Religion plays a large role in life in Oklahoma. Visitors are often surprised that the first question they’re asked after being introduced to an Oklahoman is “Where do you go to church?” or some variation on the theme. For the most part, this is not meant to be intrusive or to be a prelude to proselytizing. For many Oklahomans, a church is the center of their social network. The question is the Okie version of six degrees of separation. It’s a way to connect someone new with someone you know.
The majority of Oklahomans identify themselves with a church—whether they attend regularly or not. Unfortunately, religion and politics often get tangled together here. Tulsa has a more diverse population than most of Oklahoma, and Tulsans seem to be more open to a variety of expressions of religion—or no religion.
Does this mean Tulsans aren’t religious? No, it just means most of them are willing to make their own choices and allow others to do the same. One of the best indications of this openness is the history of the Tulsa Council of Churches, which was started in 1937. Originally, the group was exclusively Christian—of the Protestant persuasion. In the 1960s some members of the Catholic clergy joined the group. When members of the Jewish faith joined the council, the name was changed to Tulsa Metropolitan Ministry. The membership now includes Muslims, Buddhists, and representatives of the Native American church. Do these people agree theologically? Certainly not. But they have agreed to work together as an interfaith community for understanding, cooperation, and service.
They’re only following in the footsteps of Tulsa’s founders.
Tulsa’s first Sunday School was an ecumenical effort. Shortly after the railroad building crew reached the Tulsa area, one of the worker’s wives invited two of the other early settlers to her tent. Mrs. Slater was a Congregationalist; one of the men, Dr. W. P. Booker, was a Baptist; the other man, J. M. Hall, was Presbyterian. Together they formed a “union” Sunday school.
That was in 1883. In 1885 the Presbyterians, meeting at a school started by the Presbyterian Church Missions Board to serve Indian children, organized their own congregation. Shortly after, Methodist Episcopal communicants did the same. Catholics organized in 1890, and Southern Methodists started meeting together in 1893. The two tiny Methodist congregations were the cradles for First Methodist Church and Boston Avenue Methodist Church. Why two Methodist congregations? The Methodist Church, like many others, had split over the question of slavery. At the time of Tulsa’s founding, the church was still divided; the branches were not united until 1939.
Once oil was discovered, Tulsa’s population jumped and more people from more faith heritages moved in. Churches were being built, outgrown, rebuilt, or sold to start over again. Tulsa has an unusual number of churches in its downtown area, and they all seem to be quite active. It’s been said, though probably without accuracy, that there are more people in downtown Tulsa on Sunday mornings than any other time of week. More accurately, you’ll probably see more people on the streets in downtown Tulsa as they come to and leave church than you’ll see at any other time of the week.
And while the opposite is true for the rest of the town, the streets around churches certainly have traffic on them. There are between 300 and 400 houses of worship in Tulsa. And they divide themselves into approximately 70 denominations—even the ones that call themselves nondenominations. There are around 80 Baptist churches—Southern, American, Free Will, Independent-Fundamental, Missionary, and National. Just over 50 churches declare themselves nondenominational. In numbers, the Methodists come next, followed by the Catholics.
All of this is just to tell you that if you’re looking for a church home, you’ll have lots of choices. Even within the same denomination, there are differences in worship style and even disagreements on questions of faith.
While you’re exploring the possibilities, consider visiting the historic downtown churches. Historically and architecturally, these buildings have a lot to say. Holy Family Catholic Church was dedicated in 1914 and at that time was the tallest building in the state. Built in northern Italian Renaissance style, the church has one of the largest Gothic altars in the United States.
Trinity Episcopal Church is the oldest Episcopal church in Tulsa. They purchased the property in 1906. The current building was built in 1926. The stained-glass windows illustrate the Apostles’ Creed.
The two Methodist churches couldn’t be more different in architectural style. First Methodist is said to be the tallest perpendicular Gothic building west of the Mississippi. Boston Avenue Methodist is one of the finest examples of art deco design in the country. Its architecture is so significant that the church offers tours after the 11 a.m. service each Sunday.
First Presbyterian Church is also a Gothic-style building. Its pipe organ is quite possibly the largest in the state. The Church of Christ, Scientist, may have the oldest pipe organ in the state. Built in 1923 in a combination of Greek and Roman styles, its interior was redecorated in 1943 by Adah Robinson, the talented Quaker lady who designed Boston Avenue Methodist.
First Christian Church, built in 1919, is an amalgam of styles, too. It has Greek columns but the mission-style, quatrefoil windows add an unusual touch, and you can’t miss the slightly flattened, modified octagonal dome with its green tile. Inside, there’s an interesting stained-glass interior dome.
First Baptist Church has grown and grown. Church members have been generous in meeting the needs of the downtown community. In 1972 they built a gym—the only church gym downtown.
Just north and east of downtown is Vernon AME Church. Founded in 1905, the church burned in the 1921 riot. The present building was completed in 1928.
Of course, you’re not going to choose a church based on its architecture. You’ll have to do it like everyone else does—by visiting churches. In Tulsa that could take a while.
Welcome to Tulsa, Oklahoma’s second largest city. Outranked by the state capital, Tulsa nevertheless takes a back seat to no one. Tucked between the western edge of the Ozark Uplift and the eastern border of the thickly wooded Cross Timbers, the city’s site is a pleasant mixture of rolling hills, forests of deciduous trees, and short-grass prairie. Tulsa is noted for spring landscapes painted with a Monet palette of pastel azaleas, dogwoods, and redbuds; summers awash with vivid greens and colorful blooms; and falls with trees sporting leaves in shades from deep purple to brilliant orange and yellow.
Early inhabitants included nomadic tribes of hunters and, later, members of the Mound Builder culture. Not surprisingly, the first permanent settlers were Indians—a group from the Creek Nation, moved forcibly from Alabama. One of Tulsa’s most significant landmarks is the Council Oak where these settlers rekindled the embers brought from their former home.
With white settlement, Tulsa became a cow town complete with cattle drives down the main street and Saturday night shoot-’em-ups. All that was forgotten with the discovery of oil when Tulsa turned into a boomtown. Fortunes were made and lost, and when the dust settled, names like Skelly and Phillips were prominent in establishing Tulsa as “Oil Capital of the World.” The city saluted its reputation with an enormous gold-painted statue of an oil-field worker built for the 1966 International Petroleum Exposition. Art it isn’t, but like a slightly dotty family member, it’s viewed with amused affection by Tulsans.
The oil industry brought moguls and millionaires to the area; Route 66 brought the rest of the country. And both influences continue to attract visitors. Tour Waite Phillips’s Italianate mansion, now the Philbrook Museum of Art, then slake your thirst with home-brewed root beer at Weber’s, a 75-year-old Tulsa institution that still satisfies.
You won’t be bored in Tulsa. The community has a rich cultural life—lots of art and music from opera to jazz to western swing. There are parks aplenty, including the miles-long park that fronts the Arkansas River. With playgrounds; disc golf; hiking, biking and skating trails; fountains; and public art, this park is the crown jewel of Tulsa’s outdoor venues. Tulsa isn’t resting on its laurels, however, and continues to add new spaces like the Linnaeus Teaching Gardens at the Tulsa Garden Center and the work-in-progress Oklahoma Centennial Botanical Garden with 60 acres of gardens and 240 acres of preserved prairie and forestland.
Tulsa’s architecture is a big attraction. Tulsa ranks right up with New York City, Miami, and Los Angeles for the number of art deco buildings. And the city’s latest addition is the stunning Bank of Oklahoma Center designed by internationally famous architect Cesar Pelli, known for Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Twin Towers.
For shoppers, in addition to large malls, Tulsa has a number of charming neighborhood shopping areas. Shady Utica Square hosts upscale stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Williams-Sonoma, and smaller areas like Cherry Street and Brookside offer unique boutiques and trendy eateries. Restaurants range from mom and pop–type diners to haute cuisine and food choices from catfish to calamari.
Short of an ocean or mountains, Tulsa has it all. In addition to top attractions, varied cultural opportunities, exciting eating, and shopping, Tulsa has the advantage of being a bargain. You get big-city amenities at small-town prices and less traffic to contend with.
Visitors find Tulsans to be friendly and helpful, and new residents find it easy to get involved. Tulsa offers a blend of sophisticated city and down-home hospitality. There’s so much to see and do—it would take a book to describe it all. And so we wrote one! Enjoy!