Circuit Rider of the Far West
In 1847, before the California gold rush and in the early years of the Oregon Trail migration, the Reverend William Roberts arrived in the Willamette Valley, to become the third superintendent of the Oregon Mission.
William M. Roberts was born in Burlington, New Jersey in 1812, was city reared and educated, and entered the Methodist ministry in the Philadelphia Conference in 1834. His early pulpit work marked him as a man destined to become a leader in his church. He was a friend and peer of Jason Lee, and entertained Lee in his home in Paterson, New Jersey in 1839, when Lee went east to ask for reinforcements; and Mr. Roberts was present as a member of the Missionary Board in July 1844, when Jason Lee made his defense of the Oregon Mission. Roberts was familiar with the Oregon Mission situation and was a logical choice for the post of superintendent.
Sailing on the way to Oregon they reached San Francisco, then known as Yerba Buena. William Roberts and James H. Wilbur had been charged by the Board of Foreign Missions to make a survey in California en route to Oregon. They landed at Yerba Buena April 24, 1847, and took stock of the land and the people. In May a Methodist Class and Sabbath School were organized. This is the first Protestant church of record in California.
William Roberts set energetically about his work as Superintendent of the Oregon Mission, preaching wherever people gathered, supervising the pastoral work, traveling to the scattered settlements within his field of responsibility.
In the early summer of 1849, Roberts again visited California. Asa White, a local preacher, had reached San Francisco May 10, 1849, with a blue tent which he pitched on the ground later chosen as a site for the Powell Street Church, and engaged in evangelistic preaching. On June 26, Roberts went on to Sacramento, Stockton, San Jose, and other principal places, and also visited the mines, preaching wherever opportunity offered. At several places he secured lots on which to erect churches. Before leaving Oregon he had assembled lumber for a church building, and had it framed and shipped. It arrived before he left California.
Oregon became a Territory in 1848, as did California. The Oregon Mission memorialized General Conference for the creation of an Annual Conference. The General Conference decided to include Oregon, California, and New Mexico in a single Mission Conference. The organizing session was held in Salem, Oregon, on September 5, 1849, in the chapel of the Oregon Institute. As no bishop was present, William Roberts, Superintendent, presided.
The General Conference of 1852 authorized division into two Conferences, Oregon and California. The Oregon Conference was organized on March 17, 1853, by Bishop Ames. The area of the conference was “the Territory of Oregon,” which in 1852 included the entire region of which the title of the United States had been confirmed by the Treaty of 1846 with Great Britain, including the present states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and parts of Wyoming and Montana. Jason Lee had established a mission, which served its day; William Roberts had organized a Church.
At the Conference of 1854, Bishop Simpson appointed William Roberts as Superintendent of the Puget Sound Missionary District, where Methodism was still in its infancy. William Roberts was appointed “Missionary to Idaho” in September, 1865, a post-conference appointment. In October, 1866, Roberts went to Utah. He was perhaps the first Methodist preacher to make a survey of religious conditions in Utah and to report his findings to the bishop and the Church.
Roberts left Idaho in 1869. Some of his fields of service not yet mentioned included pastor at Salem one year; agent of the American Bible Society, seven years; Presiding Elder of Portland District, six years. He was superannuated in 1875 because of impaired health, but later he was restored to the effective relation and was pastor at Forest Grove, Astoria, and Dayton.
In 1879, when Roberts was 67 years old, we find him taking an aggressive interest in the problems of the Chinese on the Pacific coast. Roberts established a night school for the Chinese, which met six nights each week.
William Roberts died in Dayton, Oregon on August 22, 1888, at the age of 76. To his fourteen years in the Philadelphia and New Jersey Conferences are added 41 on the Pacific coast, or a total of 55 years in the Christian ministry.
Erle Howell, Northwest church historian, stated that during William Roberts’ years in the church as superintendent of the Oregon Mission, and later as pastor, presiding elder, and missionary to the Indians and Chinese, he traveled more than 200,000 miles, a record equaled by no other American circuit rider except Francis Asbury.
Adapted from Elizabeth M. Smith, “William Roberts: Circuit Rider of the Far West,” Methodist History 20 no. 2 (January 1982): 60-74.