Friday, February 4, 2022

Cloud of Witnesses: Peter and Samuel Lowery

      Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

-Hebrews 12:1-2 (NIV)

Samuel R. Lowery
Samuel R. Lowery

February is Black History Month. Occasionally, less often than you used to, I hope, you might hear someone ask why we need Black History Month. 

     Usually, the simple, quick answer to that question will suffice: We need Black History Month because Black  history is often forgotten, if not intentionally erased, in favor of versions of history more palatable to what has been the dominant (White) culture. Every history is a version of what happened — and it’s usually those in power who decide which version — and every history is incomplete by chance, by mistake, by intention, or simply by oversight. But forgetting some facts of history can have a devastating effect on the present and the future. That’s certainly been the experience of many Black people, if not all. Black History Month is an attempt to rectify that, by remembering the people and events that might otherwise be forgotten. 

     I thought that it might be good this month for me do some remembering, particularly of Black people and the contributions they’ve made to the Restoration Movement and Churches of Christ, of which I’m a part. Work by Bruce Daugherty (father of Northwest’s own Mike) and John Mark Hicks, among others, has been helpful and inspirational to me.

     Peter Lowery, born in 1810, was a slave in Tennessee who was able to purchase his own freedom, and eventually the freedom of his mother, three brothers, and two sisters. He worked at Franklin College, the first Restoration Movement college in Tennessee, where he became acquainted with its founder, Tolbert Fanning, who taught and mentored him.

     Lowery began preaching in the 1840s, and planted the first Black Restoration Movement church in Nashville, Gay Street Christian Church. In 1857, he petitioned the city council for permission to hold night services, which was denied on the basis that they did not believe any good resulted from [Black] preaching and that Black preachers “could not explain the fundamental principles of Christianity.” (Republican Banner; May 29, 1857)

     Lord, have mercy.

     By the time of the Civil War, Lowery owned businesses worth $40,000, which he lost when the war ended. Despite the harassment and threatened exclusion of free Blacks from Tennessee by the state legislature, Lowery stayed and worked for the rights of Freedmen. He started a college, Tennessee Manual Labor University, near Murfreesboro, to help prepare freed Blacks for their new lives after Abolition. When the college needed funds and white churches refused to help, Gospel Advocate editor David Lipscomb used his influence to try to change their minds. Lipscomb wrote:

“Elder P. Lowery was long an approved teacher of the Gospel by the Church of Christ in Nashville. He has long been a free man; has, by industry and economy in days past, gained property; and so demenned [sic] himself as to command the respect and esteem of the community in Nashville, as his letters of endorsement attest.” (Gospel Advocate 10, no. 11; 12 March 1868. 256)

     While Lipscomb still had blind spots concerning race (in the same article he said he doubted that there was anyone more qualified “among his race” to operate a school), in a world where it was thought that no good could come of Black preaching his support of Lowery spoke volumes.

     Peter Lowery passed away in 1888. His obituary in the Gospel Advocate (Feb 15, 1888, p. 10), written by J. P. Grigg, read in part: 

“Bro. Lowery obeyed the gospel in his young days and had been a proclaimer of the gospel for 40 years. He was a good neighbor and devoted Christian. He lived a devoted member of the church from the day of his obedience until the day of his death. He died in a bright hope of a blessed immortality. I never saw any one who seemed to be more devoted to the Christian life than he. He was always found at church on Lord’s day when he was able. I do not remember of ever meeting him that he did not ask me how I was getting along spiritually and express his hopes of a brighter and better world than this.”  


     I thank God for the life of Peter Lowery because through him I’m reminded that those who have suffered in this life often have a much more vivid hope — a “bright hope” — of “a better world than this.” Lowery preached the good news of Jesus because he believed that it was nothing less than the redemption of a fallen creation in which he and his family could be enslaved and, even after Emancipation, treated as “less than” by those in power. He preached it because he was absolutely convinced that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection was the power by which sin in the hearts of the white supremacists who mistreated him and his people, and the sin in his own heart, was finally overcome. 

     But I’m also reminded by Lowery that having such a hope doesn’t absolve us of responsibility to incrementally work in the name of Jesus to remake this world to look more and more like what we hope for. That’s why Lowery began a school in addition to planting churches: he knew freed Blacks needed to hear the gospel, but he also knew that if he listened to the gospel he had to help them gain opportunities and give them the resources they needed to seize them. Peter Lowery’s life teaches us that the gospel is about having life, and having it more abundantly.

      Peter’s son, Samuel, was also educated by Tolbert Fanning at Franklin College. By the age of 16 he was teaching school, and he was preaching at 19. After leaving Nashville due to the closure of black schools and violent threats against free blacks in 1856, he founded the Harrison Street Christian Church in Cincinnati and  served as an evangelist and church planter Canada, sent by the American Missionary Society.

     He returned to Nashville as a chaplain in the Union army during the occupation, and conducted school for soldiers. He worked with his father in advocating for the rights of freed Blacks. By 1875 he had studied and was practicing law in Huntsville, Alabama, where he founded another school, the Lowery Industrial Academy (which won first prize for its silk at the 1884 World’s Fair). Samuel Lowery has a place in history as the first African American to argue a case before the United States Supreme Court.

     Peter and Samuel Lowery are part of that “great cloud of witnesses” that should inspire us to get rid of whatever gets in the way of following Jesus, and “run with perseverance” the course he asks us to run.

     I’m thankful to know of the Lowerys. I hope you are too.

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