The Frisby Legacy

God told Neal Frisby to build the Capstone Cathedral. Then He told him to give it away

In no time, Frisby was leading revival meetings at civic centers and auditoriums across California. He focused on praying for God to heal the sick.

Many people became convinced that his prayers were no less than miraculous. Frisby himself claimed that God used him to heal thousands of people, including, apparently, a girl with Down syndrome.

Then, Frisby believed, God instructed him to up the ante, in a very specific way.

Curtis Frisby, the oldest son from Neal Frisby's second marriage, remembers his father's cathedral being packed.
Martha Strachan
Curtis Frisby, the oldest son from Neal Frisby's second marriage, remembers his father's cathedral being packed.
Leroy Jenkins, who nearly took over Frisby's ministry just two years before Frisby died.
Martha Strachan
Leroy Jenkins, who nearly took over Frisby's ministry just two years before Frisby died.

"Jesus told me to get a large Gospel tent and leave California until he said to return," the evangelist would later write.

Frisby traveled with the tent for years: Alabama, Oklahoma, Ohio, Florida, all the while tormented by hurricanes, floods, even the occasional tornado.

"Some of the staff and people thought maybe that I had disobeyed the Lord in leaving California," Frisby wrote. "The Lord showed me one poor deluded devil [who] told his wife maybe a curse came." But there was no curse, Frisby wrote. Satan, he wrote, was trying to convince him he was on the wrong path.

It tested his faith. But, "when you pass the trial," he later concluded, "then you prosper and are blessed."

In the late '60s, God gave Frisby a new vision: Settle in the desert, build a cathedral.

By this time Frisby had married again, and was well on his way to having four more sons. The oldest of those four, Curtis, recalls that his parents didn't particularly want to be in Phoenix: "There was nothing here but rattlesnakes and rabbits."

But God had spoken, and what were rattlesnakes and rabbits but another test from Satan?

As it turns out, in this particular command, God showed a certain real estate genius. As Curtis Frisby explains, his father felt called to a particular part of town: Shea Boulevard, just west of Tatum Boulevard.

Years later, developers would hound the family, each trying to top the last offer. The acreage now sits only a few hundred feet from one of the priciest retail areas in the city.

But in 1968, it was virtually wilderness. I-10 hadn't been extended through Phoenix yet. State Route 51 wouldn't come for another three decades. Land was cheap, and Frisby was able not only to pay for a sizable plot, but to arrange for construction of the church he would dub the Capstone Auditorium and, later, the Capstone Cathedral.

With its glassy green pyramid top and low-slung walls, the cathedral might have been a spaceship, landed on a desert planet. But it was actually a modern auditorium that sat 4,000 — at a time when Neal Frisby's congregation consisted of his wife and kids.

Just as Frisby drew people on the road, though, he was soon drawing them to Phoenix. He advertised revival services on billboards and in the Arizona Republic; response was good enough to soon add regular services both Sunday evening and morning.

"People would stay for weeks," Curtis Frisby recalls. "We rented Greyhound buses to bring them in from the hotels."

Neal Frisby never had the respectability of, say, Billy Graham, and for the most part, his followers were not the well-to-do people who eventually moved to his neighborhood. A large portion of the congregation has always been black; at one point, many were driving in from Los Angeles.

Some people even moved to Phoenix just to be close to Frisby, including a number of pilgrims from Nigeria.

By 1980, Frisby was on TV, with both commercials and broadcast of his sermons. (Later in his career, Frisby was on satellite TV, which won him fans around the world and might explain those Nigerians.) His ministry also published 85 booklets of his sermons and issued a series of recordings on LP. By the 1980s, his associates claimed that the ministry boasted a mailing list of six million "partners."

Frisby worked obsessively. Curtis Frisby says they never once took a family vacation. And Neal never once took his kids fishing or played baseball with them.

"What you have to understand is that my dad believed so fully in what God had told him to do, to deliver this message," says Allen, today an electrician and rancher in Arkansas. "Everything else was secondary to him. Family life was secondary to him."

"I understood why he wasn't the typical dad, per se," Curtis says. "My dad had one purpose, and one thing to do — to follow what God called him to do."

It wasn't easy for the kids. It was one thing to adjust to their father's fame; it was another to understand how different their life was from most families'. It was, Curtis says, an "isolated" existence, and even in the family compound, their father often isolated himself from them.

It was hardest for Allen.

Even after Frisby started a second family and settled in Phoenix, he never reclaimed his oldest boy. Allen was raised by his grandparents. (Frisby did take custody of his only daughter.)

He was a boy without a father, even as his father became a famous presence on TV.

"Sure, it made me angry," says Allen, now 53. "He used to tell me, 'It may seem I don't care about you, but I have this very important thing that needs to be done.'"

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