Obscure Unitarians: the Rendtorff / Meyer family

Karl and Emma E. Rendtorff were two of the key leaders of the old Unitarian Church of Palo Alto (1905-1934). Emma’s mother and sister happened to be living in Palo Alto 1905-1908, and also got involved with the church. With baby Gertrude, there were thus three generations of Meyers/Rendtorffs involved with the founding of the church.

Palo Alto was a small town, with a population of 4,486 in 1910; 5,900 in 1920 (Sawyers, History of Santa Clara County, California, 1922). The town really wasn’t big enough to support a Unitarian church, and I suspect the church never got bigger than what Arlin Routhage calls “family-size” — that is, a small church that acts more like a family, with matriarchs and patriarchs. I further suspect that Karl and Emma E. Rendtorff were two of the matriarchs/patriarchs. Their extended family is of interest for this reason alone.

But their extended family is also of interest because of the characteristics they share with so many other members of the church. Karl and Emma both spoke German, and both were associated with Stanford; as was true of many members of the church. Karl was trained as a librarian, and there were at least half a dozen other librarians who were part of the congregation; he was a pacifist, and there were many other pacifists in the congregation. Emma was a woman with a college degree in an era when that was uncommon, and she was an experienced teacher; many other women in the congregation also had college degrees, and some were experienced and dedicated teachers (like her sister and daughter).

Without further introduction, here are brief biographies of the Rendtorff / Meyer family, three generations of five fascinating people who were part of the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto:

Emma Elizabeth Meyer Rendtorff — She was born in St. Louis, Mo., c. 1869; her father, Charles F., was born in Germany, and her mother, Emma Pulte, though a native of Missouri, was the daughter of two German immigrants. Her family belonged to Church of the Unity, the second Unitarian church in St. Louis, formed in 1868 (in 1938, Church of the Unity merged with Church of the Messiah to form First Unitarian).

For some time before she married, she was a school teacher. She taught in Compton and Hogden Schools in St. Louis, for at least two years, until May, 1891, when she applied for a leave of absence (St. Louis Public Schools: Printed Record of the Board…, 1889-1892). By 1892, Emma was teaching German at Coronado High School, Coronado, Calif., and taught there through 1894 (Pacific Education Journal, vol. 8, p. 500; vol. vol. 9, p. 423).

Emma entered Stanford University in Sept., 1894. She lived with her sister Adele during the academic year 1896-1897, but Adele went back to Coronado after a year (Adele returned to Stanford in 1905 to complete her degree). Emma E. received her A.B. in German in 1899, and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in 1905.

On June 5, 1899, Emma E. Meyer married Karl G. Rendtorff — a newly minted Ph.D. and professor of German at Stanford — in Coronado, Calif., where her mother and Adele were living. She and Karl had one child, Gertrude Emma (b. Oct. 20, 1902): Gertrude in her turn would study at Stanford and become a teacher.

Emma Rendtorff was a key leader in the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto, primarily due to her service as Superintendent of the Sunday School in 1905-1907, 1908-1910, 1915-1917, and 1920-1922. She started the Sunday school from scratch, and from 1905 to 1917 saw average attendance grow from 9 to 48. She was on the Building Committee when the new Social Hall was built, the purpose of which was “to provide a specially equipped room for the Sunday School” (Palo Altan, June 5, 1914, p. 1). She was personally dedicated to the Sunday school as an institution; in a talk she gave at a church dinner in 1907, she said her experiences in the Sunday school of Church of the Unity, the second Unitarian church in St. Louis, were formative: “Some of the dearest memories of my life are bound up with my own Sunday-school days, which were spent in St. Louis in the little Church of the Unity.… And I think with profound gratitude of one teacher there who more than any one other person in the world quickened my religious instincts and shaped my moral ideals. He was one of the rare men of this world.… And what that teacher did for me perhaps some one teachers in our school may do for our children.” (Pacific Unitarian, Jan., 1907, p. 89.) She was not the only Superintendent of Sunday Schools in her family; her sister Adele became Superintendent of the Sunday School in the Los Angeles Unitarian church.

In 1929, Karl retired from Stanford, and the two of them moved to Carmel, where they had had a summer home for many years. There was no Unitarian congregation in Carmel, so she was not able to join the local Unitarian church. Karl died on May 5, 1945, and she died some time after that.


Karl Gustav Rendtorff (Emma E. Rendtorff’s husband) — He was born June 28, 1864, in Preetz, Germany, the youngest of ten. Following in the footsteps of his father, a Luthern minister, Karl studied for the ministry for two years at Geissen before deciding it was the wrong vocation for him. He also studied at Kiel and Berlin.

Karl wound up working as private secretary to a well-known surgeon Johannes Friedrich von Esmarch, who later became the first president of the German Peace Society (Friedens-Gesellschaft), and wound up becoming an ardent pacifist himself. As part of his duties for Esmarch, he catalogued the surgeon’s library, in the process learning the basics of library science.

In 1893, he emigrated to New York. He sent a telegraph to the then-new Stanford University, asking if they might need an assistant librarian, and was invited to join the library staff. He arrived just as Leland Stanford died, which wound up freezing the budget for the library; but the German department hired him as an assistant. He received his A.M. in German in 1894, and his Ph.D. in German in 1896.

On June 5, 1899, Karl married Emma Elizabeth Meyer, who had just received her A.B. in German at Stanford. They settled in Palo Alto. For 18 months, up to Aug., 1902, they were in Europe, visiting Karl’s parents in Germany, but also traveling in Switzerland and Italy to study methods of teaching German (Palo Alto Press, Aug. 19, 1902, p. 1). Their only child, Gertrude, was born Oct. 20, 1902, two months after they returned from that trip.

Karl was another key leader in the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto. He was the first clerk, and the original version of the Constitution of the church was in his beautiful (and beautifully legible) handwriting. He continued in various leadership roles as long as he was in Palo Alto, often serving on the Board of Trustees. If the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto was a “family-size church” (in Arlin Routhage’s model), surely Karl and Emma Rendtorff were each a patriarch and matriarch, respectively.

Like Guido Marx and David Starr Jordan, Karl began to spend his summers in Carmel in about 1910. He retired from Stanford in 1929, and he and Emma moved to Carmel. By 1931, Gertrude had a teaching job at Monterey High School, and came to live with them. Karl died on May 5, 1945.


Emma Pulte Meyer (Emma E. Rendtorff’s mother) — She was born June, 1837, in St. Louis, Missouri., the daughter of Dr. Phillip A. Pulte. She married Charles Meyer, a German immigrant, and they had three children: Charles, Jr., (b. c. 1856 in Missouri), Emma Elizabeth (b. c. 1869 in Missouri), and Adele (b. Pyrmont, Germany, Aug. 16, 1873). She was widowed before 1900. By 1892, she was living in Coronado, Calif., with her daughters Emma and Adele.

Her daughter, Emma Elizabeth, went to study at Stanford in 1894. There she met Karl Rendtorff, and the two married in Coronado — where Emma Pulte was living with Adele — in June, 1899.

When Adele went to Europe to study in 1902-1903, Emma went with her (Coronado Tent City Daily Program, Sept. 14, 1903, p. 2). When Adele went to complete her degree at Stanford in 1905, Emma Pulte came up to Palo Alto to live with her. Emma [Pulte] Meyer was one of the early members of the Unitarian Women’s Alliance when the new Unitarian Church of Palo alto formed in 1905; and although the church membership roll has been lost, it seems likely she was a member of the church as well. After Adele graduated from Stanford in 1907, they moved to Los Angeles, where Adele had a teaching job. After Adele married in 1914, Emma returned to San Diego.

Emma Pulte Meyer died Dec. 20, 1931, in San Diego; her memorial service was conducted by Rev. Howard Bard, minister of First Unitarian Church in San Diego (obituary, San Diego Tribune, Dec. 22, 1931).


Adele Meyer (Emma E. Rendtorff’s sister) — She was born in Pyrmont, Germany, Aug. 16, 1873, presumably while her parents were visiting her father’s relatives in Germany (her siblings Emma and Charles were born in the United States). She went to Sunday school in the Church of the Unity, a Unitarian church in St. Louis. Her mother moved the family to Coronado, Calif., around 1892, probably after her father died.

She began studying at Stanford in Sept., 1896, and lived with her sister Emma, also a Stanford student, in Palo Alto in 1897; after two semesters, Adele moved back to Coronado. Adele resumed her studies at Stanford in 1905, living with her mother in Palo Alto, and received her A.B. in German 1907, completing her degree in just 6 semesters. Both Adele and her mother joined the Women’s Alliance and the Palo Alto Unitarian Church. She was Assistant Superintendent of the Sun-day school at the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto when it first began in Dec., 1905 through 1907—her sister Emma was Superintendent—then she was Superintendent in 1907-1908 while her sister’s husband was on sabbatical (in that year the average attendance was 17). She was also an early member of the Women’s Alliance. When she moved to Los Angeles, she became part of the Unitarian church there, and was Superintendent of the Sunday school by 1909 (The Pacific Unitarian, vol. 18, no. 3, Nov., 1909).

She began her teaching career in 1893. She taught in the Coronado, Calif., schools, up to about 1902. Then she went to study at the University of Berlin, returning to teach in Cornado in 1903. After graduating from Stanford, she taught German at the Polytechnic High School in Los Angeles from 1908-1912; her mother, Emma Meyer, lived with her. Adele went to study at Columbia around 1912. She married Irving Erastus Outcault on June 25, 1914; he was a Stanford graduate (1896). They settled in San Diego, and she was the first principal of the Francis Parker School in San Diego, from 1914-1920.

She died Aug. 28, 1964.


Gertrude Emma Rendtorff (Emma E. Rendtorff’s daughter) — She was born Oct. 20, 1902, in Palo Alto, Calif., almost exactly two months after her parents returned from a year and a half of travel in Europe. She was part of the Sunday school at the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto, and by 1919-1920 she was a teacher, of the second and third graders. When she was a young girl, her family began to summer in Carmel, on the Monterey Peninsula. She entered Stanford about 1922.

In 1924, she traveled with her mother and father in Germany for six months, visiting her uncle (Karl’s brother), a professor of theology at the University of Leipzig (Stanford Daily, June 4, 1924, p. 4). When she returned, she gave a talk about her trip to the “Humanist Club,” the college student group at the Unitarian Church. She was elected to the board of the National Young People’s Religious Union, the Unitarian association for young adults, in 1927-1928 (The Christian Register, vol. 106, March 17, 1927, p. 222).

She received both her A.B. and her A.M. from Stanford, leaving there in 1928 to do additional graduate work at Mills College in Oakland. She then taught for two years in Bakersfield, before taking a teaching job at Monterey High School in 1931. She lived with her parents, who had retired to Carmel in 1929, in what had been their summer home. Soon she was named “Dean of Girls,” and remained in that position until her retirement in 1965. She was “known for her kindness, firmness and compassion in dealing with students” (obituary, Monterey County Herald, May 18, 1975).

In May, 1945, she was active in collecting signatures for petitions calling for interned Japanese Americans to be welcomed back in Monterey. She apparently collected signatures among students at Monterey High School (“Forgotten documents reveal views on return of Japanese internees to Monterey Peninsula,” by Geoffrey Dunn, The Monterey County Herald Online, Nov. 9, 2013). She was active in many community organizations, including the League of Women Voters, the American Association of University Women, the Monterey County Braille Transcribers, etc. (obituary, Monterey County Herald, May 18, 1975). There was no Unitarian church in the area until 1953; she does not appear to have continued her involvement in Unitarianism.

She never married, and after her parents died, she lived alone (except for the dachsunds she raised). She died May 16, 1975.



Some sources are noted above. Other sources include:

Archives of the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto, now in the possession of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto

The Christian Register. Boston: American Unitarian Association.
The Pacific Unitarian. San Francisco: Pacific Unitarian Conference.
The Palo Alto Times. Palo Alto, Calif.
The Palo Altan. Palo Alto, Calif.
The Stanford Daily. Stanford, Calif.
San Francisco Call. San Francisco, Calif.
Los Angeles Herald. Los Angeles, Calif.
Other newspapers.

Leonard, John William, ed. Woman’s Who’s Who of America, 1914-1915. New York: American Commonwealth, 1914.
Sawyers, Eugene T. History of Santa Clara County, California. Los Angeles: Historic Record Co., 1922.

Directory of Stanford and Palo Alto. Palo Alto, Calif.: Rufus Buck, 1895.
Palo Alto and Stanford University Directory, 1896-7. Palo Alto, Calif.?: D. C. Kinkead, 1896.
Palo Alto City Directory for 1900-1901. Palo Alto, Calif.: Noah C. Grider, The Palo Alto Times Press., 1900.
Directory of Palo Alto and Campus. Palo Alto, Calif.: A. T. Griffin, January, 1904.
Directory of Palo Alto, Mayfield, Menlo Park, The Campus. Menlo Park, Calif.: Times Publishing Company, Dec. 1, 1904.
Directory of Palo Alto, Mayfield, Stanford University. Palo Alto, Calif.: Times Publishing Company, Jan., 1906

Stanford University Alumni Directory 1891-1910. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University, 1910.
Stanford University Alumni Directory and Ten-Year Book, 1891-1920. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University, 1920.

U.S. Census data, 1880-1940.

Genealogy Web sites (used primarily to confirm other data).

For more on Arlin Routhage’s model of church sizes, see: Gaede, Beth Ann, ed. Size Transitions in Congregations. Herndon, VA, The Alban Institute, 2001.

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