by David R. Stokes
As the conflict involving much of the world began to draw the United States to the brink of war in the summer of 1941, a 27-year-old preacher moved his family from California to the heart of the American Midwest, as he assumed his duties as the new pastor at High Street Fundamental Baptist Church in Springfield, MO. The church was five years old and had experienced significant growth under the leadership of its popular founding pastor, Charley Dyer, who was leaving to pursue his passion for evangelism as a full-time ministry. W. E. Dowell was Dyer’s handpicked successor, a choice ratified by a near-unanimous vote of the congregation, beginning a 22-year ministry that would make High Street the largest church in the state — and one of the most influential Baptist congregations in the nation.
A few months later, Dyer visited Springfield and Dowell invited him to preach at High Street. When Dyer stood up to speak, the audience stood as one to give him a prolonged ovation. Dowell instantly felt his heart sink. He had never received such a welcome. He found himself filled with jealousy, and it bothered him — not just the ovation itself, but his visceral response. He knew envy was one peril of ministry and he had to conquer it. He prayed about it and the Lord impressed him with a solution. He was scheduled to be out of town four upcoming Sundays in a row, so Dowell would face his problem head on. He invited Dyer to fill the High Street pulpit all four of those Sundays.
Decades later, Dowell would tell his Pastoral Theology students at Baptist Bible College the moment he extended the invitation to Charley Dyer he was released from bondage of the spirit of envy. And every time he told the story, he would pause and smile, adding that his first Sunday back at High Street after that four-week absence, the congregation gave him a standing ovation.
William Edgar Dowell was born in Coleman County, TX, on July 8, 1914, as the great world powers were zigzagging toward what would be soon described as The Great War. He was the tenth child of Albin and Lizzie Dowell. Albin was a preacher, as was his father, Marion, before him. Albin, or A. M. Dowell as he was known, had a migratory ministry that touched several rural Texas towns. A few days after his son William was born, while Albin was getting ready to head to the church for the Wednesday night service, he heard the newborn letting loose with a loud crying fit — early evidence of William’s one-day legendary vocal prowess. The dad smiled and thought of a verse from Isaiah, “Cry aloud, and spare not. Lift up thy voice like a trumpet” (Isaiah 58:1). He preached on that text that night.
Stephen Dowell has written an exhaustive biography of his grandfather, W. E. Dowell. It will be published May 2017. I had the privilege of reading through the material recently and my admiration for the great man of God was rekindled. I talked with Stephen — a professor at Baptist Bible College, where W. E. Dowell once served as president — about his grandfather:
DRS: You have described your grandfather as an ordinary man. Yet, clearly he accomplished extraordinary things. Can you expand on this?
SD: My grandfather had humble beginnings. He grew up in a poor household in rural Texas, and he never acquired a college education. He had common interests, such as football and basketball, and the only occupation outside of preaching he ever experienced first-hand was farming.
Granddad’s background and personality helped make him accessible and down to earth. Preachers, in particular, found him to be a friend and confidant. And even if those preachers led congregations that were very small, Granddad had a knack for making them feel their work really mattered.
There was a rootedness in my grandfather’s approach to ministry, and there was a consistency in his life. His closest ministry partner, Earl Smith, told me he never saw my grandfather do anything questionable during their 17-year working relationship. God blessed that day-to-day faithfulness.
I like to remember those ordinary days and qualities as I consider my grandfather’s extraordinary achievements. He built the largest church in the state of Missouri. He was three times elected to lead influential fellowships of pastors. He received three honorary doctoral degrees. He traveled the globe in support of international missions. He became president of a large Bible college. He reached thousands for Christ. Those would be admirable accomplishments for any preacher, yet they seem to glisten even brighter against a woolen humanity.
DRS: Your grandfather was saved when he was ten years old, and surrendered to preach when he was 19. He never attended college or seminary. What was his early ministry like in the mid-1930s, as the Great Depression consumed the nation and the world?
SD: Granddad married at age 20, and about the same time, he became his brother’s associate at North Side Missionary Baptist Church in Merkel, TX. They worked together for about a year, but then Ernest moved his family out of state, and the church called my grandfather to take his place. Granddad remained as pastor of North Side for another year, but those times were tough. The depression was in full swing, and my grandparents now had their first child. Granddad was still doing farm work just to make ends meet. So, in the end, he left Texas to seek better opportunities in California.
DRS: J. Frank Norris organized “Bible schools” for preachers in the 1930s — conferences that lasted a couple of weeks. They took place at First Baptist Church in Fort Worth. Because, as with several other BBF originals, your grandfather was largely self-taught, the Norris “schools” were his only educational experiences early in his ministry. What drew him to the controversial Texas Tornado?
SD: My grandfather was introduced to Norris by his oldest brother, Ernest. After granddad surrendered to preach, Ernest took him to a two-week Bible school at Norris’s church in Fort Worth. Granddad returned for a second Bible school just six months later.
In Fort Worth, my grandfather was given a taste of Norris’s large and thriving ministry at First Baptist Church. In addition to attending lectures and sermons from some of the nation’s greatest speakers, granddad and the other preacher boys were commissioned to go on late-night “raids” of local taverns to proclaim the Gospel to wayward souls. The experience left him primed to reach others with the Gospel.
Though my grandfather would not form a significant personal relationship with Norris until years later, he became an admirer of Norris from the start. He considered Norris a great speaker and church builder, and he also agreed with Norris on many issues, including the threat of Modernism.
DRS: Your grandfather moved to Springfield, MO, in August 1941 to assume the pastorate of High Street Baptist. He was recommended by Charley Dyer, who founded the church five years earlier. How did this come about?
SD: In 1940, my grandfather and Charley Dyer got acquainted through mutual friends. Granddad was pastoring a work in southern California, and Dyer was pastoring a church he founded in Springfield, MO, High Street Fundamental Baptist Church. Some of Dyer’s church members relocated to California and became part of my grandfather’s church. Their subsequent reports about my grandfather prompted Dyer to invite him to visit High Street to hold a special meeting.
A few months after Dyer and my grandfather met, my grandfather left his congregation to start a new church in South Gate, CA. This church got off to a good start, but it was still just weeks old when granddad got another call from Charley Dyer. Dyer had decided to enter evangelistic work, and he wanted my grandfather to become his replacement at High Street. This offer was an excellent opportunity. Even though High Street was just five years old, it was already averaging several hundred in attendance. On the other hand, my grandfather was pleased with the progress he was seeing in South Gate, and it troubled him to think of abandoning this church in its infancy.
In answer to Dyer’s request, then, my granddad said he would consider coming to High Street only if Dyer would agree to take charge of the South Gate church until it was able to find a new pastor. Dyer liked the idea, and in August of 1941, these two pastors managed to swap churches. Dyer stayed with the South Gate work for about three more years. Granddad remained at High Street for the next 22 years.
DRS: Radio was a large part of Dowell’s ministry for many years, how did this get started? How did radio help build High Street Baptist?
SD: My grandfather was on the radio from the earliest days in his ministry. Even while he was ministering in and around Merkel, TX, he had opportunities to preach over the airwaves. But his first regular radio broadcast came while he was ministering in La Habra, CA. He secured a Sunday morning time slot over station KGER. Later, when he came to High Street, he was on the radio nearly every day of the week. Some of those Springfield broadcasts were introduced by a young announcer named Bob Barker, who later became the host of “The Price Is Right.”
On a practical level, radio served as a good form of advertising. It offered my grandfather exposure that resulted in church growth, speaking engagements, etc. He also used his radio program to promote special events. Any astute observer knew successful preachers like J. Frank Norris always had a radio presence, so for granddad, having such a program just made sense.
Granddad also found hearts could be touched over the radio. In one case, my grandfather was contacted by a group of devoted listeners down in Arkansas. They wanted him to help organize a church in their city. Springdale’s Temple Baptist Church was formed as a result.
DRS: When did your grandfather start having concerns about J. Frank Norris’s leadership and mental state? How hard was it to break from Norris?
SD: The original working relationship between my grandfather and Norris began to blossom after granddad came to High Street in 1941. Granddad became a regular speaker at Norris’s northern congregation, Temple Baptist Church of Detroit, and Norris made at least one special appearance at High Street. Granddad also became a regular participant in the activities of the World Fundamental Baptist Missionary Fellowship (Norris’s fellowship). In fact, High Street hosted some of the national meetings of that organization.
By 1948, my grandfather was elected as president of the WFBMF. He was also appointed to oversee the fellowship’s mission office. Though he still had the highest regard for Norris, these new responsibilities gave him fresh insights into Norris’s activities. Norris had always been something of a dictator, but age was now making his whims and demands more troubling.
One point of contention occurred when Norris began to publicly malign missionary Fred Donnelson over his financial reporting. Norris remained critical of Donnelson even after he received Donnelson’s reports, and my grandfather, as the director of missions, was forced to referee in this matter.
But the Donnelson situation was the tip of a much bigger iceberg, and by the spring of 1950, many of Norris’s actions were stirring up controversy. He took steps to oust G. B. Vick from his position as president of the Fellowship’s seminary, and during that time, he also began to discredit Vick’s family and many of his allies. By May of that year, it became evident the time had come for a complete break with Norris.
DRS: What were your grandfather’s thoughts on the methods of preparing and delivering sermons?
SD: The notes for the Pastoral Theology course my grandfather taught at BBC describe three primary methods of preaching: expository, textual, and topical. Each of these had value, granddad believed, and a “well-rounded ministry” demanded all three. For revivals and evangelistic preaching, my grandfather preferred the textual sermon. He advocated topical and expository messages for teaching contents of the Bible and for doctrinal studies.
DRS: Thanks very much, Steve — and we look forward to reading your forthcoming book.
High Street Baptist became, under W. E. Dowell, one of the nation’s flagship churches for independent Baptist fundamentalism. And because of its relationship with, and proximity to, Baptist Bible College, thousands of students were influenced by the great preacher. In 1952, a young convert from Virginia — just a few weeks old in the faith — enrolled at BBC. At the same moment, Dowell was preaching a revival in the young man’s home church. Many were saved and many long-term church members experienced revival. The young man — whose name was Jerry Falwell — was told by his pastor he needed to meet Dowell and join High Street. Falwell did, and he began his ministry by building a Sunday school class of 11-year-old boys. He never forgot that experience. When he returned to his hometown in 1956, many of those who had been saved in that 1952 Dowell-led revival became the nucleus for Thomas Road Baptist Church, the parent of Liberty University. Falwell considered Dowell a mentor and a great hero in the faith.
After 22 fruitful years at High Street, Dowell accepted a call from a church in Jacksonville, FL (which would soon be renamed Jacksonville Baptist Temple). But a few years later, G. B. Vick invited Dowell to join the administration at BBC. One of Dowell’s major concerns about moving back to Springfield had to do with his relationship with his successor at High Street — David Cavin. So he wrote a private personal letter to Cavin, telling him, “The reason I am writing you even before I have made a decision is because I wanted to know how you would feel about my living in Springfield. I think you know me well enough to know I would never under any circumstances hinder your ministry there, nor would I tolerate anyone to criticize you to me. I do not believe there would be any conflict. But I wanted to know how you would feel about it. Please be perfectly frank in your answer.” He did not want to even appear to be unethical.
Cavin graciously replied, “I would be delighted to have you back in Springfield and of course in High St. Church. You can be sure I would not feel your presence here would hinder, but rather help. Our friendship has been such that there would be a personal blessing to us to have you here.”
W. E. Dowell, a man born at the dawn of World War I, fought the good fight and kept the faith. This godly original finished his course May 2, 2002.
David R. Stokes has served as senior pastor of the ministry now known as Expectation Church in Fairfax, VA, since 1998. His latest book, The Churchill Plot, a thriller set against the backdrop of Winston Churchill’s funeral in 1965, has recently been released. David’s personal website is www.davidrstokes.com.
Stephen Dowell has served as a General Studies professor at Baptist Bible College since 1997. His courses include English, literature, and public speaking. He is also a worship leader and an adult Sunday school teacher at Baptist Temple in Springfield, MO. He and his wife, Robin, have three children.