Our Heritage

Founded in the turbulent era of the California Gold Rush, the Methodist Episcopal Church was organized in January 1852, to serve both the Grass Valley and Rough and Ready communities. The man most responsible for organization of the church was the Rev. Isaac Owen, a circuit rider from Indiana, who responded to the call from the Mission Board for missionaries in California. Traveling overland with his family in a wagon pulled by a team of oxen, Reverend Owen passed through Grass Valley on Sunday, January 23, 1849, stopping long enough to preach a sermon. Undaunted by the lack of a church to meet in, Owen plunged his cane into the ground, placed his hat on it to serve as an altar, and preached to a small crowd that had gathered to hear his words. It is believed that this was the first sermon preached in the area. From that simple observance of the Sabbath, Owen went on to help organize Methodist congregations in virtually every area within the California Conference, including Coloma — site of the original gold discovery at Sutter’s Mill (1849), Nevada City (1851), and the Grass Valley church in 1852. He also was instrumental in founding California Wesleyan College, known today as University of the Pacific, located in Stockton.


The first pastor of the Grass Valley/Rough and Ready Methodist church was R. R. Dunlap, who came to California from Missouri to take the post. Isaac Owen was appointed Presiding Elder. At the first Quarterly Conference held in Rough and Ready on April 10, 1852, the pastor reported 16 members at Rough and Ready and 12 at Grass Valley. Later that year, a small school building was purchased to serve as the first church. In 1854, a new plastered building was erected, the first of its kind in town. Both of these buildings, and those that followed, were on the same land occupied by today’s Grass Valley United Methodist Church. The Rough and Ready congregation broke away from Grass Valley and formed its own church in February 1854.
With the influx of Cornish hard rock miners into the area, the Grass Valley church grew rapidly, and in June 1872, construction of a magnificent new building began. Completed in August 1873, the new church was 80 feet long, 52 feet wide, and had a steeple that rose 75 feet in the sky. Total cost of the building was $16,600, most of which was raised or pledged before construction began.
Tragically, after meeting the church’s needs for 63 years, the building burned to the ground on August 19, 1936. The parsonage also was also destroyed, but fortunately most of the church records were saved because they were in a large safe in the basement. Artifacts from the remains of the building, including a portion of the bell and several communion cups, are presently on display in the entryway of the new Wesley Hall.
Ashes of the 1872 church had hardly cooled before plans were underway to build a new and finer building. The parsonage was rebuilt first to provide a home for the pastor. A building was constructed next to be used for worship while a new sanctuary was being built. That building was named Wesley Hall, and, though it was intended to be temporary, served as a fellowship and Sunday school class building until 1997 when it was replaced by the new Wesley Hall.
Thus a new era began for today’s United Methodist Church in Grass Valley. The building that houses the sanctuary today was dedicated on Palm Sunday, 1939. To provide a link to the past, the cornerstone laid in the previous church building on July 4, 1872, was recovered and re-laid in the new building on July 4, 1937. Sealed in place at the right of the entrance to the church, one side of the cornerstone bears the year “1872,” and the opposite side shows “1937.”
For more than 160 years the Methodist Church has served Grass Valley and Nevada County, it has weathered many economic, political, and social storms, including the Civil War, two World Wars, and the closing down of the area’s gold mines. Despite such adversities, the Grass Valley United Methodist Church has continued to flourish and provide enrichment to its members and the community through its worship, missions, fellowship, and outreach. We invite you to join us as we continue to move forward. It’s fun being part of the future!