Santa Cruz County History - Religion & Spirituality

Santa Cruz Spirituality: Historical Summary
by Paul Tutwiler

About Santa Cruz

Representation of the Original Mission Santa Cruz
A representation of the original Mission Santa Cruz
From Santa Cruz Public Libraries' Postcard Collection.

This history of Santa Cruz spirituality is about the whole county of Santa Cruz California, which lies on the north side of Monterey Bay and consists of a narrow strip of populous coastal plain behind which rise low, but rugged mountains. It was a region of the Ohlone People until Spain took effective possession of it with the establishment of the Santa Cruz Mission in 1791 and the Branciforte Pueblo in 1797. In 1821 it came under the control of the new Mexican government, but this period came to an end in 1848, when Santa Cruz became an American outpost. And outpost it might have remained in spite of its richness of timber, limestone, and pasturage had not the gold rush of 1848 first siphoned off its work force but then created a demand for its products. From that time the north end of the county, the Santa Cruz City area, was a commercial stronghold and the Watsonville area, the south end of the county, was heavily agricultural. The county grew in population and activity along with the rest of California. In 1965, however, the city of Santa Cruz became the home of the ninth campus of the University of California System, and this presence, plus an enduring effect of the 1960s social upheavals, gave it and the surrounding area a new and different character.


Were it not for the changes brought to Santa Cruz in the 1960s it would be satisfying to compose, among other historical studies, the history of its churches. Now, however, the churches - or, more properly, the church congregations - are only part of the wider picture of the place's spirituality. Today's Santa Cruz has been called weird, a refuge of latter-day hippies, of carefree surfers, and of performance artists. If these people are not religious in the traditional sense, nevertheless many of them are spiritual, which is to say that they base their lives on a conviction that the world has reality and meaning beyond what meets the eye and can be touched and weighed. The several spiritualities which coexist in Santa Cruz include 1) older and newer forms of Christianity, 2) the beliefs and practices of Asia, from Judaism in the west of it to Zen Buddhism in the east, and 3) peculiar spiritualities which do not fall under the first two broad headings.

The current spiritualities of Santa Cruz belong to peoples who migrated here in recent historical time from Europe, Asia, and Africa. The Ohlone people, who possessed the area before all these, had a deep appreciation of nature and of their unity with it. Unfortunately their historical continuity has been lost, but there is some knowledge about them, and some of their descendants are trying to restore it. Another people, one that came from India by way of Europe, maintaining, in spite of all, a racial, cultural, and spiritual identity were the Roma - known commonly as Gypsies. In both ends of the county these were seen as foreigners, undesirables. Run out of town innumerable times, they eventually stopped coming, and their spirituality is lost to Santa Cruz County.

Christian Churches of the European Forefathers

As the Europeans migrated to America they brought with them their Christian Churches, Catholic, Protestant, and, to a lesser extent, Orthodox. Except for Spanish Catholicism, this movement proceeded westward from the Eastern American states to California and Santa Cruz. Here is a table showing when they established worshipping congregations in Santa Cruz:

Church North County South County
Catholic 1791 1856
Methodist 1848 1852
Baptist 1858 1914
Presbyterian 1889* 1860
Episcopalian 1862 1868
Lutheran 1930 1880
Orthodox 1962

* Santa Cruz Presbyterians of 1857 voted to join with the Congregationalists. The two groups called their church Congregational, but they professed a Presbyterian Confession of Faith.

The change over the years of the relative sizes of these groups can be shown by the percentages of Santa Cruzans stating their religious preference:

Year Catholic Protestant
1890 46% 27%
2000 63% 14%

Methods of counting church members are not uniform, but the main factor to be considered is that in 1890 only a fifth of the population expressed a preference, and in 2000 preference was stated by about one third of the people.

Christian Churches of American Origin

In the nineteenth century American Protestant Christianity began to take on forms that were sufficiently different from the European ones to constitute new denominations. The indigenous denominations number in the hundreds, and only a few of them have grown enough to take a place among the religious forces in the country. Most of the major ones, however, at least made their way to Santa Cruz, and here is a table showing when they were founded and when they established worshipping congregations in the county:

Church Founded North County South County
Congregational 1648 1852 1884
Chr. Ch./Ch. of Christ 1807 1890 1859
Adventist 1844 1859 1925
Unitarian 1786 1866
Latter Day Saints 1830 1946 1873
Pentecostal 1906 1909 1921

The change in the size of this group of indigenous churches as a whole can be shown by the percentage of Santa Cruzans stating one or the other of the group as a religious preference:

1890 15%
2000 11%

(The Congregationals lost the most; the Pentecostals gained the most.)

Asian Spirituality

Watsonville Buddhist Temple
Watsonville Buddhist Temple
From Santa Cruz Public Libraries' Photograph Collection.

Setting aside the matter of the geographical origin of Christianity, one finds in Santa Cruz spiritual groups which come from the whole range of Asia, west to east. Before World War II only Judaism among them was found close to mainstream American life, although there were ethnic enclaves of Buddhists, Hindus, and Chinese Tao-Confucianists. Repeal of Asian immigration restriction laws after World War II and after the Vietnam War led to a great influx of South and East Asians, along with their spiritualities. The social changes of the 1960s also brought about the Americanization of these and of some West Asian spiritualities, so that many of them are now demographically mixed American. This table shows when they established worshipping congregations in Santa Cruz:

Spiritual Body North County South County
Judaism 1869
Tao-Confucian 1880s 1880s
Buddhist 1888 1905
Hindu 1935 1978
Islam 1973 2005
Baha'i 1974 1975
Sikh 1977

If all the residents of Jewish, Arab, and Persian ethnicity are assumed to have adhered to their traditional religion, then they amounted to 2% of all those who expressed religious preference in 1890 and 10% of all those who expressed religious preference in 2000.

In the 1890 study 0% claimed any of the other Asian spiritualities, although there were at least several hundred ethnic Chinese and Japanese who frequented Confucian and Buddhist temples. There are no figures at all regarding adherents to South and East Asian spiritualities in the 2000 study, but one assumes that the county's more than 30 worship and/or conference facilities representing them must have some formal members.

Other Spiritualities

Ancient spiritualities are present now in various forms, such as Wicca. Historically recurrent beliefs, such as Gnosticism, can be found here, as can newer kinds of spirituality, such as Theosophy, that link themselves with the distant past. Other religious movements have based themselves on links between spirituality and science. Finally, there is the non-dogmatic faith in the oneness of all things, which is found in the New Age and Hippie movements. These special groups can be categorized under the four headings which are listed below, along with the dates of their entry as groups in the county.

Group North County South County
Spiritualist 1850 1866
Mystery practices 1886
Christian Science 1897 1898
New Age/Hippie 1965* 1976

* These groups and their dates are hard to find; the date stated here is at least documented.

The numbers of adherents involved are small. In 1890, for instance, there were 60 Spiritualists and 9 Theosophists reported, but a similar 2000 study, extensive in other regards, gives no counts for either of these groups.

Conclusions about California Spirituality

It is said that Santa Cruzans feel that their shores and mountains have a special spirituality, that this is a place where all can think as they please, where they are not bound by history and dogma, or at least that their opinions are private affairs and are in harmony with the surf and the forests. Politically this attitude seems to have translated itself into a brand of liberalism which makes the place sublimely open to the world but at the same time jealously closed to the world's intrusion. In the hearts of Santa Cruzans, however, it is a worldview that continues to feel the freshness of one's first awe-inspiring sight of this little world "over the hill" from San Jose and the joy at having found the place where one is in harmony with whatever there is that is both out there and deep inside one's self.

Stepping out of Santa Cruz into the rest of California, however, one finds a similar worldview to be widespread. Several brief points can profitably be made in this regard.

First, the renowned sunny, pleasant climate of California,

represented a kind of exterior assurance that inner, psychological affirmations of health, happiness, and prosperity were attuned with cosmic harmony. California was an outer manifestation of inner abundance; a place where the possibilities were endless. (Simmons, John K. and Brian Wilson, Competing Visions of Paradise: The California Experience of 19th Century American Sectarianism, Santa Barbara: Fithian Press, 1993. 66-67.)

Then, there was the romantic attitude to the majestic mountains of the state and the awe inspiring beauty to be seen in them. The vision of an uplifting nature, of a nature that unfolded historically not by "survival of the fittest," but by an impetus of positive, divine force, a nature that was a divinely written book to be read, understood, and felt by man, was given voice and vigor by John Muir. This transplanted Scotsman and Wisconsinite combined his emotional awe with meticulous scientific observation and so produced a view of California that satisfied both poles of the human attitude toward nature. The recent, copiously annotated, biography of Muir by Donald Worster, A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir, (Oxford University Press, 2008) describes this complex phenomenon.

California's physical attributes led John Muir to influential conclusions. Ferenc Morton Szasz, in Religion in the Modern American West, observes that

Euro-Americans held a much more constructed [compared to Native Americans] view of sacred space, limiting it to a graveyard, a church or synagogue interior, or an altar. Although both Judaism and Christianity share the concept of the stewardship of land, this view was marginalized at the dawn of the twentieth century. Perhaps John Muir's greatest contribution was to broaden this concept of stewardship to the country at large." (p. 64)

At the core of Muir's environmental accomplishments lay his vision of the interconnectedness of all life. Growing to maturity in a world of Darwinian materialism and rapacious utilization of natural resources, Muir's forging of a new relationship between humankind and Nature represented a genuine intellectual breakthrough for the Euro-American mainstream." (p. 65)

Other authors also point to Muir's pivotal position in the development of California spirituality. Thus, Sandra Sizer Frankiel in California's Spiritual Frontiers, pp. 120-125, compares Muir's spirituality with that of California religious groups, and Eldon G. Ernst considers the spectacular qualities of California topography which influenced Muir and helped form California Protestantism in Pilgrim Progression, pp. 56-61.

A somewhat different point is made by Szasz, loc cit, p. 198:

As historian Eldon G. Ernst has noted, California never produced any religious mainstream. From the beginning, the various faiths have all been minority faiths, juxtaposed against a dominant secular culture. California has changed our whole understanding of what it means to be religious, Ernst argues. While one might easily comprehend what it means to be religious in, say, Boise, Amarillo, or Provo, what does it mean to be religious in Los Angeles?

A 1990 Lilly Foundation report concluded that the majority of Californians were spiritual but not conventional in their religious belief patterns. Without the structure provided by historic faith traditions, however, such spirituality often becomes formless, guided by individual whim. Consequently, many describe Los Angeles as a city filled with people who lack social ties. In such a world of pluralistic belief patterns, religion has emerged as yet another 'consumer item.' Los Angeles has enormous choice in this regard.... It is likely that Southern California will continue to lead the nation in this tremendous range of individual religious options. If western individualism is more spiritual than atheistic (and all surveys seem to suggest that this is so), then those that can best respond to this situation will be those that will thrive in the future.

All authors who tell the story of the religious evolution of California mention perforce the enormous immigration of fortune-seekers to Northern California in the Gold Rush and the concomitant shortage of women, and therefore of family life. About fifty years later, they go on, began the even greater migration of Americans to Southern California. All the traditions of spirituality found in the state were affected by these historical accidents. Nevertheless, it is justly said of the events in the history of California spirituality in general that they "do not mark California as religiously unique so much as they make California a distinctive reflector and bellwether of American religious developments." (Eldon G. Ernst, Pilgrim Progression, p. 90)

Several of the sources I consulted on the history of religion in California make the point that in the past fewer Californians claimed membership in religious bodies than Americans in general. The 1890 U. S. religious census, for example, showed 33% of all Americans, but only 23% of Californians to be church members. In the 2000 ARDA survey, however, although the proportion of all American church members had increased by a half, to 50%, that of California church members had more than doubled, to 46%. Even so, one must remember that many Americans who are not church members consider themselves to be religious. Thus, in spite of the ARDA figure of 50%, the American Religious Identity Survey of 2001 showed that 76% of all Americans considered themselves Christian, 13% called themselves non-religious or secular, 1% adhered to the Jewish religion, and no other religious body claimed as much as one-half of one percent of the population. The largest affiliation of any kind was Catholic, which claimed 24% of the total population, then came Baptist, with 16%. (The American Religious Identity Survey was conducted by researchers of the City University of New York. It comes to this study via the website 2005, which presents many similar studies and notes the varying methodologies which are used in them, demonstrating in so doing that the ARIS figures are consistent with others.)

The Catholic Church is the largest by membership in California as it is in 35 other states, but the religious body which has the greatest number of congregations in California is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and this is true of seven other states. (Churches and Church Membership in the United States, 1990. Glenmary Research Center, Mars Hill, North Carolina, which comes to this study via ARDA, as reported in 2005)

It is also the case that the distribution of religious preferences throughout the state is not uniform. Every source that deals with the religious evolution of the state points out that Northern California is in general religiously more liberal than Southern, although Southern California is more given to extremes, having more activity in both alternative spiritualities and in fundamentalist evangelicalism.

There is also a marked dichotomy between coastal counties and inland counties as shown by Mark DiCamillo, the Field Poll, February, 2006, "Three California Election Megatrends and Their Implications in the 2006 Gubernatorial Election," on the website in Spring, 2006):

Religion Costal Population Inland Population
Protestant 34% 44%
Born again Christian 21% 34%
Catholic 26% 25%
Other religion 22% 18%
No religious preference 18% 13%

Conclusions about Santa Cruz Spirituality

It is easy to apply to Santa Cruz the points just made about California spirituality. Furthermore, the very ordinariness of the vast majority of the associations in this study shows that Santa Cruz has not been an exception to the general flow of religious development in the United States and in California, i. e., that the Catholic church and the Old-line Protestant churches came west and flourished. Recently the Old-line Protestant churches have yielded their relative dominance to the Pentecostal denominations and to congregations which are historically rooted in the old-line, but which call themselves "community" or "bible" churches. This phenomenon, however, is a part of the evolving general American scene. Some movements, like the Holiness churches and the Christian Spiritualist churches, had their days many decades ago, but this, too, is the American experience.

As shown by the numbers and percentages reported above, the proportion of Santa Cruz church members is lower than that of Californians as a whole: in 1890 it was 26% of Californians and 21% of Santa Cruz County residents, and in 2000 it was 46% of Californians and 34% of county residents. This is consistent, however, with the differences just mentioned between coastal and inland California voters' religious preferences.

Two unique characteristics, nevertheless, stand out. The one is that Santa Cruz County is, and has been for well over 100 years, a place of retreat and conference centers. A few of these have been along the ocean shore, but most of them have been and still are in the mountains ringing the city. In huge encampments like that of the Annual Seventh Day Adventists on Old San Jose Road and in the hidden, quiet places like the Fasting Prayer Mountain of the World in Scotts Valley, people of Santa Cruz and elsewhere come to pray, meditate, or just plain be in an atmosphere conducive to such activity.

The other characteristic is that Santa Cruz has had far more than its statistical share of South and East Asian spiritual influence. Even compared with other California coastal cities, Santa Cruz has a great variety of Hindu and Buddhist centers. It also has an astoundingly large number of services that derive from Asian worldviews: yoga and meditation instruction, traditional Indian and Chinese medicine, feng shui, and martial arts. Some statistics regarding these services are included in Chapter 5 Particulars.

People also point to the communal movement of the 1960s and 70s, especially the hippie movement, as being a part of Santa Cruz spirituality, and indeed this is true, but it appears that the main reason was the convenience of finding suitable sites for group living in the mountains.

The thoughtful visitor will be struck by the scarcity of traditional American church structures in downtown Santa Cruz. There are only three, Greek Orthodox, Episcopal, and Progressive Missionary Baptist; two others, Catholic and Presbyterian, are on the edge of the city center. This is a small number for a city the size of Santa Cruz, and it might create an impression of an anti-church or at least a non-church community. The fact is, nevertheless, that large and bustling congregations exist throughout the city, and they are the result of a mass displacement of churches that occurred between 1954 and 1965. Before then the Synagogue, the Christian Church, the Congregational Church, the Baptist Church, the Unitarian Church, the Methodist Church, and the Advent Christian Church all had their own conspicuous buildings not far from the corner of Center and Lincoln Streets, a place called "Churchside." Every one of these congregations built a new structure away from downtown and moved there between 1954 and 1965. Before that the churches of Santa Cruz were a notable attraction for weekend visitors from San Francisco, San Jose, and elsewhere, and they were a feature of what the visitor would have felt to be Santa Cruz spirituality. (Ross Eric Gibson, "Churches once a Santa Cruz attraction," San Jose Mercury News, Nov. 22, 1994)

One might, however, observe that using the car on Sunday became a part of the spirituality of Santa Cruzans just as it did for others in California and in the rest of the country.

All in all, the spirituality of Santa Cruz may not be as close to unique as it seems at first sight to be, but the story presented by the associations in this study is rich, complex, and fascinating.

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