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This Month in BGAV History: Free Time to Illustrate History

By Fred Anderson

The phone rang and it was Franklin Fowler, a good friend of mine and of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society and a resident of Lakewood Manor, the Virginia Baptist Home in Richmond.

“Doctor” Fowler, a longtime medical missionary and staff physician for the Foreign (now International) Mission Board, said, “Fred, I find that I have some free time on my hands and I want to paint historical churches.” He did not mean painting on a ladder but rather painting on a canvas.

Fred Fowler and his paintings.
Franklin Fowler and his paintings.

Franklin Thomas Fowler is 97 years of age and wants to use his “free time” creating something unique and useful. It is not a new attitude for the former missionary. Indeed he always has used every available minute to the fullest. It was the way he was reared.

In 1902 his parents – Frank James Fowler and Daisy Cate Fowler – married and attended the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention on their honeymoon. Soon afterwards, they were appointed as the third missionary couple to the new mission field of Argentina. Franklin rightly calls them “true pioneers.”

“My father was the first native Floridian to be appointed as a foreign missionary from Florida by the SBC.” Frank James Fowler served as an evangelist and church planter in Argentina until his death in 1933. The Argentine people called him “Apostle of Love.”

Franklin and his mother returned to the States and he spent part of his high school years in Harriman, Tennessee. He attended Carson-Newman College, a Baptist school in East Tennessee, and entered Vanderbilt Medical School. While a student he was elected a deacon at First Baptist Church of Nashville.

One day while on his way to Sunday school, he passed a fellow medical student, a Jewish fellow, who was on his way to the library. The student said: “Frank, I have only one purpose in life – medicine – while you have two – medicine and service to your God. You are doing the right thing by giving him some of your time.”

On his apartment wall are several paintings including one of the spot in the mountains around Ridgecrest, the Baptist assembly grounds, where he surrendered his life to missions. He felt the Lord urging him to take up the torch – so long carried by his late father – of helping people in South America.

In the meantime, there was the Second World War. In 1944 the young doctor was off to Europe and service in the war. He was a part of the evacuation hospital which followed Patton’s army. At Christmas of ’44, during the Battle of the Bulge, within 10 miles of the hospital, there were 5,496 admitted to the hospital.

Crooked Run Baptist Church
Crooked Run Baptist Church

In August 1946 he married Dorcas Hauk, a nurse, after only three dates with “the war in between #2 and #3.” They met when they shared a BSU speakers’ platform and she stepped on his foot on the way to the rostrum. He recovered and summoned the courage to invite her to lunch and recalls it as the day the Lord led him and her to “the one He had chosen.”

In 1947 they were appointed as missionaries to Paraguay. He recalls that “there was no orientation [because] the idea was to throw you into the pond and, if you could learn to swim quickly, you made it.”

By the time they boarded a cargo ship, Dorcas was eight months pregnant. “Three weeks on the open sea gave me plenty of time,” remembers Franklin Fowler, “to think about our call, what we were to do, how to do it and how foolish we must have looked to many of our friends, going off to an unknown land to open medical work without too much knowledge of what was there. And still there was that still quiet voice of assurance: ‘And lo, I am with you.’”

Dorcas gave birth to Tim in a small clinic in Asuncion; and soon after settling on the field, Fowler began plans for a hospital. He discovered the perfect site and interested the owner into selling the property. The cost was $10,000 which was “a lot of money” at the time. The Board approved and the Fowlers believed God “had answered our prayers.” The next duty was erecting a building.

“When you go to the mission field,” muses Fowler, “be ready to do many things for which you do not feel capable of doing. Here is where you learn to rely on the power of the Lord. The fellowship, the love for and of the nationals, and the opportunity of being part of God’s Kingdom work is what makes missionary work so rewarding.”

Franklin Fowler considered his medical missionary work to be both medical and spiritual, aiming for the “total health for a total person.” “The common denominator of Christ’s healing was that all who were healed confronted Him,” says the former missionary.

At the end of 1956, the couple transferred to Mexico; and in 1960 they came to Richmond where Fowler became the medical consultant working at the Board headquarters. He was the physician who examined and helped the missionaries.

In retirement Franklin and Dorcas Fowler were among the early residents to enjoy living at Lakewood Manor. They both used their “free time” to help, and a visitor to Lakewood easily might have mistaken the couple for staff members rather than residents.

Another one of Dr. Fowler's paintings.
Another one of Dr. Fowler’s paintings.

Franklin found a creative outlet in the woodworking shop. He created several models of historic churches and buildings which became museum exhibit pieces for the Virginia Baptist Historical Society.

His masterpieces included Broad Run Baptist Church near Warrenton, the First Baptist Church of Providence, Rhode Island – the first Baptist church in America, and Bruington Baptist Church in King and Queen County.

For the later church, he went to the actual church and made detailed measurements, climbing across the pews of the balcony with his measuring tape. He even made a replica of Bruton Parish Church, the historic Anglican Church in Williamsburg, which the Historical Society could use to illustrate the time when church and state were combined in Colonial Virginia.

Dorcas Fowler always supported her husband’s hobby of model making. She laughed that it kept him off the streets and out of her way. Dorcas has never quit being her husband’s protector, guarding his time and overseeing access to “the doctor.” Even now, she reminds visitors of his daily regime and guards his schedule.

His “free time” has included the painting of wildflowers found on the Lakewood Manor property. The paintings were enlarged and framed with the creation of a chapel within the retirement facility. In addition, the designs were incorporated into stained-glass windows.
The telephone call was specific. He wanted to use his “free time” painting pictures of historic churches. He wanted photographs of several; and in addition, he searched the Internet to find information and additional photographic images.

With hundreds of “historic churches” among Virginia Baptists, the challenge was ours to narrow the long list to a few. Which would be chosen? The choices needed to be old and historical, of unique architecture and interest, and with some readily available color photos in the Historical Society’s collection.

The following met the criteria and the artist went to work: Ash Camp, Bacon’s Castle, Beale Memorial (old location), Crooked Run, Fairmount (Nelson County), F.T., Jeffersonton, Long Branch, Middleburg, Mount Hermon (Bedford County), Mt. Salem (Culpeper County), Pamunkey Indian, Upper King and Queen, Broad Run, Bruington, Fredericksburg, Hollies and Ketocton.

The only available space remaining in the Society’s Heritage Gallery is the area near the ceiling of a long wall. It soon will become a gallery of historic churches. We are grateful that Franklin Fowler devoted and donated his “free time” to illustrate part of the history of Virginia Baptists.

Virginia Baptist Mission Board BlogFred Anderson is the executive director of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society as well as the Center for Baptist Heritage & Studies.

Click here if you want to read more BGAV history articles from Fred Anderson.