Visit the study of any pastor and you might find a large collection of theology books. But few would compare to a collection owned by retired pastor William Bowles.

Bowles amassed a collection of more than 7,500 books during his 65 years of ministry.

Last month, he donated nearly the entire collection to his former seminary in Tulsa. A moving van packed with books and headed to Phillips Theological Seminary stopped by the Presbyterian Manor in Ark City, where Bowles now lives.

Bowles pastored at Central Christian Church in Ark City from 1970 to 1984. He moved back to Ark City in October from Aurora, Colo., after his wife died in July and was buried here.

“Coming back to Ark City, he was able to continue the work he has been building on for decades,” Bowles daughter, Julie Heerse, said.”

After attending Manhattan Christian College and taking a few courses at K-State, Bowles went to Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa. He also attended Vanderbilt University. He entered the ministry after completing his degree.

Starting with the books he obtained in college, Bowles began to build up his library. His extensive collection was mostly made up of books on theology. 

Bowles built up the large collection from a desire to understand as much about the scriptures as possible.

He encourages others to do the same.

“You don’t just take what the preacher says. You can think for yourself,” he said. “You can study the Bible yourself and you can be a biblical scholar as a layperson. “

Bowles said his collection continued to grow, eventually filling several bookcases in his den, the upstairs and the walls of his garage.

“I had a two-car garage library,” he said. “The wall was filled all the way down to the door where you bring the car in.”

Heerse, said her father’s library also contained a large number of rare and historically significant books.

“He studied Greek for over 65 years,” she said. “There are numerous books in this ancient language in his collection.”

He also had books on Judaism, having developed an interest due to his mother’s employment with a Jewish family. He said he collected a number of books on the Holocaust.

“I had three gigantic books put out by Hebrew Rabbis about the Holocaust,” he said. “I had become thoroughly convicted of the Holocaust and all the damage that was done.”

Heerse said her father built a strong reputation not only as a pastor, but for his diligence as a scholar and his extensive research. She said he not only read every book in his vast collection, but also gave away duplicates to his friends and other colleagues.

In 1951, he pastored his first church, in Clay Center. He pastored 10 different congregations in five states before his retirement.

After his retirement, Bowles knew he would eventually need to do something with his book collection. When he decided to move into a retirement home, he had no place to store his library.

Deciding to give them up was not an easy decision.

“It has been a process,” his daughter said. “He had been looking for years for the right thing to do with his books.”

Heerse said her father’s decision to give up his entire library was difficult. She said her father explored many different options to find the right place for his collection.

“It was important to him that young scholars would be able to have access to the variety of collections contained in that library,” she said.

Bowles eventually decided to donate most of his collection to the Phillips Theological University. 

Now, how to get them there?

“They wanted me to ship them over,” he said. “My daughter told them that I had made a big decision to give them the books, and it was up to them to come and haul them back.”

Heerse said the college was happy about the opportunity to add the books to their library. But she didn’t think the college fully understood the vast size of her father’s library.

A rare-books specialist from the university flew out to examine the collection.

“At that point, not only were they happy to utilize the books themselves, they also asked if Dad would donate some of his writings,” she said.

“He was a little reluctant about that,” she added.

Over the decades her father also accumulated a large collection of sermon notes and other manuscripts. Heerse said the university was pleased that he included some of those works, too.

Bowles said he’s not buying any more books. He did keep a few, he added, but ones that would not compromise the integrity of the collection.

Bowles feels he made the right choice, but said he still wonders at times how he was able to bring himself to part with his treasures.

“I always like to think logically when making a decision,” he said. “This time, theologically, you could say I was moved by the spirit to do it.”

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