The Donner Party by Daniel Lewis
Religion of the Donner Party


The Year of 1846
The Story: Part I
Part II: The Journey
Part III: Snowbound
Part IV: Eating of the Dead
Epilogue: Journey's End
General Roster
Names for Research
Route of the Donner Party
Forensics of the Donner Party
Forensics II
The Donner Party and Native Americans
Religion of the Donner Party
Links and Sources
Contact Me

In 1846 religion as the world knew it was changing. With the development of psychology and New Age Christian beliefs many people began to question their current sense of God. Most people at the time were religious, but many became inactive in their churches or did not attend Mass or services. Concerning the Donner Party, only the Breens and Patrick Doolan were known for fact to be active in their church, but afterwards, many converted to churches in the area.

During the Donner Party, many were non-religious, and some remained that way. According to George Stewart, when William Eddy and Mary Graves were following behind the Forlorn Hope, they both stopped to pray, something that they supposedly did not do very often. Soon after, a weak deer came their way, and Eddy shot it. The deer was very possibly the difference between life and death for the Forlorn Hope.

The most famous of religious experiences came when Virginia Reed was in her family's cabin late at night, while her family slept, and she felt she would soon die. Inspired by the faith of the Roman Catholic Breen family, and her own fear, she then vowed to be a devout and loving Catholic, if she could just live long enough to just see her father again, and hopefully the Lord would also spare her family from death.

"I am a Catholic although my parents were not. I often went to the Catholic church before leaving home, but it was at Donner Lake that I made the vow to be a Catholic. The Breens were the only Catholic family in the Donner party and prayers were said aloud regularly in that cabin night and morning. Our only light was from little pine sticks split up like kindling wood and kept constantly on the hearth. I was very fond of kneeling by the side of Mr. Breen and holding these little torches so that he might see to read. One night we had all gone to bed -- I was with my mother and the little ones, all huddled together to keep from freezing--but I could not sleep. It was a fearful night and I felt that the hour was not far distant when we would go to sleep -- never to wake again in this world. All at once I found myself on my knees with my hands clasped, looking up through the darkness, making a vow that if God would send us relief and let me see my father again I would be a Catholic. That prayer was answered." - Virginia Reed, "Across the Plains in the Donner Party."

Whether or not this really happened as stated, faith appearantly mattered to the survivors after their ordeal. It is interesting to know, however, the Reeds and the Breens were the only families to survive without family loss during the winter.

George Stewart's book "Ordeal by Hunger" focuses on the Roman Catholic Breens for more information about religious beliefs in the Donner party.

Pre-Donner Party:
Roman Catholics: The Breens/Patrick Doolan
Mormon/Church of LDS: Lavinah Murphy (reportedly)
Methodist: Margaret Reed
Lutheran/Other Protestant: Louis Keseberg and possibly others.

Post-Donner Party
Roman Catholic: The Breens/The Fosters/Mary Murphy/Virginia Backenstoe Reed
Episcopalians: (American Anglicans) Eliza Donner and Naomi Pike
Methodist: The Kesebergs, Margaret Reed and Nancy Graves
Baptist: Lovina Graves
Congregationist: (Neo-Puritan) William Murphy

As for everyone else, not everyone could become active in Church communities, some being farmers out in the rural Sacramento Valley. Others attended non-denominational community churches, and others still prayed to God in their own way.