Saturday, August 25, 2012

This Week in Texas Methodist History    August 26

Rev. John W. Goodwin Leads Air Dome Meeting in Caldwell  August 26, 1911

Methodist meetings were held in a variety of locations.  There were brush arbors, temporary structures of poles and branches cut from nearby trees.  Some campgrounds had permanent tabernacles which were basically barns without sides.  The tabernacle at Lakeview in the Texas Conference is a good example.  Many protracted meetings and revivals were held in the church building.  Travelling evangelists often used tents.  They were so common that the word “tent meeting” has become part of our vocabulary. 

From the 1890’s to about World War I there was another type of structure that hosted revivals in Texas towns.  That was the Air Dome, sometimes called a Sky Dome.  It was more permanent that a tent but less substantial than a church. 

Many Texas towns had air domes.  An investor would rent a vacant lot near down town; build a wooden stage covered by a roof.  The audience would be seated on benches or folding chairs in the open air in front of the stage.  The whole lot was often surrounded by a board fence. The audience thus sat under a dome of air. 

Air domes were built mainly for touring theatrical troupes and motion picture viewing.    They  also hosted travelling Chautauqua speakers and prohibition rallies.  They enabled  those activities to continue their seasons into the summer. Motion picture theaters were necessarily windowless to provide darkness and became unbearable in the summer.  Air domes required little investment and soon many towns and cities from El Paso to Orange had them. (I have found evidence of their existence in Dallas, Alto, Palestine, Bastrop, Chillicothe, Breckenridge, Greenville, etc.)

In August 1911 the preacher at Caldwell, the Rev. John W. Goodwin (b. 1873), held the summer revival meeting in the air dome located in that city.  He was assisted by Dr. W. D. White of Navasota.  The starting date was announced, but the ending date was left open.  Methodists of the era often extended their revival meetings as long as the Holy Spirit continued to bring sinners to salvation.  The 1911 Caldwell meeting lasted two weeks.

Many readers of this column have attended tent meetings.  Some have worshipped in a tabernacle, but air domes have passed from the scene.  As the number of automobiles increased, traffic noise increased and created distractions for air dome meetings.  Motion picture theater owners were among the first adopters of air conditioning.  The air dome era passed quickly.

Rev. John W. Goodwin, the revival leader, and Mrs. Goodwin were both blessed with long lives and provided decades of faithful service to the Texas Annual Conference.  The writer was a frequent visitor in their retirement residence in Atlanta during the 1950s.  Rev. Goodwin died Sept 9, 1968 and Mrs. Goodwin the following February.  They thus lived long enough to see their grandson, John Goodwin Tower, elected and re-elected to the U. S. Senate. 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

This Week in Texas Methodist History  August 19

“Superstar” Evangelists Hold Tent Meeting at Taylor. August 19, 1895

Taylor, located in eastern Williamson County, was treated to two “superstar” evangelists in the summer of 1895.  Promoters erected a platform and tent on the town square in anticipation of the arrival of the Rev. John B. Culpepper. 

John B. Culpepper was born in 1849 in Georgia.  He as converted at an early age and received his Methodist credentials in 1870.  He served pastorates in Georgia, and in 1886 his life was changed when he was appointed agent for the Orphan’s Home in Macon

The freedom from a local church appointment meant that Culpepper spent his time travelling, preaching, and raising money for the orphanage.  He had found his true calling!  He attracted the attention of Sam Jones who offered him a spot in his evangelistic enterprises, but Culpepper preferred to work a solo act.  As his reputation grew, so did attendance at his meetings. 

As part of the arrangements for the meeting in Taylor, he wired ahead that he had suffered a street car accident and would need to preach from a swivel chair.  A local furniture merchant honored that request.    

The chair was actually a prop in the act Culpepper used to boost attendance at his meetings.  Toward the end of the first night’s meeting, he would feign a seizure and fall out of the chair.  His two sons who travelled as assistants would rush to carry him away.  Such a performance almost guaranteed a full tent on the second night.  Attendees wanted to see if Culpepper had died. 

The extreme theatrics proved successful.  Bishop Ainsworth praised him.   “He has held more meetings, preached more sermons and lead more men to Christ than any other man now in the church."   He authored about a dozen books (his sermon notes)in the first decade of the 20th century.  Culpepper died in 1937 in Monroe, Louisiana.

The song leader for the Taylor meeting achieved even greater fame than did the preacher.  Charles Tillman (1861-1943) was one of the seminal figures in adapting African American gospel music for use in white churches.  The process began in 1889 when he heard an African American musical group singing “Old Time Religion.”  He copied as much of the hymn as he could, reworked it, and published it in a 1891 song book. 

Tillman “borrowed” from many sources.  His “Life’s Railway to Heaven” (sometimes known by its first line,”Life is like a mountain railroad” came from a Mormon poet.  It continues to a be a staple of southern gospel music, having been recorded by various artists including Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline, the Carter Family, Tennessee Ernie Ford, etc.

His publishing ventures prospered.  He diversified into recording and radio.  Tillman was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1993.

As for the fainting act—It didn’t happen in Taylor.  A vandal sliced up the borrowed swivel chair with a pocketknife making it unusable. 

Saturday, August 11, 2012

This Week in Texas Methodist History  August 12

Houston Daily Post Reveals Source of Fowler Image, August 12, 1900

In 1900 as today newspaper editors filled Sunday editions with feature stories.  On Sunday, August 12, 1900, the Houston Daily Post did just that with a story based on the new church building at McMahan’s Chapel that was dedicated two weeks earlier.  The Post printed images of Littleton Fowler, Littleton M. Fowler, and Ellis Smith (father, son, and grandson).  The image of Littleton Fowler is familiar to Texas Methodists since it is the only image any of us has ever seen of the pioneer Texas Methodist preacher.  The caption for the picture reveals its source. 

The image credit in the Post says that after Littleton Fowler’s death, someone in Tennessee sent L. M. Fowler an image that had appeared in a magazine.  The image is a side view, but thankfully contains much more detail than a silhouette.  The story gets more interesting---the caption reveals that the artist did not include Fowler’s ears in the original.   A photographer was called in to superimpose L. M. Fowler’s ears upon his father’s image!.

 The picture caption reveals another detail this writer has not seen in other sources.  It says, “The old gentleman was also hairless and the wig he has on in the picture is now in Nacogdoches.”   Is the “old gentleman” Littleton Fowler or L. M. Fowler?”    Littleton Morris Fowler was born Oct. 15, 1844.  Littleton Fowler died in January 1846 when he was 43 years old.  Although 43 is not old by today’s standards, the “old gentleman” must be referring to Littleton Fowler.  L. M. Fowler was still alive when the article was written, and would have no reason to leave his wig in Nacogdoches

The Sunday feature in the Post thus reveals that the one image we have of Littleton Fowler has been altered from the original. 

The feature article also tells the exciting story of one of the McMahan Chapel members , William Scurlock, (misspelled in the article)and his escape from the Fannin Massacre during the Texas Revolution.  See the images and read the exciting escape story at

Friday, August 03, 2012

This Week in Texas Methodist History August 5

Epworth-by-the Sea Meeting Begins, August 6, 1908

Although a Methodist encampment near Corpus Christi called Epworth-by-the-Sea lasted only a few years, it was one of the most important expressions of cooperation between the annual conferences in Texas Methodist history. Each summer a tent city was created with thousands of young people.  A hospital, restaurant, barbershop, post office, regular rail service and other amenities were created to serve the population. 
The 1908 encampment represents the Epworth movement at full tide.  Two bishops (Key and Hendrix) provided inspirational sermons.  Three future bishops (Hay, Ainsworth and DuBose) were also on the program.  A. J. Weeks and George Rankin, both of whom were to occupy the editorship of the Texas Christian Advocate and Frank Onderdonk were among the MECS luminaries who also took the pulpit. 

In addition to the superstars of MECS pulpits, there were numerous workshops and much recreational time devoted to bathing in the surf and fishing.  The event began on Thursday, August 6 and continued until Sunday, August 16. 

I invite you to read how the Corpus Christi Caller covered the event.