North American Scholar

BOWEN, John Wesley Edward

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  • Date of Birth (YYYY-MM-DD): 1855-12-03
  • Born City: New Orleans
  • Born State/Country: LA
  • Parents: Edward and Rose (Simon or Waters) B.
  • Date of Death (YYYY-MM-DD): 1933-07-20
  • Death City: Atlanta
  • Death State/Country: GA
  • Married: Ariel Serena Hedges, 14 Sept. 1886; Irene L. Smallwood, 24 May 1906.
  • Education:

    Union Normal School, New Orleans, LA; A.B. New Orleans University, New Orleans, LA, 1878; S.T.B., Boston University, Boston, MA, 1885; A.B. New Orleans University, New Orleans, LA; 1886; Ph.D., Boston University, 1887; D.D. (hon.), Gammon Theological Seminary, 1893.

  • Professional Experience:

    Instructor of Greek & Latin at Central Tennessee College, Nashville, TN (1878-1882); professor of church history, Morgan College, Baltimore, MD (1888-1892); professor of Hebrew, Howard University, Washington, D.C. (1890-1891); professor of historical theology, Gammon Theological Seminary, Atlanta, GA (1893-1932); president of Gammon Theological Seminary (1906-1909); vice-president of Gammon Theological Seminary (1910-1926).

  • Dissertation:

    [Presently lost and precise title unknown: apparently summarized in "A Psychological Principle in Revelation", Methodist Review 73 (1891) 727-739.]

  • Publications:

    What Shall the Harvest Be? (Washington, D.C.: Stafford, 1892); An Appeal to the King (Atlanta, GA; n.p. 1895); Africa and the American Negro (Atlanta, GA: Gammon Theological Seminary, 1896); “An Apology for the Higher Education of the Negro,” The Methodist Review 79 (1897) pp. 723- 731; The United Negro, with I. Garland Penn (Atlanta, GA: D.E. Luther, 1902);  “Who Are We? Africans, Afro-Americans, Colored People, Negroes or American Negroes?” The Voice of the Negro 3 (1905): 31-36; Co-founder with Max Barber of the journal, The Voice of the Negro, 1904; An Appeal for Negro Bishops (New York: Eaton and Mains, 1912).

  • Notes:

    Bowen was born in slavery in New Orleans. His father, Edward Bowen, a carpenter in New Orleans, purchased his own freedom, and then in 1858 that of his wife and son. After studying at the Union Normal School, John Wesley Edward Bowen graduated in 1878 from New Orleans University which had been established for the education of freedmen by the Methodist church. In 1882 after teaching Greek, Latin and math at Central Tennessee College in Nashville for 4 years, Bowen began his theological studies at Boston University. Awarded a bachelor’s in sacred theology in 1885, he was one of 2 students chosen by classmates to speak at commencement. After earning an A.B. from New Orleans University in 1886, he returned to Boston University to enter the Ph.D. program in historical theology. With extra work in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, German and Arabic, he graduated in 1887, becoming the second person of African descent to earn a doctoral degree in the US. In 1893 he was appointed professor of historical theology at Gammon Theological Seminary (GTS), founded in 1883 in Atlanta, GA by the Methodist church to educate black clergy. He was the seminary’s first black professor. During this time he was engaged in many activities from running the “Congress of Africa” in 1895 in Atlanta to co-founding and/or editing several publications. A short time after becoming president of GTS, he opened the school’s doors to victims of the 1906 Atlanta Race Riots during which time he himself was beaten and arrested. In 1932 after almost 40 years of service, he retired from GTS as emeritus professor. A fearless advocate for equal rights and higher education for African Americans, Bowen became involved in an argument over the study of classical languages set off by Reverend Samuel Augustus Steel and carried out in the pages of the Methodist press papers. In colorful language Steel had declared in The Epworth Era (October, 1895) that “hic, haec, hoc, would be their [African Americans’] ruin.” Dr. Bowen’s 20 page response in The Methodist Review was one of the first refutation of Steele’s idea printed. In this article, “An Apology for the Higher Education of the Negro,” he championed the place of classical studies and higher learning for blacks, saying: “There is no shame in industrial training for immediate bread and butter knowledge, [but] if a young man is carrying the hod . . . if he is plowing corn and has a burning spirit . . . for something higher, a desire to study mathematics or science or Latin or Greek, he ought to have that desire gratified and be spoiled…[The negro] has searched for the root of trees. . . and today…he also discovers the roots of Greek verbs.” Bowen’s son, John W. E. Bowen, Jr. (1889-1962), educated at Phillips Exeter, NH (1904-1907), Wesleyan University (A.B. 1911), and at Harvard University, (A.M., 1913), went on to do what his father was unable to do, i.e. become a bishop in the Methodist church. In 1948 he became the church’s 9th black bishop and served until 1960. Dr. Bowen died a few months after his retirement and was buried in South View Cemetery in Atlanta, GA.

  • Sources:

    J. W. Gibson and W. H. Crogman, Progress of a Race (Naperville, IL: J.T. White, 1902), pp. 590-592; Who’s Who, 1901-1902, (Chicago: A. N.. Marquis,1901), p. 118; Richard Bardolph, “Bowen, John Wesley Edward,” Dictionary of American Negro Biography (eds.) Rayford Logan and Michael Winston (New York: Norton, 1982), pp. 52-53; “Born a Slave, the Late J.W.E. Bowen Became Methodism’s Greatest Educator,” Baltimore Afro-American (12 August 1933), p. 22; J. R. van Pelt, “John Wesley Edward Bowen,” Journal of Negro History 19 (April, 1934), pp. 217-221; “Bowen, John Wesley Edward, Sr.,” (eds.) L. Murphy, J. Melton and G. Ward, Encyclopedia of African American Religions (New York: Routledge, 2013), pp. 105-106.

  • Author: Michele Valerie Ronnick