Establishing Christian Education in California

Homeschooled on her family’s farm until the eighth grade, Mabel Culter became a teacher and principal who established her own academy. Raised on the plains of Kansas and Colorado, she spent most of her life serving schools in suburban Southern California. Enthusiastic about riding horses and herding cattle, she expressed her love for the outdoors primarily by teaching botany. A diminutive dean of women, she astonished James Merlin ’38 when she smacked a baseball at a picnic in Griffith Park.

Mabel Culter (photo courtesy of the Westmont College Archives)

Mabel Culter played a significant part in the college’s early history. Through her role as dean of women at the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (1929 to 1936), she became well acquainted with Elbert McCreery, John Page and Anna Dennis, who taught there before becoming the heart of Westmont’s early faculty. Unlike two of the Bible professors (who were fired), she left voluntarily to act on a longtime vision: founding a Christian high school.

Culter Academy opened in the fall of 1936 with a few students, but enrollment grew significantly in 1937, when the school moved from Mabel’s home to the First Fundamental Church in Los Angeles. That year, Ruth Kerr established the Bible Missionary Institute, which also met at the church. Mabel became dean of women at BMI as well as principal of Culter. In 1939, BMI became Western Bible College mostly because Mabel advocated adding a junior college curriculum. She was listed as a co-founder of WBC as well as dean of the college department.

But Western Bible College existed for only a year; in 1940 the school made an even more dramatic transformation, becoming a four-year liberal arts college named Westmont. Mabel served on the biology faculty while continuing her work with Culter. For a short time, the academy was renamed Westmont, but the college and the academy incorporated separately and Culter resumed its name when Ruth Kerr learned that neither could gain accreditation while governed by the same board. Mabel had become a Westmont trustee in 1940, a position she held until 1947. The two schools continued to share a campus, moving together to Westmoreland Street in 1939. When Westmont sought a new home in 1944, Culter Academy bought the entire Los Angeles property. The academy remained there until 1968, when it moved to Temecula, Calif., and became Linfield Academy; it still exists as Linfield Christian Academy. Mabel retired in 1954 and died in Hemet, Calif., in 1980 at the age of 93.

“She was one super woman,” recalls Nancy Tyler Salverda ’46. “She was a deep spiritual leader . . . she would always have a prayer with you whether it was consulting about the annual or ditch day. Mabel was just one of those women that you knew walked with God closely, and she loved us and became a great role model for all of us. I never heard a word that I can remember against Mabel Culter. She was respected by the students, and she had a great sense of humor. We used to have lots of fine, lovely times with her.”

Mabel attended three different teachers colleges in California (Santa Clara, San Jose and San Diego) before earning her degree at Occidental College. She taught in elementary schools for a number of years as well as at Garden Grove High School. In 1918 and again from 1921-25, she served as principal of the American School in Nanking, China. A leader in the Society for Christian Endeavor, a movement that focused on equipping youth for the work of the Gospel, she believed strongly in developing young people in all areas of their lives.

Mabel appears to be the first person who described Westmont as the Wheaton of the West. The reference occurred in contrast to Pepperdine, another new Christian institution affiliated with the Churches of Christ; Mabel was endorsing Westmont’s non-denominational status. Like others associated with the college’s founding, she developed an ambitious vision for the school and worked hard to achieve it.

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One Response to Establishing Christian Education in California

  1. Ginny Jaques says:

    There is no mention here of her work in establishing orphanages in Korea. I thought I remembered my parents saying she had done that as well. My mother was one of the missionaries supported by Miss Culter and Ruth Kerr, but after the Korean War I was sure she spent some time over there in the orphanage ministry.

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