Unitarians in Palo Alto, 1910-1915

Part Three of a history I’m writing, telling the story of Unitarians in Palo Alto from the founding of the town in 1891 up to the dissolution of the old Unitarian Church of Palo Alto in 1934. If you want the footnotes, you’ll have to wait until the print version of this history comes out in the spring of 2022.

Part OnePart Two

Building the Institution, 1909-1915

Following Rev. Sydney Snow’s departure, the leaders of the Palo Alto church were able to attract Rev. Clarence Reed as their next minister. Reed had been ordained in the Methodist Episcopal church in 1894, served a series of short-term pastorates in that denomination, and wound up in San Francisco in 1904. He then decided he was a Unitarian, resigned from his Methodist pastorate to spend a year at Harvard Divinity School, and was called to the Alameda Unitarian Church. The Alameda church was even smaller and had less money than the Palo Alto church, but it proved convenient for Reed to serve there while pursuing graduate study in philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley. The Alameda church had paid him $1500 per year (roughly $44,000 in 2020 dollars), and by moving to Palo Alto he received a modest increase in his salary to $1600 per year (roughly $47,000 in 2020 dollars).

Reed took two extended sabbaticals while at Palo Alto. In 1910, just a year after arriving at the church, he spent eight months traveling in Europe recovering from a health crisis. Then in 1914, he spent six months traveling in East Asia. Thus although he served the Palo Alto church from 1909 to 1915, he was actually at the church for only five of those six years.

Reed’s relationship with the Board of Trustees was not entirely harmonious. There are moments in the Board minutes where Reed is portrayed as ambitious, driven, and annoying, while for their part the Trustees seem content to remain a small, close-knit group comfortably supported financially by the American Unitarian Association. Not to put too fine a point on it, Reed wanted the church to grow, and the Trustees weren’t that interested. Reed also managed to ruffle the feathers of other lay leaders. Emma Rendtorff sounds slightly resentful when she notes in her Sunday school records that Reed took over running the Sunday school from her, and then didn’t even keep careful records of attendance. Yet Reed must have done something right, for he increased average attendance in the Sunday school to around 60 students, probably twice the average attendance Emma Rendtorff was able to achieve.

Despite the low-level tension between Reed and some lay leaders, the years when Reed was minister were a golden age for the church. Sunday attendance probably averaged around 60 to 70. The congregation finally built the social hall that they had hoped for since they bought the building lot in 1906. Sunday school enrollment climbed to 90 children and teenagers; the church had enough children and teens to stage a fairly elaborate play, “King Persifer’s Crown,” in May, 1916. But beyond these statistics, what was the church like during this golden age?

By our standards, the Unitarian Church Palo Alto church did little of what we now call social justice work. In the early twenty-first century, Unitarian Universalists believe social justice work should be one of the primary purposes of local congregations. But Unitarian churches a century ago did not necessarily share this belief, nor would they have known the phrase “social justice.” Today’s Unitarian Universalists congregation’s might provide social services (e.g., hosting a homeless shelter), take a public stand on an issue, participate in direct witness (e.g., protests, rallies), and/or provide education about societal ills. By contrast, Palo Alto Unitarians of the early twentieth century understood their church as an organization for spiritual nurture; changing society was less the responsibility of the church as an institution, and more the responsiblity of the individual members of the church.

Individual Palo Alto Unitarians were directly active in several social reform movements during the years from 1909 to 1915. Reform of women’s rights undoubtedly had the widest support. Alice Locke Park, Annie Corbert, Emily Karns Dixon, Helen Sutliff, and other Unitarian women were deeply involved in the woman suffrage issue, culminating in the 1911 statewide ballot measure which gave women the right to vote in California. In addition to the political activism of the woman suffrage movement, many women lived out the fight for women’s rights in their own lives. Caroline Morrison is a case in point. She was reportedly the first woman to earn a Doctorate of Science degree in the United States, when she earned her D.Sci. in physics at Cornell in 1898. She married in that same year, but taught physics, co-wrote a physics textbook, and published at least one journal article before abandoning her career to have children. Another case in point is Dr. Eugenie Johnson, who began practicing medicine in 1907 and continued through the early 1960s; she was able to pursue her career because she never married.

1915 passport photo of Alice Locke Park

Unitarian women also belonged to other progressive women’s organizations. A dozen or so Unitarians were members of the Palo Alto Woman’s Club, including Emily Karns Dixon, Fannie Rosebrook, and Dr. Anna E. Peck, another woman physician. Fannie Rosebrook and probably other Unitarians were members of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.

A number of Palo Alto Unitarians were pacifists. Alice Park was probably the most active of the pacifists, but Anna Coggins, Guido Marx, Karl Rendtorff, Marion Alderton, and Ewald Flügel all held pacifist views as well. Marion Alderton was Vice President of the Palo Alto Branch of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and Annie Tait was a member of the organization. David Starr Jordan, though he was barely involved in the congregation during the years leading up to the First World War, was also a well-known pacifist. But there were others in the church who were most definitely not pacifists. By 1916, Melville Anderson ardently supported American involvement in the war, putting a strain on his friendship with Ewald Flügel, a pacifist. In the years leading up to the war, ill feelings would grow between the pacifists and the war supporters in the congregation.

The church also included a handful of eugenicists. Although eugenics is now widely discredited, during the early twentieth century era some white people saw eugenics as another means for carrying out the Progressive ideals of creating a good society through science and rationality. Vernon Kellogg, professor of biology at Stanford, was one of these Unitarian eugenicists, and William Herbert Carruth was another. Most famously, David Starr Jordan, who was only loosely affiliated with the church in these years but widely considered to be a Unitarian, was a prominent eugenicist.

The presence of eugenicists helps us understand the racial attitudes of the church and its members. All the church members and friends were white. Most were descended from northern Europeans, a fact important to remember in those days of prejudice against Europeans from Mediterranean countries. The church records show no interest in or awareness of the racism faced by black or indigenous people in those years. Indeed, George Morell, the publisher of the Palo Alto Times who was peripherally associated with the church in 1919, publicly advocated for racially segregated housing in Palo Alto. Most church members evinced little interest in racial justice, and some went further than that: before moving to Palo Alto, Isabel Dye Butler had actively worked to enslave indigenous people. However, there were also a few individuals who showed remarkably enlightened racial attitudes, like Dr. Eugenie Johnson, who was known in Palo Alto for her lack of racial bias in treating patients.

Aside from the activities of individual Unitarians, the church did distribute modest charitable contributions on a fairly regular basis. For example, Clarence Reed announced to the Board in November, 1914, that a special offering for the Red Cross was $79.20 (roughly $2,075 in 2020 dollars); in that same month, the church donated an unspecified amount to combat child labor. The church also made regular contributions to various appeals from the American Unitarian Association, to help further the cause of Unitarianism, and the members of the church probably saw these contributions as contributing to the betterment of society.

One remarkably progressive step taken by the congregation was hiring Rev. Florence Buck while Clarence Reed went on sabbatical in 1910. By 1910, the wider Unitarian movement had turned against women ministers. Perhaps the Palo Alto church only hired Florence Buck because they could pay a woman less money than a man; but the congregation may also have been influenced both by the memory of Eliza Tupper Wilkes, and the examples of professional women who were members of the congregation. In any case, after seeing Buck in the pulpit, sixteen-year-old Helen Kreps was inspired to pursue a career in ministry (tragically, Kreps died in the great influenza epidemic, just before completing her divinity degree). Since other girls surely found inspiration and a role model in Florence Buck, her presence in the pulpit helped the wider cause of women’s rights.

The church relied on a few key lay leaders to keep the institution going. Karl and Emma Rendtorff were the most important lay leaders in the congregation from 1905 through 1913, constantly serving in various leadership roles. But when William Herbert Carruth came to Palo Alto in 1913, he immediately moved into a central leadership role in the church, both because of his personal charisma and because of his experience as a lay leader at the national and local levels. Before arriving in Palo Alto, Carruth had served on the national board of the American Unitarian Association, and had been the national president of the Unitarian Laymen’s League. Less than a year after moving to Palo Alto, he was elected president of the Board of Trustees of the Palo Alto church. Until his untimely death in 1925, William Carruth was also one of the central leaders of the church, along with the Rendtorffs.

Just before Carruth had arrived in Palo Alto, Isabel Dye Butler, another important lay leader, had died. Isabel, with her husband John Strang Butler, were a wealthy couple who gave the single largest contribution to the church lot subscription fund in 1906, and continued as significant donors thereafter. After Isabel died, John moved to Oakland and ended his financial contributions to the church. After John left Palo Alto, Emily Karns Dixon was the one wealthy person left in the church, and she never gave as generously as did the Butlers.

During this golden age of the church, the Sunday school doubled in size, from about 45 scholars to about 90. By 1915, the Sunday school was able to use the recently completed Social Hall as well as an outdoor garden designed by Clarence Reed as an outdoor classroom. The garden, measuring fifty by seventy feet, was laid out within the rectangle formed by the Social Hall and the church; a pergola covered with climbing roses and vines outlined the other two sides of this rectangle, leaving a gravel court twenty-five by forty feet in the center. A large sandbox in one corner could accommodate all the younger children, while the other age groups met in various places under the pergola.

Photo of the outdoor Sunday school that was printed in the Pacific Unitarian in 1915

The curriculum was an innovative as the outdoor meeting place. Reed wrote:

“One purpose of the outdoor Sunday school has been to discover the symbolism that will make religious ideals real to boys and girls. Ant and spider houses were constructed in order to teach industry by the observance of the habits of ants, and perseverance by the study of spiders. A bird’s nest in a rosebush has been guarded by the pupils as a sacred trust. A class of boys has been held spellbound by a graduate student of Stanford University, through the teaching of religious ideals by means of a series of experiments illustrating the great discoveries of science. Artist’s clay has been used to make a map of Palestine, and to build an Oriental house.”

Religious education that used dioramas, nature study, and science was surprisingly progressive for 1915.

Another highlight of the golden age of the church was the visit of the Bahá’í prophet ‘Abdu’l Bahá. David Starr Jordan invited ‘Abdu’l Bahá to speak at Stanford on October 8, 1912, and probably arranged for the prophet to speak at the Unitarian church that evening. After Clarence Reed gave a brief introduction, ‘Abdu’l Bahá’s began his address thus:

“Praise be to God, this evening I have come to a Unitarian Church. This Church is called Unitarian—attributed to unity. Hence I desire to discourse on the subject of unity, which is a fundamental basis of Divine teachings.”

At the conclusion of ‘Abdu’l Bahá’s remarks, Reed gave a brief and very Unitarian conclusion to the evening:

“I feel that a man of God has spoken to us tonight. There is no way I know to close the service than with a prayer—not a prayer in spoken words, but a prayer in silence. Let each person pray in his own way for the coming of the universal religion—the religion of love, the religion of peace, a religion of the fullness of life. (Silence.) You are dismissed.”

This address is still remembered by Bahá’ís today, and occasionally a Bahá’í will stop by the current Unitarian Universalist church, only to be disappointed when told that it is not the building in which ‘Abdu’l Bahá spoke.

The Unitarian Church of Palo Alto’s golden age lasted until Clarence Reed’s departure in the summer of 1915. Reed, being an ambitious man, must have welcomed the energy that William Herbert Carruth’s arrival brought to the congregation, but not even Carruth’s charisma could fix the fundamental problems of the church: Palo Alto did not have a large enough population to support a larger church, and more to the point, the congregation had no ambition to increase in size. In 1916, Reed picked a fight with the Board of Trustees over finances, indirectly accusing the treasurer, Andrew McLaughlin, of financial mismanagement. After McLaughlin resigned as treasurer, an audit found little wrong with the church finances—but Reed was already on his way out, and was immediately called by the Unitarian church in Oakland. By moving to a larger, wealthier church, Reed nearly doubled his salary, from $1,600 per year in Palo Alto to $3,000 per year (roughly $78,000 in 2020 dollars) in Oakland. Probably from the start, Reed viewed the the Palo Alto church as a just a stepping stone in his career. After six years there, he was ready to take the next step.

On to part four

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