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Thomas THOMPSON, California's First Restoration Preacher
Standard Publishing logo. Reprinted from the Christian Standard, 1952 (January),
published by Standard Publishing, Cincinnati, OH.
Used by permission (12 Feb 2001).
California's First Restoration Preacher

By JAMES MATTHEW ALLEY, Forestville, Calif.

THOMAS THOMPSON arrived in California more than one hundred and two years ago.  He was the first preacher, of whom there is any record, to proclaim the New Testament plan of salvation, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures, on California soil.

Thomas Thompson was born in Kentucky, July 7, 1797.  As a small boy, he came to the Missouri Territory with his parents.1  He was of hardy colonial stock that ever pushed the American frontier westward by industry, education, and religion.

Thomas McBride, one of the earliest evangelists of the New Testament order, was responsible for Mr. Thompson's conversion to Christianity, back in "dear old Missoury" as many of the California disciples were wont to fondly call the state they had left behind.

Mr. Thompson had an analytical mind, and the sound sense, and the book, chapter, and verse exegetical preaching of the Restoration preachers captivated him.  He became an ardent Bible student, and as early as 1825 he was in touch with both Alexander Campbell and Barton Warren Stone.

Mr. Thompson was deprived of a formal education.  He could read, write, and reason well.  That we know by the fine record he has left us in California.  There were few schools on the western frontiers, and sometimes they had teaching only three months in the year.  One must remember that George Washington did not have the equivalent of our modern high-school education, and that his wife, Martha, had perhaps the equivalent of a fifth-grade education.

IN the early spring of 1849, Thomas Thompson left his home in Paris, Mo., by wagon train, for California.  This meant preparation, dangers, and hardships.  It was a five-month trip, sometimes longer, going but eight to twelve miles a day by ox team over a thin trail, fraught with every kind of danger -- terrible electrical and hail storms, the scorching desert heat, the lack of water, the hazards of crossing the Rocky Mountains, the danger of stampedes from wandering buffalo herds, and above all the ever constant threat of a murderous attack by the fierce Sioux or other warlike Indian tribes.  And, last but not least, the two terrible specters of starvation and disease were never far away.

Thomas Thompson preached the gospel to members of his wagon train and other wagon trains as opportunity afforded en route to California. What his other motives for coming to California might have been, we will never know, as he put them secondary to the task of proclaiming the gospel.

His first stopping place, for any length of time in California, was at Gold Run, in Placer County, in September, 1849.  His stock and equipment were worn out.  Mrs. Thompson and the children could go no further.  They pitched their tent in the midst of the mining camp, where the miners were mad with the lust for gold.

Thomas Thompson wended his way in and out of the saloons, shacks, and tents of the miners announcing that he would preach the gospel in front of his tent within an hour.  He returned to his tent and the men began to congregate in front of it in tight little knots of two or three to a dozen, in strange silence, waiting for the service to begin.

WHEN the exact hour for beginning the service arrived, the tall, lean, and gaunt preacher stepped from his tent, with his hard-backed, leather-bound Bible under his arm.  He did not look at the crowd of rough miners in front of him.  Instead, he lifted his weather-beaten face heavenward and fell on his knees, thanking the heavenly Father for sparing his life on the hazardous journey to California, and asking Him for grace, strength, and wisdom to preach the gospel to all who would listen to it.

He arose to his feet, snapped loose the brass clasp from his battered Bible and began to read in his slow, methodical way, in the conversational tone which set him apart as being different in his preaching from most of the preachers of that day.  After he had read a full chapter (a custom of that era) he closed the Bible and began to sing "Jesus, Lover of My Soul, Let Me to Thy Bosom Fly."  Sister Thompson, seated in the door of the tent, joined her husband in the singing.  This was the first time these miners had heard anything like this since they left "back home."  Many a heart was made homesick, and strong men wept for faces of gentle, Christian loved ones whom they had left behind.

Thomas Thompson, in his solemn, methodical manner, preached the gospel to these men.  They took their hats off and stood with bowed heads, listening to the message of heaven for the full hour and a half.  He concluded his sermon by answering the question of the jailer, "What must I do to be saved?" telling them that they must believe that Jesus is the Christ, repent of their sins, and be buried with Him in Christian immersion.  This was the first gospel sermon, exactly like the apostles and New Testament evangelists preached, proclaimed in the state of California.

Mr. Thompson was a good businessman.  Having a family to support, he moved to Coloma, where gold was first discovered, and in this boom town opened a miner's boarding house in 1850.  This was a lucrative business.  Every one had money and miners were tired of "batching it."  They were ready to board anywhere they could get good home cooking and pay the current food prices of that day.  Boarding house menu prices included:  pie, $1.00 per cut; baked potatoes, $1.00 each; butter, 50¢ extra; plain beans, 50¢ per helping; Boston baked beans, $1.00 per helping; other food items were just as high.  All of the food had to be freighted in from Stockton, many miles distant, and much of it came from New England around the Horn.

Members of this Christian family were hard workers, and saving.  Their business prospered, and they prospered.  This did not stop Mr. Thompson from preaching the gospel to the miners in the camps from Oroville to Stockton.  His faithful preaching was rewarded in the spring of 1850 when he baptized his first convert, Marcus Willis, for the remission of his sins, in a mining pit near Coloma.  So far as we know, this was the first baptism by immersion in the history of the state of California.

Thomas Thompson moved his family away from the mines in 1851 to the beautiful Santa Clara Valley, and bought a farm, where he resided the rest of his life.  It was from this place that his truly great work of rallying together the scattered "Christians only" in the churches began.  He was now financially independent, in fact, for that day and time he was considered "well fixed."  Not once in his life did he ever take or receive a fee for preaching the gospel.  Every dollar any one gave him went either to help out some struggling preacher, or to build a meetinghouse, print a church paper, or for some other Christian enterprise.

THOMPSON was a church organizer.  He set out to gather the scattered disciples of Christ into churches.  In the winter of 1850, he succeeded in planting the first church after the New Testament pattern at Stockton.  The church was organized in a little upper room of a hall located on the corner of San Joaquin Street and Weber Avenue.  The first elders were W.B. Smith and A.N. Green.

He then came back to Santa Clara and organized the second church of Christ in the state.  He helped to organize the church in Santa Rosa after it had moved from Franklin to Santa Rosa town site...


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...brethren from time to time beginning in 1855.  In his fifties, this remarkable man went everywhere preaching the gospel.  He traveled much of the time in an old topless buggy pulled by an old flea-bitten, gray horse called "Old Charley."  He went hundreds of miles, during the summer, in the scorching California summer sun, or, during the winter, through bone-shivering fogs and drenching rains to preach the gospel.  It was impossible to use this means of conveyance at times, especially when he was going on a preaching mission in the north bay area -- the counties north and across the bay from San Francisco.  At these times he would take a jouncy stage coach down [up] the peninsula for fifty miles to San Francisco, and from there would take a sloop or steamboat across the bay and up Petaluma Creek to Petaluma.  This was as far as the stream was navigable.  He would then take another stagecoach to Santa Rosa and Healdsburg to his preaching appointments there.  This meant one hundred and twenty to fifty miles under the hardest kind of travel conditions for a man getting along in years.  Do we hear him complain?  Never.  There is not one word on record that we have found indicating that this man complained of how hard the work of an evangelist had become to him.

"FATHER" THOMPSON, as he was affectionately called in later life, saw the need to rallying the members of churches and forming them into some semblance of an organization to further evangelize California.  Just how he brought this about is to be found in his words in a letter to the editor of The Western Evangelist, June, 1864.  Mr. Thompson Wrote:

"In '55 I proposed to the church at Santa Clara a plan of co-operation through a state meeting.  This was to be presented to the several churches.  The plan being made out and adopted by the Santa Clara church, they made it my duty to visit the other churches and submit the matter to them.  This I did, and all of the other churches agreed to meet and co-operate.  This plan strictly guarded church rights, and distinctly stated that the co-operation or state meeting should not interfere with church discipline, or in any way control the action of any congregation, the only object being for consultation and conference for the more successful spread of the gospel."
"Father" Thompson started out with a horse and buggy to make a two hundred and fifty mile trip visiting the churches and presenting his plan of co-operation to them.  He was not a young man any longer.  He was sixty years old.  His trip was very successful.  Members of every church he visited agreed to meet in Stockton that fall for a state meeting.

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...Stockton had prepared a meeting place and there the little band of Christians met to have fellowship, to break bread, to pray and sing together, and to encourage and exhort each other to good works.  Here they laid the plans for a co-operative state work that was successful beyond any of their dreams for over thirty years.

THESE state meetings were to become the greatest agency for the winning of souls to Christ California has ever known.  By 1860 it was common to have 5,000 people present on the Lord's Day to break bread and hear the preaching of the gospel.  One year at Vacaville, the crowd reached 7,000 in number, by actual count.  These people came to these two-week meetings in wagon and team conveyances and camped out without a single modern convenience known today.  One farmer sent a ton of sweet potatoes each year; many of them would lead a fat beef steer behind their covered wagon to be butchered.  Ovens were made for the baking of bread on the camp site.  Committees were appointed to feed the people as they had all things common, and that committee fed the thousands assembled three times a day with never a charge for a meal.

The results of these meetings were : the churches were bound together in Christian love; Christian young people met other Christian young people, resulting in Christian marriages; many souls were won to Christ during these meetings; the people were set on fire with a burning zeal to go back and win their neighbors to Christ; evangelists were sent out to help weak churches and start new churches.

The quiet, Christlike "Father" Thompson had brought this all about.  This lovable old man was never out in...

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...operation and practice coercion.  He never sought glory, position or financial aid for himself.  How Christlike!  The program of Thomas Thompson would still work and is the only workable one we have ever seen for our beloved Golden State.

The writer of this article lives within the environs of the great 1860 meeting that took place on Mark West Creek.  He never approaches these scenes without being grieved -- thinking of the loving co-operation of the brethren back in those days and the evil days in which we now live.  Brethren saved the same way and belonging to the same great religious body now disfellowhsip each other over missionary support, methods, Bible colleges, musical instruments, lodges, amusements, tobacco and many other things that could be named.  Those early Christians in California knew that they were imperfect, but they received each other with all their opinions and imperfections in love and exhorted each other to remain faithful to Christ and grow in grace.

THE last state meeting that Thomas Thompson attended was in the fall of 1871 in Cook's Grove near his home.  This grove was located between Santa Clara and San Jose on the Alameda.  (This is grown up to become part of the two cities now.)  Mr. Thompson was in fairly good health for a man past seventy, who had lived such a strenuous life, but he seemed to have a premonition of his homegoing because he broadcast this message to all of the churches in the form of a "special request to the brethren and sisters that they all attend the state meeting, that I may see them once more in the flesh."  His premonition was true, because on the fourteenth day of April of the next year, 1872, he laid aside his earthly task of preaching the gospel and went home to be with the Lord whom he served so faithfully for so many years, under the hardest kind of hardships, without flinching or whimpering.  If ever a family from California will hear that "well done thou good and faithful servant," it will be Thomas Thompson, his faithful wife, and children, because every member of this godly man's family was a true New Testament Christian.

We have stood by the family plot in the Santa Clara cemetery and thought of the contribution that this man and his family made to the church of Christ.  It is our humble opinion that even if we could recall them to earth again there is nothing any or all of us could give them to really reward them for their great foundational work here in the days of '49 and later.  Only a benevolent and loving Father is great enough and rich enough to give Thomas Thompson and his wife and family the reward they so richly deserve.

1It is often repeated by authors that Thomas THOMPSON came to Missouri as a "small boy with his parents," but this statement is incorrect.  Thomas married in Christian [now Todd] Co., KY, in 1815, so he was an adult before he left Kentucky.  Land records show Thomas was in Boone Co., MO, by 1821, but the Todd Co., KY, tax rolls show Thomas's father, Peter THOMPSON, resided there until 1827.  Some time in or after 1827, Peter THOMPSON moved to Missouri in the company of Thomas's sister, Rachel (THOMPSON) WYATT, and her husband, William T. WYATT.
Family Group Sheet of Thomas THOMPSON
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