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, ...

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