Early documentary history of Palo Alto Unitarians and Eliza Tupper Wilkes

From The Unitarian, a periodical edited by Frederick B. Mott (Boston: George Ellis), Volume XI.

January, 1896, p. 48:

Woodland, Cal.— Rev. Mrs. E. T. Wilkes has been continuing her missionary work here and at Palo Alto, under the joint auspices of the American Unitarian Association and the Pacific Women’s Unitarian Conference. She has also visited Santa Cruz and Sacramento in the interests of our cause.

February, 1896, p. 95:

Palo Alto, Cal.—A correspondent writes: “There has recently been organized the Unity Society of Palo Alto, of which Prof. Hoskins of Stanford University is president. Meetings have been directed by Mrs. Wilkes for some time past, and it in sincerely hoped by all the members that she may remain here. A building lot will soon be owned by the society, and on it a suitable chapel will be erected. The society will surely prosper, and be a help and benefit, not only to its members, but also to all that come under its influence.”

March, 1896, p. 142:

Palo Alto, Cal.—On Sunday, January 12, a meeting was held at the house of Mr. J. S. Hutler, Palo Alto, at which were present thirty persons desirous of organizing a society, whose purpose, as stated in the announcement of the object of the meeting, should be “the promotion of moral earnestness, and of freedom, fellowship, and character in religion, and which,” the announcement further states, “shall impose no restriction on individual belief.” More would have been present but for the threatening weather. Those present organized the Unity Society of Palo Alto. Prof. Hoskins of Stanford University was elected president, other offices and committees were filled, and a place for future meetings decided upon. It is the hope of the society to be able in the near future to build a suitable chapel; and Mrs. Wilkes, who has for some time been conducting the meetings, has promised substantial aid toward its erection, in case a good building lot is secured. — Pacific Unitarian.

Ibid., June, 1896, pp. 284-285:

Pacific Unitarian Conference.— The twelfth session of this conference was held at Alameda, Cal., April 22-24. Some admirable addresses were given; and the following interesting reports made:—

Rev. C. W. Wendte, as superintendent of the American Unitarian Association, referred to the condition of Unitarian church life ten years ago, when he first came to the Pacific Coast to undertake the systematic conduct of the missionary work of the American Unitarian Association. There were at that time only seven organizations, four church buildings, six ministers, and church property valued at $150,000. Only two of these churches were self-supporting. The others were little more than missionary stations of the American Unitarian Association. To-day there are thirty church organizations and eight missionary stations, eighteen church buildings and four church sites, property valued at $600,000, with $75,000 indebtedness, twenty-three ministers actively employed and ten others ready for at least occasional service. The spirit of our ministers and churches, though dimmed with financial cares, is unbroken. We have temporarily suspended services in a few towns, but new movements have sprung up in other places. We have lost no church edifices, but have actually added to our property during these financially hard times. The American Unitarian Association has withdrawn more or less missionary aid during the past year, but new societies have sprung up spontaneously. The latest born are churches at Palo Alto, Visalia, and Lemoore, Cal., and a missionary station at Eugene, Ore.

Rev. Mrs. Wilkes spoke of her work at Palo Alto in her usual happy vein. Mr. Wendte expressed the conviction that the two San Francisco churches should make this Palo Alto movement their peculiar care, aiding it by ministerial service, money contributions, and general supervision and help.

From Our Woman Workers: Biographical Sketches of Women Eminent in the Universalist Church for Literary, Philanthropic and Christian Work, by Mrs. E. R. Hanson (Chicaog: Star and Covenant, 1884), 3rd ed., pp. 481-483 (note this biographical sketch was written before Wilkes went to California):


Was born in the little town of Houlton, Me., Oct. 8, 1844. When about eight years old, her parents moved to Iowa. Until she was flfteen especial attention was given to her education at home by a private tutor. She received her first public instruction in Mr. Harris’s popular school at Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. From Mt. Pleasant she went to Maine, and attended an academy for two years. She returned to Iowa when eighteen, and soon commenced a course of studies at the University in Pella, Iowa, from which college she graduated in 1866 with honor. Through her education and the class of books she considered it her duty to rend, she became morbidly interested in the heathen, and in 1867 received an appointment to go to India to teach in the Baptist Mission, which from childhood had been her pet intention. Before her preparations for departure were completed her mother was taken very sick, and she abandoned for a time her cherished idea, but she could not abandon the interest she entertained in the condition of the heathen, for it was then the popular idea, that if they did not before death learn that there was a God, and repent and believe, he would send them to hell. As she investigated the subject of future punishment, all at once a new light shone in upon the Scriptures, and her delight in reading them grew day by day. She was lifted up, and filled with love for her heavenly Father that she could not explain until she read Whittier’s “Eternal Goodness,” which illuminated her heart and understanding, and enabled her to see God’s character in its true light. From that time on she was a Universalist and studied its theology.

Miss Tupper wrote to Mr. Whittier of the light and comfort obtained from his poem, to which he expressed great satisfaction.

Miss Tupper began to preach in the Spring of 1868. Her first settlement was in Neenah and Menasha, Wis., where she remained two years, and she rejoices in the friendship of many there. In November, 1869, she was married to W. A. Wilkes, of Neenah. In 1870 she removed to Rochester, Minn., and commenced her work as pastor of that society, and the three years of the relationship enjoyed by pastor and people were very pleasant, and are recalled by both with much satisfaction. Mrs. Wilkes was ordained at Rochester, in March, 1871. After leaving Rochester she preached in Webster, Mass., a short time, and then moved to Colorado Springs, Col., where she preached two years for a society composed of Universalists, Unitarians and Liberals. The great altitude so reduced her nervous health that she was forced to make a change. Dakota was chosen as the most hopeful place, where she now resides, at Sioux Falls. She occasionally preaches in a school-house in the country, and sometimes supplies for the Yankton Society, and has preached in the Methodist and Congregational Churches in Sioux Falls. She was Vice President of the Woman’s Centenary Association for some years, and is now President of the Home Temperance Union.

Mrs. Wilkes has always been one of the most modest of women, never presuming, and much beloved wherever she has lived. She says, “In my ministerial life the blessing to which I am most indebted is the good, judicious and peace-making friends who have always been my strength and comfort, and I do not think credit can be given to me, unless it is given to those who believed in me. My pride is that I worked my own way through college.”

In her private life she takes pride in being the mother of four boys, and well she may, for in training them for careers of usefulness and honor, she will do a work for humanity that no public stations can equal, though occupied until the hair is silvered and the eyes grow dim with years.

Mrs. Wilkes is very intelligent, and sweetly affable, and converses with ease and grace. “She speaks as the birds sing, naturally,” said one of our most cultured man-ministers.

From A woman of the century: fourteen hundred-seventy biographical sketches …? by Frances Elizabeth Willard, Mary Ashton Rice Livermore (Moulton, 1893), pp. 774-775 (note this biographical sketch ends just before Wilkes went to California):

WILKES, Mrs. Eliza Tupper, minister, born in Houlton, Maine. 8th October, 1844. Her father was a native of Maine, her mother of Rhode Island, and all ancestors, except an honored Irish grandmother, were of New England since the earliest colonization. The Tuppers were established in 1630 upon a farm in Sandwich, Mass., which is still occupied by a member of the family. On other lines the family is traced to the Mayhews, of Martha’s Vineyard, and the Wheatons, of Rhode Island. Early in the childhood of Mrs. Wilkes, her parents moved to Brighton, Washington county, Iowa. Her early education was largely given her by her mother, Mrs. Ellen Smith Tupper, who became celebrated for her knowledge of bee culture. At sixteen she returned to New England with her grandfather, Noah Smith, then prominent in the public life of Maine, and for two years studied in the academy in Calais, Me. Returning to Iowa, she was graduated from the Iowa Central University after four years of study, during which time she had largely supported herself and economized with heroic fortitude. Until towards the end of her college course, she was a devoted Baptist and planned to go as a foreign missionary. Her anxiety for the heathen, however, led her to question the truth of her belief in eternal punishment, and she became a Universalist. Association with a Quaker family made her realize that she might preach, although a woman, and, encouraged by the Reverend Miss Chapin, Mrs. Livermore and others, she became a Universalist minister, and was ordained 2nd May, 1871. Her first pastorate was in Neenah, Wis., before her ordination, and in 1869 she accepted a call from the church in Rochester, Minn. After the time of her entrance upon that pastorate she became the wife of William A. Wilkes, a young lawyer of great strength of character and of much professional promise, which has since been more than realized. Much of Mrs. Wilkes’ success has been due to the inspiring sympathy and encouragement of her husband. He has always been active as a leader in reformatory measures and as a layman in church work. In 1872 she resigned her pastorate and went with her husband to Colorado Springs, where he found a fine professional field. In that year their first child was born, and from that time on for fifteen years she gave most of her time and strength to her home life, although her ministry really never ceased. She always kept a live and active interest in all the good work of the communities in which she lived, and preached occasionally, whenever her help was needed. Through her efforts a Unitarian church was started during that period in Colorado Springs, and later another in Sioux Falls, Dakota, to wh1ch place the family moved in 1878. In Dakota she gathered about her through post-office missions and occasional preaching tours a large parish of hungry truth-seekers, scattered all over the prairies of southeastern Dakota. Her influence was especially felt among the young women in the new communities in which she lived. Although young herself, her experience made her seem a natural adviser, and, whether by starting study classes, or kindergarten, or giving suggestions as to infant hygiene, her usefulness was unceasing. In 1887 she again entered actively into the ministry, accepting the pastorate of a church in Luverne, Minn., a town a few miles from Sious Falls, where her home remained. That work she still continues. She herself is mother, sister, friend or teacher to every man, woman or child in the congregation, and most of the life of the community centers in the activities she inspires. Together with that, she is virtual pastor of three mission churches, to which she preaches as there is opportunity. Five sons and one daughter were born to her.

6 thoughts on “Early documentary history of Palo Alto Unitarians and Eliza Tupper Wilkes

  1. Dan

    Green Monk @ 1 — Back in the day, Unitarians used to ordain ministers as “Evangelists” — ministers who were not necessarily tied to one specific congregation, but who were ordained to go out and start new churches. Someday I will have to sit down and write a blog post about that….

  2. Chuck

    In 1886, Charles A. Wendte reorganized the church as The First Unitarian Church of Oakland. Wendte later invited Eliza Tupper Wilkes, the first woman to serve a church in the East Bay, to join him in ministry to the congregation.

  3. Chuck

    I’d have to get into the Oakland archives – I think church historian Glenna Matthew may have more information. I’m not sure if the original documents are at the church or have been forwarded on to SKSM / PSR.

    Given the mores of the era, Rev. Wendte’s office was in the main church building, while Rev. Wilkes was relegated to the one room in the church tower! It was a very short ministry … but she was the first woman minister in the SF bay.

    The Oakland church has a great history – Jack London was married there, and was a member of the Starr King Literary Society, which also included poet Joaquim Miller and I think Bret Hart. I am told that much of “The Call of the Wild” was written in the Starr King room, which also served as the first “public library” in Oakland while the first one was being built next door. That building is now the African-American history museum.

    President William Howard Taft spoke there to 2,000 people, many standing out in the street – before amplification. The redwood sanctuary is a sound-box that projects from the dome in front.

    Isadora Duncan danced one of her first dance recitals in Wendte Hall. The church served as a hospital after the 1906 quake, with the injured being transported to Oakland via ferry. Same after the great Berkeley quake / fire of 1916(?) – not finding the right date online. The church tower hit the street during that one!

    Aurelia H. Reinhardt, President of Mills College and the first woman to serve as Moderator of the AUA, gathered delegates from the UN conference in San Francisco and UNICEF and UNESCO were charted there. We still have her lectern – she must have been a very tall person, because it is a very tall lectern!

    Rev., Arnold Crompton was sent west from Erie, PA, by the AUA to close both the withering Oakland church and Starr King School in 1945. He helped save both, and saw the church go through growth and then rapid decline due to “white flight” from the Oakland inner-city.

    Rev. Robert Eller-Isaacs was sent to Oakland in 1983 and picked up the reigns as the UUA’s first Urban Extension minister – he found a congregation of about 30 stubborn souls. He and Rev. Janne helped grow that congregation to ~ 300 members and reclaimed its stake as a city shareholder before being called to Unity – Unitarian in St. Paul, MN.

    And the beat goes on!

    You may not want to post all of this on this thread!


  4. Chuck

    Oh – I forgot that Ralph Waldo Emerson first gave his “build a better mousetrap” speech at the Oakland church – or, again, as I am told!

    : ‘ )>

    I know that lack of documentation drives real historians wild!

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