The Start of Methodists in Santa Rosa
True to our tradition of frontier religion, Methodism soon followed Russian Orthodoxy and Catholicism. The exact origins of Methodism in Sonoma County are unclear. There seems to have been several circuit riders not officially related to any Annual Conference who were in the area from 1849 on. The book “Story Of My Life”, by Methodist Bishop William Taylor, 1895, found by Jo Bodle in Indiana, gives his description about the arrival of the first Methodist ministers in the area. As you read it, there are three people in particular who have close ties to our church: Isaac Owen, who later built the first Methodist church in Sonoma County in the town of Sonoma; Asa White, or “Blue Tent White” as he was know by reputation in San Francisco, who was our pastor from 1857 to 1859; and James Corwin who was our pastor in 1859 to 1861.
In 1850, only fifteen years after the last mission padre left the Sonoma mission and returned to the San Rafael mission, Isaac Owen packed his saddlebags and went to Sonoma to found the first Protestant Church in the north bay area.
Gaye LeBaron’s book “Santa Rosa A Nineteenth Century Town” tells about the start of organized religion in Santa Rosa. The Lebanon Baptist Church was the first organized congregation in the Santa Rosa area, with the circuit riding Reverend Steven Riley holding meetings in Martin Hudson's cabin in the Los Guilucos valley, six miles east of what was to become the town center. When the membership outgrew the Hudson home, the congregation moved outdoors under the branches of a large live oak tree.
That proving to be "too open to both the winter storms and the summer cows", the entire community joined in with their Baptist neighbors and erected the first church building, locating it in the short-lived town of Franklin. The next church to organize in the Santa Rosa area was the Methodist church.
The Southern Methodists arrived first. The Reverend Solomon Smith of the Methodist Episcopal Church (South) visited the Santa Rosa valley in 1851 or 1852. At first he was not connected to any conference, but none the less was an active preacher. In 1853 he was officially appointed to the Bodega Bay Circuit. Santa Rosa was a preaching point on that circuit, and the first services were held in the Baptist church in Franklin before the town of Santa Rosa was founded. The Methodist Episcopal (South) continued to meet in Baptist churches until 1868, when a church was erected at the corner of Fifth and B Streets.
It appears that the Methodist Episcopal Church began as part of the old Russian River Circuit. Santa Rosa was laid out in 1853, and our first records indicate that the Reverend A. L. S. Bateman was appointed to that circuit in 1854. Bateman conducted services first in the courthouse, and then in the home of appropriately named Judge Churchman. The first Methodist Episcopal Church building was erected in 1861, at the corner of Third and D Streets.