John Steinbeck’s Life in the Episcopal Church

John Steinbeck pictured second in line leaving St. Paul's Episcopal ChurchJohn Steinbeck was baptized, reared, and confirmed in the Episcopal Church. He also requested and received a Church of England funeral and throughout his life admired the soaring aesthetics of his Anglican church heritage, particularly the Tudor language of the King James Bible and the lyrical liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer. Unfortunately, details of the author’s upbringing, adulthood, and death in the Episcopal Church have been overlooked by critics who have characterized the writer as a humanitarian agnostic, a scientific atheist, or a myth-making literary symbolist, depending on the work in question, the period in Steinbeck’s life, or the critic’s point of view. But the facts of Steinbeck’s lifelong affiliation with the Episcopal Church are indisputable.

St. Paul's, an Anglican church, pictured in Salnas, CaliforniaSt. Paul’s: The Steinbecks’ Adopted Episcopal Church

Though neither of Steinbeck’s parents was brought up as a member of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States—the American branch of the Church of England, part of the worldwide Anglican church communion—Ernst and Olive Steinbeck reared their children, including their son John, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Salinas, California. A traditional Anglican church by early 20th century standards, the parish kept good records. They suggest that the people of St. Paul’s thought of themselves as frontier inheritors of Church of England liturgy, music, and sociability. Even the church’s design (shown above) was Church of England country-parish gothic. As a boy, Steinbeck wore the traditional surplice and sang in the junior choir (shown recessing from the church behind the crucifer in the image at the top of this page).

St. Mary, a Church of England building, pictured in SomersetSt. Mary’s Anglican Church: In Quest of King Arthur

In 1945, Steinbeck had his first son, Thom, baptized as an infant at Old St. James Episcopal Church in Monterey. But except for family events at other Episcopal church sites in nearby Watsonville and Carmel—including the baptism of various nieces—the author isn’t known to have attended Anglican churches outside California until he moved permanently to New York with his third wife in 1950. Steinbeck’s letters reveal that while researching the history of King Arthur in the British Isles, John and Elaine Steinbeck became occasional worshippers at St. Mary’s Anglican Church, an ancient Church of England building in Somerset’s Bruton parish—the namesake of Virginia’s Bruton Parish, the pre-Revolutionary Episcopal church located in Colonial Williamsburg.

Gothic Episcopal church interior of St. James, Manhattan, picturedSt. James Episcopal Church in Midtown Manhattan: Setting for Steinbeck’s Church of England Encore

Before he died in 1968, Steinbeck requested a “Church of England” funeral. The venue? Madison Avenue’s famous St. James Episcopal Church, a fashionable parish with Church-of-England traditions and high-Anglican church tastes. The details of Steinbeck’s dramatic Anglican church service were reported in The New York Times. The actor Henry Fonda read poetry and passages from the Bible, and guests included the humorist Budd Schulberg, Steinbeck’s Hollywood screenwriter friend. Like the California Anglican church where the author sang in the junior choir, the midtown Manhattan Episcopal church chosen for Steinbeck’s funeral is gothic in architecture, Church of England in spirit, and appropriately theatrical in setting for a celebrity’s service. Elaine Steinbeck was a former Broadway stage manager and knew how to put on a show. But the author’s lifetime affiliation with Episcopal church gives away the ending: Steinbeck’s  final curtain came down in a familiar house.

About William Ray

William Ray is a Steinbeck scholar living in Santa Clara, California. He received his PhD in English from the University of North Carolina.


  1. Cheryl lee says:

    Rev. Vincent Coletta, Sr pastored the old Saint James Episcopal of Monterey from 1935- 54. John visited often at the Coletta home (388 Central Ave, Pacific Grove, Ca.). I remember sitting under the dining room table playing with toys as the two men enjoyed my grandmother Adelia serving them coffee and Italian pastry. After baptizing the Steinbeck baby son, my grandfather was given a check for his services. Our family was disappointed when “Grandpa” cashed the check signed by John, and bought groceries !
    Thanks for your research. Cheryl Lee

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