A new Unitarian church in Palo Alto, 1947

Alfred Salem Niles (1894-1974), professor of aeronautic engineering at Stanford [note 1], helped start the present church — then Unitarian, now Unitarian Universalist — after the Second World War. In 1958, he wrote this detailed memoir of how our present church began. Since he was one of the few people to attend both Unitarian churches in Palo Alto, his memoir helps connect those of us in the present-day church with the early Palo Alto Unitarians.

I am publishing only the 500 words of this 11,000 word essay here. The complete essay will soon be available in print form at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto.

The Spring of 1947

In 1927 when the writer came to Palo Alto, the old Unitarian Church at Cowper St. and Charming Avenue was still functioning, but rather feebly. The minister was a woman who later gained considerable notoriety as a fellow-traveler, though her proclivities along that line were not yet apparent [note 2]. There was no Sunday School that I know of, and attendance at the morning services was small. In earlier years the church had been much more active, but the minister at the time of World War I had been a pacifist and conscientious objector, and this had caused a split in the church from which it never recovered. Another thing which I think was an important obstacle to recovery was the quality of the pews in the old building. They were the most uncomfortable ones that I have ever encountered. Since mortification of the flesh does not appeal to Unitarians as a technique of salvation, those seats must have discouraged many possible members. Morning attendance got so small that we tried having services in the evening. But that did not help. Our woman minister resigned, and for a while we had a student from the Starr King School preach to us. Finally, about 1929, services were discontinued, and after a few years the church organization was dissolved, the church building returned to the American Unitarian Association, (3) which sold it to a Fundamentalist group for about $230 less than the mortgage, and there was no more organized Unitarianism in Palo Alto for several years.

During the 1930s the Chaplain at Stanford was Dr. D. Elton Trueblood, a Friend [i.e., a Quaker] with quite liberal views and an excellent speaker. Many Unitarians got into the habit of attending services at the Stanford Church as a result. But he resigned and was succeeded by more orthodox men, and most of the Unitarians in town lost the church-going habit. One result of this was that quite a few of us, although well acquainted with each other, did not realize that we were fellow-Unitarians. The writer can testify to his own surprise, in 1947, to find that the head and one of the professors of his department at Stanford were also Unitarians. We just had never discussed religion with each other.

In the autumn of 1946, Rev. Delos 0’Brian came to San Francisco to be the American Unitarian Association (A.U.A.) Regional Director for the West Coast, with the objective of reviving some of the dormant Unitarian churches and organizing new ones in favorable locations. I was then a member of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, and noticed an item about Mr. O’Brian’s activity in the Christian Register for November 1946. It was not until some time in February 1947, however, that I went to see him at his office at the corner of Sutter and Stockton Sts. It was about noon when I got there, so we went across the street to the Piccadilly Inn to have lunch and talk about the possibility of starting something in Palo Alto. He had the names of about a dozen members of the Church of the Larger Fellowship in Palo Alto, and a similar number in San Mateo, but had not yet made many contacts with those in either group, and was undecided as to which one to start and I think it was my visit which caused him to decide to start with Palo Alto, and that the revival of the Palo Alto Church started at that meeting….


(1) Alfred Salem Niles (1894-1975) worked at Stanford from 1927 to his retirement in 1959. Although he moved away from Palo Alto in 1965, after the death of his wife, his memorial service was held at the Palo Alto Unitarian Church. See this memorial minute.

(2) Regarding Niles’s assertion that Leila Thompson was a “fellow traveler,” here is an excerpt from “Report of the Senate Fact-Finding Subcommitteee on Un-American Activities in California,” no. 11, 1961, pp. 30-31:

“On December fourth, 1953, Saul Wachter attended a meeting sponsored by the East Bay Committee for American Activities in the Willard High School Auditorium, Telegraph Avenue and Ward Street, Berkeley. This meeting was started about 8 o’clock in the evening, and was held for the express purpose of whipping up antagonism toward the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The affair was headed by Dr. E. Richard Weinerman, formerly on the University faculty at Berkeley, a specialist in public health, and mentioned in previous reports issued by this Committee in connection with its investigation of the infiltration of the medical profession in Los Angeles County by Communists. The East Bay Committee for American Activities was formed for the express purpose of opposing the House Committee. Besides Mr. Wachter, the following people were observed in attendance at the December fourth meeting: Bernice Amis, Robert Arnold, Dr. Sheldon Baumrind, Diane Baumrind, Gilbert Bendix, Esther Bernhart, Mary Irene Bonzo, Cliff Brissell, Celeste Brooks, Ostervald Carl Brooks, Tyler Brooks, Frank Bimbo Brown, Mary Brown, Mrs. Alice Byrnes, Mrs. Della Byrd, J. B. Carter, Rosalie Creque, John Dodds, William Doyle, Joe Eisler, Ole Fagerhaugh, James Cameron Forsyth, Laurent Frantz, Evelyn Frieden, Mike Frieden, Alfred Geron, Buddy Green, Mary Green, Edward Grogan, Marion Hammond, Marty Harwayne, Roberta Hypolito, Howard Jeter, Eleanor Johnson, Frances Johnson, James Allen Johnson, Charles Jones, Ephraim Kahn, Bernice Kalman, Gene Kalman, Herb Kalman, Therese Kalman, Della Kessler, Norbert Knight, Hazel Linton, William Lowe, Virginia Maher, Mary Lou Morrow, Ozo Morrow, Lionel Martin, Irwin Mayer, John McElhenry, Lou McMullen, Pete Murdock, Bob Neville, Annette Newman, Roy Noftz, Roger Paine, Sidney Roger, Boris Romanoff, Ben Rust, Helen Sale, Dr. Mary Sarvis, Irving Snider, Reverend Fred Stripp, Tom Tate, Frances Panby, Trevor Thomas, Jackie Thompson, Leila L. Thompson, Ray Thompson, Decca Treuhaft, Jean Rose Vandever, Lloyd Vandever, Billie Wachter, Dr. E. Richard Weinerman, William Wiitala, Jack Wolfman.

“We do not wish to imply that all of the individuals who attended each one of these meetings were Communists. But we do wish to state most emphatically that most of them were and that a liberal proportion of the remaining minority were ardent Fellow Travelers. We wish to point out that each of these meetings was conceived, dominated, and operated entirely by the Communist Party, and that at most of them Wilhemena Lowry, who operated the Communist book store in Berkeley, sold Party propaganda from a table located near the entrance to the hall where the program was presented. Those individuals who are familiar with previous reports issued by this Committee will also note that the same old names of Party enthusiasts crop up over and over again with monotonous regularity, going faithfully from one front organization to another, passing out literature, carrying signs in picket lines, dutifully screaming epithets at mass demonstrations, and doing all of the incredible chores the Party demands, thus isolating themselves completely away from other types of activity. …”

(3) The building was returned to the American Unitarian Association in 1934. For a little bit more on the later history of the building, here’s a 2010 blog post I wrote.

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