Dictionary of Virginia Biography

Walter Russell Bowie (8 October 1882–23 April 1969), Episcopal minister, was born in Richmond, the son of Walter Russell Bowie, an attorney, and Elisabeth Halsted Branch Bowie. His parents were related to several prominent central Virginia families, and he was a cousin of the novelist James Branch Cabell. After his father died of tuberculosis in 1894, his mother opened a boarding house to support her two children. He and his sister often stayed with their aunt and uncle, Mary-Cooke Branch Munford and Beverley Bland Munford, a leading Richmond attorney. Mary-Cooke Munford was a crusader for better conditions for working women, public education for all children, and women's higher education. Her public work in behalf of reforms that were unconventional in the Lost Cause culture of late-nineteenth-century Richmond undoubtedly influenced Bowie. The Munfords may have paid for his education in private schools.

Bowie attended McGuire's University School in Richmond and the Hill School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. The headmasters of both schools strongly influenced the course of his life. John Peyton McGuire reinforced Bowie's devotion to the Episcopal Church, and at the Hill School John Meigs introduced him to a less parochial, more biblical, more personal, and at all times more academically rigorous education. After graduating from the Hill School in 1900, Bowie entered the still wider world of Harvard College. He threw himself into his studies, sports, and other activities with zest. Bowie joined at least six organizations and clubs, including the Signet, which chose students who showed intellectual and literary promise. In 1902 and 1903 he won three prestigious scholarships. Bowie and Franklin Delano Roosevelt coedited the Harvard Crimson, Bowie joined Phi Beta Kappa, and when he graduated in 1904 he was both the Class Day Officer and Ivy Orator. He received an A.M. from Harvard in 1905.

Bowie taught for one year at the Hill School before entering the Protestant Episcopal Theological Seminary in Virginia (or Virginia Theological Seminary) in Alexandria, from which he received a B.D. in 1908. He spent part of his final year at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and found it immensely stimulating. In the autumn of 1908 Bowie moved to the Blue Ridge Mountains and became rector of Greenwood Parish and pastor of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Greenwood, a small community in western Albemarle County. There he became close to a remarkable rural social gospel reformer and missionary-minded English archdeacon, Frederick William Neve. At that time Bowie was also deeply impressed by Lewis Carter "Monk" Harrison, a young minister who used his meager salary to support a ministry among the alcoholics and derelicts who worked in a Northumberland County fish factory. Both men represented an ideal of service and a love of people that drew Bowie to his ministry in the church, although he was simultaneously drawn to the intellectual world of his education in the North.

On 29 September 1909 Bowie married a young teacher, Jean Laverack, the daughter of a prominent businessman from Buffalo, New York. They had two sons and two daughters. Early in 1911, at the age of twenty-eight, Bowie became rector of Saint Paul's Episcopal Church in Richmond, the parish in which he had been baptized and grown up. From there his renown as a preacher and pastor quickly spread. During the next twelve years Bowie became critical of the Old South, speaking out from the pulpit and elsewhere against the Ku Klux Klan and for better treatment of African Americans. He also supported the vote and higher education for women. Bowie's unequivocal opinions often clashed with those of his parishioners and of other influential Episcopal leaders in Virginia. Beginning in 1919 he wrote often for the leading Episcopal evangelical journal, the Southern Churchman, and served as its editor from 1920 through the end of May 1924. During World War I Bowie served as a Red Cross chaplain at Base Hospital 45, a field hospital that Virginians operated in France. The suffering he witnessed there led him to become a pacifist.

In March 1923 Bowie was called to Grace Episcopal Church in New York, where he remained until April 1939, when he ended his ministerial career because of strain to his voice. In addition to eloquent and often controversial preaching, he wrote many of his popular books in New York: Some Open Ways to God (1924), The Master: A Life of Jesus Christ (1929), When Christ Passes By (1932), the very popular Story of the Bible (1934), Great Men of the Bible (1937), and The Story of Jesus for Young People (1937). Bowie published more than thirty titles, and although several were written specifically for children or young readers, others contained serious scholarship or derived from his thoughtful sermons. His publications earned him a coveted place on the committee of translators who under the auspices of the International Council of Religious Education produced the renowned Revised Standard Version of the Bible. The subcommittee on the translation of the New Testament consisted of six famous biblical scholars and two popular interpreters who possessed an ear for current idiom, with Bowie as one of the latter.

Following his resignation from Grace Episcopal Church in 1939, Bowie remained in New York as professor of pastoral theology at Union Seminary. He served on the five-member editorial board of the Interpreter's Bible. Bowie wrote the exposition for the first six chapters of Luke as well as a preliminary essay on the parables of Jesus. He was serving as dean of students when he reached mandatory retirement age in 1950.

Bowie moved in the highest circles of the Protestant establishment in both parochial and intellectual endeavors. He was a member of the Commission on the World Conference on Faith and Order that resulted in the great Lausanne Conference of 1927. Bowie gave the Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale in 1935 and was Hale Lecturer at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in 1939. He received honorary degrees from Richmond College in 1914, Syracuse University in 1933, and the Virginia Theological Seminary in 1938.

Bowie was a transitional figure in American Protestantism. Trained in the era of great preachers, he distinguished himself in that respect, but he concluded his career in what increasingly came to be the new elite who taught in the theological schools. A liberal evangelical Episcopalian, he emphasized the humanity of Jesus. Despite the almost somber, atonement-centered Christology of his fine hymn, "Lord Christ, when first thou cam'st to men," Bowie strongly criticized neo-orthodoxy in America for what he perceived as its excessive emphasis on sin. On the other hand, he never absorbed Karl Barth's different theology. For a time in the 1950s students branded Bowie derisively as the liberal that he was. A decade later a newer breed of evangelical and charismatic students, dissatisfied with the remoteness of Jesus in the hands of the biblical critics, sought him out.

Bowie was not immune to personal challenges. He worked hard to lay aside his southern accent. A majority of the Episcopal clergy in Richmond questioned his orthodoxy and demanded his removal as editor of the Southern Churchman. In New York he publicly clashed with his bishop, and no doubt his membership in the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation caused many of his colleagues to regard him with suspicion. At one point Bowie was even called a subversive. His intense desire to be a great preacher added to the strain under which he worked and perhaps contributed to the damage to his voice. Bowie certainly believed that service was the most important work of a minister. At least once he turned down an opportunity to become a bishop; he declined an appointment late in 1928 as bishop-coadjutor of Pennsylvania.

In 1950 Bowie returned to his alma mater as professor of homiletics at the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria. He finally retired from teaching in June 1955. During the 1950s and 1960s Bowie published several more books, among them Men of Fire: Torchbearers of the Gospel (1961) and Women of Light (1963), both of which consist of short biographies of biblical characters and modern people whose lives reflected their religious beliefs and who put the social gospel into action. Women of Light includes a chapter on Mary-Cooke Branch Munford. Earlier Bowie had written full-length biographies of his aunt and the teacher who most seriously influenced his life, Sunrise in the South: The Life of Mary-Cooke Branch Munford (1942) and The Master of The Hill: A Biography of John Meigs (1917). Shortly before his death he completed and published his memoirs, Learning to Live (1969). Walter Russell Bowie died in an Alexandria hospital on 23 April 1969 following a stroke and was buried in the Virginia Theological Seminary Cemetery.

Sources Consulted:
Walter Russell Bowie, Learning to Live (1969); Walter Russell Bowie Collection, Virginia Theological Seminary, Alexandria; information supplied by daughter Jean Laverack Bowie Evans and Jack Goodwin; Richmond News Leader, 28 May 1937, 18 Oct. 1939, 23 Jan. 1950; Virginia Seminary Journal 1 (July 1955): 2–3 (portrait), 7–8; obituaries in New York Times, Richmond Times-Dispatch, and Washington Post, all 24 Apr. 1969, and Virginia Churchman 78 (June 1969): 3; memorial in Virginia Seminary Journal 21 (June 1969): 3.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by John F. Woolverton.

How to cite this page:
John F. Woolverton,"Walter Russell Bowie (1882–1969)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2001 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.php?b=Bowie_Walter_Russell, accessed [today's date]).

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