Dr. James E. Cowart felt he hadn’t defended his spiritual and moral values very well, and it troubled him. In repeated discussions with a group of irreligious, politically leftish college students that summer of 1961, “I got my ears whipped,” he recalls, smiling.
The college students worked at the California resort where Dr. Cowart’s medical convention was being held, and they seemed to enjoy baiting the visiting doctors into moral and political discussions, then shredding their traditional values.
Dr. Cowart knew there was a God and that His children ought to live by the principles taught by Jesus Christ. He knew too that all of God’s children need the freedom to direct their lives as conscience dictates. Why, then, was it so difficult to defend those beliefs based on the teachings of his church?
The experience continued to trouble him as he vacationed in Las Vegas with his wife, Helen, after the convention. Then he remembered an old friend, John S. “Jake” Berge, who lived a few hours away in Utah. Jake was a Latter-day Saint and a strong defender of the values Jim Cowart held dear. The call Dr. Cowart placed to Brother Berge for reinforcement of his own values would change the doctor’s life, touch the lives of many others, and eventually help turn a struggling little branch into a lively, productive ward.
Jim Cowart and Jake Berge had met seven years earlier while Jim was serving in Hawaii as the physician assigned to Jake’s unit of Army engineers. Jake Berge was a returned LDS missionary, and the pair’s wide-ranging discussions touched on religion many times. “Jake tried to get me interested in the gospel, but I guess I was listening with one ear,” Jim recalls.
But some of what Jake taught undoubtedly made an impression. Jim Cowart discussed Joseph Smith more than once with another friend, Dr. Joseph N. Cannon. The two doctors had been medical school classmates and had determined that eventually they would set up a practice together. Joe Cannon was serving his military obligation as a Navy doctor on Oahu while Jim Cowart was there with the Army. Joe recalls that religious discussions with his friend were lively, sometimes heated.
Joe’s wife, Rose, had met the LDS missionaries and had enjoyed their company. Joe had even skimmed a bit of the Book of Mormon they had left. But the Cannons and Cowarts both left Oahu without giving The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints serious consideration.
The two doctors eventually set up their joint practice in Bay City, Texas, an attractive coastal town about two hours’ drive from Houston. Their practice flourished. “Bay City was good to us from the beginning,” Joe Cannon reflects.
Both the Cowarts and the Cannons had young children by this time and felt the need to give them a religious heritage. They eventually joined the same Protestant congregation in Bay City. While they had not selected that particular denomination because of any sense of conviction, Dr. Cowart recalls, it was still disturbing when he found little support for his spiritual and moral values. And so, with all this as background, he thought of his LDS friend Jake Berge during that troubling Las Vegas vacation in 1961.
Through brief Christmas greetings, Jim Cowart knew that Jake was attending Brigham Young University, so while in Las Vegas he tracked down his friend’s telephone number in Provo, Utah. Brother Berge remembers that the call came at 3:00 in the morning.
At the Berges’ invitation, the Cowarts drove to Provo for a visit. After many long discussions, Jim Cowart still wasn’t interested in the LDS Church, but he returned home with two strong convictions: (1) he needed to be a better follower of Christ, and (2) his mother had been right when she taught him to trust in the teachings of the Bible above the teachings of men.
Back in Bay City, Jim sought to become a better Christian by taking a more active role in his own church. The pastor asked him to teach a Bible class, and “that was the beginning of the end,” Jim says. It didn’t take him long to discover that the doctrines of his church did not agree with the Bible. He decided to live by the Bible, but nevertheless to stay with the church he was attending until he could find one whose doctrines and organization matched those of Christ’s church.
He studied many churches, each with its own claim to truth. But none measured against the biblical church of Jesus Christ. Obviously, the apostasy foretold in the Bible had occurred. But where did that leave him?
Once more Jim Cowart remembered his friend Jake Berge and tracked him down again—this time in Colorado. Could you send some information about the Latter-day Saints? he asked. Jake’s response was almost overwhelming—a large box containing the four standard works, several other LDS books, and “I think every pamphlet the Church printed at that time,” Jim recalls, laughing. He began studying systematically, subjecting LDS doctrine to his usual close scrutiny and expecting to find flaws quickly as it was measured against the Bible. “But I couldn’t find any flaws, and my research got to be kind of challenging.”
The doggedness of his study soon began to have ripple effects in other lives. LDS doctrine began to creep into the Bible class he was teaching at his church and into the supplemental Bible discussions the Cowarts and the Cannons had begun—similar to family home evenings—for their families. Joe Cannon recognized what was happening and objected at first, but when it became clear that his friend was taking LDS doctrine seriously, Joe decided it was time to investigate for himself.
“I did some research of my own,” he recalls. He, too, concluded that there had been an apostasy from Christ’s church.
At about this time, Jake Berge made a turnabout call to Jim Cowart. Ordinarily, Brother Berge’s job would have kept him in Colorado for three more years. But unaccountably, his employer transferred him early—to Houston. Jake visited his friend Jim in Bay City on 4 July 1963. The doctor opened their religious discussion with a question over lunch, and the conversation lasted until 3:00 A.M.
The Cowarts and Cannons invited Brother Berge to instruct their family Bible discussions. Week after week, the group grew as the doctors invited their friends. As it got larger, Brother Berge began taking John Hill, an LDS friend, with him. (Brother Berge’s dedication to missionary work would serve him well later as president of the Ecuador Guayaquil Mission. He now lives in Arvada, Colorado, where he served as stake president before his call as a mission president.)
Soon members of the Bible study group were being challenged to be baptized. “When Jim Cowart said, ‘Jake, if I decide to get baptized, will you baptize me?’ I was overjoyed,” Brother Berge recalls.
At first, Helen Cowart had simply listened when, as she worked at home, her husband read to her the LDS literature he was studying. “But when I saw that he was going to be baptized without me, I thought I’d better get cracking,” she says. She began studying in earnest. “I hadn’t read but forty pages of the Book of Mormon before I knew it was true,” she remembers. It was a bit more difficult for her to believe in a modern-day prophet such as Joseph Smith. But one day, a friend asked her about the Prophet. As she responded, she suddenly felt bathed in certainty from head to foot.
Meanwhile, Joe Cannon had been accepting intellectually what he was being taught, but he did not have a spiritual conviction. “While I was struggling and studying, a humble missionary said to me, ‘Brother Cannon, if you would like, I will fast and pray with you next Wednesday so you can find out for yourself if the Book of Mormon is true.’”
Almost everything went wrong that Wednesday; certainly it was not the kind of emotional climate Joe wanted before approaching the Lord in prayer on a matter so important. But, “Remembering Moroni’s promise,” he says, “I prayed as hard as I could for the Lord to let me know if the Book of Mormon was true. He did, in unmistakable terms, and I have never since doubted its truthfulness.”
Rose Cannon had no difficulty accepting the doctrines of the gospel. She had always wanted to know more about the purpose of life, but didn’t know where to find it. “I used to feel really homesick, and not know why,” she says. “I knew if the true Church of Jesus Christ was here on the earth, I wanted to be part of it.” Ultimately, her test was not in accepting the doctrine, but in giving up smoking. The Lord answered her pleas for help and she was able to quit.
The Cowarts and the Cannons were baptized in February of 1964, along with friends who had been taught by Jake Berge and the full-time missionaries. Among them was Ida Fay Insall, wife of a prominent rancher. Her husband, Henry, came into the Church a few months later.
The Insalls and the Cowarts would soon be linked by more than gospel fellowship. At about the same time as the Bay City baptisms, missionaries in the San Antonio area contacted the Insalls’ son, Henry, Jr., and his family independently. They, too, were soon baptized, and their daughter Sandra eventually married the Cowarts’ second son, Walter.
Jim Cowart faced extreme opposition within his own family when he was baptized. His mother, the daughter of a circuit-riding preacher, made no secret of her feelings. Once, Brother Cowart persuaded her to attend a stake conference in Houston, where Elder LeGrand Richards of the Council of the Twelve spoke. Brother Cowart introduced his mother to Elder Richards, who commented that surely she would also be a member soon. “Before I’d become a member of your church, I’d pour kerosene on myself and strike a match,” Clara Mae Cowart snapped in reply.
Her incessant criticism of the Church caused Brother Cowart to tell her she would be welcome in his home only if she did not criticize his family’s beliefs. Some weeks later she called from her home near Houston and asked if he could attend a baptism—hers. She had asked the LDS missionaries to tell her why the Church meant so much to her son. She wouldn’t join, she had cautioned them, but when she found she had discovered the truth, she courageously responded.
Opposition from Jim Cowart’s brother Bill threatened to divide the family. But his heart softened and he quietly went to his brother’s partner, Joe Cannon, to learn about the Church. Bill was baptized and went on to serve in Church leadership positions.
When the Cowarts, Cannons, and other new members first attended services at the Bay City Branch, attendance went from less than a dozen to fifty-five. Within a year, nearly 150 people had come into the Church as a result of their missionary efforts. Ralph J. Hill, president of the Texas Mission, assigned full-time missionaries to Bay City. Membership quickly grew large enough to support an independent branch, and within four years Bay City was a ward, with its own new building and Joe Cannon as its first bishop. Ruth Graham, whose mother, Susan Catchings Gould, was the first person baptized in Bay City, comments that the gospel teaching ability of Dr. Cowart and the leadership of Dr. Cannon helped greatly in making the Bay City Ward as successful as it is today.
E. J. Ashcraft, branch president when the Cowarts and the Cannons were baptized, says that their joining the Church saved the branch. But Brother Cowart, now a patriarch in the Friendswood Texas Stake, comments that earlier members, like the Ashcraft, Lowe, Shivers, and Wainner families, performed invaluable, self-sacrificing service by keeping the Bay City Branch going for decades before its sudden growth in the mid-1960s. “What’s happened in Bay City has been the result of a lot of faithful members—not one or two individuals. It’s been a group effort,” he comments.
“We did unconsciously what the Brethren have always asked us to do,” Brother Cannon recalls. “We fellowshipped our friends into the Church.” Jake Berge and the stake missionaries from Houston “were very supportive. They’d come down and we’d just wear them out.” Brother Cowart, he said, put his heart into missionary work.
Joining the Church brought enduring changes for the Cowarts and the Cannons. The two doctors learned to center their lives on their families because of what they learned about the purpose of life and the plan of salvation.
Brother Cannon recalls that early in his marriage he devoted most of his time to his medical practice rather than to his family. “That changed right away. I became a lot more attentive to my wife and children.” But the big crisis, he says, was in time management. Fitting Church service into the crowded life of a doctor was a test of faith. But Bay City members testify that he met the challenge well, earning their love and respect.
After Doctors Cannon and Cowart and their families were baptized, some members of the community showed their displeasure in various ways. A few patients chose other doctors. Others wrote anonymous critical letters. The families also endured painful snubs by old friends. But some of these efforts backfired by creating interest in the Church and aiding missionary efforts. Critics quickly learned it was best not to challenge Dr. Cowart’s knowledge of the scriptures. If a patient tried to persuade Dr. Cowart that he had been led astray, Dr. Cowart would open a Bible that he kept in his office and invite the critic to “show me.”
Today, the Cowarts are respected citizens of their community and beloved teachers and leaders in the Bay City Ward. The Cannons moved to Houston in the 1970s, where they have been enthusiastic Church leaders and missionaries.
Devotion to duty is something that the Cannons and Cowarts have learned. As Brother Cowart tells his high priests group: “The restored gospel gives us two great gifts—a true testimony of the divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the tools to put that testimony to work.” He also tells them that Latter-day Saints are traveling the seas of eternity. It is clear that the Cowarts and the Cannons are enjoying immensely the voyage they embarked upon twenty-three years ago.