Oral History Interview with
Reverend Welbern Bowman
Former pastor of First Baptist Church, Grandview, Missouri, the church in which Harry S. Truman held membership for most of his adult life; pastor of the Grandview church, 1941-69; conducted funeral services for Mrs. Martha Truman, 1947; longtime friend and spiritual counselor of the Truman family.
February 4, 1981
by Niel Johnson
[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Appendicies | List of Subjects Discussed]
This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.
Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.
Opened July, 1981
Harry S. Truman Library
[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Appendicies | List of Subjects Discussed]
Oral History Interview with
Reverend Welbern Bowman
February 4, 1981
by Niel Johnson
JOHNSON: I'd like to start, Reverend Bowman, by asking you for something of your own background. Could you tell me when and where you were born and what your parents' names were?
BOWMAN: Well, my parents' names were Jasper Bowman and Maggie Bowman. I was born in Cherokee, Kansas in 1904, July 31. When I was about five years old we moved back to north Missouri. That's where my parents originally had lived; in fact, they were born in Gentry County, Missouri and grew up
there. I spent the rest of my time, through my schooling, in Gentry County, on a farm. My dad was a farmer.
JOHNSON: What town was that near, or close to?
BOWMAN: Our mail address was King City, Missouri, but we lived near a little town called Berlin. I went to the grade school and then to high school in the Grandview Consolidated Schools -- not the Grandview we live in now. It was a consolidated school in north Missouri. Later I went to Baptist Central Seminary in Kansas City, Kansas, and William Jewell College, and then back to Central Seminary again where I got my BD degree. In fact, I worked toward my doctor's degree, but I never did complete that. We got into a building program at the church; also right in the middle of my working towards this degree, the seminary split. It had been doubly aligned with the American Baptists and the Southern Baptists. It dissolved that relationship and became a Northern
Baptist seminary, and they quit giving the doctor's degree. So that left me out in the cold, so to speak. Of course, at that time I was pastor here in Grandview; I came here in 1941. My wife and I moved here from Albany, Missouri where I was the pastor of the First Baptist Church.
JOHNSON: Was that your first charge?
BOWMAN: No, my first church was a little country church close to Princeton, Missouri. I was also pastor at Alanthus, Missouri. After leaving there, I went to Santa Rosa, Missouri and was pastor there for a number of years. In fact, I was pastor of two churches at the same time -- I preached one Sunday in one church and the next Sunday in the other. Besides Santa Rosa, I was pastor of the Freedom Baptist Church. Then I went to Albany.
I was at Albany for about two and a half years. Then I came to Grandview, in April of 1941. I was pastor here until I retired in '69, on the last day of July.
JOHNSON: That was about 28 years?
BOWMAN: A little over 28. Twenty-eight years and three or four months, something like that.
JOHNSON: What brought you to Grandview, just an opening here?
BOWMAN: I had a letter from the church here and they asked me if I was interested. I came and preached one Sunday. Of course, the Baptists choose their preachers by having them come and they'll interview them, and have them preach, and then the church will vote whether they do or do not want them as a pastor. So the church called me and we moved here in April of '41. I was here until I retired.
JOHNSON: When was the first time you met any of the Truman family?
BOWMAN: I don't recall the exact date or time, but it was a short time after I came here, because Mary was active in the church at that time. She was
among the first ones that I met when I came to Grandview.
JOHNSON: Was she teaching Sunday School when you first came?
BOWMAN: I don't think she was teaching at that time. She had been teaching before, but I don't think she was a teacher then. She did teach later during the time of my ministry. She had a group of young people; they called it the Young Married Couples class. I suppose there were 35-40 in her class. She taught this group for a number of years.
JOHNSON: You're not sure when you first met the Trumans, but what were the circumstances of the first time that you do recall visiting with the Trumans?
BOWMAN: Well, the first time I remember meeting with Grandma Truman, of course, she wasn't able to get out much even then, was in her home. She was a
very outstanding person in a lot of ways, outspoken, and all of that. She had been a member of this church for a long time. I don't know the date -- it's in the minutes -- but a long time ago she had joined the Baptist Church here. But Mary was active in the church. Of course, the President's membership was still here, but he was in Washington at that time, as a Senator, when I came here.
JOHNSON: Do you know what year he took membership in the Grandview church?
BOWMAN: No, I'd have to check on that, but I think it was back in 1916. The date's on the plaque up there in the church.
JOHNSON: Do you know the church he belonged to previous to the Grandview church?
BOWMAN: No, I don't.
JOHNSON: Apparently he did belong to the Benton Boulevard Baptist Church...
BOWMAN: In Kansas City?
JOHNSON: …before he took membership here.
BOWMAN: I don't recall. In fact, I don't know whether he came by letter or by baptism. If he came from Benton he came by letter, a transfer letter.
JOHNSON: When you visited with his mother, Martha, do you recall anything that you conversed about? Did you talk about her son, Harry, do you recall?
BOWMAN: No, not at that time, because he was a Senator then, and really that's been 40 years ago, so I don't remember what our conversation was. But I know we did talk at various times about her son, and I know after he became President I did make the remark one day when I was visiting with her, something like, "You're proud of your son." And she said, "Yes, but I have another son that I'm just as proud of as I am of the President." In other words, she wasn't showing any partiality.
JOHNSON: When did you first see President Truman, or was he still Senator or Vice President when you first met him?
BOWMAN: Well, I don't know. I may have met him when he was Senator, but I'm not positive. I know a short time after he became President his mother took sick, and she was very ill. He was here for about two weeks and...
JOHNSON: That was in 1947, March.
BOWMAN: He was out here at the home every day and I saw him almost every day for those two weeks, because we just lived about a block and a half from where the Trumans lived. So I would go over there most every day. Sometimes I would converse with him, and sometimes I'd just speak to him; he'd be there and I'd just step in and ask him how their mother was doing.
JOHNSON: Do you remember him attending any of the services, say, between 1941 when you came and this period until '47?
BOWMAN: No, he didn't. He was not here in a service, to my knowledge, until he came when the church was dedicated. After the church was dedicated he was back by here a number of times. I remember one time I was in the church and he came by and stopped for a little while. Of course, that was on a weekday. Most of the time that he was here, it was during the week. He just wasn't here on a Sunday to come to church.
JOHNSON: You do have some correspondence apparently with Mr. Truman?
BOWMAN: Yes, I have a number of letters (See Appendicies).
JOHNSON: When was it that you first wrote to him or he wrote to you?
BOWMAN: Oh, my goodness, I don't know. I know we corresponded back and forth quite a bit about the time the church was built. We started raising money back in 1948, but the building was not built until '49 and '50. We had quite
a lot of correspondence at that time.
JOHNSON: Did you inform him of the fact that you were going to build a new building?
BOWMAN: No, I think the first that I remember about the church building was when Vivian, his brother, here in Grandview, was talking to Mr. Carr, one of the deacons. He said that he had either talked to Harry or he had had some correspondence with him, and Harry was asking him about the church. He said he would like to know more about it and wanted someone to get in touch with him. And so I made contact then with him and we corresponded back and forth and he invited us to come to Washington; he wanted to talk with us. So Mr. Carr and I went to Washington.
JOHNSON: About when would that have been?
BOWMAN: That was sometime in '49, but I don't remember what time of the year it was. We spent at least two or three days in Washington.
JOHNSON: Could you give us a little detail on that trip?
BOWMAN: Well, like I said, when we arrived at the hotel, a note was there waiting for me and said to call as soon as we arrived. As soon as I could, I called the White House and they put me in touch with him, and he said, "I'll send a car over after you. It will be right over."
So, we went over there, and he was in the Oval Room. We visited with him for quite some time. Then, we were back in the White House a time or two before we came home.
JOHNSON: On this first visit to the Oval Office, do you recall the nature of the conversation?
BOWMAN: I don't remember other than the fact that he just wanted to know what kind of a church we were going to build and where we were going to build it and so forth. The church originally had been up on Main Street and Grandview Road. That is almost one half mile west of where it is now.
Because of the fact that we didn't have enough ground there to build the kind of building that we wanted and we felt we needed to get out where we could have parking space, we purchased the property where the church is located now. Really, we had the plans for the new church to be built on the original tract, but after President Truman contacted us and told us that he wanted to make a contribution, we decided that we could really do what we had wanted to do in the first place, and that was to move out.
JOHNSON: So this statement that he had...
BOWMAN: The statement that he made that he wanted to make a substantial donation to the church was the thing that really caused the church to move. They had voted to stay on the old location, but they reconsidered and moved the location to where it is now. That came as a result of the fact that he said, "I want to give a substantial amount." He didn't say how much.
JOHNSON: That was in the first meeting there in the Oval Office, that he said that he wanted to make a contribution?
BOWMAN: Well, I think we did that by correspondence. But he did commit himself there at that time. I think he said, "I'll give you at least 20 thousand dollars." He gave that and then I'm sure he gave some more later, but that was the main part.
JOHNSON: What kind of information did you have for him at that first meeting? Did you have a sketch of the proposed building?
BOWMAN: No, we didn't have it at that time. In fact, we didn't have anything, because we hadn't planned it. Then we came back home and started planning a little bigger than we had planned before.
JOHNSON: What was the membership in '41?
BOWMAN: Oh, about 350.
JOHNSON: What was it then in '49 when you visited the White House?
BOWMAN: It was about 350 when I came here and then I suppose it was probably six or seven hundred at the time we were planning on rebuilding.
JOHNSON: The reason for building was to accommodate a larger congregation?
BOWMAN: Yes, we had to because we were getting to the place where we had reached our capacity in the old building. So we decided that we would have to have a bigger building. A short time after that, the church membership began to grow and after we got into the new building of course we increased much faster. I think at the time I retired there was something like 1700 members.
JOHNSON: In that first meeting you kind of briefed him on your ideas for a new church building?
BOWMAN: That's right.
JOHNSON: And then you did go back and visit him once again before you left Washington?
BOWMAN: Well, yes. Before we left Washington we
were in the White House two or three times. But in that first meeting we just answered some questions that he had, and then he said, “I’ll talk to you later,” or something. Anyway, we were there...
JOHNSON: About how long of a meeting was it?
BOWMAN: Oh, I don’t suppose we met with him more than a half or three-quarters of an hour the first time.
JOHNSON: Who was there beside yourself?
BOWMAN: A. L. Carr, one of the deacons in the church.
JOHNSON: What was his first name?
BOWMAN: Aubrey was his name, but he always signed his name, A. L. Carr. And he had known Truman long before I knew him, because even when Truman was here on the farm, Carr was here. He operated a lumber yard here in Grandview for the Jones Company of Lee’s Summit. He had managed this
lumber yard for years and years, and so he and Truman, I guess, were friends when they were fairly young men.
JOHNSON: Now anyone besides Mr. Carr and yourself? Just the two of you?
BOWMAN: Just the two of us there on that trip to Washington.
JOHNSON: Then you had correspondence about the project after you came back?
BOWMAN: Yes, we did. It wasn't too long after we were in Washington until we started breaking ground and building.
JOHNSON: He wrote a check and included it with one of the letters, and then he sent a second check. Is that the way it was?
BOWMAN: He sent two checks as I recall. I'd say that two or three weeks after we were there we got the first check for $10,000. Then perhaps in
another month, or six weeks, we got another check for $10,000. That made a total of $20,000.
JOHNSON: But then when did you decide to change the location of the church?
BOWMAN: We'd already decided to change the location.