Clarence King may not be a household name today, but he was one of the great geologists of nineteenth-century America. He was a rough-and-tumble adventurer and a scientific gentleman, equally comfortable sitting around a Western campfire or swapping bon mots in an Eastern drawing room. I’ve admired Clarence King for years, and so I was delighted to learn that The Huntington holds some of his papers, including personal notebooks from his expeditions. I called them up, hoping I could find something valuable for my dissertation, but ready to be disappointed.
My dissertation is focused on the history of religion and secularity in nineteenth-century California, so I wasn’t sure if King’s papers would include anything useful. I study the relationship between science and religion in California, but I didn’t know if King was ever explicit about his spiritual views. His memoir, Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada, describes his time exploring the Sierras as part of the California Geological Survey. In that book, King rarely mentions religion. However, the final lines of the book suggest that King may have nurtured a deeply spiritual, but profoundly heterodox view of nature.
King closes his memoir by describing the forest slowly covering the scars left by mining, and then says: “While Nature thus gently heals the humble Earth, God, who is also Nature, moulds and changes Man.” This is, to say the least, not a typical nineteenth-century opinion. Firstly, most Americans were Christians, and drew a sharp distinction between creator and creation. King, on the other hand, seems downright pantheistic. Secondly, most Americans believed human nature was fixed and unchanging. King’s cryptic statement here seems to indicate that he was an early adopter of Darwin’s theories, and believed that humanity was evolving into something different. However, the brief statement never develops his ideas. How far did one sentence represent his actual views?
As I began thumbing through the records held at The Huntington, I made a thrilling discovery. Tucked into one of the folders was a notebook, in King’s handwriting, dedicated to spiritual reflections. This is exactly what I need, I thought to myself. However, as I began to pore over the spiritual notebook, my heart sank. The notebook started with a fairly clear discussion of a Bible story, but soon grew disjointed and rambling. Sometimes sentences and bulleted lists trailed off unfinished. At other points King had jotted down questions and left them unanswered. The notebook was intriguing, but it was certainly not a clear explication of his religious views. Even worse, the notebook had no date.
King had a long and varied career. Without a date for the notebook, it would be impossible to relate it to Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada or his time in California. King had lived on and off in California during the 1860s, but in later decades he explored other parts of the West, and settled in New York to lead a double life with a secret African-American wife (a tale well-told by Martha Sandweiss in Passing Strange). Flipping through King’s spiritual notebook, I couldn’t find any dates. I found some strange drawings in the flyleaf, like a globe and some intersecting lines, and tried to imagine a possible connection between the inscrutable doodles and a period of King’s life, but I couldn’t. To make matters worse, King had published Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada in 1875, years after the events it describes, which meant that it was unclear if the surprising pantheism of the closing lines reflected his views at the time of the expedition, or only at the time of the publishing.
I kept going through the papers. As I was leafing through notebooks from King’s undergraduate years and scientific study prior to California, I found another detailed religious reflection. My eyes lit up. Maybe this was the key that could connect the disjointed spiritual notebook to the conclusion of his memoir. As I read though, I began to feel discouraged. King was expressing boilerplate transcendentalist and liberal Protestant views. He wrote that God was beyond the physical world, but His glory shined through in natural beauty. Nature was just a veil covering God. All this talk of a transcendent deity seemed contrary to the earthy, immanent God described in the memoir. Clearly, King had held these fairly conventional views when he left for California. Perhaps the odd flourishes in the memoir were just curious turns of phrase. However, I kept sifting through the papers, hoping to find something that would show what he was thinking in the mountains. The notebooks from his time in the Sierras were mostly filled with measurements taken from barometers and theodolites, with an occasional sketch of a mountain or list of plant specimens. King had also doodled in the blank spaces of the notebooks, sketching items from camp or imagining new seals for the California Geological Survey. As much as I enjoyed holding the notebooks in my hands and feeling a tangible connection to my favorite nature writer, fuzzy feelings alone can’t get me through a dissertation defense. I needed to find something to make sense of King’s spiritual views.
So I continued my search and pulled a field notebook from 1864 out of its archival folder. As I held it, something seemed familiar. The size, the binding—it matched the spiritual notebook. I began to smile. Did that mean that the spiritual notebook I had found was also from 1864? Maybe. There’s a decent chance King bought the two matching notebooks at the same time. However, it was possible that King got both notebooks in 1864, but then waited years to start writing in the spiritual notebook. There was one other clue. In his field notes, King had amused himself by experimenting with logos for the California Geological Survey. I immediately pulled out the spiritual notebook. King’s proposed logos from 1864 matched the globe doodled in the spiritual notebook. This was the clue I had been searching for.
Suddenly the disorganized thinking in the spiritual notebook made sense. Before leaving for California, King had written and thought like a typical New England transcendentalist. In 1875, he had concluded his memoir with a confident, albeit cryptic, embrace of pantheism. Surely something had changed in between. The change came in 1864. The unanswered questions and unfinished lists in the spiritual notebook are the work of a man in the throes of a conversion experience. His work as a geologist and surveyor, and his encounters with the sublime Sierra Nevada, were working a change in his soul. Why did his time in California transform his religious views?
That’s a difficult question, and one that lies at the heart of my dissertation. Men like Clarence King came to California to “tame the wilderness.” As miners, farmers, and surveyors they staked their fortune on an ability to observe and understand an unfamiliar environment. In the process, they came to focus on the physicality of nature and to emphasize reality of visible objects over invisible forces. As these men settled the West, they tried to feel at home—to feel like they belonged in their surroundings. Since they had come to see their surroundings in material terms, they also came to see themselves in material terms, emphasizing the mutable body over the immutable soul. Thus, the process of settling the West effected a turn from the transcendent to the immanent. King’s pantheistic sentiments are an extreme manifestation of this turn. Rather than locating God in the highest heaven, King found God in the rocks and trees of the Sierras. Once he had immersed himself in the mountains of California, and only then, did King come to believe in a “God, who is also nature.”
Skyler Reidy is a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Southern California History Department. His dissertation explores the role of secularism and secularity in California history. The dissertation focuses on the long nineteenth century, tracing changing practices of material religion from the Spanish mission system to the Azusa Street Revival in 1906. Reidy argues that Californian efforts to articulate and impose secularity—while always contested and ambivalent—were integral to the construction of a settler colonial society. Reidy attended the College of William & Mary, receiving a Bachelor of Arts in History and American Studies in 2011 and a Master’s of Arts in History in 2013. He is a member of the Western History Association and Society for Pentecostal Studies, and has presented his work at numerous conferences, in the United States and abroad.