Bowen, J. W. E.

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J. W. E. Bowen

Educator, minister, writer, lecturer

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.


Born in New Orleans, Louisiana on December 3
Graduates from New Orleans University (now Dillard University)
Teaches at Central Tennessee College in Nashville
Enrolls in School of Theology at Boston University; pastors Revere Street Methodist Episcopal Church in Boston
Receives bachelor's degree in Sacred Theology from Boston University; pastors St. John's Methodist Episcopal Church in Newark, New Jersey
Marries Ariel Serena Hedges, who dies in 1904
Receives Ph.D. from Boston University, the second African American to earn a Ph.D. in United States
Becomes pastor of Centennial Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore
Teaches church history and systematic theology at Morgan College in Baltimore
Serves as member and examiner for the American Institute of Sacred Literature
Serves as professor of Hebrew at Howard University, Washington, D.C.; pastors Asbury Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C.
Represents Methodist Episcopal Church at conference on world Methodism, held in Washington, D.C.
Serves as field secretary for the Missionary Board
Teaches at Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta
Leads three-day conference on Africa at Cotton States Exposition held in Atlanta
Publishes proceedings of the conference on Africa
Serves as delegate to quadrennial general conference of the Methodist Episcopal church
Represents Methodist Episcopal Church at conference on world Methodism, held in Washington, D.C.
Co-edits proceedings on conference for young people, published as The United Negro
Injured in Atlanta race riot; marries Irene Smallwood
Serves as president of Gammon Theological Seminary while still teaching
Serves as vice-president of Gammon Theological Seminary
Protests racial discrimination in the church and publishes An Appeal for Negro Bishops, but No Separation
Retires and becomes emeritus professor
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.

Heads Gammon Theological Seminary

As the Methodist Episcopal Church began to organize and strengthen its work in the South, it saw an immediate need to train black ministers to serve in their own churches. The Methodist Episcopal Church also organized conferences, some of which evolved into separate black conferences that brought more churches and more members into these meetings. As well, the Freedmen's Aid Society began to establish schools in the South and emphasized theological training in their academic programs. Thus, all of the black colleges founded before 1875 had a theological seminary or religious department. Among these schools were Clark University and its religious arm called the Theological School of Clark University, established in 1883. In 1888, the seminary became an autonomous Methodist Episcopal school called Gammon Theological Seminary and continued to recruit scholars to its faculty.

When Bowen went to Gammon, he filled the vacancy left by William Henry Crawford when he accepted the presidency of Allegheny College. Bowen brought rich and varied experiences that he had gained during his professional life as preacher and teacher. He remained at Gammon for thirty-nine years (1893–1932). During that period, he held other offices, the highest of which was president of the seminary from October 1906 to June 1910 and vice president from 1910 until he retired from that post. The administrative structure of the seminary changed in 1910, when it merged briefly with nearby Clark University and the merged institutions operated for only two years under one president. The school witnessed significant achievements under Bowen's leadership, among them an increase in enrollment. Although he stepped down from his additional post as head of the department of church history in 1926, he continued to serve the seminary by teaching various courses, including historical theology, and by spending two years as extension secretary. After he retired in 1932, he was given the rank of emeritus professor.

Gammon, which had been at its zenith during the 1920s and 1930s, when Bowen was there as a teacher, was one of the two African American seminaries in the United States that were nationally accredited. But several developments helped to destabilize the school. The Great Depression took its toll on the seminary's modest endowment, enrollment declined, and scholarly professors retired. The fledgling seminary received some financial support but continued to struggle. Funds for student scholarships and faculty salaries were lacking. In 1957, well after the Bowen years, Gammon's trustees approved in principle a proposal to join in a cooperative venture and became part of an Interdenominational Theological Center. After the charter was approved in 1958 and the new center opened, according to Grant Shockley in Heritage & Hope, Gammon was recognized as "one of the most singular experiments in theological education in North America."

Bowen respected Tuskegee Institute founder and president Booker T. Washington, who was a proponent of industrial education for African Americans. In fact, he praised Washington's address before the Cotton States Exposition held in Atlanta in October 1895, in which he gave his view on that subject. Just before the Washington address, on what was called "Negro Day," Bowen spoke on "An Appeal to the King." The exposition continued, and in December 1895 Bowen led an important three-day conference on Africa that he had organized and that was loosely connected to the exposition. He published the proceedings the next year under the title Africa and the American Negro: Addresses and Proceedings of the Congress on Africa … in Connection with the Cotton States … Exposition, Dec, 13-15, 1895. Sometime later, Bowen felt a need to distance himself from Washington and Washington's views on industrial education. Bowen advocated instead liberal arts education as a prerequisite for good preparation for leadership. Bowen became a man of protest as well, joining W. E. B. Du Bois in agitating for state legislation to desegregate railroad transportation. They crusaded for better educational provisions for black youth, calling on the legislature to develop a system of public high schools for them.

Agitates for Racial Parity in the Episcopacy

Apparently a man of enormous devotion to the Methodist Episcopal Church, from 1896 to 1912 Bowen served as delegate to its quadrennial general conference. He had become exceptionally distinguished—perhaps the most distinguished—among African American clergy. In an unsuccessful effort to promote him in the church, many delegates voted in favor of his rise to the episcopacy. He became disenchanted with the slow racial progress in the church, however, and in 1912 published An Appeal for Negro Bishops, but No Separation. It was not until the 1920s that the church elected its first African American bishops; unfortunately, however, Bowen was not among them. Instead, Robert Elijah Jones and Matthew Wesley Chair were chosen. Despite the significance of Bowen's work and his widespread appeal, younger clergy were preferred.

Bowen sat on the Board of Control of the church's Epworth League, which gave him the privilege of organizing a national conference on the Christian education of African American youth. The Epworth League was organized in 1889, after several youth groups and societies of Methodist youth in parts of the denomination merged. Young black layman I. Garland Penn was elected assistant general secretary of the Epworth Leagues in 1896 and was charged with promoting the leagues in the black conferences. For Bowen, preparing for the national gathering was an easy task, for he had unusual skill for organizing and managing conferences. He joined educator, journalist, and religious workers as they edited and published in 1902 the conference proceedings under the title The United Negro: … Addresses and Proceedings: The Negro Young People's Christian and Educational Congress, Held August 6-11, 1902.

Bowen joined Jesse Max Barber in launching in January 1904 the literary journal Voice of the Negro; it targeted a national African American audience and clearly reached a fairly large part of the black middle class in Atlanta and throughout the South. Although the journal was less radical than many blacks hoped, it vigorously pursued public issues and race matters, particularly mob violence. By 1906, the journal had from twelve to fifteen thousand subscribers. Bowen also edited an important periodical called The Negro. Among his other publications is a volume of sermons and addresses, including "Plain Talks to the Colored People of America," "Appeal to the King," "The Comparative Status of the Negro at the Close of the War and To-day," "The Struggle for Supremacy Between Church and State in the Middle Ages," "The American and the African Negro," "University Addresses," "Discussions in Philosophy and Theory," and "The History of the Education of the Negro Race."

In his article "Did the American Negro Make, in the Nineteenth Century, Achievements Along the Lines of Wealth, Morality, Education, Etc., Commensurate with His Opportunities? If So, What Achievements Did He Make?" published in Culp's Twentieth Century Negro Literature, Bowen comments on the untold story of black America and freedom: "The story of the burdens and disadvantages of the Negro at the beginning of his days of freedom has not yet been committed to paper. It will require a black writer to perform this deed." Interestingly, he commented on black economic progress as well. In that same source he wrote: "Slavery did not teach him economy; on the contrary, it taught him profligacy, and, when he learned to economize, it was in spite of the system." Bowen notes that blacks did, in fact, achieve well in the nineteenth century. He concludes: "From every point of view, the growth of the Negro has more than kept pace with his opportunities."

Bowen belonged to the American Historical Association, the American Negro Academy, and the NAACP. His interest in race relations led him to endorse the Niagara Movement in September 1905. Led by Du Bois and William Monroe Trotter, a group of intellectuals and activists representing fourteen states met near Niagara Falls, New York, and organized the movement. The purpose of the new group was to press for immediate civil rights for black people. They would accept no compromise and clearly rejected the accommodationist policies that Booker T. Washington espoused. The Niagara Movement merged with the NAACP in 1909. Bowen also helped to found the Georgia Equal Rights League, whose objectives were similar to those of the Niagara Movement.

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.



Bardolph, Richard. "John Wesley Edward Bowen. In Dictionary of American Negro Biography. Eds. Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston. New York: Norton, 1982.

Brawley, Benjamin. Negro Builders and Heroes. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1937.

Brawley, James P. Two Centuries of Methodist Concern: Bondage, Freedom and Education of Black People. New York: Vantage Press, 1974.

Culp, D. W., ed. Twentieth Century Negro Literature: Or a Cyclopedia of Thought on the Vital Topics Relating to the American Negro. Naperville, Ill.: J. L. Nichols & Co., 1902.

Luker, Ralph E. "John Wesley Edward Bowen." In American National Biography. Vol. 3. Eds. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

McCulloh, Gerald O. Ministerial Education in the American Methodist Movement. Nashville: United Board of Higher Education and Ministry, Division of Ordained Ministry, 1980.

Nichols, J. J., and William H. Crogman. Progress of a Race, or the Remarkable Advancement of the American Negro. Rev. and enl. ed. Naperville, Ill.: J. L. Nichols & Co., 1925.

Penn, I. Garland, and J. W. E. Bowen, eds. The United Negro: His Problems and His Progress. Containing the Addresses and Proceedings the Negro Young People's Christian and Educational Congress, Held August 6-11, 1902. Atlanta: D. E. Luther Publishing Co., 1902.

Shockley, Grant S., ed. Heritage & Hope: The African American Presence in United Methodism. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1991.


Van Pelt, J. R. "John Wesley Edward Bowen." Journal of Negro History. 14 (April 1934): 217-21.


The papers of John Wesley Edward Bowen are in the archives of Gammon Theological Seminary located in the Woodruff Library at Atlanta University. Other papers are published in The Booker T. Washington Papers, edited by Louis Harland and others and published between 1972 and 1989. There are also unpublished materials in the Booker T. Washington papers located at the Library of Congress.

                                    Jessie Carney Smith