The documents below tell the story of Rev. Eliza Tupper Wilkes and her efforts to start a Unitarian organization in Palo Alto, in the years 1895-1896. (Though a Universalist, she was at that time working for the Unitarians.)
Wilkes first came to the Bay area in 1890: “By the early 1890s, as heart problems and a hectic schedule caught up with her, Wilkes began to spend the winter months in California. During the winter of 1890-91 she served the Alameda, California, Unitarian Church.” [Article on ETW, http://www25.uua.org/uuhs/duub/articles/elizatupperwilkes.html accessed Oct. 10, 2013, 14:32 PDT]
In 1893, she began serving as Rev. Charles Wendte’s assistant in Oakland. “It should be added that when, in 1893, Mr. Wendte reassumed the Unitarian superintendency for the coast for two years more, he invited Rev. Mrs. Eliza Tupper Wilkes to become his assistant and substitute during his absence. Mrs. Wilkes greatly endeared herself to the congregation during her eighteen months of earnest and efficient service.”
— The Unitarian (collected ed., Boston: George Ellis), March, 1897.
Since hiring Wilkes allowed Wendte to hold down another paying job, as the Pacific Coast superintendent for Unitarians, he had to pay her out of his own pocket. She was charged with overseeing the Sunday school, pastoral calling, adult organizations, and she was asked to do occasional preaching. Wilkes resigned from Oakland in March, 1895. “Her health had not improved, and Wendte could not afford to pay her.”
— Arnold Crompton, Unitarianism on the Pacific Coast (Starr King Press / Beacon Press, 1957), p. 151.
By November, 1895, the Pacific Unitarian reported that the Women’s Unitarian Conference voted to continue its support for Wilkes’s missionary work. At that time, she was living in Berkeley.
— “Notes,” November, 1895, vol. 4, no. 1 (San Francisco: ), p. 6.
According to Doug Chapman, Wilkes “was the first woman to preach at the Stanford University Chapel — in May, 1895. Her sermon was titled ‘Character in the Light of Evolution’.”
— “Dakota Territory’s Eliza Tupper Wilkes: Prairie Pastor,” paper delivered at the Dakota Conference on History, Literature, Art, and Archaeology, Augustana College, 2000. [For an account of this sermon, see this blog post.]
The Woman’s Club was addressed, at its last meeting, not by Miss Holbrook as advertised, but by Rev. Eliza Tupper Wilkes, of the First Unitarian Church, Oakland. Not having a special address prepared, she was asked to speak of Woman’s Clubs. She said they were in no sense an achievement but a prophesy: the worst use to make of them is as a mutual admiration society, as has been done. That they are needed is an advertisement to the world that women have not yet found their place. Until this is accomplished and men and women stand on the same plane in our meeting Woman’s Club will be a necessity as a means to an end. Separate clubs are a training school for women. In these they hear their own voices, learn executive ability, and gain experience. Yet such clubs are one-sided, disjointed affairs.
As a mother of six children she spoke from experience when she said that mothers needed relief from their home duties, hence she would not have the club a mother’s meeting but a meeting of mothers; a place where they should not hear so much of their own duties, but something of the duties of fathers, if need be. but particularly of outside things, of literature, science, art, that they might take home with them some thought to brighten the daily routine.
— The Palo Alto Times, vol. 3, no. 18, May 10, 1895, p. 2.
Mrs. Wilkes will hold Unitarian services at Parkinson’s Hall, Sunday afternoon, November 3rd, at 4 o’clock. All are invited.
— The Palo Alto Times, vol. 3, no. 44, November 1, 1895, p. 3.
The Women’s Unitarian Conference has decided, by a unanimous vote, to sustain Mrs. Eliza Tupper Wilkes in her missionary work. She is to preach at Palo Alto, assist in Berkeley and elsewhere. She will, for the present, have her home in Berkeley. She was given a warm welcome there, and will be helpful in many ways.
— ”Notes,” The Pacific Unitarian, November, 1895, vol. 4, no. 1 (San Francisco: Pacific Unitarian Conference), p. 6.
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.
— ”News from the Field,” The Unitarian, January, 1896, ed. Frederick B. Mott, vol. 11 (Boston: George Ellis, 1896), p. 48.
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 is 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 suit-able 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.”
— ”News from the Field,” The Unitarian, February, 1896, ed. Frederick B. Mott, vol. 11 (Boston: George Ellis, 1896), p. 95.
Palo Alto, Cal. — On Sunday, January 12, a meeting was held at the house of Mr. J. S. Butler, 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 meet-ing, 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.
— ”News from the Field,” The Unitarian, February, 1896, ed. Frederick B. Mott, vol. 11 (Boston: George Ellis, 1896), p. 142.
[Note: In 1894, J. S. Butler was listed as President of the Palo Alto Mutual Building and Loan Association. Annual Report of the Building and Loan Commissioner of the State of California, vol. 1, 1894, p. 146. He was a Trustee of Palo Alto c. 1897, and received U.S. patent 659368 A in 1899 for an improved orchard stepladder. In 1905, he was a charter member of the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto.]
Our New Church
Ecclesiastical babies like human babies have all the funny things told about them. Our infant Unitarian Church of Unity Society as the call it, therefore must expect to come in for their share.
A San Francisco daily recently noticed their beginning under the conspicuous headlines “AN ORGANIZATION THAT DOES NOT BELIEVE IN ANYTHING IN PARTICULAR FOUNDED AT PALO ALTO.”
Another good one is told on them when they met for service in the hotel parlor two Sabbaths ago. After the little company sang some hymns, and read some prayers, the Professor who was to address them began his talk upon the Relation of Poetry and Religion. In the course of his remarks he had occasion to refer to the Bible. He looked for one in the pulpit and under the pulpit but there was none there. Then he appealed to some one in the congregation to lend him theirs, but the Law and the Gospel was not in the possession of them. Finally the good landlady went up stairs and succeeded in finding one in the room of some be-nighted godless student, and as she placed it in the hands of the Professor he dryly remarked, “I knew this was a very advanced society, but I thought you still clung to the Old Book.”
— The Palo Alto Times, vol. 4, no. 5, January 30, 1896, p. 1.
[Note: This shows how old some of the jokes about Unitarians are.]
Rev. Chas. Wendte of the Unitarian church of Oakland will address the Unity Society of Palo Alto next SUnday, the 19th, at 3:45 p.m. Mr. Wendte is one of the ablest and most noted speakers on the coast, and all who can will enjoy hearing him.
— The Palo Alto Times, vol. 4, no. 16, April 17, 1896, p. 2.
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.
— ”News from the Field,” The Unitarian, June, 1896, ed. Frederick B. Mott, vol. 11 (Boston: George Ellis, 1896), pp. 284-285.
By March, 1897, the Pacific Unitarian lists the Palo Alto “Unity Circle” as having no regular minister, but instead supply preaching; Wilkes is listed among the “ministers not settled over churches.” [Pacific Unitarian, “Unitarian Church Directory,” March, 1897, vol. 5, no. 6, p. 157].
[Note: This article from The Palo Alto Times gives a sense of the relative size and strength of the Unitarians during this era. Even though the Unity Society few signs of life in 1898, there were still avowedly Unitarian families in Palo Alto. The seeds of future Unitarianism were being nurtured.]
The canvas taken of Palo Alto school district and part of the campus, Nov. 15, 16, and 17, under the auspices of the California Sunday School Association, by twenty-four persons, some from each church organization, resulted as follows: Five hundred and sixty seven declared themselves as being church members. These are divided among the following denominations: Presbyterians, 145; Methodist, 104; Episcopalian, 99; Catholics, 56; Congregational, 50; Christian, 32; Baptist, 30; Unitarian, 21; Lutheran, 14; Busker, 6; Universalist, 5; Jewish, 5; Christian Science, 3; Advent, 1, New Jerusalem, 1. Forty-six had no preference. There are 390 children under 18 years; 253 are attending Sunday schools. Of the 137 not attending, 49 are infants under 2 years; 38 are of Catholic families. Of the 50 that might attend, but do not, the most are near 18 years.
—The Palo Alto Times, vol. 8, no. 44, Friday, December 9, 1898, p. 1.