IN GOLD WE TRUST – Christianity in the California Gold Rush

This is an academic look at the men and women who came with the ’49er’s to share a different kind of treasure. I am deeply indebted to Dr. Richard Hanchett of San Diego for his previous work.  The painting above is “Sunday Morning in the Mines” by Charles Nahl and can currently be found in the Crocker Museum in Sacramento, California.

Monday morning came cold and clear to James Marshall’s work crew. They were building a saw mill on the American River at Coloma, about 50 miles east of where their boss, John Sutter, made his home, in Sacramento, California.
Despite human occupation for millennia in the foothills of what we now call the Sierra Nevada and the value that these occupants had put on gold for centuries, it wasn’t until January 24, 1848, that Marshall’s crew found a few, tiny nuggets. The announcement of this discovery made its way to the more populated eastern United States, and to the rest of the world, beginning the largest voluntary human migration in the history of mankind.
Along with the dreamers who had heard tales of instant wealth, came the “Christian Soldiers” – missionaries, ministers, their wives and lay preachers whose duty it was to share the gospel with these 500,000 fortune hunters; to preach to them of the wonders of Christ and how they should “not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, . . . where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven. . .” (Matt. 6:19-20).
This is their story.

After lying barely hidden for centuries, why was gold suddenly discovered now, when California was now part of the United States, having passed through the governments of Mexico and Spain and the Native Americans before this time? And it wasn’t just at a fledgling sawmill in the foothills. Seven months later, on July 4, John Bidwell, a friend of Sutter’s, created his own (financial) Independence Day when he made one of the richest strikes of the Gold Rush. His strike was on the Feather River about 70 miles north, while Pearson B. Reading found gold in the Trinity River, about 150 miles beyond Bidwell’s strike. But, again, why now?
At the time, Minister E.L. Cleaveland asked “Why, Sir, why were the immense treasures of California hidden from all the world, even from the keen-scented Spaniard, until she was annexed to this Republic? And tell me, if anyone can, why it was that the title deed of transference had no sooner passed into our hands, then she gave up her mighty secret, and unlocked her golden gate. Is it possible not to see the hand of God in all this?”
In the 1849 report of the American Baptist Home Mission Society, it is written that the timing of the discovery of gold in California is “evidence of a special plan of God by which the heathen nations of the world could be converted to Christ . . . To think otherwise ‘. . . would evince a narrow view of the purposes of Him who has drawn these multitudes of Pagans to our shores.’”

Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists and the other organized churches were just as anxious to mine the gold of unsaved souls as the miners themselves were to mine the more tangible rewards waiting for them in California.
Although it was the Protestant churches in the east that sent the vast bulk of preachers to California, the first missionary to arrive as a direct result of the Gold Rush came from the opposite direction – the Hawaiian Islands! Presbyterian Minister Timothy Dwight Hunt followed the flow of fortune-seeking islanders to California, arriving in October, 1948. In San Francisco, he was asked to conduct non-denomination services and was given the “curious title” of chaplain of San Francisco.
The Catholic Church already had a stronghold in California, mostly along the southern and coastal areas of the state, but there was one church in Sacramento. During the Gold Rush, the priests and others working under the banner of the Catholic Church focused less on evangelism and more on maintaining the piety of those already confirmed in the faith, which was mostly the Mexican and French miners.
Churches had difficulty finding suitably qualified men to make the journey west and maintaining their physical and spiritual strength. The trip was an arduous one and some volunteers were rejected because they couldn’t convince the missionary board that they could make it. Others were found wanting to take this adventure at the expense of the Mission Society’s, likely abandoning the scripture for the sluice box once they arrived in the gold fields. When mentioned at all, documentation differs on how well the preachers were received in the gold country. Hanchett writes that “Many diaries . . . contain no mention of religion or religious services. Writers of others are personally indifferent to religion, but think that clergymen exert a beneficial influence on society.”
William Swain, whose diary is used as the basis for the book “The World Rushed In”, writes “Religion and religious services, like everything else in California, is singular and unnatural. There is preaching occasionally by some Doctor of Divinity or gold-hunting minister; but all denominational cast or character is kept carefully out of view-in sort, it is a kind of mongrel preaching, a little of everything and not much of anything. . .”
Another unflattering picture of the Preacher-Gold Miner could come right out of a scene from the movie “Paint Your Wagon.” “On the occasion of the death of a miner a preacher turned miner was called upon to officiate; while he was praying at the grave, all the miners reverently on their knees, some of the crowd idly let the newly dug earth run through their fingers and then discovered that it was rich with gold. Upon the minister-miner discovering it he hastily dismissed the service, the body was removed from the grave where it had been lowered, and the minister and congregation joined feverishly in prospecting and taking out the new diggings.” We can only hope the minister didn’t say “haul him out!” with the body being flung far from the former gravesite!
Most Gold Rush preachers, however, fared better in history. “Father” David Thompson is much revered by his church as the first preacher to arrive in California, in 1848, as a representative of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ. Though Reverend Thompson was the initial member of the church to come, many followed, along with “quite a number of laymen . . . who were loyal to God and the church.”
Itinerant preachers usually had no trouble in finding a congregation to share their message. They would usually ask the proprietor of the largest building in the town for its use, permission for which was almost always granted. This was true even if, as was usually the case, the largest building in town was a saloon. A Sunday sermon was usually allowed by the barkeep, despite the reduction it may have on the Sunday trade and the rare disruption from an inebriated soul, inquiring, perhaps indelicately, as to what was going on. A wise preacher knew not to take advantage of the keeper’s generosity and would find a more suitable structure if he intended to stay a while.
Even if a building was not available, preachers, priests and missionaries would find a place to speak the word; beneath a canopy of fir trees or beside a crystal creek – what better place to spread the joy of God’s gifts? These preachers could either be traveling ministers or mining clergyman, who would also serve at funerals or other religious events.
A great number of preachers found that they could ply their spiritual trade with a Bible in one hand and a spade in the other. The Reverend Walter Colton, a chaplain and alcalde of Monterey, known to try his hand at mining, never forgot to share the gospel, even when only a handful of listeners would gather. William Hatch was sent as a chaplain for a mining company, but never got a chance to work in that capacity, the company breaking up before it even began operations. Nonetheless, Hatch took Bible in hand and, in 1849, preached to his fellow miners, being recognized for living the word as well as speaking it. Others spreading the gospel may not have been ordained or even trained in the theology, but were simply good men who owned a Bible and had the need to share its contents.
Hanchett says it best in the effectiveness of the preacher-miner. “Talk of God over pan or cradle, however, and preaching about riches in heaven to men not finding them in California had the same effect as the tolling of church bells on Sunday morning. Reminded of home, men began to act as if they were home.”
Those who were formally sent by their churches to preach the gospel had two goals in mind; social and religious improvement. They felt it was their moral duty to keep the sheep away from the many vices that accompanied the quest for gold.
The transitory nature of the gold miner – going wherever the next strike was found – made the building of churches difficult in the early years of the Rush. Street preaching and camp meetings, so successful in the east, did not have the same results in California. Until gold mining became less of an adventure and more of a job, with its incumbent stability, permanent church buildings in the Gold Country were few and far between.
Those churches that did exist could not boast of large memberships but could certainly claim a large congregation. Silas S. Harmon led a Presbyterian service in Sonora. Though the membership rolls were stuck at 30, Harmon would preach to a hundred souls and twice had to seek larger quarters. Generally speaking, this percentage held true, with a church having twice or treble the amount of worshippers as it would find on its membership list.

Membership was on the minds of all the major denominations and it seemed that it was just as important to bring people to Christ as it was to bring them to their Christ, be he Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, or any of the other Christian faith.
The list of Christian Churches which sent missionaries and ministers reads like the Saturday religious page of the Sacramento Bee; a Methodist Mission Society and its schismed brother, the Southern Methodists, Episcopalians, Baptists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Cambellites, Catholics, Mormons , Church of the United Brethren in Christ and others.
There was cooperation amongst the Christian brothers in the sharing of pulpits to traveling preachers, joining together to form common societies, such as temperance meetings and opening their doors to new congregations which did not have standing structures of their own. One reason for this policy was the distance in miles and attitude from the brethren’s stricter and less flexible eastern cousins. Differences and wrongs that have been ingrained for years don’t exist in the new west and each discussion is new, based on new ideas, opportunities, and challenges.
But the competition between denominations still existed. A Baptist clergy wrote that lost opportunities “. . . will result in loss to ourselves as a denomination.” Church-goers in San Francisco noticed the progress made in other churches and asked, “Where is the Episcopal missionary spirit?” Isaac Owen, of the Methodist Missionary Society, stressed the importance of being the first to build a church in a community. When a second denomination wants to build a second church, they “will have twice the trouble to build (that) the first have,” while a Congregationalist wrote home to ask why there is no Congregational minister “north of Marysville, while the Methodist are sending theirs into every mining town. . . . More than half of the people here have been attending this and the Presbyterian Church and would give two dollars when they give one.”

During the first few years after California’s 1850 admission as the 31st state of these United States, Protestant church leaders were beset with a number of challenges, chief amongst them the lack of women members. A Gold Rush camp was a male dominated society, and with it came all the “diseases” of maleness – coarse behavior, brutality, homesickness, lack of respect and the other animalistic expressions that may arise.
Women played a major role in the growth of the church in the Gold Rush era, primarily due to their scarcity. When women did arrive, those who were not “working girls” were often the wives of ministers and added much to the community. In 1854, a miner wrote that “One true, pure woman is worth a volume of sermons. . .” Elisha Crosby writes in her diary that “as women and children became more common, men were reminded of home and began to take pains in the way they dressed and to act like gentlemen.”
In 1852, the presence of women is credited for the increase in religious activities, higher forms of entertainment, the elevated tone of conversation and amusement and the shaming away of vice. A respectable woman was treated with great attention and deference. Those women who used the scarcity of females for their own financial gains earned money, but a decent women earned respect. “Old or rich” wrote the world traveler, Ida Pfeiffer, in 1853, “well- or ill-dressed, every woman was treated with respect and kindness” and even “the most vulgar blackguard (would) abstain from swearing in the presence of a lady. . .”
Women made churches community centers, giving a place for the 49er who left his Mother and Sweetheart at home to pursue his material fortune. By having a wife by his side, the pastor was able to not only have a help-mate in his many responsibilities, but to give the bachelor miners a vision of a home.
A monograph is written on the special burdens a pastor’s wife must carry. From the day a Pastor’s wife enters the parish, she is a marked woman. Her dress is expected to be of the most saintly pattern. The color of ribbon may endanger the peace of the whole community . . . She must be the best woman in the world, the head of all benevolent enterprises, Sunday schools, ladies fairs. . ., sewing circles, Bible classes, etc. She must be the politest woman in the world, receiving calls at all times and visiting from house to house, and making herself generally agreeable. She must be the most exemplary woman in the world, never laughing above the prescribed key. In short, she must be the paragon of all excellence, and possess a constitution like a horse, patience like an ox, and good nature like a puppy. . . (She) is to ‘cotton’ to the caprices, tastes, and prejudices of the parish, without a farthing’s consideration.
Because many pastors were given limited salary and expected to make up the difference on their own, it was essential that they start a church as quickly as possible. A wife, along with other women in the church, proved to be invaluable, as they “distracted men from saloons and attracted them to church.” Women were also invaluable in the perennial and omnipresent fund-raiser, the “church fair,” beginning with the first church fair in California, held by the women of the Presbyterian Church (Old School) in San Francisco. Hanchett writes that “church fairs were so popular and so remunerative that they were probably held in every Protestant primary church, as well as in many secondary churches.

The Gold Rush era was not a godless or godforsaken place in history, but was a rich opportunity for Christians to reach out to the unsaved, who had been brought together by God’s hand and a sawyer into as large a congregation as one could imagine. Though there were scoundrels in shepherd’s guise, most men of the cloth preached true and hard, spreading the good news at every opportunity. They were assisted by their sisters in Christ and together brought the hopeless, the lost and the unsaved into God’s house.


James Russell Davis “A history of the Evangelical United Brethren Church in California 1849-1962” (University of Southern California June 1963)
William F. Hanchett, Jr. “Christianity in the Gold Rush Era – Summary of the Dissertation” (University of California, Berkeley 1952)
J.S. Holliday, The World Rushed In – The California Gold Rush Experience (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1981)
William Mead Muhler, “Religion and social problems in Gold Rush, California: 1849-1869. (Graduate Theological Union, 1989)
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