Museum Pieces by Lori Price, The Puyallup Herald
(on the 100th anniversary of the incorporation of the congregation)
First Christian Church in Puyallup opened in 1905 across Meridian Street from Pioneer Park. Today the church is located at 7th St. and 9th Ave. S.W. The pastor is Nancy Gowler.
“The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is now one of the largest churches founded on American soil, with more than 1.1 million members in 4,300 congregations across the U.S. and Canada.”
The birth of the Christian Church can be said to have been in 1804 in a log cabin in Cane Ridge, Kentucky, or a little church in Brush Run, Pennsylvania. Its founders were the Rev. Barton W. Stone, who ended his ties with the Presbyterian church in that year to become “Christian Only.”
Thomas Campbell, a Pennsylvania Presbyterian minister, and his son, Alexander, started the Brush Run Church about the same time, with the idea of seeking union of all Christians based on simple New Testament basics. They called their religion “Disciples of Christ.”
By 1832, the “Christians” and the “Disciples of Christ” had joined together in Lexington, Kentucky with a formal handshake, agreeing on basic beliefs and aims. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in now one of the largest churches founded on American soil, with more than 1.1 million members in 4,300 congregations across the U.S. and Canada.
Organization of the Christian Church in Puyallup was divided into three chapters. The first began at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Israel Wright on the prairie just east of American Lake in 1855, spurred by Stephen Guthrie, an evangelist from Chambers Prairie. Members of this early church moved to other locations and the prairie church was disbanded.
The second chapter began about 1883 when the first Puyallup meeting was held in what was called the Frank Spinning grove, on the bank of the Puyallup River near Main Avenue. The first baptisms took place in the waters of the river, according to Charles Ross, who was one of the early pioneers in the Puyallup area. He remembered the leaders of the movement were Eugene Sanderson and J. T. Eshelman.
Services were later held in a hall over a meat market, with the Rev. Bruce Wolverton preaching. In following years, the Christian group worshipped in various halls, lodge rooms and vacant store buildings. Preachers of that period were the Rev. F. Waldon, Clark Braden, Sanderson and Eshelman.
In 1905, a Washington State evangelist named L. F. Stevens came to Puyallup for the purpose of erecting a church for the group. He asked for four carpenters to help him and promised the building would be finished in a month. The church was built at 331 South Meridian, across Meridian from the rose garden in Pioneer Park. Eshelman became the first pastor, and under his leadership the church was soon debt free.
Many pastors have come and gone since that time, including the Revs. M. R. Ely, Mac Allen Thompson, David Norcross, O. J. Law, Harry L. Bell, Lee Furguson, William Sutton, Lee Sadler, Emil J. Helseth, David Norcross, L. C. Oberlien, Clive Taylor, W. C. Rhea, J. L. Ballinger, Weymeth McGrew, Fred L. Towne, Delmar M. Talley, R. Burnell Krager and Nancy Gowler Johnson, the present pastor since November, 2000. Five interim pastors also served the church, including Dick Humphrey, W. A. Moore, Edwin Metcalf, Grant Cole and Michael Martin.
The First Christian Church of Puyallup was remodeled and enlarged several times but soon became inadequate for the growing congregation. On December 4, 1962, ground breaking took place for a new church at 7th St. SW. and Ninth Ave. SW. The property had been purchased in anticipation of the church’s expansion.
Today, the church members use the generous-sized parking lot to park cars during the Puyallup Fair, with the revenue used for a variety of church projects and outreach.
The church is celebrating its centennial year of ministry and fellowship with spiritual, social and community events. A 100th birthday party is scheduled for the weekend of Oct. 7, 2005.
–Posted with permission from Lori Price
History of the congregation
The earliest history of this congregation stretches back to late 1888 or 1889 when the state evangelist of Washington, E.C. Sanderson along with J.T. Eshelman organized an all-day church meeting at Frank Spinning Grove on the bank of the Puyallup River. From that first event a Christian Church was formed. Meeting places at first were in private homes, vacant store buildings, halls and clubrooms. By 1892 regular worship services and Sunday School were being held at the Christian Hall in Puyallup on the corner of Stewart and J Streets with Rev. Alfred Brunk serving as pastor. S.W. Clascock came from Missouri to guest preach in April 1894. Among his first activities was to hold a night-to-night meeting at Sumner. Bruce Wilkerson, who was born while his family was crossing the prairie in 1853 and became a well-known church planter and preacher in the Northwest, preached at the first evangelistic service held by the church. The first recorded baptism by the congregation was Mable Morse on April 16, 1904.
L.F. Stephens, at the time a Washington State evangelist, was traveling in the Northwest helping to build and organize Christian Churches throughout Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. In June 1905 Stephens came to Puyallup and with the assistance of four carpenters was able to complete a church building in four weeks. That church building stood at 331 Meridian across from the rose garden in Pioneer Park (on the east side of Meridian between Pioneer and 4th Avenue SE). The church was incorporated on October 7, 1905 with J.T. Eshelman serving as pastor. Eshelman was a strong ecumenist, participating in union services with other churches in the area. A sermon he preached at one of those union services entitled, “Christian Union,” was published on the front page of the Puyallup Republican on April 3, 1908.
In 1927 the church building was enlarged at a cost of $5,000. In April 1937 the church celebrated full payment of that debt with a victory banquet and a service for the burning of the bonds. This was accomplished during the early part of the ministry of Clive Taylor.
David E. Norcross would serve as pastor in the early 1930’s. A noted pacifist, Norcross would move to Portland to work as the field secretary for the National Council for the Prevention of War and later worked with relief and peace organizations in Seattle. On Sept 13, 1937 under the leadership of Rev. Clive Taylor, the church would join many other protestant congregations by sending a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt urging the Neutrality Law be applied equally in the conflict between Japan and China.
Many pastors have served in ministry in our congregation. Another pastor from those early years, Harry Bell, a native of Australia who studied at Eugene Bible College, served our congregation and several others in the Northwest before taking a pastorate at Columbia Heights Christian Church in Washington, DC.
Rev. Lee Sadler also was a graduate of Eugene Bible College. He was ordained at FCC Puyallup and served as pastor for several years. He is perhaps best known as the pastor who initiated the Golden Wedding Service (1929), a tradition celebrating couples married for 50 years and longer, that continued for 76 years. He had other talents as well: in the history of the Castle Rock Christian Church, which Sadler also served, “Pastor Sadler won the respect of every man in Cowlitz County when he worked in the woods as a choker setter. He also won the love of his church as a devoted pastor and good pulpit preacher.”
In 1958, unable to accommodate all of its Sunday School classes, a motion was made to buy our current property on 9th Avenue SW. The motion was seconded and carried with 83 votes For and 9 Against. With Fred Towne as pastor they broke ground for the new building on December 4, 1960, and the first worship service in the new church building was celebrated on July 30, 1961.
In 1988, under the pastoral leadership of Rev. Bernie Krager, the church began the process of changing its Constitution and Bylaws to open the position of elder to both women and men. Overcoming difficulties which came with change, the revised Constitution was approved in 1990, and in 1993 Martha White served as the first woman elder for the congregation.
From those first days with J.T. Eshelman and the Community Union Services down through the years the church has maintained the core value of ecumenical relationships. In 1938 with Rev. Clive Taylor as pastor the church joined two other local Baptist churches in offering combined Vacation Bible School. In current years the church has continued this practice by partnering with the First Presbyterian Church and Christ Episcopal Church to host a joint Vacation Bible School for children in our community.
In 2000, First Christian Church called its first female pastor, Rev. Nancy Gowler. Pastor Nancy brought new energy to the congregation for nearly 20 years while encouraging congregants in their participation in church and community ministries. Pastor Nancy took a call in Morehead, Kentucky in May 2020, and as of January 2021 the congregation is under the leadership of Interim Pastor Ray Smith while it is in the process of search and call for a settled pastor.
Other references to FCC Puyallup’s history: http://ncbible.org/nwh/WaPierce.html#puyallup