This week, I am traveling to California for some meetings related to my work at Midwestern Seminary. As I was born in the Golden State, I always enjoy returning there.
In particular, I’ve been interested in the history of Christianity in California, and especially the development of my own Baptist tradition—for such history is not that old.
As I was traveling today, I recalled this short overview I wrote a few years ago that gives a brief account of the start of the Baptists in California and a reflection on how this history can give us hope for the present and future.
In November 1848, Osgood Church Wheeler, serving as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Jersey City, New Jersey attending the regular Minister’s Meeting at the First Baptist Church of New York. While there a messenger from the American Baptist Home Missionary Society pulled him aside and asked him to meet with the Secretary who promptly stated, “We want you to go to California as our pioneer missionary.” Wheeler immediately declined having only served in Jersey City for less than a year and despite repeated requests in the coming weeks, maintained his belief that he was not to go.
The Society continued their requests making daily contact for sixteen days. The president of the Society, and current pastor of FBC New York, S. H. Cone, spoke at length to Wheeler attempting to convince him of the greatness of the work and the need for Wheeler to see this as an assignment of personal duty. But then Cone turned 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 San Francisco. Don’t you stir a step, my brother, unless you are prepared to go to the darkest spot on earth.”
Wheeler recounted, “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 at family devotions, a burden as distinct as that which rolled from the shoulders 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 am reconciled;
His pardoning voice I hear;
He owns me for His child,
I will no longer fear.
An hour later, Wheeler sent word to the Secretary and despite doubts of ability and schedule, found he and his wife on a steamer departing for San Francisco on December 1, 1848.
After enduring great hardship and trials both in the westward journey and in the early months in California, Wheeler managed to establish a place of ministry and worked steadily among the many people who had taken the same path to the west in search of gold. One such individual was Col. Thomas H. Kellam, of Virginia, who arrived in March 1849. As the Religious Herald reported, Kellam, like the prodigal had traveled “in pursuit of the shining dust of the earth,” but in the course of his journey “found the gold tried in the fire, the pearl of great price.” Kellam, in a letter home wrote, “It is my privilege to communicate the 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.”
Wheeler recounted that Kellam’s first task upon arrival in San Francisco was to find the missionary and request baptism and membership with the church—as he was well acquainted with the Baptists and desired to identify with them. Wheeler brought him before the church and after hearing his experience, the church voted to bring him as a candidate for baptism.
Wheeler presented the events of Kellam’s baptism:
“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 at 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 […]
“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 decorum and precision you would expect to see in a platoon of the regular army or nave 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 Monterrey, 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 they 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 […]
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 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 the 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 on 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 and 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 first of love.”
Thus, on October 21, 1849, in the bay of San Francisco, Thomas H. Kellam was the first to undergo believer’s baptism on that coast of the Pacific.
Since that day, testimonies arising from scores of churches all over the Golden State represent the Kingdom fruit of the gospel sown over the last 170 years. And yet, like a small pebble thrown into a large lake, this legacy began when O. C. Wheeler responded to the call of, “We want you to go to California as our pioneer missionary.”
Today, I pray and wonder whether God might continue to expand his Kingdom through a similar call to many other willing missionaries like Wheeler. For cities like Toyko and Dhaka, or for nations like North Korea or Somalia, men and women are needed who won’t “stir a step” unless they are prepared to go to the spiritually darkest spots on earth.
If our Lord delays his return, perhaps in 170 years there will be another O. C. Wheeler seeing the first baptism from the unreached peoples coming to Christ in some of these cities and nations.
While to our minds and hearts that might seem like an insurmountable task, as I walk daily among some of the brightest gospel-minded college and seminary students this nation has seen in generations, I can joyfully say this is my eager expectation and hope (Phil 1:20).
Adapted from O. C. Wheeler, The Story of the Early Baptist History in California (California Baptist Historical Society, 1888)