On Sunday September 15th, it was Laurie’s and my privilege to worship with the Huntington Community Church and the First Baptist Church of Starksboro, VT. The Starksboro church was celebrating the 150th anniversary of the completion of its church building. While at Starksboro, I listened to an incredible gem of Baptist history. My interest was piqued to pursue the person and subject further. The subject was the Second Great Awakening and the person was Rev. Charles Bowles, the founding evangelist/pastor of the Huntington and Starksboro Churches. With a couple of really good leads I used my limited internet skills to learn more about Charles Bowles. I found an amazing account of an evangelist and pastor’s life and calling. It speaks to the Second Great Awakening, the role of Free Will Baptists, and the particular wave of evangelism and discipleship in the early 1800s in Vermont.
Charles Bowles was born into slavery in Boston, MA in 1761. In 1776 at age 15 he was owned by a loyalist family in Boston. The account is a bit incomplete, but he leaves slavery and becomes a soldier in the Continental Army. As was often the case, a person was granted freedom from slavery for serving as a soldier during the Revolution. Charles Bowles pursued his freedom, settling in New Hampshire, where he married Mary Corliss, a second cousin (which sounds like my family). He becomes a Christian in the Free Will Baptist movement and is baptized at the Wentworth, NH Free Will Baptist Church. Both his Baptist and Methodist friends urge him to answer God’s call and become an evangelist and church organizer. After three years of struggle, he enters upon an itinerant ministry which brings him to Huntington, VT.
Now this is where it gets really good. In 1816 he arrives in Vermont. He is threatened with violence because of the color of his skin. A mob in Hinesburg ties him to a fence rail and attempts to throw him into a pond. Instead, Charles Bowles, tied to a fence rail, preaches to the mob and the mob stops and listens and unties Charles Bowles and many become Christians. The threat of violence ceases. An account of this episode reads “. . .he preached with such power of the Spirit, that many were converted; and as they gathered at the waterside soon after for baptism, shouts of joy and praise resounded through the hills on the farther shore.” This sounds like the Book of Acts. He goes on to preach in Huntington where 150 people come to Christ. He later organizes the Huntington Baptist Church with 90 baptized members, goes on to plant the Starksboro Baptist Church, and periodically leaving the valley, also plants the Enosburg Baptist Church. He becomes a farmer in Huntington but travels throughout northwestern Vermont leading revival services and helping to organize churches. In 1836 he feels called to repeat his ministry in the vicinity of Malone, NY, where he died in 1843. Upon Charles Bowles’ death it is written, “His spirit was so catholic, and his soul so filled with divine power, he could always unite with any evangelical Christian on gospel ground to oppose the kingdom of Satan, and build up the interest of Zion.” Another comment at his death: “He was honored as a father, and highly respected by all.” I think Charles Bowles was really an apostle.
As I finished a lengthy account of Charles Bowles’ life and ministry, I felt a bit awestruck by the grace and power of God. How can anyone explain that a person born into slavery and threatened with death can evangelize a Vermont valley in 1816, except for Christ? We forget so quickly that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.