George Washington Carver’s Inspirational Faith
To understand George Washington Carver, the great African American agriculturalist and educator, you must know something of the world in which he lived. While slavery was legally abolished across the United States in 1865, the institution cast a long and bitter shadow over the nation in the decades that followed. African Americans may have lived in freedom after 1865, but poverty and discrimination continued long after their liberation.
Carver was born in Missouri in 1864. The Carver family, who owned his parents, named him George. George’s father died before George was born. When he was a week old, George and his mother were kidnapped. The Carvers were able to ransom George, but no trace of his mother was ever found. In a rare reflection on his past, the adult Carver said he started life as “the orphaned child of a despised race.”
George was then raised by the Carver family as one of their children, and suffered many illnesses under their care. Because there were no local state-operated schools for black children, Carver attended a school ten miles away. There, he encountered a kind woman who encouraged him to drop the slave name “Carver’s George” for George Carver. (He added the “Washington” surname later.)
As an African American, Carver found it hard to get anything beyond a basic education. He traveled to the state of Kansas, only to be refused entry to a college because of his race. Upon moving to Iowa, however, he gained admission to a college and studied art. There, Carver’s teacher observed the pupil’s impressive paintings of plants and encouraged him to study botany. In 1891, Carver became the first black person to attend what is now Iowa State University and earn a degree. He continued studying crops and crop diseases and gained respect as a botanist. He eventually became the college’s first black lecturer.
Carver’s abilities came to the attention of Booker T. Washington, who was the then-principal of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, the nation’s first institution of higher education for black people. Carver accepted an offer to teach agriculture at the Institute, where he stayed for 47 years until his death.
Carver remains something of an enigma. He was a quiet, introspective individual who lived a frugal life, often wearing shabby clothes. He was hard-working, humble, and soft-spoken. Although he lived at a time of profound racial injustice, he rarely showed anger about his circumstances.
At the heart of George Washington Carver was his faith. He often spoke of his conversion as a ten-year-old, and was a churchgoer all his life. He taught Bible studies for 30 years. He emphasized Christian morality in his teaching and practiced it in his life. He liked to pray to God out in the woods. Yet Carver’s faith was practical, and he frequently claimed that his insights came from God.
Three aspects of George Washington Carver’s life strike me, and should prompt us to engage in some serious introspection.
First, Carver’s life was one of generous involvement. With his ingenuity and technical ability, Carver could have escaped the poor South. It is rumored that the inventor, Thomas Edison, offered Carver a high-salary job. Yet, Carver stayed where he felt called to remain, and served his people. Where are we called to?
Second, Carver’s life was one of gentle inspiration. He became a role model for African Americans, demonstrating what was possible for even someone of humble origins in very difficult circumstances. His enthusiastic teaching inspired generations of students to improve the lives of poor farmers. Carver left a powerful legacy. What will ours be?
Third and finally, Carver’s life showed Godly insight. Carver was often ridiculed for insisting that he sought and received guidance from God. Such scorn may have seemed justified when, in the decades following Carver’s death, many of the agricultural practices he promoted were replaced by the mechanized practices of Big Agriculture. Yet, in recent decades, there has been an increasing call for precisely the sort of sustainable agriculture that Carver taught, with farmers working with the land rather than against it.
Once known as a man who spoke for the poor African American communities of the southern United States, Carver is now seen as an environmental prophet with global relevance. Why don’t we listen to God more often?
Canon J.John has been an evangelist for 40 years. He has written several books across a range of subjects including the ‘Theology For Little People’ series to help children understand biblical truth. J.John lives near London in England.