Charles E. Cowman was the founder of an important missions organization, originally under the name Cowman-Kilbourne mission around 1902, then under the name Oriential Mission Society, and still thriving as OMS International. He was a whirlwind of a man, organizing a plan to take the gospel to every person in Japan.
His life story was told by his widow, Lettie Burd Cowman, in the book Charles E. Cowman: Missionary Warrior (1928). Written in Lettie’s characteristically purple prose (she was the compiler of the popular Streams in the Desert devotional), it’s a classic missionary biography. Watch how the timeline unfolds:
March 13, 1868: Charles Cowman born in Illinois. Small and frail, not expected to survive.
1881: Perplexed and grieving over the recent death of his infant sister Lillian. Cowman, age 13, is the only convert in a scheduled revival in a Methodist church in Iowa.
1883: At age 15, Cowman leaves home to learn the telegrapher’s trade.
June 8, 1889: Charles marries Lettie Burd. They will remain married until Charles dies 36 years later.
1891: Because Lettie’s health is threatened by the altitude of their Colorado home, the couple transfers to Chicago where Charles is a supervisor in the telegraph office.
1893: Lettie gives heart to Christ; Charles soon follows. They join Grace Methodist Church. Lettie says of Charles: “He made it the first thing in his life to be a Christian, feeling that if he would fulfil his discipleship, he must concentrate all of his energy and strength upon it. It was quickly noised about in the telegraph office that Charles Cowman had become a Christian and there he stood, quite alone, among the hundreds of men for whom he felt God would hold him personally responsible.”
Within six months, Charles has led 75 of his fellow-workers to Christ.
Sometime in 1894: Having been a Christian for one year, Charles is challenged to seek “a second definite work of grace, a crisis as radical and revolutionary as the crisis of regeneration.” He decides to submit all his ambitions to full obedience to God’s will, writing these words: “I have committed myself and my all into God’s hands, and He has accepted the offering. Life henceforth can never be the same.”
September 3, 1894: A.B. Simpson preaches in the Moody Church in Chicago. Charles gives a month’s salary to the offering, and then when Simpson issues a call to missionary service, Charles says to Lettie: “That means you and me; so let us stand and show our colors.”
At the advice of A. T. Pierson, Cowman awaits further clarity about when and where and how he should enter the mission field. He spends six years in structured Bible study, taking classes from Garrett Theological School in Evanston and the Moody Bible Institute. He networks widely, especially with Juji Nakada of Japan.
August 11, 1900: He records in his journal, on an otherwise blank page, “Called to Japan. August 11, 1900. 10:30 A.M.”
In a farewell address to his home church in December of that year, Cowman describes the logic of discipleship and missions:
Some years ago I read…this statement: “The investment of life is the most momentous of all human decisions. As Jesus, before entering upon His active ministry, went up on a mountain-top and beheld the kingdoms of this world and the glory of them, so should every Christian examine the opportunities for a life investment presented by the nations of a weary world.’ This statement impressed me with its deep significance.
As I have pondered over these facts, there has come to me a great longing to give to our young people this true conception of a life investment, and not to these only, but to hundreds of Christian men and women with wrong views of true success. In this commercial age even the preacher is tempted to leave the pulpit and engage in some work that will bring larger returns in dollars and cents. The paramount question that towers above every other, not only in youth, but at whatever point we may have reached, is this: ‘How can I now invest the rest of my life so that it will bring the largest return?
We cannot blame our young people for turning away from the ministry at home or in other lands, when in the home we talk as if money and ease were the ultimate goal to be sought. Many of our leading periodicals hold up the rich man as the successful man, and one would almost conclude that the title to happiness is written only on the back of bank bills. From the pulpit we condemn the love of money for mere selfish uses, but nothing practically better is offered as a greater inducement.
Oh, young people, lift your eyes and look on a world to be won for Christ before you choose your life work. See the millions of men and women living out a whole lifetime with nothing to comfort, elevate, or inspire– nothing beyond the sensual tragic life which they are now living, but a great black abyss; no one to touch their fevered, sin-sick lives with the sweet old story of the Great Physician.
February 1, 1901: The Cowmans depart from San Francisco, bound for Japan.
The rest is the story of Charles’ immersion in his work as a missionary, his strategizing and organizing, his impact on Asia for Christ.
Oswald Chambers said of Charles Cowman, “The thing that strikes you about Charles Cowman, is not his holiness, but his absolutely reckless, careless, defiant abandonment to Jesus Christ.”