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The Story of Early Baptist History in California
By O. C. Wheeler, D. D., L.L.D.
Prepared at the Request of Californai Baptist Historical Society, 1888
And read before the Society at Sacramento, April 13, 1889
Herald of Truth, May 1, 1889

Part I

This society was called to order by the President, Rev. O. C. Wheeler, LL.D. Prayer was offered by Dr. J. B. Saxton, of Vacaville. President Wheeler then called Dr. G. S. Bailey to the chair. The order of the day was a paper on early Baptist history in California, by Dr. Wheeler. If there is a man on our coast, or in our country, who has a history, that man is the very pioneer of all evangelical ministers on the Pacific Coast. His address was one no else on earth could have delivered, it was a masterly presentation of history as romantic and stirring as any in the annals of man. Dr. Wheeler has been more history than most men ever read. He was made a life member of the society. On motion of Rev. A. J. Frost the following resolution was adopted:

Resolved: That this body return a hearty vote of thanks to Rev. O. C. Wheeler, LL. D., for his able, exhaustive and painstaking record of important events in the Baptist History of California.
Resolved: that this expression of appreciation be made by a rising vote.


Friday morning the devotional exercises were led by G. S. Bailey. Rev. O. C. Wheeler, D. D., LL.D., the President of the California Baptist Historical Society, called the Society to order, and prayer was offered by Rev. J. B. Saxton, D. D. of Vacaville. In the absence of the Vice President, Rev. W. H. Pendleton, D. D., the President called on G. S. Bailey, D. D., to preside while he, Dr. Wheeler, delivered the annual address, which was a review of the early Baptist history of California. This address, delivered by the pioneer Baptist of this coast, and occupying nearly two hours, was the richest document of its kind we ever heard; and by turns, it moved the audience to enthusiastic applause, and then melted them to tears. It was simply amazing that this venerable pioneer could thus review the work of forty years with such thrilling interest, and hand over to Dr. Hartwell, the Secretary, as he did, pamphlet after pamphlet, and document after document, thus preserving so much of the early history of California Baptists. These documents would make a volume of 500 pages. We expect to give this address, but not the documents to the readers of the California Baptist as soon as our columns are a little relieved from their present pressure. The like of it can never be repeated in California or elsewhere. When Dr. Frost asked the Society to give a vote of thanks to Dr. Wheeler by rising, the profound feeling evinced by choking hearts and moistened eyes, told how deep and sincere was the unanimous response.

Among the documents handed to the Secretary was a bound volume of the first Baptist newspaper published in California.

Dr. Wheeler was made a life member of the Historical Society and a large number of annual members were enrolled. Rev, O. C. Wheeler, D. D., LL.D., was reelected President; Rev. W. H. Pendleton, D. D., Vice President, and Rev. J. B. Hartwell, D. D., Secretary and Treasurer. The Society appointed Rev. J. B. Saxton, D. D., to present [a] historic paper next year.

History is an account of past events. It may be preserved in memory, and communicated orally, or in painting, sculpture, hieroglyphics and written language for individual study. Memory is unwritten history. But for history, all the past would be a blank, its lessons and achievements blotted out, and the world to us as though it had never been. Each day of toil and every effort of life would be an experiment, and the whole world would have to begin anew every morning. But history, like the orb of day, ascending from the Horizon to the Zenith, illuminates the entire area of human existence, sustaining by the facts of the past, the hopes of the future.

As the storms of the elements during the ages, have beaten upon and disintegrated the granite rocks and auriferous ledges of the mountain tops, releasing the particles of fine gold, and allowing them to be washed down into the gorges and ravines and crevices, whence the toiling miner, extricating them, enriches himself, aids in the development of his country's wealth, and enlarges the commerce of the world, so practical history segregates the important facts and precious truths of the past, and places them where the student, the scholar, the philosopher can so gather and arrange them as to constitute a mirror of previous time, with all its varied and innumerable transpirings, reflecting upon each day of the present, and of the future, as it passes, all the advancement in knowledge, and attainment in art, and development in science that the mind and the hand of man have wrought during the cycles of past duration.

Like all other terrestrial things history is imperfect. In its continuance, it is far from being an unbroken chain. Its links have been dissevered, and its fragments lie scattered all along the highway of time. We are taught to refer to, and believe in an "Historic Period" covering the few thousand years since the invention of letters and the use of written language, which is supposed to be continuous and legible, all the way. But is it so? Go with me to the shore of the Pacific, and look westward; is there anything to interfere with the boundless view? Does it not seem perfect? But let us go instead of merely looking westward, and we shall soon see multiplied groups of islands, towering toward heaven, and stretching to the right and left until they shut out all further view in that direction. All beyond is to us, as though it were not. But pass around the group on either hand, and another boundless view expands before us. This we may repeat and repeat, until we give up in utter weariness, despairing of finding any expanse unbroken. So in the pursuit of history, we often are confronted with darkness which mortal vision cannot penetrate, chasms that no mortal power can span.

But on, on beyond, another vast expanse, bridged by time, we find another historical epoch, bordering the era of pyramids and monoliths and sculpture and hieroglyphs and paintings, and these lead us back to the morning of creation and place us in the back door of time looking into a past eternity.

History is imperfect in its character also. All historians - says an eminent literary philosopher - seem to record the great rather than the good deeds of men, thus leaving half the truth untold; the omissions rendering the whole a series of imperfections and, in a measure, unreliable.

Still, with all its imperfections, history is absolutely invaluable, which should incite every intelligent person to record each fact as it transpires, and every event that is recognized; that all may eventually be found in the great storehouse of knowledge, and form the basis of universal history.

A few weeks since, I sent a book - a California production - to a gentleman in one of the Atlantic States. He is a man of broad intellect and thorough culture, a literarian of rich and ripe attainments, for many years an ornament to the New York bar. I have just received from him the following, referring to the book. He says, "I thought, upon its receipt, I would give it a more thorough perusal, and then, perhaps, express an opinion of it, when acknowledging its receipt. At leisure intervals I have gone through it. It is indeed a superb volume. Its contents are exceedingly interesting in many ways. The historical sketch of the application of steam power in the Pacific; the achievements of the Pacific Mail Steam-Ship Company; the voyage of the pioneer steamer "California," are all interesting; and the graphic incidents, attending the passengers on her, and on the "Falcon," and the crossing of the Isthmus; their various experiences, and their biographical sketches, are, in many instances, highly dramatic.

I write, as you see, on the fortieth anniversary of the advent of these "Pioneers" on the Pacific shore; and in contemplating the account given of it, in this volume, the profoundest considerations are pressed upon the mind. "Gold had slept in the bosom of these mountains, from time immemorial. Spanish occupants of the country had been there a century or more, apparently content with a few vines, and pastoral herds, never dreaming of the hidden gold, nor caring for the richer agricultural wealth of the soil. These pioneers evoked those elements, and transformed a barbarous wilderness into a highly civilized commonwealth; an achievement unparalleled in the annals of man.

"The 'May-Flower' landed her 'Pilgrims' on Plymouth Rock, 200 years before these pioneers entered the 'Golden Gate,' and the results of that event have since been celebrated as a marvel of modern civilization. But, excepting the promulgation of certain religious tenets, they can no more be compared with the work of these California pioneers, in celebrity of action, in breadth and scope of achievement, in the great march of human progress, than the State of Massachusetts can geographically compare with California. No more than the old mail stage coach can compare with today's telegram."

Now, if the views of this writer are well founded - and the facts surely seem to warrant them - then we are fully justified in using the events occurring on this coast since the year 1849, as the basis of a distinct chapter in history.

You have asked me to give you "A Paper on the Early History of Baptists in California." A territory of vast proportions, more than equal to all New England, New York, and New Jersey combined, during a period of forty years from the initial point of its growth; a time and place more full of inventive genius and energized activity, more rapid in commercial development, more diversified in population, more progressive in everything that constitutes national greatness that the world has elsewhere seen.

From the hour you presented this request I have been averse to attempting the task. First - because I knew that a paper sufficiently full to give any sort of satisfaction to either you or myself, would necessarily consume more time in its reading than your patience would quietly endure.

Second - more than twenty years ago I was appointed by the San Francisco Association to do the very work I now have in hand. But I knew then, as I know now, and as you know, that no man, forced to the front as I was, and compelled for nearly two years to stand entirely alone, and for a long time after that often worse than alone, contending with evil in every form, and of every class, and on every hand, and conquering at night, only to be re-attacked in the morning, not only by open enemies, but by that worst of all foes, "false brethren," can give a fair account of the transpiring of the times, without bringing himself more prominently to view than would be agreeable to any one of common modesty. After being re-appointed three times, and declining the service for three successive years, it was for a long time abandoned. But the circumstances under which your appointment came, seemed to make the demand almost imperative, and I yielded, with the determination to write only the things that are essential, condense as much as possible, and leave the time it takes to read it, to battle with your patience.

I also resolved to go forward, telling the facts as I know them to have transpired, hoping that the mollifying influences of the gospel, during a quarter of a century, may have so softened and subdued human infirmities, that the least possible offense may be given.

And furthermore, to free myself as far as may be from the restraints of all false modesty, and write of myself and my own acts as I would of any other.

In all this account of churches and organizations the statements refer only to the work of the modern Protestant churches; having no reference whatever to the ancient works and present ruins of the Catholics.

In order to understand and appreciate a work done and results obtained, we must know something of the circumstances surrounding the work when it was begun, as well as the facilities for its execution and the obstacles to its progress.

California was a territory of vast area - recently a State of the Mexican Republic. Civilization and semi-barbarism were about equally prevalent.

Everything was controlled by the Catholics. Their great day of relaxation and amusement was the Sabbath. After morning "Mass" the day was largely devoted to such rude and barbarous sports as bullfighting, bear-baiting, horse racing, and the exercises of the cockpit. In all the broad land there was no church organization, no religious, moral, social, literary or scientific organization of any kind. There was no public library, no infirmaries, no asylums for the dumb, blind and helpless; none of those institutions that spring up indigenous to a pure Christianity; not one.

The term "early" in this connection, indicates the time beginning with the influx of population consequent upon the discovery of gold; more especially dating at the beginning of immigration from the eastern States, inaugurated by the arrival of the first steamship, in February of 1849.

The beginning of the work of "Early Baptists in California," a historical sketch of which you now require at my hand, was so entirely different from any other missionary work attempted by our denomination, in this or any other land, that it seems eminently fitting, if not demanded, that in a paper of this kind the facts of its origin should be presented with more than ordinary detail.

On the first of November, 1848, as pastor of the First Baptist Church in Jersey City, N. J., I attended, at the First Baptist Church of New York, the usual Monday morning "Minister's meeting." While the exercises were in progress, a messenger from the rooms of the American Baptist Home Missionary Society, which were immediately overhead, whispered in my ear, "Dr. Hill, the Secretary wishes to see you in his room." I went immediately; he took a seat at my side, laid his hands on my shoulder, and without any preliminary remark said: "We want you to go to California as our pioneer missionary." I replied: "I have been here, in Jersey City less than a year, and the work has so developed, and is now in such progress that I would not exchange my pulpit for any other in the United States. I cannot go, sir." To this the Secretary responded: "It is because things are in such shape in your church and work, that we want you to go to California, and we think you must." My positive reply was: "No, sir; I will not leave."

This interview was daily repeated, with such variations in motives presented as the Secretary and his associates thought best adapted to secure their object, for sixteen days. During this time numbers of the most influential clergymen of the denomination brought all the power of their influence to bear upon me, among whom was the venerable Dr. S. H. Cone, pastor of the First Church in New York and President of the Society proposing to send me out, who, after exerting all his powers to convince me of the greatness of the work and my personal duty to undertake it, stopped short and said: "But do you know where you are going my brother? I would rather go as a missionary to China or Cochin-China, than to San Francisco. Don't you stir step, my brother, unless you are prepared to go to the darkest spot on earth," a statement of which I was often reminded by the scenes through which I was called to pass in subsequent years, and on the morning of the sixteenth day, after a night of prayer, without sleep, and at the close of an unusually earnest and agonizing season of family devotions, a burden as distinct as that which rolled from the shoulder of Bunyan's Pilgrim, at the foot of the cross, was removed from my shoulders, and my wife and I arose simultaneously and without the interchange of a word, both broke out in the song:

"To God I'm reconciled;
His pardoning voice I here;
He owns me for His child,
I will no longer fear."

In an hour I had informed the Secretary. He replied; "Thank God; I knew it would be so. Let us go to the steamer and secure your stateroom." After the room was selected, the Secretary addressing the captain, said, "You sail as per advertisement, December 20th, I suppose." The captain replied, "No, orders are changed; we shall sail December 1st." Is that positive?" said the Secretary. "Positive," replied the captain. The Secretary, with sad countenance, turned to me and said, "Then you cannot go; you cannot get ready." "Yes, sir," I replied. "After what I have endured, to yield this point? I would rather go tomorrow morning than give it up, and have the Baptists fail to be as early in the field as the foremost." "But you wife will have to remain; she certainly cannot get ready." I said, "She will," and she did.

Thus the first missionary, the sole representative of the denomination, then numbering more than a million of communicants, was chosen and dispatched to his field.

In the fourteen days which preceded the sailing of the steamer I resigned my pastorate, closed up all my business for life (it was not expected that I would ever return), made a trip to Philadelphia, preached ten sermons, delivered three addresses, superintended my entire outfit, and was, with my wife, on board the steamer "Falcon" one hour before she sailed, December 1st, 1848 at 12 M., the first and only instance in which the initial steamer, inaugurating a great national line, sailed promptly at the published time. The order to "cast off the lines" came while the clock was striking 12, and was obeyed in less than one minute. The voyage to San Francisco lasted just ninety days, and was full of incidents calculated to measure the strength and try the grace of Christian patience and fortitude. Between Charges and Cruces we were in a canoe on the Charges river, three days and three nights of watchfulness, in peril and in storm. Although our steamer was the pioneer in carrying the United States mail between New York and San Francisco, and had sailed three days before the news of the discovery of gold was published in Washington, five vessels on hearing the news of gold had been dispatched, their passengers reaching the Isthmus, and overtaking us before we had crossed it.

At Cruces a vast multitude had collected. One afternoon a noble young man, one of our fellow-passengers, was attacked with cholera, and died in two hours. Terrible alarm ensued. A Captain of the U.S.A. being of our number said, "We are all fools; we don't take care of ourselves; we ought to die. I have today eaten five bananas and seven oranges, and drunken both whiskey and brandy, and run a footrace in the sun, which is enough to give anybody the cholera." He was attacked within an hour, and before midnight was a corpse.

At daylight all was confusion, everybody striving to get away. It was twenty-five miles to Panama, and no roads but a bridle path over what seemed to be impassable streams and mountains, and no means of conveyance but the worst class of saddle animals. My wife and an intimate traveling companion, each dressed in her husband's cloths, and riding as he rode, under my special care, started, a little after daylight, and reached Panama in ten and a half hours, during which time Mrs. Wheeler did not once dismount, a feat seldom ever performed by the strongest of men, even a general on the day of battle. She was the first woman who ever passed through the gates into the ancient city in males attire, and riding as a man rides, and the enthusiasm with which she was greeted as she passed within the walls was of the most hearty and prolonged character.

We remained in the isthmus, waiting for the arrival of the steamer that had been sent around to meet and take us to San Francisco, thirty-four days. When she, the" California", arrived, the captain came on shore, and seeing the multitude that lined the beach, the first words he uttered were, "I hope to God you haven't any missionaries for me to take." This expression is a fair index of his character and of the treatment we received at his hands during the twenty-eight days of out trip from Panama to San Francisco.

To detail the incidents of that trip, both pleasant and painful, (especially the later) would require a volume. We pass them by. The missionaries arrived at San Francisco on the morning of February 28th, in as good health as they ought to have expected.

Commander Thomas ap Catsby Jones, in command of the Pacific squadron, was in the harbor, and received the steamer (the first steamer that ever passed the Golden Gate) with a full salute from each of the five men-of-war under his command, the "Ohio", his flagship, being reputed the largest warship afloat, being last, and as she fired her first gun she "manned her yards," fifteen hundred men springing into her rigging with the agility of an army of emmets. That our hearts swelled to our throats, and our eyes swam in tears, you will not think strange.

Thus your first missionaries, Rev. O. C. Wheeler and wife, reached the field. The labors and the results of the mission I do not propose to follow in chronological order, but in the order of analogous events. Two great classes of such events are distinct, and cover all the time that can be allotted to this paper.

The favorable and the unfavorable are the two classes to which I refer, and in order that the most desirable effect may be left on the mind, I propose to refer:

First - To some of the obstacles we had to encounter, and unfavorable circumstances that impeded our progress, and
Second - To the favoring facts and encouraging events that cheered the laborers all along their path.

First - The government of the territory was little if any better than that of the jungles of India under their nomadic chiefs, hence the gospel laborers found themselves as little sustained by legal influences and restraints as they would have been in the interior of Africa or on the plains of Persia. This every intelligent person will at once recognize as a most unfavorable condition for the commencement of the work.

Second - Another and far greater obstacle to our work was that all the religion in the country was Roman Catholicism, in its most dilapidated stage and lowest forms of superstition and degradation.

Only those who have lived in a country purely Catholic can have any idea how thick the darkness is. It is really a "darkness that may be felt" - the dark pall of mildewed immorality that overspends and enshrouds every human aspiration.

In every attempt to promote virtue and elevate society it confronts the gospel laborer at the threshold of his work, and recedes only as its powers are exhausted. It also awakens more promptly from its lowest depths of deepest slumber, and wages its warfare against all spiritual religion more vehemently and persistently than any other human organization.

Mohammed and Buddha and Confucius each had a system of his own, and each openly and avowedly stands opposed to Christianity. But Romanism, equally the foe of pure Christianity, professes to be our friend and elder brother, and hence making itself doubly difficult to overcome or remove.

Here their great day was the Sabbath, which, after morning "mass," was usually devoted to such rude and barbarous sports as have been referred to. Not a move was made that was called religious but what directly interfered with the propagation of a spiritual gospel.

Third - An absolute destitution of all religious or moral organization or association.

In all the broad land there were no vestry meetings, no class meetings, no prayer meeting, no organization of any kind for moral, social or literary improvement. There was no library, no infirmary, no "home" for the aged and the helpless. None of those institutions that spring up, indigenous to a pure Christianity, for the amelioration of human suffering and the glory of God. Absolutely not one. So far as associated effort for the establishment of righteousness was concerned, the whole land was one vast moral desert, without one oasan spot on which the man of God might place his foot.

Fourth - When the American Baptist Home Mission society dispatched its first missionary to California, it promised him that an assistant should be sent to him by the next steamer (steamers then sailed once a month), but they failed to do so, and it was twenty months before the first man of their appointment reached the field. For this delay the society was severely censured, and I was among the foremost of the censors.

By the following extracts from letters written by Rev. Dr. Hill, secretary of the society, we learn something of the state of things. Under date of June 11, 1852, he writes, "We have probably lost ground in California, but so far as we are concerned it could not be avoided. We have done as much as men could do to supply the right sort of men for that field, but we could not get them, and we would not think of sending men unless we could place decided confidence in them."

Again under date of February 3rd, 1853, he writes (I was at the time editing the Pacific Banner), "I have received the Pacific Banner regularly since the commencement of its publication, and presume we are indebted to you personally for the favor. Therefore I thank you. It is a good, very good paper, and I pray for the blessings of God to attend its distribution and reading wherever it goes. The publication of such a periodical is attended with joys and sorrows, like all things else in this world, sometimes one, then the other preponderating. You will have your share, but persevere. If you meet with faultfinders still persevere, regardless of mere carping, but always cheerful in the correction of the statement of facts. Now, after such fatherly advice, you will think it strange that I appear as a faultfinder, especially as I believe it is the first time with you; but there must be a first time to things which happen, and so I commence: I have just read the Pacific Banner of Dec. 18th and find in it an article headed, 'More Missionaries,' which upon one point is entirely out of square, conveying an impression to the public which is anything but correct. It is so far derogatory. The truth is, that from the moment California was adopted as a missionary field (which was previous to the knowledge of its mineral wealth) it has stimulated among us great solicitude and great exertion to supply it with a reasonable number of properly qualified ministers. We have sent out some, as many as could be induced to go, at great expense. We have actually appointed, on their previous agreement to go, several who subsequently declined, and we have had a very burdensome correspondence with a large number of others, besides journeys and verbal conversations to induce men to go. Now does such a course justify an editor in saying, on the 18th of December, 1852, that we are at this late day beginning to act as though we knew of the existence of California? Does it warrant the sarcasm of being only now awakened to a sense of our duty? And does it justify the charges of having lost ground by past indifferences and neglect?

"Your error is that you have put the saddle on the wrong horse. The ministers are to blame, and not the Society. Write your article over again, substituting the Ministry for the Home Mission Society; show up their blindness and stupidity, their indifference and inactivity; sharpen your wit and sarcasm to the keenest edge, and I will try to give it wings and speed its flight through the Ministry of the North."

Our want of laborers was not because they did not come to California, for between the 1st of April, 1849, and the 1st of August, 1850, I counted and registered forty-six men, all wearing the vestments and claiming the character of Baptist ministers in good standing, who arrived at San Francisco and passed through to the mines, not one of whom would stop a single day to aid me in rolling to the top of the hill the ball that seemed ready to fall back upon and crush me - not an hour in the work of the Master.

"The more a man has, the more he wants," is an aphorism never more fully illustrated than in the case of the miner searching for gold. As he approaches the deposit of nuggets, his emotions suddenly assume the form of "some bedlam statuary's dream; the crazed creation of misguided whim." And as the first grain of gold sparkles in his view he seems to see
"A violet opening in the moss,
Half hidden from the eye;
Fair as a star, when only one
Is shinning in the sky."

As the eye that has looked the noonday sun full in the face sees only a sun, so the miner sees nothing but the glitter of gold, and hears nothing but the clink of coin. This is not charged as a crime, but simply referred to as one of the characteristics of human infirmity, which in its development here became one of the principal impediments to our progress.

Fifth - With such a conglomerate mass of people as were attracted hither by the gold from nearly every "kindred and nation and tongue and people under the whole heaven," uniformity or even harmony of sentiment, much less of purpose and action, it were presumption to ex
But the large majority of those who had come here were men in early middle life, not especially schooled in life's refinements, but of strong, well developed intellects, full of enterprise and energy and self-assurance, and every one of them firm in his opinions and fixed in his habits, fully convinced that his views were absolutely and invariably correct, and the habits in which he had been reared, if not the only ones, the best in the world, a striking illustration of which occurred at the organization of the First Baptist church in Sacramento, this church with which we now have the honor of meeting, and whose generous hospitalities we are now sharing.

It was September 4th, 1850, we were in Judge Willis' parlor on I Street. I had made all proper preparations as I supposed, and we were considering certain rules and regulations to be observed. Among others was this; that at a reception of a member, the pastor, on behalf of the church shall present to the candidate the hand of fellowship, and Brother B., from Missouri, sitting in the rear of the room, sprang to his feet and said, "What is that? Pastor on behalf of the church give the hand of fellowship? I never heard of such a thing in my life."
"What form have you been accustomed to, brother?" inquired the moderator.
"Why, the whole church give the hand of fellowship, of course," said Brother B. Deacon W., a venerable looking man from New England, sitting near the door, at once and in astonishment said, "What, every individual in the church give the hand of fellowship?" "Certainly," said B. "Always."
"Never heard of such a thing in my life," exclaimed the deacon.

This menacing difficulty was, however, easily disposed of. I interlined after the word "pastor" the words, "and as many of the members as desire to," to which none could object.

Now this case, perhaps more ludicrous than serious, is a fair example of what we encountered at every step and in every department of life, especially in all religious organizations and plans for work.

[O. C. Wheeler, D. D., L.L. D., "The Story of Early Baptist History in California," Herald of Truth, May 1, 1889. Document was re-typed by Robert Cullifer, Folsom, CA; used with permission. Formatted by Jim Duvall.]

See Part II

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