The Unity Society of Palo Alto

An excerpt from a history of early Unitarians in Palo Alto. I haven’t made much progress on this project, due to the long hours I’ve been putting in dealing with the pandemic. With luck, I’ll be able to get back to it.

The Unity Society, 1895-1897

In November, 1892, the very first issue of The Pacific Unitarian, a periodical devoted to promoting liberal religion up and down the West Coast, declared that a Unitarian church should be organized in Palo Alto:

“The University town of Palo Alto is growing fast. Never was there a field that offered more in the way of influence and education than this. A [building] lot for a church ought to be secured at once, and the preliminary steps taken towards the organization of a Unitarian Society.” (1)

Organizing churches in college towns had been a standard missionary strategy for the American Unitarian Association (AUA) since the denomination had funded a Unitarian church in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1865. These “college missions” were seen as “one of the most effective ways of extending Unitarianism,” (2) and many of them resulted in strong Unitarian congregations.

But who had the time and the skills to organize a Unitarian church in Palo Alto? The Unitarian church in San Jose was the one nearest to Palo Alto. In early 1893, the two ministers of the San Jose church, Revs. N. A. Haskell and J. H. Garnett, organized two new Unitarian congregations in Los Gatos and Santa Clara, ignoring Palo Alto. (3) Support for a new Palo Alto congregation would have to come from somewhere else.

Coincidentally, around 1890, Rev. Eliza Tupper Wilkes, an experienced Universalist minister who had helped found a number of Universalist and Unitarian churches from Iowa to Dakota Territory, began spending winters in California on account of her health. Soon she was hired as the assistant minister in the Oakland Unitarian church. The Panic of 1893 resulted in an economic depression, and by 1894 Oakland had to reduce her position to part-time. The Pacific Unitarian Conference then hired Wilkes on a part-time basis to organize new congregations in California. (4)

Wilkes attended the Pacific Unitarian Conference in San Jose, May 1-4, 1895, as did Palo Altans Minnie and Luna Hoskins. (5) It was a small conference, and surely the three women encountered one another. Had someone already introduced the Pacific Unitarian Conference to Minnie and Luna Hoskins, or to other Unitarians in Palo Alto? On Sunday, May 5, the day after the conference ended, Wilkes became the first woman to preach at the Memorial Church of Stanford University, so perhaps David Starr Jordan had been at work behind the scenes. Later the same week, on Friday, May 10, Wilkes addressed the Palo Alto Woman’s Club. By the autumn of 1895, the Women’s Unitarian Conference was paying much of Wilkes’s salary, and they specifically authorized her to “preach in Palo Alto, assist in Berkeley and elsewhere.” (6)

In November, 1895, Wilkes began conducting Unitarian services at Parkinson’s Hall in Palo Alto, and continued to do so into the new year. Professors, students, and other residents of Palo Alto began attending these services, and on January 12, 1896, John S. Butler hosted a meeting at his house to formally organize a new congregation.

The thirty people present organized the Unity Society of Palo Alto for “the promotion of moral earnestness, and of freedom, fellowship, and character in religion, and which shall impose no restriction on individual belief.” (7) A “Unity Society” was the Unitarian term in those days for a lay-led congregation; they did not expect Wilkes to continue as their minister. Prof. Leander Hoskins was elected president of the new society; Dr. William Adams, a physician, was elected secretary; and John S. Butler, a wealthy man who had retired to Palo Alto, was elected treasurer. Two others were elected to the “committee on executive and finance”: William F. Pluns, a German immigrant and builder, and Fannie Rosebrook. (8) It’s noteworthy that the first board of the first Unitarian society in Palo Alto included a woman.

A Sunday school was part of the new congregation from the start. The Sunday school committee included Minnie Hoskins, Eleanor Brooks Pearson, a teacher at Castilleja Hall, and Anna Zschokke, a Bavarian immigrant with a deep concern for education who has been called “the mother of the Palo Alto schools.” (9)

Unity Society services were held in the parlors of the Palo Alto Hotel at 2:30 on Sunday afternoons; Sunday school began at 2:45. Music was provided by a quartet, and Sunday speakers included Prof. Melville B. Anderson who gave a talk on poetry and religion and read “extracts from different poets in illustration.” (10)

At the time of the April, 1896, meeting of the Pacific Unitarian Conference, Wilkes was still providing some support to the Palo Alto congregation, but she was only interested in starting new congregations, not keeping them going once they were started. (11) Rev. Carl Wendte, the director of the Pacific Coast Unitarians, expressed his opinion 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.” (12)

If the San Francisco churches did provide support, it was not enough to keep the Palo Alto Unity Society going. The tiny congregation continued in existence for another eleven months, until March, 1897, after which no record of it can be found. (13)

Interregnum, 1897-1905

The Unity Society was gone, but there were still Unitarians and Universalists in Palo Alto. When the California Sunday School Association took a census of the town in November, 1898, 21 people who were parents of school-aged children declared themselves to be Unitarians, and five declared themselves to be Universalists. Most of the Unitarian and Universalist children were probably attending Sunday schools in other churches, which may have made their parents long for a liberal church in town. (14)

On Monday, March 26, 1900, one of the Palo Alto newspapers reported that a Unitarian service had been held the previous day, with Rev. B. Fay Mills, minister of the Oakland Unitarian church, preaching on the topic of “the claims of liberal religion upon the modern world.” These Unitarian services were projected to continue indefinitely:

“A series of religious services will be held in Palo Alto every Sunday afternoon at Fraternity Hall, under the auspices of the Unitarian church. Cards pledging support are circulating that the members recognize the need of a religious organization in Palo Alto that shall represent the thought of our age, and leaving unquestioned the theological belief of its members, shall make its bond of Unity the Fellowships of the Spirit, and the Service of Man.” (15)

The following Sunday, April 1, Rev. Nahum A. Haskell, minister of the San Jose Unitarian church, preached on “Self-Sovereignty.”

Haskell had previously helped organize small Unitarian congregations near San Jose, and it seems probable that he, not Mills, intended to be the minister supporting the new congregation. But the San Francisco Call reported that at the April 10 annual meeting of the San Jose Unitarian church, Haskell faced opposition due to that congregation’s declining membership. (16) The conflict in San Jose dragged on for years, (17) no doubt serving to distract Haskell from whatever responsibilities he may have hoped to take on in Palo Alto. (18)

The second attempt at starting a Unitarian congregation in Palo Alto probably ended in April or May of 1900. On May 31, Haskell officiated at a double wedding in Palo Alto for Alice and Florence Emerson, Stanford students and daughters of a wealthy lumber tycoon. But there is no evidence of any further Unitarian activity until 1905, when the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto was organized.


1 Pacific Unitarian, Nov., 1892, p. 18. The university in question is Stanford University.
2 George Willis Cooke, Unitarianism in America (Boston: American Unitarian Assoc., 1902), p. 215.
3 Debra N. Dietiker, A History of the First Unitarian Church of San Jose, California, Master’s thesis, San Jose State University, 1966, p. 16.
4 Rebecca Hunt, “Eliza Tupper Wilkes,” Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography, accessed Aug. 14, 2020.
5 Pacific Unitarian, June, 1893.
6 Palo Alto Times, May 10, 1895, p. 2; Pacific Unitarian, June, 1895, pp. 246-247; Pacific Unitarian, Nov., 1895, p. 6; Douglas Chapman, “Dakota Territory’s Eliza Tupper Wilkes: Prairie Pastor,” Dakota Conference on History, Literature, Art, and Archaeology, May 25, 2000, Augustana College.
7 “News from the Field,” The Unitarian, ed. Frederick B. Mott (Boston: George Ellis), February, 1896, p. 142.
8 Palo Alto Times, January 30, 1894, p. 2.
9 Margaret R. Feuer, A Walk Through History: Women of Palo Alto (Palo Alto, Calif.: PIP, 1994), p. 85.
10 Palo Alto Times, January 30, 1894, p. 2.
11 Cynthia Grant Tucker, Prophetic Sisterhood: Liberal Women Ministers of the Frontier, 1880-1930, Boston: Beacon Press, 1990, p. 45.
12 “News from the Field,” The Unitarian, ed. Frederick B. Mott (Boston: George Ellis), June, 1896, pp. 284-285.
13 The extant records of the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto, now in the possession of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, contain no records of either the Unity Society or the 1900 attempt to start a congregation. It may be worth searching contemporary newspaper accounts for additional information.
14 Palo Alto Times, Dec. 9, 1898, p. 1.
15 Palo Alto Live Oak, March 26, 1900, p. 1.
16 San Francisco Call, April 12, 1900, p. 3.
17 Debra N. Dietiker, p. 20.
18 Haskell was born on a farm in Harvard, Mass., in 1849, and converted to Unitarianism as a young man. He attended the Divinity School of Harvard University (Cambridge, Mass.), and served the following Unitarian congregations: Nantucket, Mass.; Hubbardston, Mass.; Vineland, N.J.; Camden, N.J.; Denver, Colo.; Dubuque, Iowa; San Jose, Calif.; and Fresno, Calif. He died in 1906, not long after he began serving the Fresno church. “He was a preacher of more than ordinary power and sometimes very profound.” —Obituary, Christian Register, Feb. 8, 1906, p. 163.

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