This year the First Congregational Church of Santa Barbara celebrates its 150th anniversary. The Congregationalists were the first Protestant parish to formally organize here when they were chartered in 1867.
As may be imagined, Santa Barbara’s population under Spanish and then Mexican rule was totally Roman Catholic in faith. The handful of Protestants who settled here in the years before 1850 almost invariably converted to Catholicism — a requirement for anyone wishing to marry into a Californio family or obtain a grant of land from the government.
The situation began to change with the influx of Easterners due to the gold rush in Northern California at the end of the 1840s, followed by California statehood in 1850. Americans of various Protestant denominations began to make their way to the Santa Barbara area after failing to strike it rich in the goldfields. Add to this an increasing number coming directly from the east, and by the middle of the 1850s there was a growing demand by these newcomers to have the chance to worship in the faith in which they were raised.
A Methodist circuit rider reportedly preached the first Protestant sermon here in 1854, but the Protestant population was as yet too small to support a permanent pastoral presence. It was not until 12 years later that a small group of Congregationalists established the first regular schedule of services.
David A. Nidever invited the Reverend Joseph A. Johnson of San Bernardino to relocate to Santa Barbara. Rev. Johnson conducted his first service in November 1866 in the John Kays adobe, which at that time was also serving as the county courthouse and jail. The adobe was located on the same block where the present-day courthouse now stands. Johnson performed the first Protestant church wedding in this adobe in 1867, as well as the first Protestant baptism. He also served as the Sunday school superintendent.
The Congregationalists took the next step in November 1867 when they were chartered as the Ecclesiastical Society of Congregational Faith and Order. With 16 members, they became the first formally organized Protestant congregation in Santa Barbara. Two months later, Rev. 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 begin a controversial tenure as editor of the Santa Barbara Press.
A permanent home for the congregation was next on the agenda. Again, Nidever played an important role, as did local attorney Charles E. Huse. Ministers came from up and down the state to take part in the ceremonial laying of the cornerstone at the southwest corner of Santa Barbara and Ortega streets in September 1869. The brick church, built at a cost of $9,000, was dedicated in May 1870.
The congregation grew steadily during the balance of the 19th century. One of its most active parishioners during these years was kindergarten pioneer Kate Douglas Wiggin, author of the best-selling book Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. The church formally incorporated in 1887. By the end of the decade the congregation had outgrown its brick home, and in 1889 a new church, at Figueroa and Anacapa streets, was dedicated.
Santa Barbara Historical Museum