The First Church In Town

The Story of Payson, Arizona -Chapter 34, The First Church In Town

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Settlers in Payson and the Rim Country had a faith in God that was born of adventure and survival in the wilderness. However, it was not until 1935 that the town organized its first local church. After all, these families had little time to develop churches and rituals. They spent their lives in virtual isolation on far-flung ranches, having defied comfort and the malicious terrain to make their way into these valleys. The first record of a Christian mission outreach to Payson is in 1898.

A 48-year-old, self-styled preacher named James Oliver Hill came to Payson in that year and began holding Sunday school classes in various homes where he was invited. He lived with his family in a cabin on the south edge of town, and rode an underfed buckskin mare, which he tied here and there until someone would take pity and feed her. In 1901 the Payson School Board voted to allow J. O. Hill to hold Bible classes in the newly built schoolhouse on Main Street. Soon, however, he fell into disrepute and the family had to leave town after his daughter was found spending gold coins that her two brothers had stolen from the home of a family that had them in for Sunday dinner. The boys claimed they had “found them” but the cause of religion in Payson was not advanced by the incident.

It was with the persistent leadership of Cece Gibson and Ethel Owens that Sunday school classes continued to be held in the schoolhouse. The ladies also took the initiative to contact the Presbyterian National Sunday School Board, appealing for funds to build a building for religious purposes. In 1917 the Mission Board responded by purchasing a lot on Main Street, next to the school, and paying for a building. That building would not only house the Sunday school but would become the Manse (or parsonage), housing the occasional circuit-riding preacher who would come to hold services. It was also the residence for summer interns, young men from theological seminary “cutting their teeth” on this embryonic congregation. One of those youthful pastors disrupted the community when he started to run off with Nell Boardman, daughter of a prominent merchant in town. The act was squelched, but so was worship for another season.

In the summer of 1934 the Presbyterian Mission Board sent pastor George Thomas from Miami, Ariz., to scout their investment in Payson. His report to the clerk of the Session in Globe was not favorable. “I am convinced,” he wrote, “that Payson is not a field with which the Presbyterian Church should concern itself in the future. Southern Baptist or Methodist type of work is better suited to the community… In my judgment, the best thing we could do in the interest of the Kingdom is to give them a free hand, title to the property, and our blessing. There is nothing that can be salvaged or sold in any way, not even the lot that is horribly gullied out with floodwaters. It is not a field to which we would ever want to send a Presbyterian minister, even if we had the money. I have heard Dr. Webb say that, so far as he was concerned, he did not want ever to see another Presbyterian dollar expended on Payson, and I agree with him.”

It is difficult to imagine what could inspire such negative and dogmatic comments. One reason behind this harsh opinion might have been that few local families were interested in church of any kind. After all it had not been in their background, and by this time several generations had been raised without a formal church fellowship. The men did not think it worth their time, and when services were held very few men attended. According to the popular image, “church goin’ was not fittin’ for cowboys.”

However, it was the faithful persistence of some of the women that kept the Sunday school going, and they saw to it that neighborhood children attended. Just west of the church building was a cluster of houses called Texas Flat, so named because the families that settled there were from Texas. Billy Haught, son of Richard Haught, was one of them. Billy’s granddad Babe Haught had been Zane Gray’s well-known guide. The Haughts were living on Oak Street, having moved to town after Gray left Arizona in 1929. Billy’s schoolteacher was Julia Randall. Miss Randall was active in the Sunday School movement, and each Sunday she would gather up the children around there and lead them by the hand to Bible classes. In his memoirs, Billy wrote, “God was blessed when Miss Julia Randall came here. She taught school for fifty years. Those of you who do not know her cannot imagine the love and dedication of this woman; not only for little children but for all mankind. Absolute dedicate through love. I used to go to church in Payson, and Miss Randall was always there. She set an example for us all.”

So it was that in spite of the negative opinion expressed by George Thomas, faithful community leaders set the tone for Christian love. The Presbyterian Mission Board was not convinced that Payson was to be turned over to more fervent Baptists and Methodists, and early in 1935 they sent another missionary to reorganize the Sunday school and lay the foundation for chartering a Presbyterian congregation. He was the Rev. J. T. Hartman, and that summer he was replaced by a permanent pastor named James. B. Glenn. Glenn was newly graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary and moved his family into the 18-year-old manse. The building had been deteriorating, and had no plumbing. However, the enthusiastic young pastor quickly had the new church congregation chartered with 35 members, seven of whom were men. In a few months the church was conducting “outpost” Sunday school classes in homes throughout the Rim Country.

A few months after his arrival Rev. Glenn wrote to his minister father, “Payson is a town of about 500 people. Though there has been a town here for about fifty years, there has never been a church. Most of the early pioneers seem to have left their religion with their relatives back East. Outlaws from other states, I am told, found a home in the hill country of Arizona. Now don’t get the idea that Payson is a town of outlaws today… Nevertheless, it has an outlaw background.”

Prohibition had ended two years before Rev. Glenn arrived, but stories of that illegal local industry may have influenced his comments.

So it was that organized religion had a slow and tenuous beginning in Payson, but with the faithfulness of a few laypersons and the persistence of the Presbyterian Mission Board it got a foothold and grew. During Pastor Glenn’s first year the congregation erected a log church, which still stands where it was built. Frank Owens and his sons (forerunners of the Kaibab Lumber Company in Payson) donated the logs for the church, cut on an old belt driven saw. Owens also supervised the construction. This first congregation of Christians and their building on Main Street became a catalyst for other people of faith of build sanctuaries that housed their own forms of worship, all seeking the same goal: to glorify God and spread God’s Kingdom on Earth as it is in Heaven.

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