An extraordinary artifact of the California Gold Rush and the Temperance movement

[William Taylor et al], CALIFORNIA Pledge. We the undersigned do pledge ourselves by Divine assistance to abstain from the use and sale of all intoxicating liquors as a beverage while, while in California. [San Francisco, 1851-1854.]

Ms. in ink and pencil on 5 sheets of wove paper, joined end-to-end to form a scroll 100” long by 8 ½”w. Lined on verso with a printed textile, blue silk selvage. Penciled note at top, “Given me by Mother [illegible] Taylor”. Minor soiling and staining, some loss and fraying of selvage. Bottom edge missing selvage and unevenly trimmed, affecting the final name, suggesting that the scroll may be incomplete.

An extraordinary San Francisco Gold Rush-era “temperance pledge” in the form of an eight-foot scroll bearing the signatures of pioneering Methodist missionary William Taylor and 199 other residents.

The scroll begins with the declaration, “We the undersigned do pledge ourselves by Divine assistance to abstain from the use and sale of all intoxicating liquors as a beverage while, while in California.” Immediately below this, in the same hand, is the signature of the Rev. William Taylor (1821-1902), the presumptive organizer of the pledge, followed by the signatures of the other subscribers.

The Rev. William Taylor
Taylor was born in Rockridge County, Virginia in 1821 and by his own account experienced an ecstatic conversion to Christ some time around the age of ten. In the early-mid 1840s he joined the Baltimore Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, then worked for several years as an itinerant preacher. In 1849 Bishop Beverly Waugh of Baltimore appointed him as the Church’s second missionary bishop to California, following one Isaac Owen. Taylor arrived in San Francisco in September of that year, where he organized the First Methodist Episcopal Church, on the West side of Powell between Washington and Jackson.

But Taylor was far more than a pulpit preacher: Judging by his photograph, he was a large and impressive man sporting a beard worthy of the Patriarchs, with the kind of presence that could command attention in any venue:

“Within the first few weeks of his arrival he and his wife marched to Portsmouth square in the heart of the gambling saloon district and began singing so loudly that the saloons and gambling dens quickly emptied to see what the noise was all about. There they found a six foot, 207 pound man gathering passers by into an informal Christian service. Taylor would use a carpenter’s bench or a wheel barrow, or whatever else was at hand. He would then appeal for order on the basis that they were all respectable and, preaching under the new United States flag, he would fearlessly challenge the sinful life-styles of their frontier culture pointing to the power of Christ to transform lives even in that difficult society.” (Skinner)

Considered today one of the founders of San Francisco, during his seven years there Taylor ministered without salary to Native Americans, Chinese immigrants, and the poor and the sick; organized the Bethel M.E. Church in the ship Panama, on Davis Street, for the benefit of seamen; planted Methodist fellowships in a dozen northern California communities; and founded a college that later divided to become divided to become today’s University of the Pacific and the Pacific School of Religion at UC-Berkeley.

After leaving San Francisco in 1856 Taylor spent the next three decades on missions to six continents, by one account traveling some 250,000 miles, with “no equal as an evangelist apart from the Apostle Paul and John Wesley.” (Skinner) During these years he argued strenuously for local control of Methodist missions abroad, greatly straining his relationship with the Methodist Mission Board in America. For all this, “Taylor, more than any other, was responsible for the extension of the Methodist Episcopal Church beyond the boundaries of Europe and North America.” (Bundy, “Legacy”, p. 172) Along the way he wrote 17 books to help fund his activities, including Seven Years’ Street Preaching in San Francisco (1856), which purportedly sold over 20,000 copies in its first year, and California Life Illustrated (1859). He retired to California in 1896 and died there in 1902.

Taylor’s Temperance pledge
Much of Taylor’s work in San Francisco entailed preaching against the vices endemic to mining towns populated single men with money to burn. In keeping with the Methodist Church’s commitment to Temperance, much of his attention was directed toward reducing town’s staggering levels of alcohol consumption, not least by engaging residents to sign temperance pledges.

This particular pledge does not appear to be mentioned in his Seven Years’ Street Preaching, though in at least one place Taylor mentions preaching a Temperance sermon and obtaining subscribers:

“ON the fourth of July, 1852, I preached a temperance sermon on the Plaza. I drew a parallel between the oppressions of our fathers and mothers, under the administration of King George and his train of high officials, and the more dreadful sufferings of tens of thousands of our fellow citizens, under the despotism of King Alcohol and his long train of officers, thousands of whom are quartered in our midst and pampered at our expense. I drew a picture of the aggressive marches of the enemy, and the horrible havoc he was making of American flesh and blood, and property, and tenderest ties, and dearest hopes, and asked them what they would do if any foreign potentate or power should invade our territory and commit such outrages with the bayonet. Shades of Patrick Henry! Wouldn’t Uncle Sam’s boys rally and run to the rescue? “Come forward to-day, like John Hancock and his invincible compatriots, and sign this ‘Declaration of Independence.’” About forty persons came forward and signed the temperance pledge.” (p. 150)

The example offered here is interesting both for its content, which committed signers to abstain from both the consumption and sale of alcohol, and for the large number of signers. The document takes the form of an eight-foot-long scroll, divided by a hand-drawn rule into a left-hand column for signatures and a right-hand column for “Remarks”. It is signed by 200 subscribers, beginning with Taylor himself, the signatures dated between September 7, 1851 and August 9, 1854. Only two signers have comments in the right-hand column: Ro. A. Fish and Maria Louisa Fairchild (one of only three women I note among the subscribers), both of whom signed on Dec. 28, 1851, are marked as “fell back”. One imagines this reflects a significant underreporting of relapse.

This is stellar primary source material, just waiting for some enterprising scholar to flesh out an economic, religious and social picture of the community of men (and a few women) who took the pledge. I researched a few names, among them James McGowan, the second signer, who in 1853 founded Alameda’s Methodist Episcopal Church on land donated by Taylor; Israel Richards, the third signer, an officer at Taylor’s Bethel M.E. Church; James Christy, the fourth, a blacksmith who had arrived in San Francisco on the General George Cadwalader in 1850; Isabella Ann Taylor, the sixth, the wife of the Rev. Taylor; and, further down the list, T[homas] J. Nevins, appointed in 1851 as the first Superintendent of San Francisco schools.

The scroll is by its nature unique, and I am aware of no similar surviving manuscript pledge scrolls from California’s Gold Rush era (Though in his Life of Brett Harte Henry Childs Merwin mentions a similar pledge signed by numerous persons, including some city officials, after addresses at a Methodist chapel in Sacramento in June, 1850.) A search of OCLC for California temperance pledges turned up only a “record book of the Antelope branch of the San Benito Temperance Reform Club” including a “list of local signatories of the temperance pledge” (OCLC 123419957.) A search of RareBookHub for “temperance pledge” and similar terms yielded documents signed by individuals, but nothing remotely resembling the scroll offered here.

In all, a unique artifact of Gold Rush-era San Francisco, of interest for the history of that city, for the history of the Methodist Church, and for the history of the American Temperance Movement.

David Bundy, “Bishop William Taylor and Methodist Mission: A Study in Nineteenth Century Social History”, Methodist History, vol. 27 no. 4 (July 1989). David Bundy, “The Legacy of William Taylor”, International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Oct. 1994. Craig Skinner, “William Taylor: Preaching a Gospel for the Gold Rush”, at