Born during the bleak winter of 1847, on January 14, Borden Parker Bowne spent his boyhood on the family farm near Leonardville, New Jersey. At age 17, he went to live with friends in Brooklyn and three years later matriculated at New York University, from which he graduated Phi Beta Kappa and valedictorian of his class in 1871. Having been licensed to preach in 1867, he entered the New York East Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1872 and was ordained deacon. After one year at the church in Whitestone, Long Island, he departed for study and travel in Europe. Bowne was called to Boston University in 1876, and remained there until his death on April 1, 1910.
Six years before his death, two actions were brought against Bowne; a third was instituted in 1908, and all were initiated by a fellow Methodist minister, George A. Cooke. Of these, there is no substantive record of the first and third set of charges, although we know that the second set of allegations was introduced after the first action was unsuccessful, and that the Conference unanimously refused to entertain the third action. It was reported that the stenographic report of the trial for the second set of charges would make a book of 240 pages; but the transcript is missing. The transcript was available 18 years after the trial, when portions of it were excerpted for an article in the Methodist Review. Those excerpts are the only basis for any reconstruction of the trial and the Conference's decision.
Overall, Bowne was charged with teaching doctrines that are contrary to the Methodist Episcopal Church's Articles of Religion and doctrines that are contrary to the established standards of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Specifically, it was alleged: (1) that Bowne denied the doctrine of the Trinity and the moral attributes of the Deity as these are described in the first and fourth Articles of Religion; (2) that his teachings on miracles tended to weaken if not destroy faith in large portions of the Old and New Testaments, and that his views on the inspiration of the Bible contradict both the Bible and the fifth Article of Religion; (3) that he repudiated penal and substitutionary theories of the atonement; (4) that he embraced universal salvation, and rejected the future punishment of the wicked and reward of the righteous; and finally, (5) that his teaching on the Christian life did not represent the views of the Methodist Episcopal Church.
A careful review of such evidence as there is, which includes Bowne's publications, suggests: (1) that while Bowne's writings accentuated the unity of God, he insisted that this emphasis was sponsored by a commitment to make it impossible to think of God at all except by thinking at once of Father, Son, and Spirit; (2) that Bowne repudiated biblical literalism and advocated instead the view that the truth of revelation is not truth about God but encounter with the very God himself, and that methodological issues associated with hermeneutics were his principal concern, neither of which is at variance with the fifth Article of Religion; (3) that Bowne did reject substitution and ransom atonement theories in favor of simply becoming “disciples of our Lord, trusting in his promises and the Father whom he revealed … (with which) we shall receive all the benefits of the Savior's work without any theory … (for) without this discipleship we are lost, whatever our theory”; (4) that there is no direct reference in any of Bowne's writings, cited in the allegation as proof, to universalism or impersonally conceived divine sovereignty; and (5) that the citations from Bowne's Theism and The Christian Life only show that he advanced what is essentially an evolutionary view of Christian experience.
While Bowne was surely in advance of the popular theological constructions of his own time, he was clearly within traditional limits at four of the five points on which he stood accused. He could have been challenged more forcefully on the doctrine of atonement; but his innocence overall and his acquittal appears to have been warranted. He was plainly a liberal churchman and a forward-thinking theologian; and while these traits in and of themselves have often been taken to be sufficient reason for accusations of heresy, that claim is far from demonstrated fact in the case of Bowne, who, as of the early 21st century, is the most recent American Methodist to have been subjected to this allegation.
See also Methodism.
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