Saturday, October 8, 2011

Walter Russell Bowie

Walter Russell Bowie was born today in 1882 in Richmond, Virginia.  He was educated at Harvard University (where he co-edited the Harvard Crimson newspaper with Franklin Delano Roosevelt) and the Virginia Theological Seminary.  In 1909 he was ordained in the Episcopal Church.

Following two years at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Greenwood, VA, he became the rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Richmond, where he had been baptized in 1883.  During World War I he took a leave of absence from that church to serve as a Red Cross hospital chaplain in France, then returned to Richmond until 1923, when he went to Grace Church in New York City.  After sixteen years at Grace he served as Professor of Practical Theology and later Dean of Students at Union Theological Seminary.

Bowie was a renowned preacher who is still referenced in most histories of preaching.  A series of his sermons from 1935 at the Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale University was published as The Renewing Gospel, only one in a long series of books he published in his lifetime.  He was also on the editorial committee for the Revised Standard Version of the Bible.

He was a strong proponent of the social gospel, which applies Christian ethics to the problems of the world. The first of his hymn texts to receive wide publication is still one of the great social gospel hymns of the twentieth centtury: O holy city, seen of John, which was written at the request of Henry Sloan Coffin for inclusion in Hymns of the Kingdom of God (1910). Coffin and his co-editor, Ambrose White Vernon, were looking for texts that would demonstrate that signs of the reign of God could be brought forth here on earth, and were not just something to be hoped for in the life to come.

Bowie naturally supported many other social causes and was active in promoting them. In the 1920s he joined the American Committee for Protection of Foreign Born, which opposed the racist immugration laws that were being passed at that time. This was not a new cause for him, as this hymn from 1913 shows.  Since immigration is still a prominent topic in our national discussion it seems appropriate for today.

God of the nations, who from dawn of days,
Hast led thy people in their widening ways, 
Through whose deep purpose seeking thousands stand
Here in the borders of our promised land.

Thine ancient might rebuked the Pharaoh’s boast.
Thou wast the shield for Israel’s marching host,
And, all the ages through, past crumbling throne
And broken fetter, thou hast brought thine own.

Thy hand has led across the hungry sea
The eager peoples flocking to be free,
And, from the lands of earth, thy silent sway
Fashions the nation of the broadening day. 

Then, for thy grace to grow in unity, 
For hearts aflame to serve thus cause for thee, 
For faith, and will to win what faith shall see, 
God of thy people, hear our cry to thee. 

Walter Russell Bowie, 1913; alt. 
John T. Grimley, 1887 

Bowie would have been familiar with The New Colossus, the famous poem by Emma Lazarus that was written for the Statue of Liberty; this hymn follows a similar theme.

There is not a great number of hymn texts by Walter Russell Bowie, but they surely still .do merit our consideration.  I also like this prayer he wrote for a united world made stronger by the gifts of God.

O God, out of all the world you let us find one another and learn together the meaning of love.  Let us never fail to hold love precious.  Let the flame of it never waver or grow dim, but burn in our hearts as an unwavering devotion and shine through our eyes in gentleness and understanding. Teach us to remember the little courtesies, to be swift to speak the grateful and happy word, to believe rejoicingly in each other’s best, and to face all life bravely because we face it with united heart….Through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen

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