Obscure Unitarians: “Mr. Wolff”

A “Mr. Wolff” served on the Committee of Ushers of the old Unitarian Church in Palo Alto in 1908. Who was this man, mentioned only once in the extant records of that long-defunct church?

A likely candidate is Franklin Fowler Wolff. The son of a Methodist minister, he was born in Pasadena in 1887, and rejected orthodox Christianity while he was in his teens. He studied mathematics, psychology, and philosophy at Stanford University, and received his A.B. in mathematics in 1911. He then did graduate study in philosophy at both Stanford and Harvard, returning to Stanford in 1914 to teach mathematics. But after only a year, he left academia to pursue his own studies, and changed his name to Franklin Merrell-Wolff. He eventually became known as a spiritual teacher, a mystic, and a writer.

This identification of “Mr. Wolff” should be considered tentative. Another possible “Mr. Wolff” is Marcus Wolff, who received his A.B. in economics from Stanford in 1906; however, he appears to have been living in San Francisco in 1908.

But if Franklin Merrell-Wolff did indeed attend a Unitarian Church while an undergraduate at Stanford, barely out of his teens, it would not surprise me — the Emersonian philosophy that underlies much of Unitarian theology could have had a distinct appeal to a developing mystic.

Notes: Ron Leonard, The Transcendental Philosophy of Franklin Merrell-Wolff (Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 1999).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.