Early Unitarians in Nevada

Virginia City, Nevada, was a Far Western mining town that came into being c. 1859, soon after silver began being mined from the famous Comstock Lode. After the Comstock Lode ceased producing profitable ore in 1898, Virginia City’s population declined precipitously. During the 1870s, there was a small Unitarian organization in Virginia City.

Mary McNair Mathews, in her memoir Ten Years in Nevada: or, Life on the Pacific Coast (1880; reprint 1985, University of Nebraska Press, p. 194), wrote: “There are churches here [in Virginia City] of every denomination, except the Universalist. All have their own churches except the Unitarians or Liberalists, as they term themselves. They hold their services at the National Guard Hall….” Mathews lived in Virginia City from 1869 to 1878.

This Virgnia City Unitarian congregation predates the organization of the Reno Unitarian Church under Revs. Mila and Rezin Maynard in 1893 by some twenty years.

How did Unitarianism come to Virginia City? At least one Unitarian preacher visited Virginia City, but he went there for other purposes. Rev. Thomas Starr King, the dynamic Unitarian minister in San Francisco, spoke in Virginia City in 1860 on a lecture tour promoting Abraham Lincoln, the Republican party, and the Union. “A speaking tour took him through the mining towns…. The high point of this tour was his lecture in Virginia City, the ‘citadel of secession’.” (Arnold Crompton, Unitarianism on the Pacific Coast, p. 33.) King visited Virgnia City again in 1863. However, I simply don’t whether or not his visits sparked an interest in Unitarianism.

By 1865, the American Unitarian Association (AUA) had noticed Virginia City. In its January, 1865, issue (vol. VI no. 1), the Unitarian Monthly Journal reported on a special meeting of the AUA. Rev. Henry W. Bellows addressed the Association about possibilities for growth, and he specifically mentioned Unitarianism in Virginia City: “He [Bellows] then spoke of California as an illustration of what we might do for the religious quickening of masses of men, and mentioned seven places on the Pacific coast in which he thought societies could be started with reasonable prospect of success. At Sacramento there were twenty Unitarian families. Then there were Stockton, Marysville, Virginia City in Nevada….” However, I don’t know if the AUA followed up on Bellows’s suggestion of starting a Unitarian church in Virginia City.

It also seems quite possible that people who were already Unitarians moved to Virginia City and simply started a church.

One thought on “Early Unitarians in Nevada

  1. Elz

    Dan, this is great! As I struggle to get the garden shaped up after some past neglect, I’ve been wondering where UU congregations come from. Do seeds drop unnoticed, as if in the waste of scurrying rodents and flying birds? Do roots reach around underground, feeling, with nerves we don’t know about, for rain and sun and wind? Is it some combination?

    And then there’s this, from Jesus of Nazareth. A person was walking down the road with a parcel of mustard seeds. Some of them fell on stony ground and dried up in the sun. Some fell on sandy soil, blossomed briefly, then, for lack of deep roots, blew away. Some fell into bushes and were choked (I am doing this by memory, not quoting exactly). Others fell on fertile soil and (if we integrate a second parable) after some time, burst forth into blossoms for harvest.

    Why does this matter? It matters because our polity — currently undergoing a historic revision — assumes it knows the requirements for circumstances and processes by which our congregations can take root and thrive. Your story suggests there is much more to learn.

Comments are closed.