Forty-Niner Faith

STANDING ON A HILL overlooking San Francisco in 1849, adventurer Bayard Taylor saw scattered houses, a crowded harbor, distant mountains, and the “restless, feverish tide of life in that little spot.” He added, “Every new—comer in San Francisco is overtaken with a sense of complete bewilderment. . . . One knows not whether he is awake or in some wonderful dream.”

What Taylor did not mention was the presence of churches or ministers in this busy scene. Evangelical religion, it seemed, did not figure in the community life of the thousands of forty-niners and others who flocked to the Pacific Coast between 1848 and 1856. Yet the California Gold Rush was one of the most morally significant events of nineteenth-century American life, and it had a lasting influence on the coast’s religious expression.

Rocky spiritual soil

When Christians in the East and Midwest heard about the California gold strike, they invested it with great religious importance. To some it signaled the hand of Providence, dictating individual, family, and national destiny. Maine pastor George Shepherd asked, “Does it not seem as if Providence had been keeping these regions from the attention of the great nations until a thoroughly Protestant people could occupy them?” Ministers preached sermons to departing adventurers to stay true to their faith while mining. Mothers (like that of New Yorker William Swain, who left for California in April 1849), marked passages in their sons’ Bibles to read while away.

Some Western migrants reveled in their newfound freedom from the discipline that had characterized life back home. But others lamented their inability to observe the Sabbath and take part in spiritual community. Methodist merchant Peter Decker complained one Sunday, “This is an unpleasant day to me; stores all open and is contrary to my feelings to do business on Sunday, but could not close here as this is the business day of all others. So I spend the day in the store.”

California was a difficult place to preserve one’s faith fully intact. The mix of peoples from all over the world, plus a common desire to “get rich quick and get out,” made community life (religious or otherwise) exceedingly fragile. The earliest mining techniques required miners constantly to seek another site. Men moved with the seasons between the larger cities of San Francisco and Sacramento and the mining areas to the east.

The dearth of women was also a problem. Like most evangelical Protestants at mid-century, forty-niners saw women as "naturally” pious, invested with the task of keeping men on the straight and narrow path of righteousness. Without wives and mothers to urge them to attend church, miners, the majority of whom were under the age of 30, did not see the point of going to church—even if they could find one. “The miner has not the society of the home circle to cheer and enliven him,” lamented one miner. “He has no longer the friends, the innocent recreation to which he has been accustomed. On the Sabbath morning, no church is open.”

Established denominations sent only a few pastors to California, and those who arrived struggled to survive the high cost of living and rough forty-niner culture. C. M. Welles sized up one “dignified young graduate of the eastern seminary—clad in garments of spotless black,” noting, “The poor man was as helpless with his theology and his ways, as if he had come to swim in the ocean with fetters on.”

The result was small, underfunded churches surrounded by a host of temptations unknown in eastern towns: saloons, brothels, and gambling houses, all open on Sundays and fueled by the wealth of those profiting most from the mineral rush. Evangelical leaders could hardly compete, either financially or psychologically, with the immediate allure of these attractions.

As one Baptist preacher observed, “I love my work but have never seen a harder task than to get a man to look through a lump of gold into eternity. It is more like beating the air, like contending with the elements, like confining the tide or stilling the tempest, than I have hitherto supposed could possibly exist.”

Do—it—yourself religion


Despite their surroundings, most forty—niners were not irreligious men. They came to the Pacific Coast to make their fortunes and go home, not to stay and build a future. Thrust into a world that was unfamiliar, chaotic, and filled with new attractions, these argonauts often did their best to preserve evangelical values. Still, in a “world turned upside down,” religious life looked different.

John Doble, a forty—niner from Indiana, was in his early twenties when he and a friend agreed to travel west. Although never much of a churchgoer, Doble worried constantly in his diary about the state of his soul and the moral value of his behavior. “I am not a church member,” he wrote, “but never interfere with those who wish to be. . . . I take for my religion the words of Christ, ‘As ye would that others should do unto you, etc.’ And I do try to live up to it, but I sometimes fail in it, which is nothing but human.”

Doble and others like him had little interest in church buildings, or even in contributing to the development of local religious communities. Much to the chagrin of evangelical ministers, who tried to construct spiritual life during the gold rush on the model of midwestern and eastern small towns, the California forty—niners experienced religion as something private and intensely personal. Surrounded by people of different faiths, and in rapid motion themselves, they worried less about formal creeds and more about individual piety and spiritual experience—no matter the source.

In July 1853 Doble went to hear a Mormon speaker, attended an “exhibition of Spiritual Manifestations,” and witnessed the performance of a traveling necromancer. He also had a phrenological examination that charted the contours of his head (a common form of therapy in the nineteenth century). None of these pursuits seemed at odds with his occasional churchgoing, which took him to all four churches in town, including the Catholic church. Doble felt all these activities contributed to his moral well-being.

By the 1860s, life in California began to stabilize. Women and families from the East joined their husbands, rudimentary mining gave way to mining techniques that rendered workers a steady wage, and ministers eventually built churches, schools, and congregations that became self-supporting. Protestant religious community was born, and clergy could return to preaching in churches rather than seeking souls in the gulches and riverbeds of the Sierra Nevada.

Yet the Pacific Coast remained religiously distinctive in both its perils and its promise. As one Methodist leader put it, “California is so full of contradictions in herself, so new, so gigantic, that none at a distance can comprehend the field.” CH

By Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #66 in 2000]

Laurie Maffly-Kipp is associate professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of Religion and Society in Frontier California (Yale University Press, 1994).
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