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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 the California Baptist Historical Society, 1888
And read before the Society at Sacramento, April 13, 1889
Part II


I gladly turn to brighter scenes, more in harmony with joy.

First - Our Mission was initiated under most favorable auspices. No denomination, as such was in the field before us. In that respect we were wholly untrammeled, in an open sea and no sectarian storms blowing. Funds were guaranteed us at "Carte Blanche," so that we were freed from all anxiety about our support, nor were there laid upon us any unwelcome restrictions.

God had in his providence sent a man before us, without our knowledge, to prepare the way for us. He had been here two years, displaying a genius and enterprise in business, seldom equaled by any man anywhere. He had some traits of character developed to a most extraordinary degree, traits which, on occasion, in the wild and unprecedented state of things consequent upon the heterogeneous influx of gold seekers, served as well in religious as in commercial enterprise. A fact or two will give a better view of his character than a whole chapter of disquisition.

After the discovery of gold, early in 1848, and before any communication was had with the commercial ports of Europe or America, the demand for supplies of almost every kind often became oppressive. There were no railways, no telegraphs, no steamships by which they could communicate. No intimation when any vessel would approach the coast. Yet it was of the utmost importance to the merchant, that he obtained the earliest opportunity to board an incoming craft and make such purchases as would in a measure forestall the efforts of his rivals. For this purpose each of several trading houses kept in constant readiness a good boat and set of oarsmen with which they might hope to get on board of a vessel that came into harbor and secure the first chance at the cargo. In the first rank of these competing houses were those of Howard & Mullus, and of C. L. Ross. It was extremely rare that a vessel of any kind came into the harbor with merchandise. One day, a few weeks before we arrived "A brig is coming in" was shouted. As quickly as possible Howard was in his boat with the rudder lines in his hands, and Ross had his as soon. Every oarsman sprang his "ash" to the utmost. It was about three miles to the brig; and the race was earnestly contested. Ross was less than a hundred yards ahead; when he reached the vessel seized the ropes and sprang over the bulwarks. The captain (who was also supercargo) met him at the rail; without one preliminary word, Ross said in his peculiar rapid style, "Got any red woolen shirts?"

"Yes," said the captain, "A hundred dozen."

Without asking another question as to what the vessel contained, Ross said "What will you take for your entire cargo, everything in the ship?"

"A hundred per cent, on the New York invoice," said the captain.

"It is done" said Ross, "And this binds the bargain," as he handed him a hundred dollars.

As the captain received the money, and said "Yes," Howard reached the deck, to find that his rival owned "everything in the ship."

There were no red woolen shirts in the country, and every miner must have a pair if they cost him a hundred dollars; and Ross knew it.

This same spirit of dash and enterprise was equally developed in his religious life. When the steamer arrived having on board the first missionary and his wife, (Mrs. Wheeler being the first, and for a long time the only female missionary in California), Mr. Ross came immediately on board, and said to them, "Everything is changed and in confusion; times are terrible, but never fear I will see that you are taken care of." And from that moment he personally assumed all our expenses, of every kind; when board and lodgings, such as he furnished us were worth at least five hundred dollars a month. He also, a few months later, assumed the entire financial responsibility of purchasing a lot at ten thousand dollars and erecting a church edifice thereon at an expense of over six thousand dollars. And a few weeks afterwards, mews of General Taylor's death, the President of the United States, came, and at the close of the first Sabbath morning service, thereafter, I announced that the next Sabbath morning I would preach on the life and labors of General Taylor. Mr. Ross arose in the congregation and said, "Parson, if you are going to do that, this house must be enlarged, for it is crowded on common occasions." Next morning he hired the mechanics, purchased the material and personally superintended the work; and before midnight on Saturday of the same week he had completed an addition to the church 25x40 feet. It was finished in every particular.

I preached the sermon, promised and (here is the manuscript) for the archives of your Society, (handing the copy to Dr. Hartwell).

We also found here brother George Inwood, a young man from England who had been here about a year. He was not a classically educated man; but of unflinching principles, especially in his religion. He went to the mines, early in spring of 1849. After a few weeks he sent $800 as his first contribution for the erection of the new church. After ninety days he returned bringing with him fourteen thousand dollars in gold lumps. One of his first moves was to advance five thousand dollars of it (two thousand as a gift, and three thousand as a loan) to the church to aid in paying for the church and lot.

God had sent these two men here to prepare a cheering sunrise for the mission. Gentlemen of the army and navy on the coast, inferior to none in the service, received and treated us with every possible courtesy and attention. And nothing that our American population could do to forward our interests was undone.

And again, helps were sent from the east; men of intellect learning, and piety, and energetic devotion to the cause of Christ. Notably among whom was the man on my right, who almost alone remains to this present time, the venerable Dr. Saxton of Vacaville, for whose continued life and vigor in maturity, we most devoutly thank God. Also this other man, Rev. Dr. Peneleton, (a mere boy then) came, and with his voice and organ rang sweet melodies through the congregation, cheering to the saints and inviting to sinners. He left his preparation for the bar, and turned to studies for the ministry. He was ordained here and served in the pastorate for a time. But our facilities for intellectual and theological training did not equal his desires, and he went east, and after extended intercourse with the wisest and best theologians and philosophers in both America and Europe, returns to employ his mature powers in extending the work and illuminating the afternoon of life in our midst.

Preveaux, our first denominational teacher, learned in all the wisdom of the best schools and universities of New England came, but while it was yet the early morn of life with him his mortal sun went down, his spirit entered the University above. And others of equal worth came and joined in the work. Churches were multiplied, Bible and tract and missionary and temperance societies were organized and the work progressed until, in 1865, when in a report which I had been previously appointed to prepare on California as a Missionary field, "it will be found that we had organized one hundred regular Baptist churches, but that fifty-five of them had already become extinct, leaving us forty-five Churches with which to commence the second series of our conventional labors.

Here is a copy of that report for the archives of your Society.

The first candidate for baptism in our work in this mission was Col. Thomas H. Kellam, of Accomac county, Va. He sailed from Norfolk, in the brig Mariana, in March of 1849, for San Francisco, where he arrived after a voyage of some six months. On October 25, 1849, he wrote an intimate friend in Northamton, Va., who furnished a copy of the letter to the Religious Herald of Richmond, which published it, with the following prefatory remark:

"Fortunate has it been for Col. Kellam if, in pursuit of the shining dust of earth, he has found the gold tried in the fire, the pearl of great price. We trust that the perils and dangers of the great deep had the effect to show him the need of a Savior, and his journey into the strange land, like the prodigal, led him to seek his Heavenly Father." The letter is as follows:

"San Francisco, Oct. 23, 1849.
Dear George: - Agreeable to my promise, I now proceed to inform you of my safe arrival in this place, and the dealings of a kind Providence toward me. It is my privilege to communicate intelligence that will be pleasing to you and to all my friends who love the Savior. I now thank my Heavenly Father I am able to inform you I have found peace in Jesus, and have all confidence in Him, that He is able to save me. I bless His name, that in mercy He has sent me to this place, and made me willing to love and obey Him. On last Sunday, Oct. 21st, I was baptized by Elder Wheeler, in the bay of San Francisco, being the first baptized on this side of the Pacific. I felt thankful that I was permitted to own my Lord in His ordinance, and be buried with the Blessed Redeemer in baptism."

Thus much of his letter is given, that readers may know, in his own language, something of the character of the man and the thoroughness of his conversion.

Upon his arrival in San Francisco, he made it his first business to find the missionary and make known to him something of the great change he had undergone, and to ask for baptism and membership with the church. He had been well and religiously educated, and was familiar with the doctrinal views held by the various denominations of Christians, and was himself thoroughly a Baptist. At an appointed time he came before the church, related his experience, and was with entire unanimity and with deepest interest elected as a candidate for baptism and membership in the church. On the following Sabbath morning - it was the 21st of October, 1849, one of those lovely mornings that characterize San Francisco climate in autumn; clear, still, warm and cheerful to the fullest extent, we assembled at our humble sanctuary, on the north side of Washington street, one door east of Stockton. We had such a congregation as perhaps never assembled to any other time or place. The other churches in the city suspended their morning service. Their pastors with their officers and the body of their congregations were present and joined in the procession. The mayor and other municipal officers of the city, and several of the officers of the State, and officials of the general Government, resident on the coast or here temporarily on business, also Commodore Jones, commanding the Pacific squadron, U. S. N., and his naval staff, together with a large number of marines, all in full uniform, the chiefs of the medical staff of the Pacific division of both the army and navy, with their assistants, swelled our numbers and officially gave endorsement to our proceedings. We also had with us Dr. Judd, prime minister of the Hawaiian kingdom, then on his way as "Minister Plenipotentiary and Envoy Extraordinary" to the United States, England and France, having with him the heir-apparent and his cousin, who under Dr. Judd were receiving their royal education, and each of them afterward became king, preceding the present ruler of the nation. We also had with us large numbers of visitors from nearly every civilized nation on earth, who had been drawn here by the gold excitement, and hundreds of the citizens of San Francisco.

We formed with due deference to the rank and standing of our guests, and marched down Stockton street to Union, to Powell, to North Beach, where the water was shallow with sandy bottom. There was no wind that morning, and the water was clear and calm as a pond in the country. The whole train, from the church to the beach (about three-quarters of a mile), marched with all the decorum and precision you would expect to see in a platoon of the regular army or navy on dress parade. At the water each department of the long and numerous procession took its assigned position in silence, and gave to all the exercises the most undivided attention. Rev. S. H. Willey, of the Presbyterian mission at Monterey, who had been a fellow passenger with me from New York to that place, was on my left and, at my request, read portions of Scripture and announced the hymn. He was deeply moved, having never before witnessed the ordinance of baptism in the Bible mode, though born, reared and educated in New England and New York. Rev. Mr. Hunt of the Congregational Church was on my right and offered the baptismal prayer. (I could not then, nor can I now see how he could have prayed more earnestly and appropriately if the exercises had been in and of his own, church) On his right was Commodore Jones and staff, while all around us was the official and unofficial multitude of spectators, every one of whom seemed to be as fully interested as if a personal participant in the exercises.

When all was ready, the candidate, a noble specimen of man, 6 feet 2 inches tall and finely proportioned, took my hand, and we walked about 100 yards before reaching a depth of water sufficient for the ordinance. While we were thus going "down into the water," according to previous arrangement, the hymn was announced and the first two stanzas sung by the whole concourse; the last two as we were "coming up out of the water," (after the baptism in the scriptural form). And such singing I never elsewhere heard. It seemed as though every professional and every layman, every soldier and every marine, every officer and every subordinate, every citizen and every foreigner of that vast throng was suddenly and specially inspired by the holy grandeur and the spiritual significance of the divine ordinance which we were administering, to sing for that once, if never again this side of heaven, with the fullness of both his spirit and his voice. And as we neared the shore and the song rang out the mighty paean of the last stanza, it seemed to evoke responsive strains from before the "great white throne," which, as they rolled over the battlements of the New Jerusalem, came down to mingle with and sanctify our best efforts to "Magnify the Lord" in songs of praise to the Great Jehovah.

The hymn was that inimitable effusion, written by Dr. Adoniram Judson, to be sung at the first baptism in the Burman Empire, at the beautiful pond on the bank of the Irrawaddi, at Rangoon, June 27, 1819, reading as follows:

"Come, Holy Spirit, Dove Divine,
On these baptismal waters shine,
And teach our hearts, in highest strain,
To praise the Lamb for sinners slain.
We love Thy name, we love Thy laws,
And joyfully embrace Thy cause;
We love Thy cross, the shame, the pain,
Oh, Lamb of God, for sinners slain.
We plunge beneath Thy mystic flood,
Oh, plunge us in Thy cleansing blood;
We die to sin, and seek a grave,
With Thee, beneath the yielding waves.
And as we rise, with Thee to live,
O, let the Holy Spirit give
The sealing unction from above,
The breath of life, the fire of love."

As we reached the shore, Commodore Jones came forward and, giving me his, warm, earnest hand, expressed his extreme delight and gratitude for the privilege of attending that most solemn and interesting service of our denomination. We then reformed and returned, in the most perfect order, to our sanctuary, where the assembly was dismissed.

I find, in my diary of that day, among other things, this entry: "This has been a day of arduous work. Sabbath-school in the morning, two regular services, two funerals, baptism, Lord's Supper and prayer-meeting; but O, how glorious the work! How inspiring the results promised by Him whose work it is!"

Confirmatory of what I have quoted from Dr. Hill, on the reluctance of desirable ministers to come to California, early in 1854 it was twice intimated from the H. M. board in New York, that I should visit the East, in the interest of securing ministers for this field. In April I went, and spent about four months, under the direction of the H. M. board; traveling more than 5000 miles, visiting associations, conventions and the national anniversaries; my travels extending from Va. to Me., every where pressing the call for ministers to go to California. Large numbers were willing to go, but they were not such as the Society was willing to send. Some were willing to go provide a strong church in a pleasant town or city, and a good salary were guaranteed.

The result of all my efforts was that I obtained one man, my own natural brother, to go, by paying from my own purse the entire expenses of himself and his wife and five children and a servant girl, from New York to Placerville, in California.

But there was some success in the effort. He remained and did yeoman service in El Dorado, Placer and Amador counties for ten years, teaching and preaching and organizing and building up churches.

In one of his tours in the mountains, his horse fell and he was so injured that he was obliged to cease his labors, and ere long returned to the place of his birth and died in the arms of his early friends.

The Postal Department of the Government had contracted with the Pacific Mail Steamship Co. to carry mails between New York and San Francisco, leaving each port on certain designated days of the month. Capt. Knight, agent of the contracting company, came to me one night and said, "Our company have been trying for a long time to get the Postmaster General to allow us to dispatch the steamer, with the mails, on Saturday when the regular day would come on Sunday. He utterly and persistently refuses to do so, although he allows it to be done in all other seaports whence mails are to be dispatched. It is a terrible obstacle to all moral and religious progress. I want you to preach a sermon on Sabbath Desecration, that I can have published and send to the heads of departments at Washington, to see if the change cannot be effected and we be allowed to keep the Sabbath like other Christian peoples."

I complied with his request and preached the sermon; the captain had it printed in pamphlet form, and sent copies of it to those in authority in Washington; and the return mail brought the desired order, that when mailing day came on Sunday the mails should be dispatched on Saturday. This was in 1851, and has since been the rule.

And here is as copy of the sermon for your library.

There was a time, in 1851, when lawlessness, especially incendiarism, burglary and assassination, seemed to threaten the overthrow of all the functions of legally constituted authority and the speedy destruction of the city of San Francisco. A large representation of the most prominent citizens came to me and besought me to make an especial effort to stay the tide of death, and aid the authorities in saving the city from the impending evil. It was arranged that I should prepare a discourse and deliver it to as many as could be induced to come, and hear it, and then the citizens would publish it as a pamphlet and give it as extensive circulation as possible. All of this was done, and the result, as many expressions testified, was highly satisfactory.

I preached from the text, Jonah 3:9: "Who can tell if God will turn and repent and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not." And here is a copy of the sermon for your library.

Were not then quite as formal and as long and as re-creative as now; nevertheless, they were sometimes enjoyed. I had one. In the winter of 1849-50, being worn down with excessive labors, I went to San Jose for a few days' vacation. I arrived about the middle of the day, Wednesday. Before I had time to alight from the stagecoach, James H. DeVoe, editor of the evening paper, grasped my hand and exclaimed, "I am so glad to see you; I have to go to San Francisco this afternoon, and I want you to edit my paper while I am gone." "But, my dear sir," said I, "you must excuse me. I am really unable to work, and merely came down here for a few days of rest." He was an early and warm friend of mine, and actually demanded that I should at least write his leader for his paper each day. Was I fool enough to agree to do so? I was, and did it. On Friday a committee of the State Senate (the Legislature being then in session there) called upon me with a formal request that I would, on Sabbath morning, preach a sermon on the subject of Divorce, saying that a bill on the subject had just passed the Assembly and was now before the Senate. They thought it objectionable and desired, if possible, to prevent its passage. The request came on Friday at 8 p.m. I had never heard or read a discourse of any kind on the subject; my library was fifty miles distant, and I knew of no available source of assistance. I took until 9 a.m. of the next day to reply; and then said, "I will try." During the day I tried, but failed, to find something on the subject in some of the small family libraries in town. At 7:30 p.m. I took a sandwich, a mug of cold tea, pen, ink and paper, and went to my room. Such was the confidence of the Senate Committee that they arranged for the printing of the discourse before it was written. At midnight the printer called for the manuscript, supposing it was done. I handed him the sheets that were written, and went on with my work, which I completed at 8:15 Sunday A.M. At half-past ten I filled an appointment to dedicate a church; at half-past two p.m. delivered my sermon on Divorce.

And here is a copy of it for your library.

In the evening I presided at a meeting of the Pacific Tract Society, of which I was President, and delivered the address. Monday morning I concluded I had vacation enough, and went home.

About midsummer of 1851, immigrants, across the plains, were arriving in great numbers, and many of them in an appalling state of destitution. The great rendezvous was at Sutter's Fort. The cholera broke out then in most terrific and fatal fury. There was no hospital, no alms-house, no organized charities, but the Free Masons and Odd Fellows, laying aside for the time being all distinctions and forms and ceremonies, joined like a band of united brothers in the relief of the sick and dying and the burial of the dead.

Before the scourge ceased, besides all their personal labor they had expended of their own means more than twenty-seven thousand dollars. After a while this wonderful illustration of the fundamental principles of these Orders became the subject of general discussion. The time for a meeting was set, and everybody invited to attend. It was "St. John's Day." Having been appointed to deliver the discourse, I selected as my theme "Human Charity." The gathering of the people was immense, and the manifestations of pleasure in listening to it were phenomenal. They published it in the daily papers and in pamphlet, and in the most popular magazine in Boston.

And here is a copy for your society's library.

At the dedication of the Baptist Church in San Jose, May 8, 1859, the San Francisco Baptist Association, holding its annual meeting at the same time and place, I had been appointed to write the circular letter of the Association, and also engaged to preach the dedication sermon. I combined the two in a sermon, entitled "Our Ministerial Destitution and its Supply."

And here is a copy for your library.

In August of 1852 Hon. Edward Gilbert, one of the first representatives in Congress from this State, was killed in a duel at Sacramento. He was universally esteemed, and hence his untimely death caused general consternation and excitement.

I was called upon to address the public on the evils of the code. I responded to the call in a sermon before an immense concourse of the friends and admirers of the noble departed statesman. They demanded it for publication.

And here is a copy of it for your library.

The only man in our denomination with whom I was so unfortunate as to have a serious difficulty was Rev. Benjamin Brierly. All the misunderstanding was caused by the tale-bearing and malicious misrepresentations of a few men who envied both of us, and determined, if possible, to make us destroy each other. When the iniquity was exposed and the truth brought to light, there was voluntary and perfect mutual reconciliation, which was complete; and thenceforth, to the day of his death, our friendship was absolutely without alloy. He was pastor of the Nevada City church, and when his new church was ready to dedicate he insisted that I should preach the dedication sermon, though I was not a pastor, and there were several much nearer him. A few months after that he became violently ill, and telegraphed me that he was about to die, and wished by all means to see me. I hastened, but before my horse could be harnessed another message came saying he was dead; and his last request was that I should preach his funeral sermon. To answer that request I drove to the place (seventy-five miles) in the mountains, and in his study, at his table, on his chair, with his pen, from his ink-stand, on his paper, I wrote the sermon, and on the 26th of July, 1863, preached it. The church published it, but I give you the manuscript for your library.

Slow and toilsome and disappointing as has been the progress of our mission in California, there is yet a most cheering succession of achievements for our joy and our encouragement. Let us enumerate a few of them: You have, through your early missionaries---

Organized the first church, the first Sunday School, and occupied the chair of the two most important State organizations in the cause of temperance-the "Sons of Temperance" and the "Good Templars." You have furnished the house for the first free school and the teacher of that school, and thus became the real parent of our noble system of public schools, which is without a superior. You furnished the president of the Pacific Tract Society, and you organized the first Bible society on the Coast, and never have been behind in any of the great moral and missionary enterprises of the times. Moreover, you have 165 churches, and 10,290 members and a full set of the approved organizations for doing the work of the Lord.

Allusion has been made to the "Pacific Banner."

It was, in fact, edited and published by your first missionary though there were nominal helpers - was the first Baptist paper published west of the Rocky Mountains.

I wrote its editorials, stood at the press and received the sheets as they were printed, folded, enveloped, superscribed and mailed them, being often until two o'clock in the morning before the work was done, and then (in winter) a mile to walk home in the rain. And when the volume was completed I found that it had cost me, beside all my labor and the receipts, more than $3,000 in gold. I now ask you to accept it and preserve it in your archives. It is full of the then passing events, now early history of Baptists in California. By including it in this paper, I at least secure for my production the virtue of quantity.

To have been a bold, uncompromising preacher of righteousness on this coast, during the first decade of its occupancy by English-speaking people, was to meet every class of evil in every possible form. To encounter, in overwhelming numbers, the veteran troops of the Prince of Darkness, clad in all the panoply of sin, and armed with every implement of moral death, from the sleek-haired devotee of chance, thinking to buy your silence with gold gotten at the game, to the bold blasphemer and loathsome debauchee, threatening to take your life or drive you from the public, by fear of contact with his infectious degradation; from the insidious propaganda of fatal heresies, and the bold champion of an open infidelity, down to the backsliding deacon, profaning the name of his God, and the apostate minister, covered with the slime of his black hypocrisy, and loathsome with the stenchful ichor of his ill-concealed drunkenness and debauchery, all combining with tale-bearers and busy-bodies, false friends and defamers, to stir up strife, to steal away his good name, to obliterate his influence, and reduce him to a level with their own degradation. Of such trials, ask at my hand no effort at description.

But there is another side of this picture. Will you spend a moment tracing its outline? To have been such a minister, during such time on this coast, is to have tested the truth, and the blessings of the gospel of peace, to have realized that in the path of duty, even the "gates of hell cannot prevail against him." To have inhaled the breath of heaven, all fragrant with the aroma of ambrosial fruit, while surrounded with the simoon of the second death, pregnant with the fumes of future woe, to have basked in the effulgence of a spiritual sunlight, while all around, the votaries of vice, and the victims of disobedience groped in a darkness that "might be felt," to have made a journey through the wilderness, escorted by a convoy of ministering spirits commissioned by Jehovah to see that not a hair of his head should be injured, while the multitude around him fall by the hand of the destroyer, at every step, to have passed the fiery ordeal, arranged by divine wisdom for the trial of his faith and reach the end of his journey, the haven of everlasting rest, the consummation he has so long and devoutly wished, and as he takes his last retrospect of time, and sees, through his instrumentality, society organized, and Sabbaths kept holy, schools established and Churches reared in the wilderness, to be enabled, as he wraps the mantle of death about his mortal frame; in the full assurance of hope to calmly say, "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith, henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the Right Judge shall give me at the day": and then turning to the opening gates of Paradise, to be welcomed as one of

"Those in bright array,
That exulting, happy throng,
Round their altar night and day
Hymning one triumphant song
Worthy is the Lamb, once slain,
Blessing, honor, glory, power,
Wisdom, riches, to obtain,
New dominion every hour."


[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. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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