This question is actually a little trickier than might appear at first glance. The first sermon preached by a Protestant minister in Santa Barbara took place in 1854. The first group to hold regular services was the Congregationalists, beginning in 1866. The first church to incorporate under California law were the Episcopalians, in 1867, and they also completed construction of the city’s first Protestant church building two years later.
As may be imagined, Santa Barbara’s population under Spanish, then Mexican, rule, was virtually 100 percent Roman Catholic in faith. The handful of Protestants who settled here in the years before 1850 almost invariably converted to Catholicism, which was required for anyone wishing to marry into a Californio family or to obtain a grant of land from the government.
This situation began to change with the influx of Easterners to California at the end of the 1840s due to the gold rush, followed by statehood in 1850. Protestant Americans began to make their way to the South Coast after failing to strike it rich in the gold fields, and by the middle of the 1850s there was a growing demand by these newcomers to have the chance to worship in their accustomed faiths.
Reverend Adam Bland, a Methodist, preached the first Protestant sermon in the city in 1854. Bland was a circuit rider, traveling around the state to minister in towns that contained Protestant populations that were too small to support a permanent pastoral presence. He delivered the sermon at the Aguirre adobe located in the first block of East Carrillo Street, which, until damaged in the mid 1840s, had been one of the grandest private residences in the city. The deteriorating adobe would serve as the meeting place for a number of Protestant congregations well into the 1870s.
The next watershed event in the early history of Santa Barbara Protestantism was the establishment of a regular schedule of services by the Congregationalists in 1866. David A. Nidever approached the Reverend Joseph A. Johnson of San Bernardino to relocate to Santa Barbara. Johnson conducted his first service in November 1866 in the Kays adobe, which was also serving as the county courthouse and jail. The adobe was located about where the present-day courthouse stands. Johnson also performed the first Protestant marriage ceremony in the adobe in 1867, as well as the first Protestant baptism.
The group took the next step when they were chartered as the Ecclesiastical Society of Congregational Faith and Order, with 16 members, in November 1867. Two months later Johnson was asked to stay on at an annual salary of $1,200. Johnson would continue to minister to his flock until leaving in the spring of 1869 to become editor of the Santa Barbara Press.
The construction of the first Protestant church building here was begun in the fall of 1868, by the Episcopalians. Founded at the end of 1866, the congregation was the first Protestant group to formally incorporate under state law, in March 1867. The congregation took the name “Trinity” for their church, and today the Trinity Episcopal Church is a familiar sight at the corner of State and Micheltorena streets. Dedication of the parish’s initial church, in the first block of East Gutierrez Street, was celebrated Christmas Day, 1868. The pews had not yet arrived, and the congregation had to make do with boards laid on wooden boxes. Construction was completed in early 1869.
The growth in the number and size of various Protestant denominations would continue apace in the coming decades, all part of Santa Barbara’s transition into an American city.