George Washington Carver: Seeking to Serve His Creator and Fellow Man

5 min

The year was 1921 and the place was Washington, D.C. Politicians in their fancy suits rushed here and there, preparing for another day in the House of Representatives. Important matters were at hand. War with Germany had recently ended. The world was changing quickly, and America had taken center stage in world affairs. There was a great shift happening in population from smaller farm communities to greater urban centers. Cities were growing, and rural villages and towns were shrinking. The halls of the political chambers were filled with men who had come to lobby for their various causes. Most were here lobbying for powerful business interests. Side deals, quiet talks in the corners of the hall, winks, and handshakes promised support for this bill or that one.

In a strange contrast to the bustle of well-dressed politicians, a thin man with a simple suit made his way toward the place where he had been invited to address the Ways and Means Committee. He was a black man from rural Alabama, and an invitation to address Congress was out of the ordinary. He carried an odd collection of bottles filled with various powders, creams, and liquids into the meeting room. He was here in Washington to plead for his beloved people in the rural American South.

The chairman of the committee, eager to move along to another bill concerning protective tariffs, gave the man from Alabama ten minutes to speak. The southerner had a high, thin voice, but the words he spoke were captivating. Instead of begging for political favors, he quietly began opening his bottles. From them, he held up peanuts covered in chocolate that could be eaten, presented ground peanut hulls that could be used in polishing tinplate, poured out peanut flour that could be baked into bread, sprinkled powder from ground peanuts that could be used in thickening ice cream, and showed the politicians medicine derived from peanuts that might be useful with managing diabetes. His humble manners, his warm Southern humor, and his gentle spirit attracted the attention of every man on the committee. With a smile, he held up another bottle but then reminded the committee that probably his time was up. The chairman smiled back and granted him another ten minutes.

The man standing before the politicians patiently opened more bottles. He talked about products far beyond the peanut. He spoke of the potential of the lowly sweet potato, the medicinal use of the chinaberry, and other overlooked but valuable products produced in the rural South. Once again, his time was up, but this time the chairman said to him, “Go ahead, brother; your time is unlimited.”

Decades earlier, near the end of the War between the States, this man standing before the House of Representatives—George Washington Carver—had been born into slavery. Before he was even born, Carver’s father had been killed, crushed to death when he had fallen under a cart pulled by oxen. While still an infant, Carver and his mother had been kidnapped by one of the lawless bands of raiding marauders that patrolled the Missouri countryside at the end of the war. When the owner offered to buy his kidnapped slaves back, the kidnappers refused to release the mother, but traded the infant Carver for a horse. Carver grew up with no memory of his mother.

Fatherless, and now motherless, Carver was raised by the plantation owner, who continued to care for him even after the end of slavery. Young Carver had an insatiable thirst for knowledge. He wanted to know the name of every bird, every flower, and every tree. He would come home in the evenings to dinner, his pockets stuffed with specimens. Emptying his pockets with the day’s collections, Carver would then ask the plantation owner to identify them. The kind man would usually give the same answer, “Son, I don’t know.”

Not only did Carver have a hunger to understand the mysteries of creation, he also had a hunger to know the Creator. In every flower, bird, fish, and tree, the young boy saw the wonder-working hand of the Creator. At the age of ten, alone in the “loft” of the master’s barn, Carver was shelling corn when Bible verses and hymns he had learned came flooding into his heart. There by the barrel of corn he knelt down. In later years, he could not remember exactly what he prayed, but he was convinced that in those moments he trusted in the salvation provided by the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

From then on, there was a new purpose to Carver’s life. Having known God as Creator and Redeemer, he now wanted to love and serve his fellow man. Just as Jesus came to earth to be a servant of men, so too Carver wanted to be. His concern for others was reflected in the words of his favorite hymn, “Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone?”

Must Jesus bear the cross alone,
And all the world go free?
No, there’s a cross for everyone,
And there’s a cross for me.

The plantation owner offered Carver the opportunity to go to school in Neosho, Missouri. For two years, the young man learned everything his teacher could teach him. From there, he went to school in Kansas, then in Iowa, devouring every book he could get his hands on. During this time of basic schooling, he also worked as a cook in a hotel and opened a small side business of doing laundry.

After attending church one day, Carver was surprised to receive an invitation to a large, splendid home. He went and discovered that one of the ladies in the choir had noticed his fine voice singing enthusiastically at the back of the church. The woman decided to offer the young man an opportunity to learn music and painting. Through her patronage, Carver was admitted to college in Iowa where he studied music and painting. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree, both in agriculture. Upon graduation, the brilliant, young scientist accepted an appointment on the faculty of Iowa State College. He was placed in charge of the greenhouse, the laboratory, and the department of botany.

Carver now was able to learn and find out more about the mysteries of God’s world! The birds, flowers, and trees that had puzzled him in boyhood puzzled him no more. Each day, as he stood each day before his classes, as he worked in his laboratory, and as he conducted research in his greenhouse, he would silently breathe prayers to God, asking for help in uncovering new ways to use plants to help his fellow man.

Carver’s great opportunity came when he received an offer from Booker T. Washington of Alabama. Washington invited Carver to come to his new school at Tuskegee and teach science. He accepted the offer and moved to Tuskegee, where he would spend the rest of his life giving himself for the needs of his fellow man. His Jesup Agricultural Wagons, which he created to be “movable schools,” carried exhibits and education to the farms and villages of the rural South. Wherever his Jesup Wagon parked, farmers came and Carver would explain to them how to use their soil more effectively, how to rotate their crops for better production, how to fertilize their fields naturally, and how to use and market overlooked commodities.

George Washington Carver is most famous for discovering many remarkable uses of the sweet potato and the peanut. But Carver’s influence was far beyond these two commodities. His greatest legacy was his life of loving service to his fellow man. Carver never married or had a family of his own, but the young men of Tuskegee Institute under his care were always called “Carver’s boys.” Carver saw potential in these young men, most of whom the world overlooked, and many of these former students went on to lives of productive, useful service.

Carver’s favorite hymn contains a beautiful stanza that looks to the day that redeemed sinners see Jesus face-to-face:

Upon the crystal pavement down
At Jesus’ pierced feet,
Joyful I’ll cast my golden crown
And His dear Name repeat.

George Washington Carver’s love for God was proved daily by his love for his fellow man.

Sources and Further Reference:
Federer, William. George Washington Carver—His Life and Faith in His Own Words. St. Louis, MO: Amerisearch, 2002.

This article is from our Matters of Life & Death teaching series.

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