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Interview with William Culp Sr.

Culp, William Sr.
Johnson, Jean
Date of Interview: 
Billy Graham Crusade; Methodist Church; Charlotte, N.C.; Fund raising; St. James Methodist Church, Charlotte, N.C.; Evangelistic Work; Clergy; Religion-Southern States; Racism; Civil Rights Act; University City Church, Charlotte; N.C.; Pastoral Counseling; Charlotte Coliseum; Cricket Arena; Washington, D.C.; Ericsson Stadium; Belmont Park Church
A Methodist minister in Charlotte, the Reverend William Culp discusses his involvement in and thoughts on Billy Graham's ministry, particularly the Billy Graham Crusade in Charlotte in the 1950s. Culp relates information about the long-range planning of the religious event and addresses the hands-off approach that Graham took in the financial operations of his crusades. As a volunteer for the crusade, Culp discusses his roles as an organizer of local Methodist churches and as counselor at the actual crusade events. He contends that the Graham crusades affected Charlotteans by heightening many men and women's sense of personal commitment toward their religion. Culp discusses the issue of race and religion in the South and relates his own experiences in conducting interracial worship services, a type of service that he says became less acceptable with the passage of federal civil rights legislation in the 1960s. Culp praises Graham for what he sees as Graham's ability to remain earnest and humble despite becoming a word-renowned figure.
Interview Setting: 
Interview at the Museum of the New South
Levine Museum of the New South, Billy Graham Series
Interview Audio: 
JJ (Jean Johnson): It's April second, and we are talking to Reverend Bill Culp about the Billy Graham experience. Tell us about your stories about Billy Graham.
WC (William Culp): [Laughter] Well, I, I have what I think is a quite an interesting story. I've served in the Charlotte, in the city of Charlotte, three different times, three different churches. Being a Methodist minister, you know, you tend to move around a little. And so--. But back in the 50s when Billy Graham was really just getting started real well, I was District Secretary of Evangelism and, for the Methodist Church and, and helped to kind of pull together the evangelistic community from the stand point of the Methodist church and was on the committee that met with Dr. Graham for several breakfast meetings in the early days of, of the campaign that was going to be held in the, in the, which is now the old Coliseum or the Arena. And, one of the things that he told while we were together one morning, we were just kind of enjoying each others' company and we weren't promoting anything necessarily or anything. One of the things that he told has stayed with me all my life, and I thought it was real interesting and I've told it several times, is about his fundraising. We, of course, were having gone to a couple of meetings already when this particular breakfast occasion occurred, we were, as most people were at that time, impressed with the large containers that they took up the offering in. We called them wastebaskets. They were big, like five-gallon containers, sort of like big wastebaskets, and then they would bring it down and dump it into big barrels, you know, because a lot of the people would put the money in an envelope or something, you know. And so it got kind of bulky. And, so anyway, we--. I don't know whether somebody asked a question about it or just how it came up, but it came up in the conversation. And Dr. Graham said, "Well, I got a little interesting story to tell you about that," said, "which, which brought on a significant decision in my, in my ministry." Said, "After, after I began to get a little popularity and, and, and we'd go to these crusades and the money would come in and all," said, "I, I became concerned about it. But the thing that really, really," he said, " hit me was, I was at a crusade, and we'd gone through a very successful week or ten days," or whatever. And said, "I was, walked, walked up the steps of the plane to get on the plane to leave this particular community, and I was standing up at the top of the steps of the plane. And a number of friends and that I'd made in the community and all, supporters and all, were standing around sort of bidding me goodbye," he said, " so I reached out and threw my hand up like that and sort of said goodbye to everybody." And said, "Lo and behold, a few days later some enterprising newspaper person had gotten a picture of one of these big containers of money and superimposed it under my arm." And, and I don't recall that he specifically said this, but the, either it was in print or it was implied that Billy Graham is leaving our community with his arms full of money. [Laughter] And, and so, Dr. Graham said, "Right then," said, "on the way home that day, or after I had seen that, that picture, you know," said, "I, I thought about it. I'd been, had been, been a little concerned." And said, "I thought about it," and said, "I made up my mind that I would not have anything to do with the finances in the future. I would--. When I went to a community, I would set up a committee in that community that would take care of all the financial and business ends of the campaign, and I wouldn't have anything to do with it. And then there never would another picture appear like that." [Laughter]
JJ: Did you see the picture?
WC: No, I didn't see the picture. I didn't really think particularly about that. I'm, I'm quite sure Dr. Graham had a picture, had a copy of the picture, and possibly if, if we had inquired, insisted or something, maybe, maybe he would have made it possible for us to see it. But that particular point was never discussed, and I never did see the picture.
JJ: Tell me some of the things you did for the crusade when you worked on the crusades with Dr. Graham.
WC: Well, what--. See my, my job in the, in the Charlotte area at that time, along with being pastor of a local church--. I was pastor of St. James Church out at Independence, I mean, at Freedom Drive and Interstate, Interstate 85. And, it was my job to, to kind of coordinate the, the leaders of evangelism in our local churches, our Methodist churches. And I, and I'm sure and I know that this was done in all denominations and so on, as it is being done now. I attended, I attended one of the meetings, one of the set-up meetings here and possibly will go to another one or two before the-just because of my interest. But we--. It was my job to, to kind of pull together and to encourage and to endeavor to call for the support of our Methodist people and, and particularly through our--. Each local church has a committee on evangelism, and it was, it was my job and my effort. One, one of the things that I did on that committee too, was I ran surveys to help start new Methodist churches. I can name three or four Methodist churches in the Charlotte district right now that are quite successful churches that I was in charge of running the survey and, and coming up with, with figures, facts and figures about possibilities for a church in a particular area. And, and in many instances, we did start a church there. And in most instances, not all, but in most instances, the churches have come along real well.
JJ: What, what effect did you see that Billy Graham's crusade have on the people in your church and the other Methodist churches?
WC: I, I would say basically a heightened sense of evangelism, a heightened sense of, of commitment. I feel like that most everybody that attended the services, even though many of them, possibly most of them--. I expect most the people who attended the services, certainly from my own church and so on, most of them were, were already committed Christians, and most of them were members of the church. But with Billy Graham's emphasis upon personal commitment and, and providing the opportunity in a, in a very unusual setting and so on, why many of the people that I knew and, and encouraged to participate did go forward and make a fresh commitment to Christ and to the church. And, in that regard, I think, I think his, his crusade here--. The only one I've really ever participated in--. I've obviously kind of been interested in, in others as they have gone on across the years, but the only one I've ever participated in was the one he held here in the 50s. And I, I think it brought heightened sense of commitment. Possibly some denominations that, that, that emphasize personal commitment maybe a little more than the Methodist church does right now, maybe they didn't see the same thing I did. But for those churches, old line, established churches, where persons had been members quite a long time, I think, I think it helped them to, even if they didn't go forward and make some sort of a personal step forward during the crusade, it, it brought a fresh awareness of the need for, for that kind of commitment.
JJ: Have you heard other revivalist come through Charlotte or other evangelists? And, if so, who were they, or how would you compare them to Billy Graham?
WC: I had--. [Laughter] I hadn't thought about that. And I don't, I don't really know, I don't really know that I could really comment with any degree of depth on, on any other crusade that's been held here by someone else. The other person that I had a little bit of acquaintance with and was able to see his, his operation and all fairly close in was Jack Hudson up at Northside Baptist. And, I don't know. From my standpoint, I always had a tremendous respect for Billy Graham in reaching out to all kinds of people and to all groups of people and to all denominations and so on and so forth. I always kind of--. Although I knew Jack Hudson, and I had a certain respect for him, I, I also felt that his, his whole approach and his whole vision of the Christian community was not as broad as Billy Graham's is.
JJ: He's--. His crusades have always been integrated, as you know.
WC: Oh yes, yeah.
JJ: He's always spoken out against racism.
WC: Um-hum.
JJ: It's, it's unusual that someone that came for the South during that period, I think, could have so early in his career spoken out so strongly against prejudice. How do you, how do you think he came by that? Have you ever talked to him about that?
WC: No, I don't know that that came up in the discussion at that time because our, our church had already moved in that direction, and it, it was not a particularly visible kind of thing for me at that time. And I've always, I've always tried to, to move forward. I was, I was here again in the 60s after the Supreme Court ruling and the, and the Civil Rights Act and so on. And [Clears throat] and things that, that I could do in the 50s--. This is kind of interesting. Things that I could do in the 50s that didn't bother people particularly--. I, I,--. On several occasions I had black ministers to preach in my pulpit and so on, black choirs to come and sing. Things that I could do before the Civil Rights Act were, were more difficult after the Civil Rights Act and particularly after the ruling here in the Charlotte area of integration of the schools and all. But, but I still kept up my effort. I, I had quite, quite an experience in the 70s with having a black bishop to preach in my church, Belmont Park Church on--. It was then on Hawthorne Lane. It has since moved out on Harris Boulevard is now called University City, but it's still a lot of the same people. And although I pushed it through, my board and all that kind of thing with considerable effort, I, I had some real criticism of it. And, and, and yet, stood up for it and, and, and, and had, had some real interesting positive feedback as a result of it. I don't, I don't think you're interested in going into that [Laughter] to any degree are you?
JJ: We might, we might be at a different, in another time.
WC: Yeah.
JJ: Getting back to the crusade. On the actual days of the crusade, did you participate as a counselor or what was your role?
WC: Yes, I did.
JJ: Can you tell me what that was like or what you, what your duties were?
WC: Well, again, it's, it's going back to some things I was saying there a minute ago. Many of the people that came forward and made a commitment were people who were already members of the church. Some of them felt that they had slipped away from the church and, and this involved a real, a real, sort of effort and change on their part. Others, it was not so much a change, it was just another step in their Christian experience. And I, I found that, that the whole experience quite positive. I, I, I found that some people who came forward had truly, even though many of them had their names on the roll at church, they had truly gotten away from the church. And they came, they came oh, to some extent because of the publicity and the, the size of the, of the crusade and all. And it was, had a lot of [Clears throat] newspaper and radio and, coverage and all. But, but, but when they came in and heard the kind of genuine, sort of, approach that Dr. Graham makes that we all are familiar with, and, and those other leaders that he had in the choirs and all that kind of thing, I think there were, there were many people who, who, who, who, who truly made a new commitment to Christ. I really do.
JJ: Where, where are you positioned when you're a counselor? Are you off in a room somewhere?
WC: Yes, uh-huh.
JJ: Or just--. Can you describe where you are?
WC: They, they had some rooms off to the right and left of the stage area at, at the, which is now the Arena, and you would be at tables. You wouldn't--. Each, each person wouldn't be in a separate room, you'd, you'd be at tables about every four feet apart. And, and you had a reasonable amount of privacy but, but not complete privacy. But you had enough privacy that you could share with a person or they could share with you and, and have few moments to help them to kind of verbalize what they were feeling and what they were thinking. And in, and in some instances, it, it, it was a truly emotional commitment and, and, and, and , and in some instances, quite a large commitment. I mean for some people a few instances I recall--. Hadn't thought much about that recently, but as I would think back on it now, there were, there were some, several people that I felt like had truly slipped away from the faith and, and, and this, this truly brought them back. And it, and it, it not only made me feel good, but it, it, it--. I felt good about the whole experience.
JJ: Did you go to the crusade in 1972 when he came with Nixon?
WC: No, I was away from here at that time.
JJ: Oh, Oh. OK.
WC: Yeah, I was away from here.
JJ: Are you planning to go to this one coming up?
WC: Oh yes, yes. Um-hum. I, I hope to. I, I expect--. I have a feeling that it'll, it'll be largely attended partly because of the new stadium. [Laughter]
JJ: Well, he also has mentioned that this may be his last crusade.
WC: Well, yes. That's, that's another thing.
JJ: Yeah.
WC: And I expect there'll be a lot of people who will drive some distance in order--.
JJ: Yeah.
WC: To be here for it. Both because it's his last and, and, and as I say, just the excitement of the, of the, because, because, [Pause] you know, many of the people, this will be their, their only real, or certainly their first, and for many people probably their only opportunity to see this new coliseum or whatever they call it, stadium. I'm, I'm planning to see some ballgames there though myself. [Laughter]
JJ: [Laughter] Now I understand the crusade in 1958 that the Coliseum had just recently been opened, and several people have said that that was part of the attraction of going to see Billy Graham there was to see the new coliseum.
WC: Somewhat, yes. It, it was fairly new and, and we, we hadn't had too many things to take place there. In fact, in fact, it, it was sort of new to me. I had not been to, I had not been to, to the, to the--. It was then the Coliseum. It's now called the Arena. I had not been to it but a few times prior to the Billy Graham crusade.
JJ: Have you always been a minister in North Carolina or--?
WC: Yes.
JJ: Have you been ministered in other places or--?
WC: The--. We, we go by conferences, and I was a member of the Western North Carolina Conference. And that's basically the state of North Carolina from Greensboro West to the Tennessee line, including the entire western part of North Carolina.
JJ: A lot of evangelists, particularly currently, are from the South. Do you have any feelings why that is true or not, or why that appeals to the rest of the country?
WC: Well, no, I don't have any, anything that's not somewhat obvious. I think, I think generally speaking, religion--. I don't know too much about the Catholic faith, but--. Well I know enough about it, but I, but I mean I have not made, you know, any kind of a study. But I think that, that Protestant believers in the South are, are just--. They just, they just have a warmer, more expressive feeling about the faith. Why I think it is, to some extent, true of Southerners compared with Northerners, just apart from religion. I don't know whether you're a Southerner [Laughter] or a Northerner, but I've, I've, I've lived--. I went to school in Washington, DC, went to college, undergraduate, and I came in contact with a lot of Northerners there. And that's not really considered the North exactly, but, but we had a lot of people from New York and Pennsylvania in that school. And I just found that, that Southern people, generally--. I just--. I think this is sort of recognized that Southern people generally are warmer and, and tend to be a bit more emotional and tend to be a bit more expressive. And, and so I--. And I think that, that that's one reason why if that's true, I haven't really thought about that, but I guess that is true as I kind of run over it in my mind that, that this warmer, somewhat more emotional, somewhat more expressive kind of faith is the kind of thing that evangelism calls for. And that's why perhaps there are more, more evangelists from the South than otherwise.
JJ: Um-hum. Have you ever seen Billy Sunday or tapes or films (over the years)?
WC: No, I haven't. I, I know who he is--.
JJ: Yeah.
WC: And, and, and familiar with, with his, with his ministry, but I've never really, never really been interested in--.
JJ: He apparently came here once in 1924, and in one of Billy Graham's biographies, it says that he went, and he would have been six then. And he said he was terrified. [Laughter] His father made him sit real still and--.
WC: [Laughter]
JJ: Said it was a pretty scary experience.
WC: Um-hum. Have, have you had, have you had anyone to lay out for you anything about Billy Graham's conversion himself?
JJ: Just what we've read. Do you have anything you can--?
WC: No, not really. I, I wanted to just kind of check, and we don't necessarily need to do it on this, on this tape. I just kind of wanted to check. I had understood that his conversion occurred--. His--. The one that he--. And I didn't get this from him. I don't remember where I got it quite frankly, but I, I understood that it occurred in a, in a revival by, led by Mordecai Ham. And I understood that it occurred in a huge building that's down in behind a church on the corner of Seventh, Central Avenue and, and, and, and Hawthorne Lane. Now, that's the reason I was asking you if you--.
JJ: Um-hum. I don't, I don't know the building. It was Mordecai Ham, and he was sixteen. So that would have been 19--, what, '34.
WC: You, you say it was not Mordecai Ham?
JJ: No, it was Mordecai Ham.
WC: Oh yeah.
JJ: I, I don't know where the building was.
WC: And you think the, the conversion took place in the year 1934?
JJ: Um-hum.
WC: I have not read--.
JJ: Um-hum.
WC: I'm sure there's--. He's--. Billy Graham has written some books and so forth, but I haven't read those. And I didn't know. And I really frankly don't remember exactly where I got that--.
JJ: Um-hum.
WC: But, but somehow I, I picked that up somewhere along the line and I, I was just checking with you to see if you'd heard anything.
JJ: Yeah. Did you--. In the 50s crusade, did your family attend also, and did they participate?
WC: They attended some. They didn't, they didn't attend every night like I did--.
JJ: Um-hum.
WC: But they attended some part--. One of the reasons I guess that they didn't attend more was because I was involved later, and I would stay later and this kind of thing, you know, so--.
JJ: I didn't think about interviewing your son. We could do that too, I guess if he remembers it.
WC: Let's see, [Clears throat] he would have been--. He was born in '43, and so he would have, he would have been fifteen years old at that time.
JJ: Um-hum. So he would remember that.
WC: And, and I think, I think he probably went a time or two--.
JJ: Uh-huh.
WC: With me, but I, I don't, I, I never had really talked with him about it.
JJ: Oh. Is there anything else you would like to add about Billy Graham or--?
WC: No. I just--. I certainly want to add my respect for him and appreciation for what he's done and been and--. And the fact that even though he's, [Clears throat] he's gained, you know, tremendous world-wide recognition and all that kind of thing, that when you see him in action, he, he's still seems very real and, and, and very down to earth. And at least from my standpoint, it does, doesn't appear to me that, that all the various fame and publicity he's acquired has really spoiled him that much. He seems to be still the real Billy Graham.
JJ: Some people have said in his, in the biographies and things, and I've heard other people say this too, that he's just a little bit shy sometimes. Did you ever notice that?
WC: Well, I hadn't really thought about that but, but as I look back and think about those breakfasts that we had together--. Why I wouldn't call it shyness exactly, but certainly he was already famous enough and so on that he could've kind of monopolized the morning, you know. But he didn't. He didn't. There were other people who would speak up and have things to say. It was only about a dozen or maybe fifteen people attending these breakfasts. And, it would have been very easy for Dr. Graham to have, to have sort of monopolized the situation, but he didn't. He, he--. When they would ask him questions, he would answer and so on, things like that. But he didn't make any effort to try to monopolize the morning.
JJ: Um-hum. Who were the other people that were at the breakfasts?
WC: Well, they were people that were serving on the, on the committee, the sort of, had a kind of, a kind of advance committee, I guess. There was one or two people from several different denominations. I don't recall exactly how the committee, how the committee was formed or exactly why I, I was on it. Well, I, I, I, I, I have a strong feeling that one of the reasons I was on it was because I was, in a sense, a representative of the Methodist church, although our district superintendent also was on the committee at that time. And, and, but, but since I was, worked with lay people and all and so on, and would be working directly with people encouraging them to participate and all, I guess that's one of the reasons I was on.
JJ: Um-hum. I was thinking that your, your son Bill was, would have been here in '72 wasn't he? Was he in Charlotte in '72? I wondered if he'd gone to for his ( ).
WC: Yes, he was, I think. Let's see, he, they recently, they recently--. He, he, he, he's in the job that he's in now, and he's in his twenty-sixth year--.
JJ: Um-hum.
WC: Because they just recently--.
JJ: That's right.
WC: Gave him a twenty-fifth year--.
JJ: Yeah, in December.
WC: Roast. And, and so that would have been--. So he took the job here in about 1970.
JJ: Uh-huh.
WC: He taught school at West Charlotte High School for a couple of years--.
JJ: That's right.
WC: Prior to that.
JJ: Yeah, I knew that.
WC: So he would have been here. But, I don't know that we've ever mentioned about--.
JJ: I'll ask him.
WC: About whether or not he participated when he, when he was here or not.
JJ: Um-hum. Yeah. Those are all the questions I have.
WC: Okay, okay.
JJ: Thank you very much.
WC: Um-hum.
JJ: Appreciate it.