By Maggie Magoffin
In 1858, when twenty miles west of Denver, in Central City and Black Hawk, a major strike of gold was made, prospectors from across the country and around the world came to Colorado. By 1860, the region boasted 34,277 residents. Along with the prospectors came miners, merchants, farmers, a wealth of undesirable characters, and a few preachers and missionaries.
In the early 1850’s, Colorado’s first non-Native American settlers were the Spanish-American farmers who settled on Spanish Land Grants in the San Luis Valley and they brought with them their Catholic religion. In1858, Bishop Lamy of Santa Fe, made his first trip to Colorado and erected a crude chapel along the Conejos River and Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church currently stands on that same site.
As the Spanish-American farmers settled in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado, prospectors were searching for gold in Colorado’s mountains. Gold strikes or even hints of mineral deposits resulted in the establishment of mining camps. Larger deposits resulted in frontier towns, and early preachers discovered western frontier churches differed from churches in the eastern states. Historian Walter Prescott Webb is quoted as saying, “The further west you travel from England and New England, the less influence the church has.”
While religious groups such as the Puritans and Quakers founded many New England communities, this was not true on the frontier. Frontier mining camps existed for one reason, to make money; and the primitive rawness of these early camps was not favorable for church activities. Early preachers found that to survive in Colorado, they had to be innovative and the church had to adapt. As one Colorado historian wrote, “The camp molded the image of the church, not the church that of the camp.”
The first denominations in the Colorado mining camps were the Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists. St. James United Methodist Church in Central City, founded in 1859, is the oldest Protestant church congregation in the state. St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Central City stands on one of the oldest Catholic gathering places in Colorado. In 1860, Bishop Machebeuf celebrated mass in Central City and in 1862, the parish provided an ‘A’ frame church erected on that site. The cornerstone for the permanent structure was set in 1872 and in 1882 the building was completed. In 1863, the First Presbyterian Church was dedicated in Black Hawk, and the bell for the steeple was carried across the plains by ox cart and was the first bell installed in any Presbyterian Church west of the Mississippi. Today, the church building is used as an annex for the city’s Planning Department and is said to be one of the oldest operating buildings in Colorado. Also in 1863, 243 years after the Pilgrims brought the Puritan Church to America, the Congregational Church sent the Rev. William Crawford to the Colorado Territory. At that time, Rev Crawford, a native of Massachusetts, was a 28-year-old graduate of Andover Theological Seminary. As Crawford traveled west, he sent reports back describing his trip. He was disappointed in Denver. In his June 13, 1863 report on Denver, he wrote, “I preached for Mr. Day [a Presbyterian minister] in the morning, and was strongly tempted to give out that hymn of Watts:
Lord, what a wretched land is this,
Which yields us no supply,
No cheering fruits, no wholesome trees,
No streams of living joy.
He reported, “…yet some Denverites think they have found the best spot on earth. Poor, deluded mortals!” Failing to find a suitable group of Congregationalists in Denver where he initially planned to make his home, Crawford made his headquarters in Central City, then the center of the mining activities in Colorado. He preached his first sermon in Central City on June 28, 1863. Two months later, he organized a church in Central City with 21 members.
Money was a perpetual problem for most of the churches in the mining towns. In a report to the Congregational Church authorities Rev. Crawford, wrote, “…the money is not in the hands of the Christians, and we cannot get it from the others.” However, in 1866 the Congregational Church built a building in Central City that cost $11,000 to build.
In many communities, the preachers in the early 1860s were either laymen who felt the spirit and preached on Sunday, or circuit riders. Even after the churches were established, only a small percentage of the people attended. A rough life was not limited to the mining camps or to the first few years of the gold boom. At a Methodist revival meeting in a farming and ranching region near Paonia, in the 1890s, a German-Russian participant prayed that God consider a neighboring horse thief, cattle thief, and drunkard, “Oh God, come down and save dis miserable sinner. But don’t send your son Yesus, for this is no boy’s yob.”
The miners and pioneers of the west came from across the United States and from around the world and they brought the faith of their homeland with them. Whether they were Catholic or one of several protestant religions, there is little doubt that their faith carried them through the isolation of the frontier, temptations of the flesh, and dangers of mining life. We can well imagine that many did not attend services at the local churches, and sin and depravation were part of their everyday lives. However, there is little doubt that God was in the gold fields and in the hearts of those who carried him there.