Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

South and North: The Exceptional Seminary Education of Walter Russell Bowie

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

South and North: The Exceptional Seminary Education of Walter Russell Bowie

Article excerpt

In April 1908, Walter Russell Bowie wrote to his future wife Jean Laverack with a telling assessment of his seminary education. As commencement day approached, he declared that he was very "glad that I have had just such combination as I have had of the two seminaries." Indeed, as Bowie prepared to graduate from Virginia Theological Seminary, he celebrated an exceptional religious education that included half a year of study at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. The distinctive sets of religious experiences in both the South and the North served as the foundation for Bowie's impressive career as an Episcopal leader. After graduation, he would serve as rector of historic St. Paul's Church in Richmond and prestigious Grace Church in New York City. As the editor and writer for the Southern Churchman and as a distinctive author who eventually wrote nearly forty books, he emerged as an important national voice of religious liberalism. Later in life he became a professor at Union Theological Seminary and then at Virginia Seminary. Highly respected for his scholarship, he served as a member of the committee that produced the Revised Standard Version of the Bible and as an editor and contributor to the twelve-volume Interpreter's Bible. His educational experiences in Virginia and in New York City shaped Bowie's life as a liberal religious leader-a rarity in the American South during the early twentieth century. His story also serves as a window on how two notable American seminaries of the early twentieth century prepared hundreds of students for ministerial careers, often ones of distinction.1

In the fall of 1905, when Walter Russell Bowie arrived at Virginia Theological Seminary, he received a series of letters from his aunt, Richmond social reformer Mary Cooke-Branch Munford. "I think you chose well," she concluded about his decision to study at the seminary. She lauded it as "a good place to be quiet-to find one's soul." Bowie's letters to her, other family members, and friends soon confirmed this evaluation. Writing to his sweetheart, Jean Laverack, he described the seminary as a good place to grow "and learn very much what a minister most needs." Bowie perceived evidence of spirituality, particularly on the part of the upperclassmen and that gave him confidence. Impressed with their "earnestness," he hoped that the place would teach him "the same sort of spirit" that Bowie saw himself as lacking. "There is something that has got to be awakened in me that isn't awakened yet."2

In fact, Bowie entered Virginia Seminary with misgivings. As he confided in one letter, he feared that he was "not of big enough caliber for the church's guns." Others who knew Russell, though, had few doubts. In contrast to his own uncertainty about a ministerial career, more than half a dozen friends and family members strongly encouraged him. Aunt Mary-Cooke headed the list of those who repeatedly urged him to consider a life of religious service. Those ranks received a pivotal reinforcement from the future Mrs. Bowie, Jean Laverack of Buffalo, New York. Her own deep religious devotion led to an intensely spiritual and romantic relationship with Russell that they shared throughout their lives. The two young people had both been inspired by the late Reverend Maltbie Davenport Babcock. As a student, Russell had fallen under the influence of the dynamic Presbyterian preacher during one of Babcock's many visits to the Hill School in Pennsylvania and later determined to enter the ministry, too. Thus, the inspiration of Babcock's example combined with the support of Jean and other friends and family members to launch Bowie into his seminary education.3

When Walter Russell Bowie first arrived in Alexandria, he hardly seemed to be a typical student. As a graduate of Harvard, he joined only a small handful of his Virginia Seminary peers who had earned degrees from institutions north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Prior to his education at Harvard, he had graduated from the Hill School in Pennsylvania. …

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