Our Church History
In February 1926, a passenger railroad car arrived in Flagstaff. It was moved from the mainline to a sideline off old Route 66, just east of where the Flagstaff Athletic Club stands today. This was a new church plant, sponsored by the Arizona Baptist Mission Society. W.A. Vanderhoof would be the Pastor. The new church was named the Glad Tidings Chapel Car. By the end of that year, the car had moved closer into the center of town. Flagstaff was very small in 1926, and still had a wild side! The new location would have been just south of the Amtrak Train Station/Visitor Center, on the south side of the tracks. The car was moved a final time, slowly making its way down Beaver Street. It became a Flagstaff comedy, as no one was sure it would ever reach its final destination. First, there was a snowstorm, which brought it to a halt, then mechanical issues kept it from moving much further. It finally landed near where our present-day church stands. Harrold Harper was a teenager during these years. He would help out by rubbing down the pews, pulpit, and organ before the service began. He said, “I never forgot the warm fellowship of the Christians in the Chapel Car.”
In 1932, the church had outgrown the Chapel Car and the congregation purchased the Seventh Day Adventist Church on the corner of Beaver and Benton. It was a small, frame building and it wasn’t long before the church outgrew this as well. The new Pastor was Rev. Dixon. Along with the new Pastor, the church also had a new name, First Baptist Church. A building project began which would make the new church significantly bigger. Much care was taken both inside and outside of the building. Malapai Rock, gathered by church members, overlayed the cinder block exterior to make it one of the most beautiful, yet functional, historic buildings in Flagstaff. On the interior, the wooden beams and stained-glass windows were complemented by the solid oak pews. The original building was approximately 2/3 the size of our current sanctuary. A later addition expanded the sanctuary and added the choir loft and baptismal.
Over the next 20 years, Flagstaff Baptist Church went through a succession of pastors. We have little information about the 1940s, who was pastor then, or what role the church had in World War ll. During the '50s and '60s, many men filled the pulpit and led the church.
Bob Warren was a dynamic leader and pastor. His energetic and personable wife, Rose Marie, was a great asset to him. Rose Marie was the sister of a long-time member, Nelson Schaum. Ron Talbott, a member of FCF for over 50 years, was saved under Bob’s ministry. Ron remembers his dynamic preaching and vibrant personality. Ron also spoke highly of the enthusiastic youth pastor, Dennis Williams. It was during this time that FCF had a large growth spurt. Many professors from Arizona State College (now Northern Arizona University) attended the church. The president of the college, Lawrence Walkup was a member as well, and he made a point of hiring Christian professors. The church had a choir that wore blue robes along with an organ and piano. Things were more formal then, as men wore suits and women wore dresses. It looked like a party!
During this time, the Conservative Baptist Home Mission Society had an idea to begin Campus Ministries. They named the new outreach Campus Ambassadors. Out of the entire nation, our church was chosen for the trial run. In 1965, Bill Johnson came on as College Pastor, although he was supported by CBHMS. Bill had a long and fruitful ministry, with many from our church becoming missionaries or pastors, with some going on to lead Campus Ambassadors ministries at other churches.
During 1968-69 an additional two-story wing was added to the north of the sanctuary. This addition housed offices for the pastors and secretary and other staff. It also had a small library, a multipurpose Fireside Room, and upstairs Sunday School rooms.
Dan Irwin pastored here briefly. He was an intellectual man who didn’t really fit well into Flagstaff culture and his tenure was short.
Dean Koontz came here from Wyoming in 1965. He was a gentle and soft-spoken man. Jane Scott was living in Laramie while Dean was pastor there. He baptized Jane in 1964. She remembers him as a very kind and caring Pastor. He was only here for a couple of years.
Jim Nelson was next, a friend of Harold and Mary Liz Harper. Although Harold was never technically a pastor, he served as a lifelong elder and was a very influential person in the church. Harold and Mary Liz continued to be active church members into the 2000s.
In the 1970s, First Baptist Church became known in the town and university as ‘First B’. Verne Nesbit became pastor of ‘First B’ in 1974. Verne was warm, friendly, very emotional, and had strong charismatic leanings. This drew in lots of people, including the hippies and Jesus Freaks in Flagstaff. Verne was like all our pastors, a good Bible teacher, but had a brief tenure here, maybe because some of his radical ministry ideas did not sit well with the elders. Verne, his wife Dianne, and their four children moved to California where Verne pastored well into his sixties. Julie McDonald recalls her first day at ‘First B’ and what led her to the church:
“My first Sunday at “First B,” was Verne Nesbitt’s first Sunday. Although a lifelong resident of Flagstaff, I was raised Catholic and had never stepped foot in the church, with the exception of weddings and piano recitals. I became a Christian in March of 1974. My friend, Beverlee, who led me to Christ intended to go to “First B,” the common nickname for the church when the new pastor arrived. Bev never told me her plan. She told me instead, “Let’s go visit different churches and you can pick the one you like best.” Every week we went to a different church. From March to April, that covered just about every church in town! After the service, she would explain their beliefs and why they were different from other churches. She also explained when churches practiced unbiblical beliefs. It was a hands-on doctrinal class!”
Al Parmenter arrived in January of 1977. The word that describes Al is CONTROVERSY. Al loved a good controversy. If they didn’t come often enough, he created them. Julie McDonald tells a story about how our Annual Christmas Craft Sale got started:
“In one of my first conversations with Pastor Al, I said, “I want to have a Craft Sale for missions. Is that okay?” Al replied, “Baptists don’t have Craft Sales.” I said, “I was raised Catholic, so can I have one?” Al agreed, and sure enough, it was a controversy, “money changers in the temple.” It continued to be controversial until Pastor Steve Cole put an end to it in the ’90s, by telling people that it was NOT money changers in the temple, as we were not benefiting personally from it.”
Our church craft sale has continued to be an annual tradition, raising money for missions every year.
Al encouraged gifts of the spirit. That was controversial. Al wanted to sell the beautiful oak pews and replace them with chairs, making the sanctuary more functional. That was controversial. The outcry was, “What will Harold and Mary Liz think about that?” When asked, Harold looked up at the ceiling wistfully and said, “Before we had pews, we used to move the chairs to the side and play basketball in the sanctuary.” That was the end of the pews!
Al wanted to change the name of the church. Some defended this controversial idea saying that the historical name of First Baptist Church was now false advertising. There were only two Baptists in the church, half were converts from Catholicism, and a sprinkling from every other denomination. Julie McDonald remembers saying, “Baptists don’t like us, and people who would like the church don’t come.” We had a contest to choose a name and Flagstaff Christian Fellowship won. Wouldn’t you know, right after that a cult moved into Flagstaff with an almost identical name.
The biggest controversy by far was the plurality of elders. What? You might scratch your head and say, why was that a controversy? Al, rightly said, that is the Biblical model. That was a BIG controversy. It was so big, that we were known statewide, possibly nationwide. The Arizona Baptist Convention referred to us as the “radical, renegade church in Flagstaff.”
Al was an excellent speaker and Bible teacher. He was not missions-minded when he arrived but after listening to many missionaries and going on an overseas mission trip, Al was really sold out for missions. He continues to pray for and support many missionaries to this day.
Al suffered a serious thorn in the flesh - severe and debilitating depression. Stan Johnson interviewed for youth pastor at a mental health facility in Phoenix. Al was sometimes out of the pulpit for weeks at a time. During this time, we had a number of different guest speakers who were leading the church into liberalism. We were indeed on a slippery slope!
In the late ’80s, Donna, Al’s wife was killed in a tragic traffic accident south of Flagstaff. Donna was on her way to visit Al, who was, again, hospitalized in Phoenix. A couple of years later, Al married a long-time friend who lived in Phoenix. He continues to live there now with Cheryl. Although he did some teaching, he did not pastor full time again.
Steve Cole pastored the church here from 1992 to 2018. When Steve arrived in May of 1992, the church was drifting spiritually. Some in leadership may have thought Steve could be pressured, influenced, or bullied, but it was not to be. Steve Cole was going to preach the Word of God, and there would be no compromise. Before the year was out, a campaign led by influential people in the church was formed to quietly remove Steve. However, the plan was discovered and thwarted by the deacons of the church, who were fully behind Steve. Many in leadership resigned and left the church, a number of others went with them. Harold and Mary Liz Harper supported Steve even though it put them at odds with other elders that left the church.
Steve did not seek out controversy, but it found him through the preaching of the Word. Worldly psychology is not biblical - that was a controversy. The Bible teaches reformed theology, not Arminianism - that was a controversy. Steve arrived fully committed to world missions and it thrived during his tenure here. He went on mission trips, encouraged short-term summer trips, and encouraged the reading of missionary biographies.
College ministry flourished during Steve’s time. Keith and Judy Manley started a college fellowship in their home, which literally exploded! Many other people joined them in making homemade meals for the students and having a time of worship and teaching. It wasn’t long until the fellowship moved to the church. It was normal to fill the sanctuary with 400 college students on a Sunday night. One night the police came in, just to see what was going on! Many of these students went on to become pastors, church leaders, and missionaries around the world.
Harold Harper passed away in 2006, followed by Mary Liz in 2008. This dear couple was a mainstay at FCF for 80 years. Julie McDonald recalls, “When I think about heaven, I always look forward to seeing Harold and Mary Liz! They were a wonderful couple; I still miss them.”
At the peak of Steve’s ministry at FCF, the church had four pastors and was busting at the seams with three services. Looking to expand to a new facility to accommodate this growth, the church invested in some property in 2007, just before a financial crisis damaged the real estate market and started the ‘Great Recession.' Steve led the church through a difficult time until this property was sold in 2017, with FCF continuing ministry in our historical building at the corner of Beaver and Benton.
The word to describe Steve’s time here at FCF, and he is still here, is STABILITY. Steve is like a rock, unmovable, unshakeable. Julie McDonald describes Steve’s ministry – “I had been a Christian for 18 years when Steve arrived. After 18 years on a roller coaster, Steve’s time at the helm was, ‘sailing on smooth water’.”
Steve retired in 2018 and FCF welcomed Dave Berry, truly an answer to prayer! The great Bible teaching and strong leadership continue on!
Glad Tidings, First Baptist Church, Flagstaff Christian Fellowship. For almost 100 years faithfully preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. How exciting heaven will be when we see how God has used the little church on the corner of Beaver and Benton to reach many people in Flagstaff and around the world!