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. 


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