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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,557


This is the grave of Borden Bowne.

Born in 1847 near Leonardville, New Jersey, Bowne grew up in a Methodist, reformist family. His father was a preacher and an abolitionist and that latter thing was not so popular in New Jersey, one of the most conservative of the northern states in the mid-19th century. His mother was a Quaker and that only reinforced their beliefs on slavery. He then went to NYU for college. He paid for it by working as his uncle’s grocery store in Brooklyn and also doing some pastoral work for the Methodists on the side. It took him longer to graduate than the rich kids, but he finished in 1871. He was ordained as a deacon shortly after that and had a congregation on Long Island for a couple of years.

But the ministry was not going to be Bowne’s future. He went into the world of philosophy. In 1873, he had a chance to study in Germany and he took it. He did that for about a year, then came back, got a master’s degree at NYU, while also working as a journalist and beginning to write on philosophy. He became a star in the field from a very young age. In 1877, only 30 years old, he became a philosophy professor at Boston University. He would stay there for his whole career, despite offers from basically every university in the country to leave and come to them. He became the first dean of the Graduate School at BU in 1888 as well.

Bowne’s first major work was 1874’s The Philosophy of Herbert Spencer, who we should remember was a horrible human being who turned Darwin’s theory of evolution onto humans, a process that just so happened to place Anglo-Saxons as the top of the world. But that seems to have been a bit of an outlier in Bowne’s work, which ended up being more concerned with issues of religion. He remained a popular guest preacher throughout his career, so it’s not surprising that he turned in a way to unify his Protestantism with his philosophical ideas. In 1882, he published Studies in Theism. Philosophy of Theism came out in 1886. Then around the turn of the century, he published a whole series of works on religion. The Christian Revelation (1898), The Christian Life (1900), The Atonement (1900), and The Immanence of God (1905). Later in his career, he considered the question of women’s suffrage in A Man’s View of Woman Suffrage (1910). His last major work was a return to his beginnings, with Kant and Spencer: A Critical Exposition (1912). This was after his death though. There was also a book of quite popular sermons called The Essence of Religion, that came out after his death too.

One of things that made Bowne important–and I think we need to revisit this kind of theology today–is his claim that there was nothing specifically anti-religion about Darwin’s theory of evolution. This was a common response of liberal Christianity in the late 19th century. In fact, theologians such as Bowne used the new scientific advances as a way to promote both Christianity and the advances of human beings. In short, God was now revealing more of His secrets to us because humans had advanced to the point where they didn’t need silly stories written for children. Of course, this kind of thing is what promoted the response of evangelicals, leading to the Scopes trial in Tennessee in 1925. For Bowne, scientific explanations about the world were incomplete. But so were theological explanations. Advances in both should happen together. As such, Bowne openly spoke against spending much time on the miracles in the Bible, as they were not written for modern people.

Not surprisingly, Bowne’s position was controversial in the Methodist Church. He was tried for heresy within the church in 1904. This is the only heresy trial in Methodist history, at least in the United States. This came after he stepped up when a faculty member at BU was fired for teaching some of Bowne’s ideas. In a world very different from today’s college administrators, Bowne stepped up and defended his faculty and really risked his own future in doing so. However, having grown up around abolitionists, he was not concerned about being attacked and when those trying to prosecute him went after him in the trial, he calmly sat and refuted their points. He was unanimously acquitted, though that was likely anyway since most of the jury were made up of people he had trained personally. I am amused by the idea of a heresy trial among Methodists and will be chuckling about that all day.

As an academic, Bowne continued to fight for opportunities for Black scholars. In fact, he was the advisor to the first Black person to get a PhD in the United States, John Wesley Edward Bowen, in 1891. On the other hand, he was a man of his time and as such, thought Native Americans or other indigenous people simply had no place in the modern world. They were savages, we were civilized, they need to go. As I’ve stated before, this basic idea went across the political spectrum and if anything was more strongly held by liberals, at least through the New Deal era, which among other things is how you get Arthur Schlesinger not mentioning Indian removal in The Age of Jackson.

Some of these books were pretty popular. They sold quite well. In an era when the Nobel Prize for Literature often went to historians or other non-fiction writers, Bowne was nominated several times for the Nobel Prize, though at least once it was by his sister, so you know, OK.

One thing that tied Bowne’s works together was a sense of individualism, which was important in an era when the individual was being subsumed into larger society and turned into an automaton if possible. Fascism, communism, Fordism, it all basically did the same thing. He was a big promoter of the idea of personalism, which put him in the same world as his good friend William James and while that somewhat fell out of favor in the philosophical world around World War II, through students teaching the next generation of students, eventually reached people such as Martin Luther King.

Bowne died in 1910. He was 63 years old.

Borden Bowne is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other American philosophers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Roderick Chisholm is in Barrington, Rhode Island and David K. Lewis is in Princeton, New Jersey. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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