Don’t know much about the city’s religious fabric? Here are the stories behind six people, places and events – some controversial – in Charlotte’s past and present.
‘The Seven Sisters’
That nickname refers not to flesh-and-blood siblings, but to backwoods colonial churches. They were the first houses of worship founded in Mecklenburg County. And all seven were Presbyterian.
We’re talking about the 1750s and 1760s – when England still controlled the Carolinas. The royal government wanted to promote settlement by non-Native American people, so a land rush ensued. Multitudes of Scots-Irish Presbyterians from Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and the northern counties of Ireland streamed into what became Mecklenburg County in 1762. And one of the first things they did was start rural churches with names like Sugaw Creek, Steele Creek and Rocky River.
‘Sweet Daddy’ Grace
His real name was Marcelino Manuel da Garcia, and he hailed from the Cape Verde Islands. But his followers knew him as Bishop “Sweet Daddy” Grace, founder of The United House of Prayer for All People.
In 1926, Charlotte became a hub for this predominantly African-American Christian denomination when believers flocked to the bishop’s revival tent at Third and Caldwell streets. Today, the city has several House of Prayer churches, including the cathedral-like “mother house” on Beatties Ford Road. The churches are famous for their brassy “shout” bands, their mass baptisms, and their continued devotion to those bishops – still called "Daddy” – who have succeeded the founder.
‘Billy Graham Day’
On Oct. 15, 1971, Charlotte celebrated globe-trotting evangelist Billy Graham, the city’s most famous native son. There was a parade, a private reception featuring cross-shaped sandwiches, and the unveiling of a plaque at Graham’s birthplace near what is now Park Road Shopping Center.
But what made “Billy Graham Day” a big national news story was the special guest speaker: then-President Richard Nixon. About 150,000 people turned out, lining the streets of Charlotte and packing Charlotte Coliseum. There, Nixon told the crowd that “you have contributed to America and the world one of the great leaders of our time.” Less than three years later, Nixon would resign because of Watergate, a scandal that also damaged the reputation of Graham, who had remained a loyal Nixon supporter until nearly the end.
When it opened in 1986, Shalom Park, a 54-acre campus off Providence Road, became a national model for Jewish communities around the country.
This center for Jewish life in Charlotte is where you’ll find Temple Israel, a Conservative synagogue, and Temple Beth El, a Reform congregation. It’s also home to the Levine Jewish Community Center, religious schools, a library, and a Holocaust memorial.
The PTL Club, a Christian TV talk and music show, was launched by Jim and Tammy Bakker – upbeat husband-and-wife evangelists – in the mid-1970s. In Charlotte, they first broadcast from a former furniture store. By the 1980s, the Bakkers and their TV network had relocated and were flourishing at Heritage USA, their combination Christian theme park/water park/residential complex in nearby Fort Mill, S.C.
But in 1987 their empire collapsed amid revelations that Jim Bakker had had a sexual encounter with church secretary Jessica Hahn – and then paid her hush money – and that the Bakkers had bilked their followers and used the millions of dollars flowing into PTL coffers to pay for an outrageously luxurious lifestyle. PTL, short for “Praise the Lord” and “People that Love” in the Bakkers’ glory days, came to stand for “Pass the Loot” to many as Jim Bakker was sent off to prison. In 1988, the Charlotte Observer won the Pulitzer Prize for its coverage.
Its first service, in 2006, drew just 121 people. But within two years, Charlotte-based Elevation Church was one of the fastest growing evangelical churches in America. The main draw at the Southern Baptist church: The founding pastor, Steven Furtick. He’s a dynamic but biblically orthodox preacher who has a hip wardrobe and is as fluent in pop culture as he is in the Gospels. His mostly young and increasingly diverse flock refers to him as “Pastor Steven.” They number more than 20,000 in the Charlotte area – Elevation has 10 local sites – as well as thousands more across the country and around the world who watch his sermons on YouTube and Facebook.
But Furtick, now 37, has become controversial, mostly because his congregation has no idea how much their pastor is paid. Still, the church has become one of the top contributors – in donations and volunteer time – to Crisis Assistance Ministry and other Charlotte charities.