For More Than 160 Years
More than 160 years of God’s Amazing Grace! That is the testimony of the Santa Rosa Christian Church, and that is the witness of its history in this section. This story of God’s great goodness experienced for over a century and a half now recorded so others might know and be encouraged by what He has done.
Our history tells of His deeds, His power, and His wonders among the Santa Rosa Christian Church – the outworking of His amazing grace to a people dependent and dedicated to Him. He has always been faithful and loving, and that by His providence He has enabled us to serve thousands of people in this community and around the world. We celebrate His grace among us and we thank Him for every individual He has used to contribute to our heritage.
We have enjoyed the privilege of generations of men, women, and families who have sacrificially given themselves in small and big ways to further God’s kingdom. Today we exist and move forward because we stand on the shoulders of their faithful efforts and we confess our commitment to continue the legacy. We purpose to serve God in our own generation thus extending His continuum of Amazing Grace.
“tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD, his power, and the wonders he has done…so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children. Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds…” Psalms 78:4, 6-7 NIV
Our Story : The History of SRCC
Laying the foundation: 1854-1904
Santa Rosa in 1854
Santa Rosa was very much a frontier town in a frontier state in 1854, yet the folks who came to live here were seeking to establish a settled and stable community. America in 1854 was deeply divided by regional and cultural differences. We were a land of immigrants who often didn’t care for the ethnic groups who lived close by. Our growing urban centers reflected a lifestyle far different in both economic and social endeavors than the simple mode of living in the large rural areas. Although a generally religious nation, the various churches around the country differed greatly in their approach to worship and service, and often bickered incessantly.
Political strife was a fact of life. Sonoma County was a hotbed of volatile political feelings. It was here that the Bear Flag Revolt occurred, where Sonomans had declared their independence just a few years before, ushering California from a sleepy province of Mexico to the western outpost of the United States. It was here also that jealous Santa Rosans slipped into the courthouse in Sonoma during the middle of the night, stealing the county records, bringing them to Santa Rosa, after holding a contested election that declared Santa Rosa the seat of county government.
Our Church in the Early Years
Into this culture and setting twelve recent immigrant families began to congregate and form what is now the Santa Rosa Christian Church. These founding members were united by their belief in Christ and their common commitment to the principles of the “Restoration Movement”. Popularly called “Campbellites”, because two of the earliest leaders were Thomas and Alexander Campbell, father and son, this movement began during the great frontier revivals in the South and Midwest in the 1820’s and 1830’s. The movement stressed Christian unity and personal spiritual renewal. Eschewing the denominationalism of the day, which often featured bitter feuds between churches, they sought to restore both the form and the spirit of New Testament Christianity. They formed independent local congregations using as their rule the “plain Gospel of Christ”, looking to the Bible rather than tradition as their guide. A popular motto for the movement was “We speak where the scriptures speak: where they are silent, we are silent”. Believers usually took the name “Disciples of Christ” or “Christian Church” for local meetings. Adult baptism was practiced, as was weekly communion, unusual for Protestant Churches at the time (and today as well!).
When the word spread that a group of Restoration believers had settled in the Santa Rosa plain, two leaders of the movement in California, Thomas Thompson and John McCorkle, decided it was time to take them under their wings. Thompson, a gifted organizer, was considered the father of Restoration Christian churches in California after founding a number of meetings in the north state. He had met McCorkle when the young, fiery frontier preacher moved to Napa in 1852. Together they had a tremendous impact, with McCorkle’s preaching and Thompson’s people skills.
The First Church Meetings in Franklin
The new Santa Rosa Christian Church first met in the tiny settlement of Franklin, located near where Montgomery Village is today, in a building erected by the Baptists in 1853. The charter members included Thomas B. Hood, a prominent merchant and local leader; James Fulton, a large landowner after whom the town of Fulton was named; Harrison Valentine, Coleman Talbot, and RichardFulkerson, all landowners who have streets named after them today in Santa Rosa; along with J.M. Case and Samuel Hand and their families.
Moving to Santa Rosa
By 1856 it was clear that Santa Rosa and not Franklin was destined to grow into a city and the little meeting house was moved by six yoke of oxen to the corner of 3rd and D Streets. Feeling constrained by sharing the building with the Baptists, the fledgling congregation moved to the county courthouse until they were given a lot to build a place of their own by Santa Rosa’s first citizen Julio Carrillo. They traded this for a lot on B Street between 4th and 5th Streets and in 1857 they erected the first building of a Campbellite congregation in California. Though remodeled several times and even moved once, to 429 5th Street, this first building served the congregation for many years.
Pastor John McCorkle was probably the best known and most popular preacher in California during the early days of the church. Not only did he serve SRCC for ten years, but along with Thompson established sister groups in Geyserville, Healdsburg, Yountville, and Napa. He was the typical frontier preacher of the day; long beard, dressed in homespun cloth, delivering fiery sermons often outdoors. An account of the day states that when he did speak in a building his sermons could be heard “outside and far down the street.”
The Restoration Movement and SRCC
Because of the rural roots of the Restoration Movement, yearly camp meetings were regularly held as early as 1855 for anyone who cared to come across northern California. These “tent revivals” were extremely popular with many arriving from even hundreds of miles away. In 1860 SRCC hosted the first of five such meetings that would be held locally until the late 1870’s. It took place at “Big Plains”, where today Fulton Road crosses Mark West Creek.
At this meeting the first statewide statistics on the other Restoration Churches in California were gathered, and SRCC was shown to be the largest congregation. In all, over 5000 attended this week-long meeting, with much singing and eating (“22 beeves (sic) were barbecued, along with mutton and pork”) and over 100 baptisms.
1860 also is remembered as the year our great Civil War began. Although California was officially a Union State without slavery, Sonoma County was a hotbed of Pro-Confederacy sympathies. Santa Rosa in particular, being settled with a majority who came originally from the South, favored succession.
The Restoration Churches like SRCC, however, were strongly Pro-Union and anti-slavery. In fact, many adherents to the Campbellite creed were forced to flee the South and a large number ended up in California. Most of the older Christian denominations in America were split by the war, but the Christian Church movement was not. Fortunately, even though differing with a majority of Santa Rosans, the church membership here kept the peace, with no record of any problems with locals in the turbulent 1860’s.
Our congregation showed a particular interest in education from the earliest days. The first public school in Santa Rosa met in the church in 1859, and continued there until a public school building could be completed. By 1870, church leaders had a strong vision that they, as one of the leading Restoration Churches in the state, should establish a Christ-centered higher education facility that could serve the movement in California. The membership prayed for direction, and persuaded a renowned Christian educator, Alexander Johnston, to move from Indiana with the aim of building a college. He raised over $25,000 toward that aim (with over $13,000 coming from Santa Rosa alone), and on September 23rd, 1872, Santa Rosa Christian College was dedicated, with 80 students enrolled for the first term.
During its short life, the school would graduate a number of notables, including Edwin Markham, who would become Poet Laureate of California. The church had an agreement with the school that it would supply the congregation with a pastor, which it had lacked since Brother McCorkle had left in 1864. Unfortunately, the economy in the 1870s was poor and the college could never pay its way. After only 6 years it was sold to the Catholic Ursuline Sisters, who then founded the institution that is known today as Ursuline High School.
Santa Rosa Christian Church Incorporates
With increased prominence and outreach, we faced several challenges related to growth. Because of the belief in local control and independence that the Restoration Movement held, the church had never bothered legally incorporating. There was no official Constitution or By-Laws. This was finally remedied in 1894, and we still have the original handwritten Articles of Incorporation and By-Laws in our church archives. At the very first official meeting after incorporation, on April 14th, 1894, the newly elected Board of Trustees voted to build a much larger new building on a lot now owned by the church. SRCC had grown from its frontier roots and was becoming an established and prominent institution in the center of its city.
The New Church Building
The board hired well-known E.B. Ware as pastor in 1894 to oversee the transition. A former State Evangelist for the Christian Churches of California who had personally baptized over 2000 persons and editor of a highly respected Christian newspaper, Ware wasted no time in raising funds and making plans. In a two year period over $22,000 was raised and a beautiful new building was constructed on Ross Street which was home to the church for nearly 60 years. Dedicated on June 7th, 1896, the fine new building guaranteed that SRCC would be one of the largest and most prominent local congregations for many years.
Changes Within Our Church
Then, right at the point where the church seemed most secure, a most unexpected controversy erupted. Pastor Ware retired in late 1896 and the board called a young, dynamic preacher named J. William Hudson as pastor. Hudson was a spell-binding orator and considered very progressive in an era where new ideas were everywhere and change compelling. He quickly gained the fierce loyalty of quite a few members and attracted many nonmembers to listen to his sermons condemning social condition as they existed. More conservative members questioned his thinking however, and when confronted over his beliefs it was discovered that he didn’t believe in the inspiration of the Scriptures or the Deity of Christ, and embraced Socialism. A vote was then taken on whether to renew his contract and he was removed as pastor by a single vote in 1898. He left to start a new “Peoples Church” in Berkeley, taking nearly 100 SRCC members with him.
The Church Rebounds
Despite the loss of members and the emotional aftermath of the split, the church rebounded quickly. A new pastor, Peter Colvin, was called who was able to bring peace to the congregation and set about to repair the spiritual damage. The church celebrated its 50th anniversary in a ceremony that was reported as front page news in 1904, being hailed as the largest Protestant church in Santa Rosa. We still have a memento of that celebration; the beautiful commemorative quilt that was presented by the membership to Josephine Grogan on that occasion.
Building Through the Shaking: 1904-1954
The 1906 Earthquake
But again, just as peace seemed well established, SRCC was buffeted by another disaster, this time from the outside. The great 1906 earthquake hit Santa Rosa very hard. Over 100 people were killed, and almost every commercial building in town and many homes were destroyed.
No building escaped damage, but the Ross Street church only lost a small amount of stonework, and remained structurally sound. Because nothing else was available, the church was used as a morgue. Pastor Colvin took on the leadership of the Protestant relief effort, with the membership volunteering for untold hours and dollars of assistance. In spite of the horror of the tragedy, the town was rebuilt, with the church and its pastor held in high regard for the assistance provided. When Colvin retired in 1915, a local news reporter wrote “there has never been a minister in this county who has gained the general real regard of the people that Peter Colvin has”. God had blessed the church with the right man at a critical time, a recurring theme in SRCC history!
Our Church Expands
The following two decades were a high time in the ministry of the church. New churches were planted in Reno and Oakland with great monetary and personnel assistance from the congregation. Many international missions and domestic workers were supported. A number of small groups arose within the church. A 1924 report showed 18 different organizations functioning, including Christian Endeavor Societies for several age groups, two different missionary societies (including one organized specifically to assist the rebuilding in Europe after WW1), three separate women’s groups, six Sunday School classes and a Boy Scout Troop. Also in 1924, the church installed a magnificent new pipe organ at the cost of $5,500 (equivalent to the cost of a house at that time), and in 1927 purchased a parsonage as well as building a $5,000 addition to the Ross Street building.
The church clearly participated in the “Roaring 20s”, although not everything was rosy – a report on the church mentions that during this time “internal problems called for much patience and prayer”. The official church board records in 1929 include, without further explanation, this moving passage:
“A meeting of the congregation was called after the morning service at which the following resolution was read: Whereas members desire to restore peace and harmony and remove misunderstandings and any injustice which may have been done to any individual or group of brethren, be it resolved that we declare our sincere regret for any and all grievances and misunderstandings which may have arisen…we ask all concerned to stand together in love manifesting the spirit of forgiveness.”
Surviving the Depression
Indeed, these small troubles foreshadowed the great period of trial ahead for the nation after October of 1929, when the financial collapse of the stock market ushered in the era known as the Depression. It didn’t take long for the money woes to show up in the church, and the abundance of just a few months before quickly dried up as members’ fortunes declined. The SRCC budget, which had been a record $7,305 in 1929, shrunk by almost half in 1930. The pastor’s salary was cut by 40%, even the janitors by 25%.
In his annual report for 1930, Pastor Louis Patmont states that membership was declining because many members were leaving the area, adding “the worldwide depression has not left us without disheartening effect”. By 1932 the Treasurer reported to the board that offerings were only about half of what was needed to keep the church running, and the elders considered ceasing printing the bulletin, as well as charging the Scout Troop and other groups to use the facility.
Still, the dire financial situation did not stop the work of the church; in fact, the same reports that chronicle the money troubles speak of the positive spiritual condition of the membership. A treasurer’s report given by P.E. Marlatt in 1931 contains this little gem:
“We can take out the first two letters and the letter ‘i’ out of the word ‘depression’ and ‘press on’. We have little to lose and heaven to gain.”
Rebounding during the Late 30’s
With this attitude, pained and humbled but clear-hearted, SRCC made it through the worst, and by 1936 things had rebounded satisfactorily enough to give Pastor O.V. Wilkison a raise and re-carpet the sanctuary. Pastor Wilkison had given most of his salary back to the church for several years and also requested that the parsonage be sold so that the church debt could be retired. He was a tireless minister who started a radio program, started a shut-in visitation program, and held all-day prayer meetings. Highly regarded by all, he had a great love for evangelism and saw substantial growth in membership during his tenure as pastor. But once again, after a period of peace and growth, change came.
The Impact of the Great War
First, Brother “W” resigned as pastor for health reasons in the fall of 1941. And in December of the same year, the attack on Pearl Harbor plunged the country into World War II. The arrival of war meant an immediate drain on the church community. Over 80 members joined the military, and a number of families lost loved ones in the next few years.
The pastor who had replaced O.V. Wilkison, Emmett Butterworth, also left to volunteer as a chaplain. Like churches all over the country, members spent much of their time assisting in the war effort and doing all they could to help the soldiers fighting far away. Because of the danger to foreign missionaries, much effort was spent finding ways to serve that important field. During the war years, the church hosted many missionaries and assisted them in resettling and re-engaging their ministries. United by a great common foe, members joined all Americans in focusing on the effort to defeat the evil the Axis powers represented. Their sacrifices, in unison with similar outpouring by millions of others, saved freedom and truly created a new world that is still emerging today.
Nearing Our 100th Year
As the Great War ended in victory and families welcomed home their men that had survived, SRCC members collectively uttered a sigh of relief and set out to reestablish some normalcy. First on the list was to hire a pastor. The war had made it very difficult to retain pastoral leadership. Most ministers had joined or were drafted, and the church had gotten through by relying on missionaries and bible students to do the necessary work. Nobody really objected to this, as the situation demanded it. But new vision was going to be necessary, and rebuilding needed to go on at many levels. A new influx of members was expected as young men came home and married their sweethearts and started families. The church was nearing its 100th year. Who would be the man to lead in this context?
After several interim arrangements, finally in November of 1947 the church board settled upon Howard Stansbery, a trained minister who had been a colonel in the military and had an impressive record, as the pastor of the future who would lead the church into its second century. He immediately got to work, urging members to put the war behind them and seek to bring healing and salvation to a city weary of war and wondering what the future held. It was clear to him – he wanted unprecedented growth as the church rapidly neared 100 years of ministry.
Taking New Ground: 1954-Today
The Centennial Celebration
SRCC’s centennial celebration occurred at a critical juncture of the history of both the church and nation. The post-WWII baby boom was at its zenith in 1954, fueled by a vibrant economy and general prosperity. Santa Rosa was growing rapidly, clearly now the economic and cultural center of California’s north coast.
A New Location for the Church
After Howard Stansbery became pastor, it became increasingly clear that the venerable Ross Street sanctuary was becoming a major problem for the growing congregation. Always small, drafty, and admittedly a firetrap, the beautiful old edifice was at the end of its useful life. The caretakers were weary of trying to control the rats and bats, and city officials were putting pressure on the church board to do something.
Congregational growth was another factor. Pastor Stansbery was a vigorous evangelist with a personal goal of 100 new members yearly which was nearly always realized. With a clear need to act, the board (including Milton Wiemeyer, who was chairman at the time) purchased a large lot in 1950 for $10,000 to build a new facility.
The elders then dedicated themselves to putting together a building plan, fundraising, and seeking volunteer commitments, which culminated in June of 1953 with ground-breaking and the start the “barn raising” of what is the fellowship hall. The new building was sufficiently completed to host the celebration on October 17th, 1954, and was fully occupied in early 1955.
Moving into the 1960’s
As America and Santa Rosa moved into the 1960’s, the era of good feelings, prosperity, and stability began to erode from the pressures of guerrilla war, presidential assassination, racial unrest, a widening generation gap, and radical cultural movements. Some in the church began to question the effectiveness of the status-quo and old traditions, and yearned for fresher experiences with God. Yet the congregation worked together to finalize the building plan developed in the 50’s and in 1966 the modern A-frame sanctuary that we use today was completed, finishing the Pacific Avenue complex. This building remains a great gift to today’s church membership from the last generation.
The 1969 Earthquake
Interestingly, today’s sanctuary also survived a major earthquake like the Ross Street building. In 1969 a 6.1 quake struck Santa Rosa, and though not nearly as catastrophic as the 1906 quake, it caused major damage to the downtown area. The quake struck during choir practice and those in the building remember watching the long hanging lights in the sanctuary swinging wildly.
New Direction and Leadership
Once the building program was complete, the church elders began to consider new direction and pastoral leadership. One of the members of the pastoral search committee happened to hear about a “Deeper Life” meeting in Modesto, and when he investigated, was intrigued by the speaker, Loran Biggs. The committee subsequently asked Loran to lead a similar conference at SRCC, which proved to be unexpectedly successful, with 105 of those attending dedicating themselves to a more committed Christian lifestyle. This convinced the elders that Biggs was the man to take the church to a new level, and they pressed him to accept the pastorate. Loran wasn’t interested, but not wanting to miss something the Holy Spirit could be directing, he decided to put out a “fleece” as Gideon had and put together a list of demands that he felt would be impossible for the board to accept. To his amazement, the board accepted the entire list and Biggs believed that God must be calling him to SRCC. In January, 1969 he preached his first sermon as pastor of the church.
Loran was an agent of change, although he believed in treating those who disagreed with him respectfully. He preached an uncompromising message of salvation by grace, and was also a charismatic who taught on the person and work of the Holy Spirit. He did not make wholesale changes quickly, but did reform the worship services to a more open and upbeat style. He especially encouraged more warmth and fellowship among those attending. Some who desired to maintain traditional forms of worship and direction established Rose City Christian Church (today’s Westview Christian Church). Church attendance under Loran’s leadership increased as a number of younger families and singles joined. A new feeling of joy and renewal permeated the congregation, which was becoming quite diverse in age and background.
Growing Through the 1970’s
The middle and late 1970’s were a fertile period for Christianity in Santa Rosa. Besides the changes at SRCC, other local groups were prospering and growing. With American culture seemingly in malaise, spiritual hunger was strong, and evangelism was exploding. The “Jesus Movement” revival among young Americans was at its apex, and a new “bluejean casual” faith was catching on.
Christian education expanded greatly, with several Christian Schools starting, including Santa Rosa Christian School which used the education wing at SRCC for several years before buying its current facility on Wright Road. Loran Biggs had a great desire for Christian unity (much as the early Campbellites), and met and worked with a number of other church leaders in the area. SRCC was looked at as an example of a church that had successfully adapted to cultural change, being held in high regard by many in the community.
Moving Forward with Positive Change
By 1975 one particular relationship Loran had developed became increasingly significant; he had met and greatly admired Dennis Peacocke, a former Berkeley radical who had a powerful conversion and felt drawn to ministry in the counterculture of the day. Peacocke had formed “His Name Ministries”, composed primarily of ex-hippies and disaffected young people who came to Christ and were attempting to reach others with a radical faith. Dennis was a gifted Bible teacher and had ties with a large number of leaders in the Jesus Movement. During the 80’s he was a link to many national charismatic and shepherding movement leaders such as Bob Mumford.
Dennis appreciated Loran’s success in leading SRCC into positive change, and introduced him into his circle. Loran invited Dennis to work with his leaders and preach periodically. In 1976, when His Name was no longer able to lease the building they had used for worship, the SRCC elders invited them to utilize the fellowship hall for their Friday night worship meetings, led by Pastor J.R. Young. Dennis Peacocke worked closely with other area congregations as well, including College Street Fellowship in Healdsburg, headed by Jerry Hodges, which shared an historical link with SRCC as an original Campbellite congregation in Sonoma County.
A New School and New Ministries
During the period of the late 70’s and early 80’s, more emphasis was given to personal spiritual growth and relationships. Loran, along with Assistant Pastor David Mitchell and newly hired Youth Pastor Steve Marshall, instituted small group meetings at which these discipleship principles could be worked on. The pastors themselves attended discipleship training given by Peacocke and his associates. Bonds between leaders of His Name Ministries and Christian Church grew with mutual support. In 1979 the two churches jointly started a K-12 Christian school, Covenant Community School, housed at the church, with both groups supplying staff, funding, and children.
At this time Loran Biggs felt that with the emergence of so many young leaders in the church, he could step aside as senior pastor to focus on a broader teaching ministry and individual counseling. His associate David Mitchell became pastor. With the ministry expanding, David’s father Tom was added to staff, founding the Young At Heart ministry for seniors. Ken Wiemeyer, a life long member and long term Elder, was brought into full time ministry.
Merging the Two Churches
The early 80’s were a time of spiritual and numerical growth for Christian Church. Yet growing national and local concern over shepherding and discipleship practices caused the leaders to reassess direction and priorities. Then in the summer of 1983, Dave Mitchell resigned. Ken Wiemeyer was chosen as senior pastor. He and the leaders offered stability in a time of potential unrest. The ties to His Name Ministries, now named Christian Covenant Community, remained strong. College Street Fellowship had ceased meeting, joined in and added their flavor to the mix. Beyond the unifying work of the school, the members and leaders of both churches shared in other ministries and bonds grew deeper.
A rather radical idea grew in the leadership; was God leading toward a merger? The possibility was presented to both bodies with a surprisingly strong “Yes!” response. So in the spring of 1985 two churches that were at one time very different became one and retained the Santa Rosa Christian Church name. J.R. Young, respected by all, was chosen to take the leadership reigns of the unified fellowship. The merge worked well, and with a combined staff of SRCC and former Christian Covenant Community elders, the church experienced growing affluence and stability.
Changes in the 1990’s
The long-term relationship with Dennis Peacocke and his ministries was challenged in 1993. Church elders and Dennis increasingly held differing views of leadership, practices, and priorities for Christian Church. Regrettably, these differences lead to a parting of ways, causing some to remain with Dennis or find other places of worship. As hurts began to heal and the congregation started looking forward again, it became clear that a group of leaders and families yearned for new beginnings and ministry challenges. This culminated in a number of members being sent out to form two new missionary sister churches in Santa Rosa.
Warren Hays, an associate pastor for a number of years, was commissioned to start a new work that would primarily target the young and disaffected. Named Source of Life Christian Church, Warren and his group began to meet in 1997 and have grown substantially, with many young families as members. The next year Don Norris, a longtime leader from His Name days, was sent out with several members to start Lifeline, an evangelistic ministry to the poor and needy, which has had a significant impact working with this need in Santa Rosa.
Tracing Back to Our Roots
The late 90’s and the new millennium have also seen progress in the old SRCC dream of Christian unity that is traceable all the way back to its Campbellite roots. J.R. was instrumental in forming the Pastors Prayer Fellowship, which now includes representatives from over 70 congregations. Many pastors and intercessors meet weekly for prayer and sharing vision on bringing true revival to the area. An increasing number of shared events are being carried out, with the goal of impacting the county for Christ.
Our Church Today
After serving in pastoral ministry for over 25 years, and guiding SRCC through several critical periods, J.R. Young chose to turn over the senior pastor position to Steve Marshall in 2002. J.R. continues to work with leaders worldwide, mentoring and teaching from his long experience. Steve, who has worked in the church since the 70s, embraces his commission to bring the church forward in the 21st century, into its sesquicentennial and beyond. Steve has let it be known that he intends to serve for many years, and with an excellent pastoral and ministry team in place, that is expected.