Sunday, August 30, 2009

Evangelism in the California Gold Rush

When I mentioned this paper I wrote during the first semester of the American History survey to a Facebook friend, she told me she would love to read it, so here it is, carefully retyped.


On January 24, 1848, gold was discovered in California. The discovery of gold came during an era in United States history when the force of evangelical Christianity was in operation along with that of the nation's Manifest Destiny, which was a charge to expand the reach and influence of American territory and ideals. Evangelicalism and imperialism were institutions that America's experience of the previous two centuries had informed in a unique way.

In this paper I will begin to explore the interaction between California Gold Rush mining camps and evangelicalism; I also will attempt to discern the particular style of evangelism that prevailed in the camps and mining towns.

An extraordinary amount has been written about the Gold Rush, but very little of what I had access to or found referenced was concerned specifically with religion and the Gold Rush. Because of this, I have drawn upon secondary sources that describe either the gold camps in general or religion in the San Francisco Bay area, and necessarily I have done a fair amount of speculation.

Some Historical Background

California had belonged to Mexico. The United States acquired it as a territory in 1848 at the end of the Mexican War, and in 1850 California was admitted to the Union as the thirty-first state.

Although California was not an issue in the 1844 presidential campaign, apparently a sudden interest in California had come about in 1843. One commentator mentions not only the key locations of San Francisco and Monterey, but especially the ineptness of Mexican rule, the fear of possible British expansion, and Manifest Destiny as arousing American interest.1 At that time, "the press fostered in every conceivable way the emigration to the coast." 2 The huge amount of underpopulated land must have drawn people, but so did deposits of silver, lead, gold and iron reputed to be abundant throughout the unexplored far Western territories.3 Here is a chart depicting California population growth from 1848 to 1860:
California Population

1848. . . . . . . . . 14,000
1849 (end). . . . 100,000
1852. . . . . . . . 250,000
1860. . . . . . . . 380,000
Some time earlier, in 1839, John A. Sutter had arrived in California from Switzerland and had acquired about 50,000 acres of land. On January 24, 1848 one of "Sutter's Men," James Marshall, a carpenter from New Jersey, discovered gold at Sutter's Mill at Colonna, a Sacramento territory on the American River.

Despite attempts to keep the discovery secret, by June many residents of San Francisco and Monterey were caught up in the quest for gold. By August, Gold Fever had reached all of California, Hawaii, Oregon and British Columbia; within the next few months it spread to Mexico, Peru, Chile and the rest of the United States. By 1849 virtually the entire known world knew about it.4

Newspapers were important in making known the discovery of gold. Correspondence to eastern newspapers was a significant factor: as alcaldes (mayors) and ministers wrote letters to the papers, their status gave credibility to rampant rumors regarding the quantity and the reality of the gold.

Gold Rush Participants and California Christianity

There appears to be general agreement on characteristics of the Gold Rush population. They were male, single, and fairly young; about half of them were American-born; there were a very few wives and children of the miners, and these mainly were in the towns.5 A lot of the argonauts – or goldseekers – went to California as members of an organized company or cooperative association, but almost inevitably these companies disintegrated on the trail or shortly after arrival at their destination. Most miners lived in pairs, a few lived singly or in larger groups—the groups were made up mostly of those from "common origins."6 By profession, miners were predominantly artisans, traders and unskilled laborers.

Mining FrontiersOne writer says there were always a few school teachers and ministers;7 another, that there were a disproportionate number of ministers: "one observer, doubtless exaggerating, estimated the preachers at one in ten."8 Also, California clergy were as much part of the Gold Rush as the Goldseekers: "The Gold Rush was simply the vehicle God had chosen for the evangelization of the whole world."9 . . . " [The preachers] imposed the Blue Law Gospel on mining society and prayed to strike a bonanza in souls."10 A goal was to "make California the Massachusetts of the Pacific."11 The sources cited above make no distinction between ministers who traveled to California with Goldseekers or as Goldseekers and those who were sent by denominations or other church groups. There were missionaries: the American Home Missionary Society commissioned and sent missionaries to California shortly after the initial discovery of gold.12 13

This describes only those ministers and preachers who were either sent to or drawn to California by Gold Fever, because the history of Christianity in California already was close to three hundred years old by the time of the Forty-Niners! In 1579 Francis Drake's chaplain read an Anglican service in California.14 Twenty-one Franciscan missions had been established in California from San Diego in the south to Sonoma in the north.15 In 1776, San Francisco (Yerba Buena) was established by the Spanish as a mission and presidio.16 However, by the mid-nineteenth century some missions had decayed, though some still were flourishing.17

In 1826, the Reverend Jedidiah Strong Smith, known as the "Bible Toter," was the first American to travel overland to California.18 The Reverend Walter Colton, the first resident minister in California, was Alcalde of Monterey beginning in 1846;19 in April 1847, two Methodist missionaries on their way to Oregon stopped at San Francisco and started a Sunday school.20 Also, before the end of 1847 (and prior to the discovery of gold), ministers acted as town officials, preached sermons, and started a few schools.21

Virtually all sources affirm the popular image of the Forty-Niners and their lifestyle as being – in most cases – at least close to the way things actually were. Every mining town had a commercial district that usually included bars, casinos, hotels, brothels, restaurants and dance halls, with bars apparently the main form of entertainment! One source says, "Unquestionably life in California's gold days was characterized by highly pathological conditions, even to the extent of social insanities."22 The same source mentions gambling as an obsession, says that everyone, including judges and ministers, gambled.23 Another speaks of "the tidal wave of iniquity which was gold rush California."24

There is evidence that as the Gold Rush got underway evangelism became a major activity in the San Francisco area. In a broad, fairly inclusive sense, evangelism can be defined as any activity undertaken with the intent of bringing people to Christianity. More specifically, the evangelical movement within nineteenth century Protestant American Christianity focused intensely on the redemptive person and work of Jesus Christ, on the Bible as the Word of God, and on the individual's relationship with God in and through Jesus Christ.

Revivals, Awakenings…In the goldmining areas, just as elsewhere in the United States at that time, the actual process of evangelism tended to take one of two forms: social and reform movements, such as temperance, abolitionism and sabbatarianism; and spoken proclamation of the Gospel, usually in the form of a sermon, most often in the context of a revival meeting. And quite surprisingly, in San Francisco and the surrounding area there also was an attempt to give "The Church" institutional forms analogous to those in the East through the building of physical facilities and the calling of ordained ministers to pastor the congregations that gathered around the buildings. Two or more congregations sharing the same building was not uncommon; surprising, too, is that seemingly most of the congregations were established under denominational, rather than independent aegis. Among these were Baptist (1849), Congregational (1849), Episcopal (1850) and Unitarian (1850) churches.25 No denominations of continental European origin appear to have been represented. Also, since the author of "Blue Law Gospel" cites many contemporary denominational periodicals, there must have been readers for them.

It was in more settled areas such as San Francisco, Monterey and Sacramento that congregations were gathered and established. The content of the ministry offered by and for these congregations is not altogether clear, though doubtless it included at least support for various reform movements, as well as preaching and more-or-less formally structured worship. In the available literature, casual references to Gold Rush towns seem to indicate that it was just a short ride from one town to another, although that was by no means the case, given that the actual physical distance from one locale to another made a journey for the purpose of attending worship out of the question.
Here are mileages between some points:

gold rush map
Mileages between some points

Monterey – Sacramento . . . . . 198
Monterey – San Francisco . . . . . 124
Monterey – Stockton . . . . . 139
Sacramento – San Francisco . . . . . 85
Sacramento – Stockton . . . . . 55
San Francisco – Stockton . . . . . 81
As one might expect from the evangelical tradition that had developed a convention of calls to individual repentance and conversion within the context of the revival meeting, it appears revival meetings were the chief form of evangelism within the Gold Camps, as well as a popular form of entertainment. And with the goal of bringing individuals – and through them, the whole society – into the kind of "right living" subscribed to by the assorted reform movements, representatives of reform movements, particularly of Sabbatarianism (dedicated to proper observance of the Sabbath, or Sunday), were quite active within the mining camps. Injunctions were directed against vices such as drinking, gambling, swearing, card-playing, prostitution, smoking, dancing and theater-going, primarily because of the tendency of people to break the Sabbath with these particular sins.26 Martin Marty says "they usually spoke first in terms of rescue (to save men from sin and a corrupt society) to be followed by repair of society through rescued individuals and finally through reform."27

In the camps six day weeks were the rule, a practice that was a response to the fourth commandment!28 Sunday was a day for various chores and amusements, as well as for attending camp meeting. John Walton Caughey describes camp congregations as "rough-looking but remarkably alert, attentive, and openhanded."29

The text of a diary highlighting the journey of a gold-seeker from Indiana to California refers to "Sabbath" a total of eighteen times. The entry for September 23, 1849, describes a Sabbath in one camp:
This is the first Sabbath I have been in the gold mines of California and I must acknowledge that the morals of the people are much better than I expected to find and we have been permitted to spend the day in peace & quietness though many are at work in the mines they are two or three miles from the encampment and do not appear to wish to disturb those who wish to observe the day; . . . the trip coming together with one years residence here will impair the constitution as much as ten years residence in any of the States . . . I am now convinced that I done very wrong in coming here with the hope of bettering my pecuniary condition alone and I now declare and humbly ask God to enable me to perform my promise that if I am again permitted to return [to] a land of peace and quietude that with the proceeds of honest industry I will strive to be content.30
It appears that many argonauts were responsive to being evangelized and "saved" but many were not. There is one reference to preachers preaching in bars in an effort to spread the Gospel,31 but in contrast, an argonaut is quoted as saying, "We are not burdened with religion here in California."32

Without differentiating between circuit riders and those called to serve a gathered local congregation, one writer says, "The pioneer preacher was far more than a preacher . . . It was incumbent upon him to become a public servant, with humane instincts, benevolent heart, ready to respond to any call for help from people of every station in life."33

There is no evidence of evangelism directed specifically toward any of the many ethnic groups that were part of the Gold Rush population.

Gold Rushers and United States Ideals

Goldseekers and evangelists each seem to represent a major aspect of the nineteenth-century American ethos. There is an stereotypical image of the American citizen – whether native-born or foreign-born – as one more concerned with ideals and "self-fulfillment" than with establishing roots in a given place.

Although early American colonists indeed were concerned enough with ideals to uproot themselves and move to a place in which they envisioned the fulfillment of their dreams, much of the driving force of early colonization actually was toward social cohesion and community—exemplified by the concept of covenant: the will of God and of the group for the common good. Although many of the miners were employed by others, the Forty-Niners' overriding passion appears to have been for personal (and private!) wealth, with no thought given to any larger, more extended community—least of all in the style of their lives in the gold camps. However, by the mid-nineteenth century the American ideal had gradually turned from the group to the individual and the Goldseekers almost perfectly exemplified this idea of individual fulfillment.

From the beginning, imperialism had been a major force and factor in American history, and whether to expand actual land holdings or to expand the influence of their own economic, religious or social ideals, Americans had a long history of believing their own ideas and ideals superior, and therefore of being justified in visiting them upon others. And for the most part, especially at mi-nineteenth century, Americans believed their mission was identical to that of establishing God's reign upon earth.

At the time of the Gold Rush, those who felt called to evangelize and convert the Goldseekers possessed, or were possessed by, a variety of imperialistic fervor that seems natural for that particular moment in American history: the tradition of imperialism and expansion had been unbroken since early colonial beginnings, and the Second Great Awakening (1800-1830 – an evangelical movement that informed virtually every aspect of culture in the United States) had been recent enough that its effects still were operative, particularly in the way conservative evangelical Christianity was fused with American nationalism. The far West was seen as another part of the Western Hemisphere to be explored and claimed for God by Protestants (Catholicism was not evangelical in style; therefore it didn't have the kind of authenticity Protestants attributed to their type of Christianity). The fruits of the Awakening also had generated many social and reform movements.

Here, too, there was continuity with an earlier, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century spirit and departure from it. In both these cases there is a consciousness of the "rightness" of Christianity, but although earlier the covenant community had been the focus and goal of bringing people into right relationship with God, in 1850, although revivals and evangelism were group phenomena, individuals and individual salvation were quite clearly the goal. This reflects the nineteenth-century Jacksonian ideal of freedom of the individual in contrast to the earlier concept to liberty for the community.

There is also an interesting relationship of gold-seekers and of evangelists to the dominant contemporary culture. At that point in time, America was starting to become an urban-industrial nation, its "becoming" fed by factors such as large and increasing labor supply, an increasing supply of production capital, and free enterprise. Undoubtedly, in the Jacksonian spirit, individual gain and profit would be a prime motivational factor in any entrepreneurial undertaking. Argonauts were caught in this spirit, and with the intention of short-circuiting all of the in-between steps and becoming instantly rich! Although there probably were people whose dream of immediate wealth was allied with a dream of using the wealth to finance industrial production or social good, we don't read about those individuals but only about those for whom gold was an end in itself.

Since even goldseekers who lived in groups or communally seem to have been solitary, and since the pursuit was almost inevitably that of the individual, the argonaut seems to have formed a caricature of the American of the era: a working-class or underclass self-starter who believed wealth was the answer to every problem and question.

The evangelists also appear to have formed a caricature – not so much as they related to American culture as a whole, since their style was so "American" for the time – but a caricature of the biblical Christian ideal for the Christian to be "in but not of the world." Although interpreting Christianity of past centuries can be problematic, one classical Christian stance has been that of interaction with the dominant culture, often in the form of social activism (another has been that of separatism and pietism).

Gold Rush evangelists saw themselves as social reformers, and they believed preaching the Gospel and reform activities were God's call to them, but their activities were inseparably yoked with the rest of American culture. On one side, as they saw the evangelical imperative to spread the Gospel as part of the American vision and of the American imperative to extend American control and influence, there was little differentiation between evangelicalism and contemporary culture. On the other side, because the social and culture milieu of the Forty-Niners was perceived as needing reform, evangelists in the Gold Rush were given reason to be and to act because of the particular conditions in the mining areas. Thus, evangelists formed a complement to the mining culture as well as being in alliance with the general American ethos. But this may not be particularly significant, since historically Christianity has tended to become allied with, and not infrequently identified with, the dominant culture, while still retaining some form of "prophecy" in order to justify the name Christian.

The California Gold Rush evangelists' brand and style of Christianity existed both because of customs and evolution in American life and because of the lifestyle in the mining camps. The form they gave their interpretation of biblical Christianity was definitely American, although probably informed to an extent by biblical ideals. Nonetheless, social reform movements, revival meetings, denominations, and the autonomous local congregation all were exclusively American institutions, as was voluntarism in all these undertakings.

Both argonauts and evangelists were part of the American conviction that life, and this world, can be better. Goldseekers were looking for an out-of-the-ordinary experience; evangelists tried to draw them out of the out-of-the-ordinary and back into the American way.


Caughey, John Walton. The California Gold Rush. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1948.

Ghent, Jocelyn Maynard. "The Golden Dream and the Press: Illinois and the California Gold Rush of '49." Illustrated. Journal of the West, 17:17-27, April 1978.

Graebner, Norman A. "American Interest in California, 1845." Illustrated, bibliographical footnotes. Pacific Historical Review, 22:13-27, February 1953.

Hanchett, William. "The Blue Law Gospel in Gold Rush California." Bibliographical footnotes. Pacific Historical Review, 24:361-368, November 1955.

Hunt, Rockwell D. "Pioneer Protestant Preachers of Early California." Pacific Historical Review, 16:84-96, February 1949.

Kirkby, Dianne. "Gold and the Growth of a Metropolis." Illustrated, map. Journal of the West, 17:3-15, April 1978.

Mann, Ralph. "The Decade after the Gold Rush: Social Structure in Grass Valley and Nevada City, California, 1850-1860." Pacific Historical Review, 41:484-504, November 1972.

Marty, Martin E. Righteous Empire: The Protestant Experience in America. New York: The Dial Press, 1970.

Mattes, Merrill J., editor. "Alexander Ramsey's Gold Rush Diary of 1849." Pacific Historical Review, 18:437-468, November 1949.

McLoughlin, William G. Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform. An Essay on Religion and Social Change in America, 1607-1977. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

Paul, Rodman Wilson. Mining Frontiers of the Far West, 1848-1880. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963.


1 J.M. Ghent, "Golden Dream and the Press," Journal of the West, volume 17, pages 13-14.
2 Ibid., page 23.
3 R.W. Paul, Mining Frontiers of the Far West, 1848-1880. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963), page 23.
4 Ibid., pages 12-14.
5 R. Mann, "The Decade after the Gold Rush," Pacific Historical Review, volume 41, page 500.
6 Ibid., page 487.
7 Paul, op. cit., page 17.
8 J.W. Caughey, The California Gold Rush (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1948), page 272.
9 W. Hanchett, "The Blue Law Gospel in Gold Rush California," Pacific Historical Review, volume 24, page 363.
10 Ibid.
11 Ibid.
12 R.D. Hunt, "Pioneer Protestant Preachers of Early California," Pacific Historical Review, volume 18, page 87.
13 Hanchett, loc. cit.
14 Caughey, op. cit., page 270.
15 Hunt, op. cit., page 86.
16 D. Kirkby, "Gold and the Growth of a Metropolis," Journal of the West, volume 17, page 4.
17 Caughey, op. cit., page 272.
18 Hunt, op. cit., page 85.
19 Caughey, op. cit., page 270.
20 Ibid., pages 270-271.
21 Ibid., page 271.
22 Hunt, op. cit., page 84.
23 Ibid.
24 Hanchett, loc. cit.
25 Hunt, op. cit., pages 87-95.
26 Hanchett, op. cit., page 362.
27 M.E. Marty, Righteous Empire (New York: Dial Press, 1970), page 95.
28 Caughey, op. cit., page 187.
29 Ibid.
30 M.J. Mattes, editor, "Alexander Ramsey's Gold Rush Diary of 1849," Pacific Historical Review, volume 18, pages 466-467.
31 Caughey, op. cit., page 274.
32 Hanchett, op. cit., page 364.
33 Hunt, op. cit., page 87.

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