Religion in Early Anaheim

“The Spanish always built a church first and then erected a school, whereas the Anaheim colonists established a school first and then built a brewery.” — J.M. Guinn

In his 1968 book, When Anaheim was 21, historian Leo Friis has a chapter entitled, “The Freethinker Myth.”[1] “No church was established in Anaheim until a decade after its settlement,” he writes. “This fact has given rise to a persistent myth that the original colonists were ‘freethinkers’ whose leaders had passed a law prohibiting churches. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Most of the early settlers, he goes on to explain, were raised as German-speaking Lutherans, and in the early days there simply weren’t any German-speaking Lutheran ministers available in the area. What’s more, he notes, Protestant ministers in general were very scarce in the Southern California of the 1850s and ‘60s.

But then he weakens his own argument by adding:

In addition to the unavailability of Protestant ministers, no doubt there was an indifference to church attendance even before the colonists came to Anaheim. Some of them had been sympathetic to the German Revolution of 1848 and it is probable that they had ceased attending religious services in Germany where the Lutheran Church was state controlled. Others had gotten out of the habit of regularly going to church after they came to California, a not unusual circumstance even today. It should be pointed out that a non-church goer is not necessarily an atheist nor an agnostic.

“A thorough search of the minutes of the local city council fails to show that any ordinance was ever passed, or even proposed,” he concludes, “prohibiting houses of worship in Anaheim. Such an ordinance would be, of course, unconstitutional.”

Dr. Friis seems a little defensive on the whole point, which suggests it might be worth examining a little further.

It seems clear that Anaheim was not a very “churchy” town in its early days. A decade after the first colonists arrived, there were only two congregations in town, and one small church building used by the Catholics. This inspired some rather pointed comments from both locals and outsiders. Early in 1872, one resident wrote to the local paper, bragging of the town’s “many natural advantages in climate and soil,” its fine homes, and its “industry and thrift...”

And yet there are some other things (which we could name) that will stand out like the “double flaming sword” that was placed at the entrance of the Garden of Paradise, and will be as successful in preventing the settlement of the better class of people in Anaheim if they are not obviated. It is the practice of almost all travelers, especially those who have enjoyed the sanctity of the Sabbath and the ministrations of the gospel, to judge the moral status of any people by the character of their schools and churches. The entire absence of church spires and the sounds of church bells, always omens badly for the morals of any community.[2]

In a second letter, the same writer called on residents “to have the Sabbath observed, and all the business houses closed on that day, and a disposition created to give attention to the public worship of God,” for he was in fear of “the evils which sooner or later will curse the city of Anaheim or any other city that will attempt to ignore God’s command in reference to the Sabbath.”[3]

The idea that a respectable church building was – if nothing else – good for business (so to speak) is picked up again in an editorial a month later:

Every well regulated town should have a church and a school house. There should be public places both for the education of youth and the worship of God. Anaheim has the former – the latter she still lacks. The Catholics, it is true, have a small, dingy looking house in which they worship, but it is not such an edifice as we would like to show to a stranger as a specimen of our liberality. The Protestants have no church at all. They formerly met in the school house by permission of the Trustees. That proving inconvenient, badly seated and badly ventilated, the congregation have sought relief by renting a public hall. This is better, but still it is not as it should be. A place of the size, wealth and age of Anaheim should have at least one good church building, which should afford a convenient place of public worship, and be an architectural ornament to the town. We need such a building. Its value in a moral point of view is incalculable. As a business investment it would be worth more than it would cost. People have already passed by us and gone elsewhere, who would have settled here had there been a church. We have fine hotels, large and well conducted stores, and good residences – but no church. Strangers notice these things and form therefrom conclusions unfavorable to us. A vigorous effort is now being made to secure the support necessary for the erection of such a building as will be an ornament to our beautiful town. A considerable amount is already subscribed, but a large sum is still needed. A building lot too is wanted. It is desired to place the church in a central location, where it will be conveniently accessible to the greatest number of people. Come up, all who own property in Anaheim, and encourage this project by such substantial assistance as shall assure the erection of the building at an early day.[4]

“In shame we answer that there is no building dedicated to the service of the Deity, that the few who observe the Sabbath are compelled by necessity to worship their Maker in a public hall…,” a later writer noted. “It is a sad confession to make but nevertheless true. Laying aside all religious sentiment, the absence of a church is detrimental to us in a business point of view. We can not expect people of refinement to settle amongst us unless we pay, at least outwardly, a due respect to the kind Providence who has so signally favored out valley.”[5]

In fact, the arrival of new settlers in and around Anaheim, beginning when the Stearns Ranchos went on sale in 1868, seems to have helped fuel the demand for better church facilities in town. The Catholics were the first to take positive steps, acquiring a lot in town that same year (though they did not get a resident priest until 1875). Most of the early parishioners, though, were not Germans, but Mexican-Americans (though a few of the families – notably the Langenbargers and the Rimpaus – had inter-married.

A newspaper description from November 1869 credits Anaheim with two Protestant churches as well.[6] One of these may have been the earliest stirrings of the First Presbyterian Church. The other may have simply been occasional services by a traveling preacher.

It was the Presbyterians who first took of the challenge of providing a proper church building for Anaheim. The congregation was formally organized in March 1870 with just nine members and immediately issued a call to Rev. Lemuel Webber, who arrived in June.[7] The early membership seems to lean heavily on the ranchers who had only recently settled in the area around the original townsite.

In the summer of 1871, fund raising began for their first church. At the time the congregation was meeting in the schoolhouse, where visiting preachers from other denominations also held services from time to time.[8] But the school room was stuffy, and the seating uncomfortable, so a year later the Presbyterians moved downtown to Enterprise Hall, conveniently located upstairs from the Enterprise Saloon. (It was said the proprietors were considerate enough to stop the billiard plays during service time, so the clacking of the balls wouldn’t interrupt them.)

By that time, the congregation had cash and pledges totaling $1,915, but felt they would need $3,000 for a proper sanctuary. Heimann & George, two local developers who were subdividing one of the old vineyard lots near the center of the townsite, offered two lots on the tract as a gift, and the congregation bought an adjoining lot so the property would reach Los Angeles Street (now Anaheim Blvd.).[9]

Work began on the Presbyterian Church in March 1873, but seem to drag on longer than expected.[10] It was finally dedicated in August, and after a final appeal from Rev. Webber, was debt free.[11]

Other denominations followed in the late 19th century (notably St. Michael’s Episcopal Church), but to emphasize Dr. Friis’ point, it was not until 1903 that a Lutheran Church was founded in Anaheim.

There are other hints of the religious life of Anaheim in the 1870s scattered through the files of the local paper – and some suggestion of what fueled some of those attitudes. For its first Christmas in 1870, the Anaheim Gazette described the local festivities “in the high old German style” without any mention of religious services.[12]

Some Anaheimers also had little use for Sunday laws, which closed the saloons on the Sabbath – or even the notion of businesses closing at all on Sundays.

In 1872, local shop clerks pushed for a Sunday store closing. Rev. John Marquis – who was associated with the local Presbyterian Church – rose to their defense:

“Nothing could do more to commend Anaheim as a place of residence, to whose location amongst us would be desired, than to secure an orderly observance of the Sabbath and a due respect for the worship of the sanctuary. Let it no longer be said on the other side of the continent that Anaheim is remarkable for nothing but her disregard of the Sabbath and ordinances of God’s house. The better instincts of all her German citizens revolt at such representations of their nationality, and we feel sure they will by no means be the first to invite a violation of pledges so honorably given by her business men.”[13]

Eventually the state stepped in and took action, passing a “Sunday Law” closing all saloons one day a week. It went in effect on January 1, 1873.[14]

“Everybody stood around the corners of the streets and gazed wistfully at the closed doors of the whiskey saloons, where in the happy days by-gone they were wont to meet,” the Southern Californian reported, adding this bit of doggerel:

“Hope for a season

bids the world farewell,

And freedom shrieks

‘California Legislature go

to ______.’ ”

The story closes with the suggestion that customers try the back doors of the local saloons next Sunday.[15]

How much the strong ties between the temperance and prohibition movements (they are two different things) and other Christian reform movements influenced some early Anaheimers' opinions on organized religion is unclear. But certainly some of the pioneers in this wine-making colony perceived the anti-liquor movements as a threat to both their freedom and their livelihood.

Henry Kroeger (1830-1921) came in 1862 and served as Anaheim’s second mayor. He lived long enough to see national Prohibition put in force. A few years before he had stated: “Our Anaheim is an open place. We have a big brewery and three wineries and seven saloons, besides we have nine churches, and most of our preachers are against saloons. So you can see we have a hard fight to keep our liberty.”[16]

Around 1912 he complained about a traveling evangelist who had been working up the local crowds for prohibition. “What can we do with him?” he asked. “He is protected by our government and can insult us as much as he pleases … assisted by some of our meddlesome preachers, who ought to know better.”

He then reminisces a little about the “olden times,” when residents sometimes had to “take justice into our own hands” – citing several violent examples. The implication seems clear. Wine makers “built up this city,” he adds, and “Now come these trouble makers and try to spoil our whole prosperity…. If it does not suit them here, why don’t they leave to some other dry place? … May our Lord deliver us from all such fanatic people….”[17]

The whole subject of the role of churches in the development of early communities in Orange County deserves more study.

The Anaheim Presbyterian Church, circa 1908 (Courtesy the Anaheim Public Library).

The Anaheim Presbyterian Church, circa 1908 (Courtesy the Anaheim Public Library).


[1] Leo J. Friis, When Anaheim was 21 (Santa Ana: Pioneer Press, 1968), pp 33-39. The book is built around the sole surviving copy of an 1878 business directory of the City of Anaheim.

[2] Southern California, February 17, 1872.

[3] Ibid., March 2, 1872. The writer is only identified by the pen name “Homo.”

[4] Ibid., April 6, 1872. The editor at the time was Charles A. Gardner, who actually seems to have been something of a Spiritualist. He served as secretary for a Spiritualist Convention held just outside of town that summer, devoting almost three columns to his account of the various speakers (where the murder of one the local constables by one of his fellow lawmen gets less than a column). Several Anaheim residents spoke, but the keynote was from Los Angeles nurseryman Thomas Garey, who among other things suggested that Jesus Christ might be nothing but a myth. Gardner once described himself as one of those “who attend divine services but seldom.” (Anaheim Gazette, November 8, 1871.)

[5] Southern Californian, December 28, 1872.

[6] Los Angeles Star, November 20, 1869.

[7] Southern Californian, July 6, 1872. Rev. Webber would soon go on to found Westminster.

[8] These would include the Congregationalists (1870), Methodists (1870), Methodist South (1872), and a Rev. John Wernly, who offered a German service on Sunday in 1872 where “all Catholics, Protestants and Jews are invited.” (Southern Californian, July 6, 1872.)

[9] Southern Californian, July 6, August 24, 1872. No doubt Heimann & George were following the lead of other developers of the day, who often provided free lots to congregations, seeing a church as an amenity for their tract. Columbus Tustin, and Alfred Chapman and Andrew Glassell, the founders of Orange, all gave away church sites in the early 1870s.

[10] Southern Californian, March 15, April 19, May 3, August 16, 1873.

[11] Ibid., August 30, 1873. The building – much remodeled – still stands at 129 E. Cypress in downtown Anaheim.

[12] Anaheim Gazette, December 31, 1870.

[13] Southern Californian, July 6, 1872.

[14] Ibid., December 28, 1872.

[15] Ibid., January 11, 1873. The paper was then owned by Richard Melrose, a co-owner of the Enterprise Saloon! George C. Knox was the editor.

[16] Quoted in the Anaheim Bulletin, September 6, 1957.

[17] Ibid. Yet Kroeger was also quick to point out at other times that he had helped get several churches built in town, including Zion Lutheran. He was also apparently a trustee of the local Methodist Church in the early 1880s (see the Kroeger family file at the Anaheim Heritage Center). A few years before another Anaheim preacher complained that the Mother Colony was “born in a vineyard, cradled in a winery and fed on the product of the breweries.” (Fullerton Tribune, March 8, 1906.)