Thomas Jefferson Bowen was a brilliant and bold adventurer for Jesus Christ. As a pioneer missionary, he was willing to enter areas that others were not. In 1850, he opened Southern Baptist work on the west coast of Africa, in what today is called Nigeria.
Early Pursuits and Conversion
Thomas Bowen was born in Georgia in 1814, and as a young man, he was intensely ambitious. In pursuit of worldly glory, he became a soldier, fighting in the Creek War of 1836 and in the Texas War for Independence. He was distinguished for valor and leadership, yet he was racked with guilt over his own wickedness and frustrated by the vanity of earthly pursuits.
He resigned his commission and returned to Georgia saying, “What profit would it be to my soul in eternity even if I had risen to be the greatest general of the age? The glory of this world passeth away, but the love of God—our love of God—abideth forever.” Finally, Bowen came to the end of his own ambitions, bowed his knee to Jesus Christ, and began to live for the Savior’s glory.
Redeemed Ambitions and Abilities
Interestingly, the same drive and abilities he had once used as a soldier in the armies of men now fitted him for a most challenging assignment in the army of the Lord. Bowen volunteered for missionary service, and the Foreign Mission Board (FMB) sent him and Harvey Goodale to Africa.
Goodale died not long after their arrival in West Africa, and Bowen, with a broken heart, buried his friend and pressed on alone. He reached the city of Abeokuta and used his remarkable abilities of observation and memory to learn the Yoruba language and culture.
Bowen traveled where no westerner had been, preaching the gospel and planting spiritual seeds. He faced great hardships that included an African war over slavery and an attempt on his life by poisoning. He was often sick, but Bowen said, “Bodily afflictions are small compared with what I have suffered on account of my exile from home, and friends, and Christian privileges.” After two hazardous years, he went to America for reinforcements. He found five missionary recruits to join him, and one of them, Lurana Davis, became his wife.
Tragedies Abound as the Gospel Advances
The next three years in Africa would be “the most heroic and tragic” in the history of the Nigerian mission. The missionaries were constantly sick from numerous diseases, including yellow fever, malaria, and dysentery. One couple died. Another couple was so sick they were forced back to America. The Bowens’ first child died, but Thomas and Lurana—though sick themselves—pressed on to establish a mission station in the interior city of Ijaiye.
“There is a high cost, often hidden, in taking the gospel to difficult places.”
They baptized the first converts, established a church, and developed deep connections with the Yoruba. A second station in Ogbomosho became a powerful center of Baptist work. When Bowen entered the nearby city of Ilorin, he likely became the first Southern Baptist missionary to preach in a Muslim city.
By 1856, the Bowens’ health had deteriorated so badly that they returned to America to recuperate. During this time Bowen published two important works on Africa and the Yoruba. Central Africa: Adventures and Missionary Labors is a treasure house of information about the peoples, history, geography, and culture of Nigeria. The Smithsonian Institute published the second book, Grammar and Dictionary of the Yoruba People, which was recognized as a scholarly achievement.
Bowen wanted to return to Africa, but his health was too poor. The FMB did agree to send them to open Southern Baptist work in Brazil. The mission to Brazil did not last long because Thomas’s health worsened, and the field was more difficult than he had anticipated.
The High Cost of Taking the Gospel to Difficult Places
When the Bowens were forced back to America, Thomas’s life took a truly tragic turn. His bouts with malaria left him in excruciating pain. With increasing frequency, Bowen turned to alcohol and painkillers that began to destroy his mental health. Most of his Christian friends turned their backs on him. Lurana loved him to the end, but she was unable to fix what was broken in him. He spent years riding the rails between Georgia, Texas, and Florida, working odd jobs as a wandering vagabond.
Like the physically and mentally broken veterans living on the streets today, Bowen was a veteran from the army of Christ whose mind and body were severely damaged in the battle to bring the gospel to Africa. A few years before his death Bowen wrote a beautiful poem to his church in Greensboro, Georgia, asking them to forgive him. One verse read, “Long on the waves of sorrow tossed, where scarce a ray of hope has beamed, Alas! What precious years I’ve lost—O! pray that they may be redeemed.”
Sadly, in 1874 Bowen died in great pain and in great shame in the mental hospital in Milledgeville, Georgia.
“Missionaries get sick, missionaries have mental breakdowns, and missionaries sin, but we must not turn our backs on them.”
Why Thomas Bowen Is a Missionary You Should Know
Many would say Bowen is not a missionary we should know. Yet, Bowen’s bold faith in Jesus led him to plant the Redeemer’s standard in the soil of Nigeria, where even today he is greatly loved and respected. His sacrifice enabled many in that land to hear the good news—Jesus saves!
Bowen’s sickness and his sad and sinful attempts to alleviate his pain are part of the story that needs to be heard. There is a high cost, often hidden, in taking the gospel to difficult places. Missionaries get sick, missionaries have mental breakdowns, and missionaries sin, but we must not turn our backs on them. We must pray more fervently, more realistically, and with greater compassion.
Hundreds of Southern Baptist missionaries followed Bowen to Nigeria, and today there are millions of Baptist believers and thousands of Baptist churches across that land because one bold, frail follower of Jesus opened the door. Yes, Thomas Jefferson Bowen should be remembered with great gratitude because he lived, not to bring glory to himself, but to Jesus Christ!
David J. Brady is the pastor of Christ Community Church, a Southern Baptist congregation in Mount Airy, North Carolina. He was born in Guyana and raised in Belize, where his parents served as Southern Baptist missionaries. David is the author of an evangelistic book entitled, The Gospel for Pet Lovers. He is currently working on a book of short historical biographies of missionaries who have served with the Foreign Mission Board (now known as the International Mission Board).
Note: all quotations were taken from the personal letters and papers of Thomas Jefferson Bowen.