Northwest Baptist Theological College Administration Building in Vancouver. The College later moved to Langley on the Campus of Trinity Western University (Credit: The Fellowship Story: Our First 25 Years; J. H. Watt)

Early in July 1927 thirteen Churches left the British Columbia Baptist Convention in the struggle to maintain a theologically conservative and gospel witness in Western Canada. These “Fundamentalist” churches formed the Convention of Regular Baptists of British Columbia. From the very beginning, the “New Convention” was bound to struggle, losing its missionary base, without an educational institution and coming as it did on the cusp of the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The pioneering spirit of the West, however, prevailed and the Lord blessed their endeavors.[1] No man was more influential on those early days than James Bavin Rowell (1888-1973). Rowell had come from England after the war and had reopened Kamloops Baptist Church in 1920 with good success. After the split in 1927, the new Convention needed a representative Church in Victoria, the capital and the second-largest city in the province. James Rowell was the first and obvious choice. He was British-born, he had evident leadership qualities, a pioneering spirit, vision, and energy to equal these.

James arrived in Victoria with his family, three months after the formation of the Regular Baptist Convention. Within two years—August 31st, 1929—the key was turned in the new 450-seat church building. The Lord continued to use James in Victoria, on Vancouver Island as a church-planter, and across the continent as a conference speaker, educator and writer.

In this essay, I will detail the history of Northwest Baptist Bible College and the role of Dr James B. Rowell in its establishment.

 

Early Attempts at Theological Educational in the West

For many years after this 1927 split, the new Convention struggled to organise an institution for theological education. In the February 1928 issue of the BC Baptist, there appeared a notice of their need;

The need for such an institution has been coming up again in the work of many of our ministers among their young people. Young men are coming to us inquiring what qualifications are necessary for ministerial standing in our convention, and wondering why we do not have a college.[2]

In the absence of their own Bible college, men were going to various fundamentalist schools across the continent. Two young people had gone out from Rowell’s Church in Victoria; one to Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and another to Toronto Baptist Seminary.[3] Others, like George Dawe, and L. G. Baker went to BIOLA in Los Angeles, and others, like Bill Sloan, went to Multnomah School of the Bible in Oregon. In the 1930s Rowell furthered his own education at the more recently established Los Angeles Theological Seminary.

Various attempts were made to fill this gap locally. In 1929 the Regular Baptist Bible Institute was organized in Vancouver. Classes began on Tuesday, September 10, 1929, at 7.30 pm in Mount Pleasant Baptist Church.[4] The college offered a “full course of instruction” but would be taken over the course of a few years, three evenings a week; Tuesday, Thursday and Friday for two hours each night. The first session seems to have been poorly attended, and classes did not continue for long. After 1930, nothing more was heard of it.

In 1929 also, night classes were organized in Ruth Morton Memorial and again in October 1930 the B.C. Baptist announced the commencement of classes in Biblical Doctrine, Baptist Principles, and History, under the auspices of the Convention, given by Rev. A. E. Danks in Broadway West Baptist Church.[5]

Then in 1931, Rev. Rowell began his Victoria Bible School in the capital and for eight years maintained an educational outlet, which proved to be the most successful attempt to date in the New Convention. The Victoria Bible School commenced in October 1931 and convened every Tuesday evening for three one-hour classes. Courses offered in the school included New Testament Greek, Bible Introduction, Public Speaking and Personal Evangelism and were taught by Dr Rowell and Fred T. Tapscott, a retired Baptist pastor from the Sluggatt Memorial Baptist Church and fluent in Hebrew, Greek and Latin.[6] As time went on, classes on The Epistle to the Romans and The Power of the Holy Spirit were added to the curriculum. Rev. E. V. Apps, pastor of Brentwood Bay Baptist Church also taught classes and on Tuesday nights would cycle the fifteen miles into the city from Brentwood Bay to teach his class. From 1931 to 1936 numbers grew to 60 in attendance.

It seems, however, that classes ceased in any consistent manner, at the end of the 1936 academic year, although it may have limped on to 1939 when James’ health broke and he was forced to take a leave of absence. [7]

 

Rev. Morley Hall and the Western Baptist Bible College

In April 1929 Westbourne Baptist Church in Calgary separated from William Aberhart and his Calgary-based Prophetic Bible Institute. In December of that year, Rev. Morley Hall travelled to Calgary, preached three Sundays and conducted two weeks of special meetings.[8] Hall accepted the call to Westbourne in February of 1930 and from the first Sunday witnessed a remarkable blessing on his ministry in that Church. Within a few months Hall had met with Howard C. Phillips, pastor of a little Church in Benalto, seventy miles northwest of Calgary. Hall and Phillips shared a kindred spirit; an interest in evangelism and a vision to establish a Regular Baptist presence across Alberta. In June of 1930, the two organized a rally, which turned out to be a huge success and out of which was formed The Regular Baptist Missionary Society. By 1932 the Society had grown to five Churches. Hall had also begun a weekly radio program out of the Westbourne Church.

In 1934 Morley Hall launched another bold venture; Western Baptist Bible College brought about by a number of isolated incidents. After the split from the Western Union in 1927 the link between the Alberta Baptists and the Regular Baptist of British Columbia had been broken and Westbourne Baptist Church was pursuing more fellowship with the Regular Baptist of British Columbia. The British Columbia brethren had the same desire and they invited Hall to speak at the 1932 Convention meetings.[9]

Then in September 1933, Rev. George Dawe stopped in Calgary on his way back home from Prairie Bible Institute. He had just delivered a young man from his church to the college. Dawe had been converted under Rowell’s ministry in 1918 and had become an active evangelist filled with energy and innovation. At that time, he was holding evangelistic campaigns in his gospel van from the Fraser Valley all the way to Prince George and throughout the Okanagan. It was on this visit to Calgary that he met with Rev. Morley Hall and they shared the desire for a Bible college that would serve the fundamentalist Baptist of the west. Before Dawe left Calgary, he and Hall had determined to address the issue of a denominational college.

Hall approached his deacon board about such a venture and on April 18, 1934 the board of Westbourne Baptist Church voted to establish a Bible College.[10] At a regular meeting of the Church on June 15, 1934, it was resolved that,

We as a church take such steps as are necessary to establish such an institution thoroughly in accord with our own principles and doctrines, and to be conducted under the auspices of the Westbourne Baptist Church, and Furthermore, that the name of the proposed institution be the , Western Baptist Bible College”, and that we endeavor to open same for classes on or about October 1st, 1934.

Rev. Morley Hall, of course, would be the president. George Dawe went back to his church in Mission City, BC and tendered his resignation. He would become the principal of the newly formed college. His wife Evelyn assisted in the teaching of secular subjects, such as Music, English, Latin and Psychology. She would also assume the role of superintendent of women. The Dawes were considered a great asset to the college. They were young and full of godly zeal. With his experience as a pastor and an evangelist and with their gospel van it was hoped that they could continue their evangelistic work in Alberta during the summer months. The students were also encouraged to find “openings for evangelistic, colportage and student pastoral work.”[11]

One of the greatest boons, however, to the proposed new college was the acquisition of Dr. Frank S. Weston. Dr. Weston had taught Systematic Theology for over twenty years at Toronto Bible College, with several years of experience in the ministry and was in demand for Bible conferences. “Needless to say,” according to the Westbourne Baptist Church bulletin, “the prospect of Dr Weston’s coming has been a great source of encouragement to us …”[12]

The future looked bright for the new endeavor as they came to the end of the decade—the only concern among some of the brethren was that it would be of better service on the Pacific coast. Unforeseen circumstances, however, would pave the way for relocation to British Columbia. At the Convention of Regular Baptists meeting in 1941, Rev. Morley Hall was involved in an automobile accident in Victoria, British Columbia and, being thrown from the car he sustained serious injuries.[13] In October an Xray revealed that Rev. Hall would be in a cast for another six weeks; “This along with the war conditions have caused us to suspend classes in the Western Baptist Bible College for this year.”[14] Classes never resumed in Calgary.

 

Unity of Purpose

Sickness and the war had interrupted both Rowell’s Victoria Bible School in British Columbia and Western Baptist Bible College in Alberta—the forerunners of Northwest Baptist Bible College. With the war now behind them, and the Church refocusing its efforts, it was time to collaborate and find a location for a college that would serve all of Western Canada. The Prairie provinces were not yielding as many men for the ministry, and the much stronger BC Convention was already drawing men from the Prairies. The consensus was, therefore, that any new endeavor would draw more students if it was located on the coast.

On May 9, 1945, Rev.’s D.C. Harry and E.V. Apps met with the Prairie Fellowship Board and, with the advice of Dean Gordon Brown of Toronto Bible College and Dr R. L. Powell of the General Association of Regular Baptists (GARB, America), it was decided to move the institution to the coast—even if it meant meeting in a church for a time.[15]

Location and property were not the only difficulties to be overcome. James Rowell was an ardent dispensationalist and taught it regularly to his congregation with the use of large painted wall-charts on canvas. The Alberta college, on the other hand, had been built on an anti-dispensational platform.

In the mid-1930s both George Dawe and Morley Hall had been influenced by the Reformed Theology of T.T. Shields in Toronto and his opposition to the Dispensationalism of the Schofield Reference Bible.[16] They had also reacted against the extremely sectarian position of William Aberhart and his ministry at the Prophetic Bible Institute. Both Hall and Dawe had written pamphlets on their views on the Second Coming of Christ. Furthermore, Rowell and Dawe had sharply disagreed in an unfortunate clash in 1939. Rowell had taken sick and was forced to leave for Oregon to convalesce. When George Dawe was brought in to fill the pulpit, he removed Rowell’s prophecy charts and foolishly began teaching his own views of Christ’s return.

If any college project was going to work between the two parties, it would necessitate a profound spirit of unity. This indeed was the case and a sense of purpose prevailed. Rowell confided in his friend Dr. Powell; “It was considered right and proper that the Pre-Millennial Return of our Lord be taught, but that the details as to the Rapture should not be made an issue.” Despite his strongly held opinions on eschatology, Rowell was conciliatory and informed the committee;

“We are united in the great fundamentals, and we need to be kept in the will of the Lord and that no division prevent us from doing a great work to His glory. The unanimity of purpose to this end has marked the proceedings to thus far [Sic.]”[17]

Theological differences aside, the next problem was where the new college would meet. It was at this time that Rev. J.A. Erickson of The Vancouver Fundamental College came with a rather unexpected offer which proved to be a watershed in the formation of the college. Erickson’s offer presented the committee with a choice, and one that was no easily made. At first, the offer was refused. Rowell later said that it made the committee realise, “how much we needed the Lord’s guidance.”[18] Rowell travelled over from Victoria many times in the next few months on behalf of the Convention, to discuss the question of finance and other aspects of the project.

At one meeting, wearied after a long morning of discussion, the committee decided to take a walk into downtown Vancouver for a change of scenery. Gathered around a picnic table in Stanley Park the committee decided that it could not purchase the Port Coquitlam property. Rowell continues;

Well, it was remarkable that two of the brethren were told to tell Mr Erickson that, and they went up to Mr Baker’s church, and while they were there, he [Erickson] drove up with his car and when he knew what was in their minds, he made another proposal … he made a difference as to the amount and we took it up again and discussed it all over again. [19]

This second offer came “in such a way that we were convinced that we had the Lord’s leading.”[20] But there was still some reservation about locking the college and the Convention into a relationship with Erickson and his high school. The Credentials Committee of the Convention met with Rev. Erickson and he “gave a full statement of his beliefs proving himself to be in entire accord with our own statement of faith.”[21] Finally, in June 1945, the Convention purchased the property and the name was changed, to Northwest Baptist Bible College.

 

The New College Building

The new college facility had a history of its own.[22] Rev. Erickson, not only ran the Vancouver Fundamental College but also a high school recognized by the BC Department of Education. The building in which they met was a two-story, fifty-two room hotel built in 1912 by a speculator from England. He had built the hotel on the mistaken conviction that Port Coquitlam would become the terminus for the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). When he discovered otherwise, he suffered an emotional breakdown and died in Essondale Hospital, a mental health facility in Port Coquitlam. His hotel never opened.

Erickson had purchased the building in 1939 in a tax sale for $1,900 to house his Fundamental Bible College. On the first floor there was a kitchen, a dining room and large conference rooms (converted into a gymnasium for the School), a library and classrooms. The second floor was E-shaped, with fifty-five rooms on four wings, which were used for offices, staff apartments and student’s dormitories.  It was indeed a suitable building for a Bible college with rooms converted to house entire families. Their children could attend the High School while the parents attended college.[23]

During the war, the building not only served the college but also as a barracks for Merchant Marine sailors, and by the end of the war it was in a “state of virtual ruin”—the roof leaked, the foundations sagged, the plumbing was antiquated, the floors undulated, and the plaster was flaking.[24]

Owing to the condition of the building, the Convention had presented a counteroffer of $7,000, arguing that there would be a lot of work to do and a lot of more money needed to get the building repaired in time for opening in September 1945.[25]  Much of the money came from the estate of John Morton, the bequest of money to go towards education purposes.

The Education Committee made a few recommendations to the Executive Council regarding the faculty and staffing of the new college. The president should be the “executive head” of the college and should also make recommendations for the faculty. There should also be a Superintendent, who should take charge of the business management, a Matron to care for the cooking and laundry of the students. They recommended also that the Board of Governors should consist of the president and eleven members appointed by the Convention, for a period of two years. The Board of Governors should also have two members from the Fellowship of Regular Baptists in Alberta and one member from GARB in the North West (Dr R. L. Powell was recommended as the representative from GARB).[26] Rev. Erickson and his wife were the Superintendent and the Matron respectively.

With a building procured and differences ironed out, the task was to get support for the new college by getting it into the consciousness of the people. Dr Rowell was appointed president and deputised to promote the new project to his Baptist constituency. His appointment as the first president was not a mere matter of expediency. He was known for “his unique pastoral career and Bible Conference work,” and for his dedication to scholarly research, especially in the study of Roman Catholicism.”[27]  He was well known also, and trusted in the BC interior as well as Eastern Canada and was able to secure two full pages for the new college in Shields’ Gospel Witness magazine. Furthermore, as a leading member of the Convention, he had already invested much time and energy in the project and he was persuasive in the promotion of it. Rowell set out with enthusiasm around the province to bring the project before the people.

 

The Opening of the New College

The college opened in September 1945, with the opening exercises scheduled for October 2, 1945. Dr Powell was the guest speaker. Classes commenced with twenty-one students in an over-sized building. Eight of the students were from Rowell’s Central Baptist Church in Victoria. The college curriculum included Biblical Introduction and Bible Synthesis; Dr Rowell, Christian Evidence and Pastoral Theology; Rev. W.J. Thompson, Personal Evangelism; Rev. H.C. Phillips, Homiletics and Typology; Rev. J. H. Pickford, Christian Education; Rev. Don Harry, Church History and Missions; Rev. L.G. Baker, and Theology taught by Rev. Andrew Grieve. [28]

The first year was difficult and ended with three fewer students than when it began.[29] The college had scarcely opened its doors when the relationship with the Erickson’s broke down. It is unclear what was at the root of the matter which seems to have been growing for some time. At any rate, the joint setup proved unworkable and the Erickson’s resigned. Dr Rowell made a statement in November, to subdue rumours and urged the students that they not spend time discussing the situation but to bring it to the Lord in prayer.

It was a major blow to the college—and especially to Dr Rowell—given the level of due diligence that had preceded the link with Erickson. Rowell of very conscious of this, and in his statement he spent some time outlining for the students the events that lead to the takeover of the college, emphasising how that Rev. Erickson had approached the Convention looking for fellowship. However, he informed the student body that the Erickson’s had been unsettled for quite some time and he could not talk them out of their desire to resign. He concluded by reassuring the students that everything would continue as it was.

The second year brought difficulties of a different sort. Many of the teaching staff were forced to leave because of ill-health—Rev’s Lorimer Baker, H.C. Phillips and J.H. Pickford were all unable to continue teaching. Dr Rowell’s schedule as president was extremely busy and also proved unsustainable. He would leave Victoria harbour on the Sunday night, on the midnight boat, after a busy Sunday schedule. Arriving in Vancouver at seven in the morning he got the train to Port Coquitlam and taught Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, fulfilled also his duties as president. He returned on Thursday in time of the mid-week prayer meeting with his own congregation.[30]

Rowell’s physical frame could not sustain the burden and was forced to resign at the end of the 1946-47 academic year. Rowell had suffered ill-health in the trenches in France and was later hospitalised with the Spanish Flu in Winnipeg. His ministry was frequently interrupted with extended bouts of sickness, and the members of his board at Central Baptist were initially relucted to permit him to assume the role as president. He was persuasive, however, and believed that the life of the Christian was to be characterized by “strenuous labour.”[31] He believed also, that “if we do anything we’ve got to do it might and mane, spare nothing, and go right after it…”[32] This indomitable spirit and work-ethic characterized his life and ministry and especially so in the realm of education.

It is worth noting here that the level of education that he achieved is remarkable, given that fact that he did not complete his own high-school education. The last school he attended in England was Retford Day School and when he arrived in Brandon College, he entered at the matriculation level two.[33] Despite his disadvantaged circumstances, however, in his own education, Rowell believed in the value of education; that a sound education “lays the foundation for a superstructure. The superstructure can never be greater than the foundation.” If the foundation is laid, he continued, “you may build for many years.”[34] In 1934 he earned his Bachelor’s degree from The Los Angeles Theological Seminary. On March 3, 1936, he received notice that his thesis had been received and accepted and that he would be awarded his Doctor of Theology on May 24. This was after two years of study courses and a thesis on “The Epistle of Hebrews and its Difficulties”[35] which would be published the following year in the Bibliotheca Sacra.[36]

Dr Rowell’s ability in scholarly research is evident in a number of areas, but especially in the area of Roman Catholic theology. He had trained in England with the Protestant Truth Society and was a veteran “controversialist.” In Canada, this opposition to Rome was stirred up again with the establishment of the Canadian Protestant League (CPL) in 1941. This is perhaps his most enduring legacy—although he was a successful church planter, a fervent evangelist and a prolific writer.

He was widely regarded as “one of the best-informed men in the world [on Roman Catholicism].”[37] Commenting on one of his books, Dr Carl Sweazy said, “Dr Rowell brings to the reader the results of a long and prodigious research into the original Romanist sources as well as the history of the Baptist people with whom he is so familiar.”

Dr John R. Dunkin, president of Los Angeles Baptist College said,

“There are few evangelical Christians who are specialist in the field of Roman Catholic Theology … I know of none other who combines such a deep love for Roman Catholics with a discerning exposure of the teachings of Rome, as that of Dr. Rowell. His research is from authoritative Romanist sources and his findings are factual and without bitterness.”[38]

During the 1940s and his work with the CPL, Rowell’s library and writing ability became the envy of men in the east prompting T.T. Shields to comment at one point, “I wish we could command Dr Rowell’s services to head a Bureau of Information. He ought to be at a desk all the time, producing pamphlets and books …We need such a man in the service of the LEAGUE.”[39]

Rowell was awarded an honorary doctorate from Northwest Baptist Theological College in 1968 (previously, Northwest Baptist Bible College).[40]  He was also awarded a certificate of appreciation in 1970 and again posthumously in 1995 for the work of promoting the college.[41] In November 1973 the Central Baptist Church in Victoria proposed to establish a “Dr J. B. Rowell Memorial Scho