The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1995, Volume 41, Number 3
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

Religion and Society in Frontier California.

By Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994. 241 pages. Buy this book.

Reviewed by Ronald J. Quinn, Lecturer in the Department of History, San Diego State University, and State Historian for California Department of Parks and Recreation.

In her introduction Professor Maffly-Kipp explains the three “interconnecting stories” that are told in the monograph. The first describes the attempt by Protestant evangelicals to transport their institutions and belief systems to Gold Rush California. The second is the culture clash that results from the meeting of traditional values of Euro-American ante-bellum culture with the chaotic and often transient lifestyles of the mining communities. And finally, the author devotes the concluding chapters to the religious adherence that resulted from the culture conflict. Presbyterians, Congregationalist, and Baptists formed the core of the evangelical movement. Politically, the evangelicals accepted the social assumptions of the Whig Party, which meant that they were opposed to the Indian Removal practices of the Jacksonian Democrats, and harbored serious reservations about the aggressive expansionism of subsequent Democratic administrations. They feared that a loss of communal responsibility would plunge the nation into moral chaos. In short, these evangelicals looked with ambivalence at the growing democratization of American politics. But in the final analysis the evangelicals were optimistic and confident that the innate superiority of American culture and religion would triumph. That optimism was expressed in the belief that God had used gold to keep the region free of slavery. According to the author, the California experience challenged the confidence of the evangelical missionaries. The missionary work proved more difficult than even they imagined. Although buoyed by the energy and youth of the miners, they were frustrated in their attempt to establish community among such a transient population. Even more troubling was the dearth of women. The absence of women as spiritual nurturers in the family and community was the single most significant obstacle to the spread of a truly Christian civilization in California, evangelicals believed. The inability to recreate traditional gender roles placed extreme pressure on the minister’s wife, who became the symbol of femininity for the entire male congregation. The outbreak of the Civil War coincided with the decline of gold discoveries in California, and these two events triggered the end of the evangelical movement in California. No doubt many missionaries were relieved by their exit from California to other regions where their labors would meet with more significant spiritual rewards. In her conclusion, Maffly-Kipp maintains that the cultural clash that evangelical missionaries experienced in California was a forerunner of national social conflict that characterized the last half of the nineteenth century. The unrestrained growth of cities, and the corresponding disparity of wealth between urban and rural America, created theological dilemmas for traditional Protestants. Gold Rush California certainly epitomized a population motivated clearly by materialistic gain rather than the spread of a traditional Christian society. The failures of evangelical missionaries in California had as much to do with economic instability as anything else. The author believes that the culture conflict experienced by the missionaries in Gold Rush California would eventually split Protestant theologians into modernist and conservative schools. This is a brilliantly conceived and carefully researched monograph, which has a much broader significance than its title suggests. The book does much more than simply tell three interconnected stories. The evangelical missionaries sought a moral compass in a society enmeshed in economic and social change. They found their traditional training inadequate to deal with these extraordinary events. Maffly-Kipp contends that the California frontier becomes a metaphor for the westward experience “from Jamestown to the Silicon Valley.” This is a marvelously fresh look at an often explored subject, and the result is a new interpretation of nineteenth-century California as a harbinger of future conflict throughout the entire nation.

Buy this book from
You get Amazon’s low price and the
San Diego Historical Society
gets credit when you buy through this link.