Unitarians in Palo Alto, 1915-1920

Part Four 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 TwoPart Three

Years of Turmoil, 1915-1920

The American Unitarian Association sent William Short, Jr., to be the next minister of the Palo Alto church. Short, the son of an Episcopalian priest who had died when he was just 17 years old, entered the Episcopal Theological school, in Cambridge, Mass., in 1912. He became interested in Unitarianism, and two days before he graduated from the Episcopal Divinity School, he applied for fellowship as a Unitarian minister. Louis Cornish and others at the American Unitarian Association advised him to serve as assistant minister under some more experienced Unitarian minister, but Short insisted he was ready for his own parish. Cornish later remembered that Short had “the ready gift of awakening friendship in other men.” After serving as the summer minister in the Unitarian church in Walpole, Mass., Cornish assigned Short to the Palo Alto church. Short arrived in Palo Alto in November, 1915.

At first, it seemed like a good match between congregation and minister. True, the Sunday school enrollment dropped from 90 students in 1915 down to 54 the next year, but under Emma Rendtorff’s leadership enrollment rebounded to 63 students in 1917. Church membership was low in 1916, with just 40 members, and that probably represents a significant decline. But for a small church, it was quite active:

“[In winter, 1916-1917] the church hall [i.e., the Social Hall] has given hospitality…to Mr. John Spurgo, the noted Socialist speaker; to the American Union against Militarism, which is earnestly fighting the cause of democracy; and to Mme. Aino Malmberg, a refugee from the persecutions of Old Russia.… Two physical training clubs for women and girls have their home in the hall, as well as a club to encourage the finer type of social dancing. The church passed a resolution of approval of the visit of Mr. Short to Sacramento in March [1917] in the interests of the Physical Training bills.”

It appears that much of this activity sprang from Short’s theory of religion:

“[I]f religion is to awaken and triumph over the soullessness of life it must be based on unquestionable sincerity and bear a stirring message for the oppressed and the outcasts of society; it must be the potent factor in the reconstruction of the social order.…”

But none of this activity really had much to do with Unitarianism. The church was proud that the “pamphlet-rack in the vestibule must constantly be refilled,” but the congregation was the smallest it had ever been since the completion of the church building in 1907.

By early 1917, William Short decided he didn’t want to continue working as a minister any more. On March 15, 1917, after just a year and a half serving the Palo Alto church, he wrote to Louis Cornish, “I have failed [as a minister in Palo Alto], and my intention is to try to understand life better before I try to preach again in some other place.” Short’s resignation was not even mentioned in the minutes of the Board of Trustees.

Short was a strong pacifist: his next job was with the People’s Council of San Francisco, an anti-war group, and he wound up being arrested for draft evasion in 1918 after military authorities decided he was not exempt from the draft under the exemption for ministers. As a pacifist, Short inspired some of the pacifists in the Palo Alto church, including Guido Marx, who attempted to bail him out of jail when he was arrested for draft evasion. But Short also annoyed the pro-war contingent in the congregation, and the simmering conflict between the two groups split the church and contributed to the decline in membership and participation during the war years. When Alfred S. Niles came to the church in 1927, more than a decade after Short had left, he was told that “the minister at the time of World War I had been a pacifist and conscientious objector, and this had caused a split in the church from which it never recovered.” By all accounts, Short’s ministry ended in failure.

The Palo Alto church was at such low ebb after Short’s departure that a denominational field representative “recommended the merging of the San Jose and Palo Alto churches” in April, 1917. Denominational officials agreed, and “proposed the federation of the churches for reasons of economy in January, 1918.” However, the San Jose Unitarians were not interested in merging, and they began to raise funds and increase their membership; by early 1920, the San Jose Unitarians paid off all their debt to the denomination. The denomination was stuck with the Palo Alto church, and had to figure out what to do with it.

Meanwhile, in September, 1917, the General Unitarian Conference overwhelmingly voted to support a pro-war resolution made by William Howard Taft, the president of the conference, a former U.S. president, and chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. This pro-war stance meant that any Unitarian congregation that depended on financial support from the denomination could not publicly advocate for pacifism. And of course any congregation looking for a new minister could expect that the denomination would send them a pro-war minister.

That indeed was what happened to the Palo Alto church. The American Unitarian Association sent Rev. Bradley Gilman, a pro-war minister, to Palo Alto. Gilman was an experienced minister settled in the Canton, Mass., Unitarian church.

Gilman wanted to go to California for the sake of his wife’s health. Both he and his wife had careers as published authors, and with that extra income, the low pay offered by the Palo Alto church wasn’t a problem. While the Palo Alto Unitarians were waiting for Gilman to arrive, they decided to give Rev. George Fullerton Evans in the pulpit for the month of September, 1917. Evans had been ordained a Unitarian minister in 1910, but then decided to pursue an academic career; in 1917, he was at Stanford University doing graduate work. Evans enthusiastically supported of the First World War, going so far as to get the annual meeting to vote in support of the following motion in early 1918:

“Resolved: That this parish profess its hearty support for that cause for which our nation is at war; that we pledge our help as a parish where that help might be needed; and that in token of our sentiment in this regard we place a flag in our pulpit.”

Evans himself donated the American flag to be placed in the pulpit. Practically speaking, with the denomination against them, and the church’s pro-war faction in the ascendancy, the pacifists among the Palo Alto Unitarians stood no chance. Nor could they even count on David Starr Jordan any more, for he had been forced to renounce his former pacifism and even offer tepid support for the war.

Gilman arrived at the church in November, 1917. The pacifists later blamed Gilman for being a divisive influence. Josephine Duveneck, a lifelong Unitarian who eventually became a Quaker after the Palo Alto church dissolved in 1934, accused Gilman of denouncing “certain members of his congregation, reporting them to the Federal Bureau of Investigation as dangerous subversives and enemy spies (which they never were).” There’s no doubt Gilman alienated the pacifists, but the pro-war faction in the church membership, including Evans and Melville Anderson, have to take some of the blame.

And while Short had apparently had no interest in strengthening the church as an institution, Gilman deserves credit for good institutional practices. Under his leadership, the congregation developed a comprehensive list of everyone with any connection to the church, potentially allowing them to reach out to increase membership and participation. Gilman wrote fatherly “pastoral letters” that were mailed out to all church members. Membership, which had fallen to 40 during Short’s tenure, rose to about 60 members. Eighty people attended the annual anniversary dinner in January, 1919, and stayed to hear after-dinner speeches by William Herbert Carruth, then president of the Board of Trustees, Edith Maddux, Helen Sutliff, and Gilman himself.

By late 1918, the war was over, and the church was beginning to recover. Then the influenza epidemic hit Palo Alto. Beginning in December, 1918, the church canceled both Sunday school and worship services; there would be no worship services until June, 1919, and no Sunday school until November, 1919. On top of that disaster, Bradley Gilman was called back to Massachusetts in April, 1919, to be at the bedside of his only brother, who was dying. Gilman’s brother continued to linger between life and death month after month, and finally in October, 1919, Gilman sent his resignation to the Board of Trustees, to take effect November 15, 1919 — just about two years from the date he arrived in Palo Alto, although he really only spent eighteen months in Palo Alto. Ultimately, although Gilman had tried to restore the congregation to health, his ministry was as much of a failure as Short’s ministry had been.

Between Gilman’s departure and the effects of the influenza epidemic, a few lay leaders of the congregation grew demoralized. At the Board meeting on October 6, 1919, some Board members favored “the outright discontinuation” of the church. Then at a congregational meeting on October 12, 1919, dedicated lay leader Bruno Boezinger voiced his discouragement:
Mr. Boezinger then raised the question whether it was right and wise to continue the life of our church; there is no real interest shown and we cannot expect a self-respecting minister to be satisfied with preaching to empty benches.

“Other lay leaders, including Minnie Hoskins, Eliza and Horatio Stebbins, and Caroline Morrison spoke in favor of dissolution. But Karl Rendtorff, Edith Maddux, Frank Steinmetz, and some others were in favor of continuing. Finally, the congregation decided to continue. But some church members didn’t continue with the congregation. Horatio and Eliza Stebbins, for example, stopped giving financial contributions and stopped participating in the life of the church.”

An unattributed news brief in the Pacific Unitarian is probably an accurate reflection of the situation facing the congregation:

“In some respects [the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto] suffers from its proximity to the attractive Memorial chapel at the University, practically undenominational, liberally directed, ably conducted, and unembarrassed by such mundane considerations as pew rents and contributions. Also, it is patent that college professors, generally, are not sufficiently interested in religious affairs to allow church support and attendance to become fixed habits. Neither does the average student particularly care for these things. On the other hand, Palo Alto has a large and growing number of highly intelligent and spiritually-minded people who need, and are inclined to support, a strong man of high character and sincere devotion to vital religious thought and life.”

The congregation faced two big problems. First of all, there was the problem of money: how could a small congregation, weakened by years of conflict, further weakened by the social disruptions of the war, still further disrupted by the devastating influenza epidemic — how could their congregation raise enough money to pay for a minister? And would the American Unitarian Association continue its financial support? The second problem was the consistently low attendance at the Sunday services, which not only would lead to dissatisfaction for any “self-respecting minister,” but also must have felt unwelcoming to any newcomers who showed up on Sunday morning. It must have looked bleak with only twenty or thirty people in a church meant to hold one hundred and fifty.

In spite of the obvious problems facing the Palo Alto church, there was at least one experienced, talented minister who wanted to go there. In 1919, Rev. Dr. Rowena Morse Mann contacted the American Unitarian Association, and expressed her interest in serving the Palo Alto church. Not only was Mann an experienced minister known for her brilliant sermons, not only did she have a Ph.D., a distinct asset in a university town, but her husband’s income allowed her to work for very little money. Besides that, her husband had been donating a quarter of her annual salary to her current congregation, the Third Unitarian Society in Chicago. But Samuel Morse Eliot, then president of the denomination, told Mann that the Palo Alto pulpit was being saved for a young man still in theological school, and then he never told the Palo Alto lay leaders about Mann’s interest. In fact, Eliot refused to forward Mann’s name to any congregation, simply because she was a woman, so that by the mid-1920s Morse had been effectively forced into retirement. Morse would have brought the Palo Alto Unitarians two things they needed, financial stability and experienced ministerial leadership, including brilliant preaching. Perhaps if she had been allowed to serve in Palo Alto, the church would grown strong enough to survive.

In the event, the church decided to take a different course: they would have no minister at all. Edith Mirrielees, a Stanford professor who attended the church with her sister Elizabeth Moore and Elizabeth’s daughter Jean, explained the church’s “experiment” as a lay-led congregation:

“For some years there had been a growing conviction among members of the Unitarian Society in Palo Alto that the presence of a professional minister was not necessarily essential to the continuance of their church or to its welfare, and after thorough discussion in congregational meeting it was determined to do without one, the pulpit to be filled by members of the congregation and community or by visiting Unitarians, the other duties of the pastorate to be assumed by the congregation. It is worth noting that this decision was not reached because of money difficulties. The church at this time, though by no means wealthy, was in sound financial condition, without debt and with as many contributors as it had had during the previous year when a minister had been in residence. It should be noted, too, that the essential Unitarianism of the church is in no way affected by the change; the congregation is a congregation of Unitarians, but one wherein congregational government and responsibility is now carried a step farther than it has been before.”

The experiment in lay leadership didn’t last long, however, and within a year the Board of Trustees began looking for a minister. David Starr Jordan, who had retired from Stanford by this time and who preached once a month during the lay-led years, suggested a few young ministers to the Board whom he thought would do well at “the little church” (as he called it). Perhaps the lay leaders, most of whom were aging, also felt they wanted a minister who could officiate at rites of passage such as marriages for their grown children, christenings for their grandchildren, and even funerals for themselves.

During the lay-led years, Alice Locke Park and Marion Starr Alderton, two of the key pacifists in the church, decided to resign their membership. The Board minutes of June 2, 1920, state:

“The Clerk read two letters from Mrs. Alderton and Mrs. Park both protesting against the attitude taken by our society during the period of war and, as a consequence, withdrawing from our church.”

Marion Alderton had been one of the first members of the Women’s Alliance, and had served on the Board of Trustees herself, so the Board must have been especially hurt by her resignation. The fact that it took Alice and Marion until 1920 to resign indicates that they weren’t bothered just by the pro-war ministry of Bradley Gilman, who by 1920 was long gone, but they were equally bothered by the pro-war stance of other laypeople who were still part of the church, and presumably still trumpeting a pro-war stance.

By late 1921, the experiment in having an entirely lay-led congregation had run its course. The congregation was at low ebb: Sunday school enrollment hovered around thirty children, and average Sunday morning attendance was probably around twenty people. While the congregation would have to ask the American Unitarian Association for the money to pay the minister’s salary, perhaps having a minister could stop further decline. Edith Mirrielees left the church, stopping her financial contributions, probably because of the decision to hire another minister. Bruno Boezinger and others had already given up on the church for other reasons. But the core lay leaders — people like the Rendtorffs and William Carruth, the laypeople with the most authority in the church — wanted to continue with a minister in place.

Now where could they find a competent minister whose salary they could afford to pay? Even those who supported William Short’s political views would not want another completely inexperienced minister who was not competent to help them rebuild the congregation. And even those who supported Bradley Gilman’s pro-war stance and appreciated his skill as a minister would not want another experienced minister who would abandon them after a year and a half.

The congregation found — or the American Unitarian Association found for them; the record isn’t clear — Elmo Arnold Robinson. Robinson was originally a Universalist minister who had spent 1911 to 19191 serving small Universalist churches in upstate New York, Indiana, and Ohio; then in 1919, Robinson became the Director of Religious Education in the Unitarian church of San Diego, at the same time applying for fellowship as a Unitarian minister. The lay leaders of the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto must have seen Robinson as the perfect minister for them, both because of his experience in small congregations, and also because of his experience in religious education; Sunday school attendance had long outpaced adult attendance in the Palo Alto church. Robinson also had long experience living on the small salaries that small churches could pay.

That Robinson was a socialist and a pacifist might have turned some of the pro-war faction against him. But George Fullerton Evans, perhaps the most vocal of the pro-war faction, had moved to Texas in 1920. And the pacifist faction remained strong. David Starr Jordan was growing old, but he still had influence both in the congregation and in the denomination. Most importantly, pacifists Karl and Emma Rendtorff were now the central figures in the church leadership.

Besides, it’s not like the the Palo Alto Unitarians had much of a choice. As is always true of small poorly-funded congregations, they never had enough money to pay for their ideal minister. And perhaps Robinson would have reminded them of Clarence Reed: another experienced minister willing to accept low pay so he could make the transition into Unitarianism from another denomination. As with Reed, they would expect Robinson to move on to something better in a few years, but in the mean time they would benefit from competent ministry — even if they didn’t happen to agree with his politics.

Part five coming soon

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