author, Methodist Episcopal Church minister, educator, advocate of black self-help, and champion of Wesleyan perfectionism, was born a slave to Tom and Namie Lowery on the estate of John Frierson in Sumter County, South Carolina. As a young man, Lowery was a house servant for his master and mistress on the Puddin Swamp plantation. He learned to read and write early and developed a deep appreciation for the religious piety of his Methodist owners. He later recalled his close relationship with the Friersons, sleeping in the same room with them on a pallet next to their bed,...
author, Methodist Episcopal Church minister, educator, advocate of black self-help, and champion of Wesleyan perfectionism, was born a slave to Tom and Namie Lowery on the estate of John Frierson in Sumter County, South Carolina. As a young man, Lowery was a house servant for his master and mistress on the Puddin Swamp plantation. He learned to read and write early and developed a deep appreciation for the religious piety of his Methodist owners. He later recalled his close relationship with the Friersons, sleeping in the same room with them on a pallet next to their bed, kindling fires for them, and sounding the plantation's call for work each morning. He also ran errands for the family on a pony bought for his use, and he accompanied his owner on business trips to the county seat. All this, it appears, gave Lowery certain unique opportunities for a young slave in South Carolina.Some time before the Civil War, Lowery's father saved enough from the extra wages he earned to purchase his own freedom. Tom Lowery later also bought his own mother out of slavery. At the time Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Lowery's father was working toward the manumission of his wife, Namie. While Irving Lowery was still young, his mother, a devout Christian, had hoped he would become a minister. Although Lowery was occasionally permitted to attend religious services off the plantation, his opportunities for religious fellowship were limited. Years later a close friend of Irving Lowery recalled that the slaves would often gather in Frierson's yard to hear a certified exhorter or religious leader. Those services always took place under the watchful eye of white overseers, who feared that too much religious freedom would lead to insurrection.Little changed at Puddin Swamp even after the fall of the Confederacy in April 1865. At war's end Lowery was fifteen years old and still living and working on the Frierson plantation. But an incident in fall 1865 altered the young Lowery's life forever. After work one evening, his master's son, Adolphus Frierson, brutally whipped Lowery and threatened to kill him if he ran away. That night Lowery fled, under cover of darkness, with another teenage former slave. The two worked their way through thickets and swampland to the Union garrison at Sumter. Union agents placed Lowery in the custody of his father. In 1866 Tom Lowery enrolled his son in a South Carolina free school, which received support from a New England educational society. Young Irving Lowery came in contact with many Northerners in these years, attending Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) services as early as 1867 and receiving further education at Baker Theological Institute, operated by the MEC in Charleston. He was also one of the first to register as a student at the newly-founded, MEC-sponsored Claflin University. Like many other Freedman's Aid Society schools, Claflin was staffed, financed, and promoted by Northern philanthropists. For over a hundred years, Claflin was one of the only schools in the South that did not discriminate on the basis of color. For further schooling, Lowery even ventured far north of the Mason-Dixon Line, briefly attending the Wesleyan Academy in Wilbraham, Massachusetts.Returning to the South, Lowery married a woman, of whom little is known, but whom he described in his diary as light-skinned and from a wealthy family. The couple would have at least five children by the late 1880s. In the 1870s Lowery taught at a Sumter High School, where he later served as principal. Many embittered whites condemned black education and railed against both black and white members of the MEC. Northern Methodists made a concerted effort to draw black members, and African Americans voted with their feet and left southern congregations for the MEC in droves in the postwar years. Detractors considered the MEC little more than a black Republican fellowship. This did not dissuade Lowery, who entered the ministry in 1875 and served MEC churches in Cheraw, Charleston, Aiken, Summerville, and Greenville, South Carolina.After the war Greenville became a center of holiness activity in the South. Few southerners before the 1870s put much stock in Wesleyan theories of holiness, but in the decades after the war northern-born perfectionism gained headway in the region. True Whittier, a New England Methodist missionary to the South who served as a presiding elder in Charleston, introduced Lowery to Wesleyan sanctification in the 1870s. Lowery soon championed the cause with zeal. He read and wrote for the Boston perfectionist periodical The Christian Witness, and he preached holiness to large congregations across South Carolina. The early-twentieth-century black Pentecostal revival owed much to the kind of perfectionism Lowery and others like him preached from pulpits and in newspapers across the region.Later in life Lowery wrote New South booster articles for newspapers like Columbia, South Carolina's Daily Record. He borrowed heavily from Booker T. Washington and other apostles of self-help philosophy and praised white philanthropists and downplayed racism and the crimes against blacks in the South. In 1908 Lowery even lent his support to the United Confederate Veterans and General George W. Gordon, who proposed to erect a monument to the devoted, loyal slave. Lowery's most significant achievement as a writer, his 1911 autobiography, Life on the Old Plantation in Ante-Bellum Days, or a Story Based on Facts, painted a rosy picture of the antebellum South, not unlike Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus tales. Nevertheless Lowery's account was a valuable window into plantation life, recalling slave work, celebrations, kinship networks, religious practices, and weddings, among other details. Lowery died in Columbia, South Carolina, in December 1929. It is hard to gauge the full extent of his impact, especially because historians have paid little attention to his career. Yet he was an influential promoter of Christian holiness among African Americans, and his early efforts laid the groundwork for Southern holiness and Pentecostal growth in the twentieth century.
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