1890–91 academic year, he also taught Hebrew. In 1891 and again in 1901, Bowen was the Methodist Episcopal Church’s representative at conferences on world Methodism held in Washington, D.C. He left his pastorate and served as field secretary for the Missionary Board from 1892 to 1893. His scholarship in the field of sacred theology led to his post as member and examiner for the American Institute of Sacred Literature, from 1889 to 1893. An eloquent speaker, he made his mark at annual conferences and conventions and before local congregations.

Gammon Theological Seminary, located in Atlanta, Georgia, attracted him to the position of professor of historical theology, which he accepted in 1893. The Methodist Episcopal Church had founded the school in 1883 for the purpose of preparing African Americans for the ministry. As was the case with many other colleges of that era established to educate African Americans, Gammon had a white faculty; Bowen became the school’s first African American professor. The school honored him that year with an honorary doctor of divinity degree. During this period, Bowen was secretary of Gammon’s Stewart missionary foundation; in that capacity, he also edited the Steward Missionary Magazine , the foundation’s journal.

Provides Shelter during Atlanta Riot

By 1906, when Bowen became president of Gammon, Atlanta was involved in urban mob violence that became known as the Atlanta race riot. White mobs, ranging in size from several dozen to five thousand, attacked blacks, black-owned businesses, and property that blacks used, leaving twenty-five people dead and several hundred injured. Many blacks fled the city. The violence came after a staunch racist became a gubernatorial primary candidate; a crusade was launched against so-called vice in the black community, and yellow journalism practices of the local press reported an epidemic of rapes of white women. Bowen helped to protect blacks from the mobs, however, opening the seminary to blacks who needed shelter. Three days after the riot began, white police beat and then arrested him. Jesse Max Barber, Bowen’s co-editor for the Voice of the Negro , left Atlanta—probably as much to escape harm to himself as to protect the journal—and took the journal to Chicago. There he continued to edit the publication, under the title Voice . Apparently Bowen had no further contact with the publication.

In 1886 Bowen married Newark, New Jersey-born Ariel Serena Hedges, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, and an educator, missionary, performing artist, reformer, and club leader. She taught at Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama, where Booker T. Washington was founder and president. After the Bowens moved to Atlanta, Ariel Bowman became professor of music at Clark University in 1895. She was also president of the Georgia Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) No. 2, and was widely active in Christian and reform work. She wrote a number of works. Ariel and J. W. E. Bowen had four children: Irene, Juanita, John Wesley Edward Jr., and Portia Edmonia (who died in childhood). Son John Wesley Edward Bowen Jr. followed his father and became a prominent Methodist Episcopal minister. He also filled his father’s vision for blacks in the Methodist Episcopal Church and was elected to the episcopacy in 1948. Ariel Bowen died in 1904 while visiting the World’s Fair in St. Louis; two years later Bowen married Irene Smallwood, who taught in Calhoun School, then well known and located in Calhoun, Alabama. Their marriage lasted twenty-seven years.

Bowen died in Atlanta on July 20, 1933; he was the last of his graduating class from New Orleans University. His widow, a son, and two daughters survived him. The scholarly and intellectual Bowen was widely respected among Methodist circles as an educator and a seminary leader. In Heritage & Hope , Grant S. Shockley wrote that Bowen “was considered one of the most mature scholars of his race and one of its more trusted leaders.” Bowen was among the outstanding black scholar-theologians who trained Gammon’s students who themselves went on to become well known ministers, district superintendents, bishops, editors of religious publications, missionaries, church board executives, and college presidents. A recognized lecturer and public orator, Bowen served as a Chautauqua lecturer. He agitated against racial discrimination in transportation and education, and he called for full assimilation of black clergy in the segregated Methodist Episcopal Church, now known as the United Methodist Church. </

Bowen, Julie - Actress, Career, Sidelights [next] [back] Bowen, Catharine Shober Drinker (1897–1973) - Biography

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