Timeline of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto

The seventy-fifth anniversary of the organization of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto is in 2022. So I’ve been working on the history of the congregation, starting with a basic timeline.

Sources for this timeline: Rae Bell’s timeline for the 60th anniversary of the congregation; Annual Reports from 2009-2020; documents in the UUCPA archives; personal reminiscences; denominational sources.

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Timeline of Palo Alto Unitarians, 1891-1950

A timeline that give institutional chronology of the Unity Society and the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto — and also introduces you to some of the interesting Unitarians who lived in Palo Alto from 1891 to 1950. The links mostly go to Wikipedia or other online encyclopedia pages, or to local history websites.

1891-1894 — A few Unitarians move to Palo Alto, including Emma Rendtorff

Unity Society of Palo Alto, 1895-1897

March, 1895 — Rev. Eliza Tupper Wilkes, a Universalist, is hired by Pacific Women’s Unitarian Conference to do “missionary work”
May 1-5, 1895 — Palo Alto Unitarians Luna and Minnie Hoskins attend Pacific Unitarian Conference in San Jose
May 5, 1895 — Eliza Wilkes preaches at Memorial Church, Stanford University; first woman to preach at Stanford
Autumn, 1895 — Eliza Wilkes leads Unitarian services in Palo Alto
Jan. 12, 1896 — Unity Society of Palo Alto formally organized, Executive Committee includes both men and women; members include Anna Probst Zschokke, John and Isabel Butler, and George Blakesley, Palo Alto’s first dentist
March, 1897 — Unity Society has supply preachers
Spring, 1897 — Unity Society ceases activity

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Devil’s Slide Trail

On Friday, we walked the Devil’s Slide Trail. This used to be part of Highway 1. It runs through a geologically unstable area, and every year or so a landslide would cut off the road. Since this is the main route to San Francisco from the coastside of San Mateo County, these landslides led to major traffic problems. Finally in 2012, the state completed a tunnel to bypass this a mile and a half stretch of Highway 1, and the county took over the former highway and turned it into a recreational trail. We’ve been meaning to walk this trail ever since, but it wasn’t until last Friday that we did. It was even better than we anticipated, with dramatic scenery like this:

Sure, you could see this scenery when it was a highway and you were driving past, but mostly when you were driving this stretch of road you had to watch the road. Even if you were in the passenger’s seat, at fifty miles an hour you didn’t have time to see the Common Murres clustered on Egg Rock:

Common Murres clustered on top of a large rock formation, with the ocean behind it

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.

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Solving the Silicon Valley housing crisis four people at a time

The title of a recent San Francisco Chronicle article says it all:

He wanted to let homeless neighbors sleep in cars outside his church. It launched a two-year battle.

The “he” in the title is my new UU hero, Chris Kan. Chris grew up in San Francisco, and after a stint teaching at UC Santa Cruz, moved to Silicon Valley to do cancer research. He also joined the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto (UUCPA), where he got involved in an effort to allow car dwellers to park safely in the church parking lot. I’m proud to say that UUCPA is my congregation, too, and I’m proud that many of us supported Chris in this two year battle — showing up at City Council meetings, working behind the scenes with community stakeholders, coordinating with Move Mountain View, a local nonprofit, to provide support services, arranging to have a Porta-Potty on site, making sure we could provide free wifi to car dwellers, and on and on — but Chris was the one who provided clear and steady leadership through this agonizing two-year process.

Sadly, we all knew that UUCPA’s permit application would take forever to get through the city of Palo Alto. The city is notorious for its torturous permitting process. And during the application process we suspected we’d hear comments like, “We don’t want those people living near us.” Those are the things you have to expect when you propose any solution to Silicon Valley’s housing crisis: the city government will take forever to approve the project, and some city residents will talk about “those people.”

Admittedly, we were a little surprised when Stevenson House, the subsidized elderly housing project next door to our church, filed a last minute appeal to block our permit this summer. But it all turned out all right in the end. You can read about the appeal in this news article — the reporter quotes Grace Mah, president of the Stevenson House Board, as saying the Board wanted background checks. True, some safe parking programs do require background checks, but our local county opposes background checks because they raise another barrier to housing. Fortunately, the Stevenson House Board quickly changed its mind, and the next time they met they voted to drop the appeal. (That installment of the story is reported here.) I’m a big supporter of Stevenson House’s mission, and I appreciate the fact that their board, after doing their due diligence, ultimately supported our safe parking program. We’re grateful to have a good neighbor like Stevenson House, a group that’s also committed to solving the Silicon Valley housing crisis.

The big problem is how badly local city governments are handling any proposed solution to the Silicon Valley housing crisis. As Chris Kan told the Chronicle reporter: “They basically treated [the safe parking program] the same way you would if I was building a condo building…. [but] it’s literally a parking lot with a trash can.” I suppose you could do some incisive social analysis of why local city governments throw up barriers to any solution to the Silicon Valley housing crisis. However, I’ve given up on incisive social analysis, preferring to pour my energy into supporting people like Chris Kan, who are actually out there solving the problem. As I said, Chris is my new UU hero.

Update: NBC Bay Area covers this story here. Here’s an excerpt from their story — I particularly like Amber Stine’s comment at the end:

“A board member at the senior living facility next door [i.e., Grace Mah of Stevenson House] asked for a review…. She eventually dropped the request after Kan and other church members explained the program…. ‘The pushback is fine. Some of it is necessary. It creates conversation. I think it’s the outcome that matters more than anything,’ said Amber Stime, executive director of Move Mountain View.”

Noted without comment

Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn now lives in the Bay Area, where he attends the Lighthouse Church in San Francisco, and plays in the worship band. According to a recent news article — about how he recently recorded four songs that will benefit the church’s homeless ministries — being a Christian in the U.S. may require apology:

“While he doesn’t have ‘any hesitation’ identifying as a Christian, [Cockburn] is starting to wonder if that’s such a good thing to say in public in the U.S. these days. If someone asks if he’s a Christian, he still says, ‘Yes, I’m a Christian, but I got vaccinated.'”

Sunrise on Black Mountain

We took some kids backpacking to the Black Mountain Trail Camp last night. The trailhead is a short drive from Palo Alto, and the hike in is just two miles with only 500 foot elevation gain, making it a nice get-away for both church and Ecojustice Camp kids.

I got up before sunrise and heard some Great Horned Owls. And then, as the muted chorus of autumn birds was starting up, watched “rosy-fingered Dawn [Eos]” cast her glow on low-hanging stratus over Black Mountain.

It was a good way to start the day.

Unitarians in Palo Alto, 1905-1910

Part Twoof 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 one, 1891-1905

The Unitarian Church of Palo Alto Begins, 1905-1910

In 1905, Ewald and Helene Flügel invited Rev. George Whitefield Stone, the Field Secretary of the American Unitarian Association for the Pacific States, to come to Palo Alto to christen their children. When Stone arrived in September, 1905, the Flügel children were aged 4, 10, 13, and 15 years old. The family had lived in Palo Alto since 1892; it may be Rev. Eliza Tupper Wilkes had christened the two eldest children in 1895. In any case, Stone came to Palo Alto, and while there he conducted Unitarian services each Sunday from September 10 through October 8. At the conclusion of the service on October 8, Stone said he was willing to continue with weekly worship services if those assembled showed sufficient interest. Karl Rendtorff made a motion “that a Unitarian Church be formed at once,” giving Stone the authority to appoint a “Provisional Committee” to transact any necessary business until a regular congregational organization could be formed. The motion was seconded by Melville Anderson, and “carried by a rising vote.”

Stone promptly appointed five men and two women to the Provisional Committee: Melville Anderson, John S. Butler, Henry Gray, Agnes Kitchen, Ernest Martin, Fannie Rosebrook, and Karl Rendtorff, who became the Secretary-Treasurer. Melville Anderson, Henry Gray, Ernest Martin, and Karl Rendtorff were all professors at Stanford. John Butler and Fannie Rosebrook had both been on the executive committee of the old Unity Society. Agnes Kitchen was active in civic affairs in Palo Alto, including the Woman’s Club. Once again, women filled leadership positions in the new Unitarian congregation from the very beginning.

Collection of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, used by permission.

Just two weeks later, on October 23, the women formed their own Unitarian organization. The Women’s Alliance, formally known as the “Branch Alliance of the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto,” became a local chapter of the National Alliance of Unitarian and Other Liberal Christian Women. How did the Palo Alto women decide to form their own Branch Alliance so quickly? Perhaps George Stone promoted the idea. The national organization existed to “to quicken the life of our Unitarian churches,” which would have suited Stone’s goal of building a self-sustaining Unitarian church. But it’s equally possible that some of the women had already belonged to a Unitarian women’s group. The National Alliance had roots in several earlier organizations, including the Western Women’s Unitarian Conference, organized in St. Louis in 1881; Emma Rendtorff and her mother Emma Meyer were active Unitarians in St. Louis in that year. Closer to Palo Alto, the women’s organization of the San Francisco Unitarian church, called the Channing Auxiliary had been active in promoting Unitarianism along the entire Pacific Coast ever since it was formed in 1873; perhaps some of the early members of the Palo Alto Alliance had contact with the Channing Auxiliary.

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Unitarians in Palo Alto, 1891-1905

Part One of a history I’m writing, which tells 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. Rather than telling history as the story of a succession of (mostly male) ministers, my focus is on the lay people who made up the congregation. If you want the footnotes, you’ll have to wait until the print version of this history comes out in the spring of 2022.

The first Unitarian and Universalists in Palo Alto, 1891-1895

Unitarianism and Universalism arrived in Palo Alto before there was a congregation. Some of the first residents who arrived in Palo Alto in 1891, the year Stanford University opened, were already Unitarians and Universalists.

Emma Meyer Rendtorff began studying at Stanford University in 1894, eight months before Rev. Eliza Tupper Wilkes, a Universalist and Unitarian minister, preached the first Unitarian Universalist sermon in Palo Alto, at Stanford’s Memorial Church. Emma’s parents had been Unitarians, and as a girl she had attended Sunday school the Church of the Unity, a Unitarian church in St. Louis, Missouri. She was a lifelong Unitarian, and would play a key role when the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto was organized in 1905.

David Starr Jordan, the first president of Stanford, grew up in a Universalist family. As a young adult he briefly joined a Congregational church. While president of Stanford he disavowed any denominational affiliation, although he often spoke in Unitarian churches and at Unitarian gatherings. Whether or not he would have called himself a Unitarian or Universalist when he arrived in Palo Alto, he was often perceived as a Unitarian and often provided financial and moral support to the Palo Alto Unitarians. And when he retired from Stanford, he finally did join the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto.

Luna, Minnie, and Leander Hoskins were probably Unitarians before arriving in Palo Alto. Minnie moved in Palo Alto in 1892 when her husband Leander became a Stanford professor, and Luna had joined them in Palo Alto soon after. Luna and Minnie Hoskins were recognized as delegates by the Committee on Credentials of the Pacific Unitarian Conference at San Jose on May 1-4, 1895, a few days before Eliza Tupper Wilkes arrived in Palo Alto. Since they knew about Unitarianism before Eliza Tupper Wilkes arrived, she couldn’t have been the one to introduce them to Unitarianism, so it seems likely they had been Unitarians when they came to Palo Alto.

Eleanor Brooks Pearson, who came to Palo Alto in 1891 from South Sudbury, Massachusetts, may have been a Unitarian before she arrived in Palo Alto; her childhood home in South Sudbury would have been close to the Unitarian church in Sudbury Center, she was one of the organizers of the Unity Society in 1895, and she later married a Unitarian, Frederic Bartlett Huntington. Some sources hint that there were others who were Unitarians or Universalists before arriving in Palo Alto, but so far it has proved impossible to name them.

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.”

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Teaching resource

I’ve been looking — for quite a while now — for a teaching resource of some kind that shows how some Christians and some Christian groups do in fact support persons of non-binary gender.

The anti-LGBTQ+ Christians are loud and vocal, and they dominate both media and the popular imagination. But I know there are plenty of progressive Christians who feel their religion is fully compatible with being LGBTQIA+. Unfortunately, as is so often the case in our society, most people think it’s a zero-sum game, so the loudest group gets to take charge of the discourse. In addition, as is so often the case in our religiously illiterate society, everyone seems to assume that all religions are monolithic; everyone assumes that one Christian group gets to represent all Christian groups everywhere, ignoring the fact that Christianity has tremendous internal diversity.

As a religious educator, I’ve long tried to teach people both about Christianity’s internal diversity, and about how some Christians are fully supportive of LGBTQIA people. But in a the context of our zero-sum-game, religiously-illiterate society, I haven’t had much success. I kept thinking: If only I had some great teaching resource that showed how some Christians do not have a binary understanding of gender.

So I was pleased to discover this video, which profiles several interesting non-binary Christians. The interviewer, Grace Selmer Baldridge, happen to be a non-binary Christian, which I think makes this video especially powerful. I could wish that Grace Baldridge had been able to interview some non-white non-binary Christians, but aside from that weakness, the interviewees are diverse in their gender identity, in their age, in their expression of their Christianity.

This video may not work well as a teaching resource for those Unitarian Universalists who suffer from anti-Christian bias. Nevertheless, I’m thinking this video could be a great teaching tool for showing both the internal diversity of Christianity, and showing how some Christians believe their religion calls them to a non-binary understanding of gender.

To watch the video on Youtube, click on the image above.

To whet your appetite, here are some quotes from the video:

“We just have to be honest that using the pronoun ‘he’ for God is a habit, but it has no theological justification.” — Dr. Lizzie Berne DeGear, independent scholar

“When I imagine a trans child coming to understand, ‘I might be a girl in this boy body,’ I’m like, ‘Thank you, God, the child is becoming aware of who they really are.’…. God creates out of love. God creates love out of love. We who are in the image of God are all awesome. So when I’m talking to you, I’m learning a little more about God. Because you’re in God’s image. And when you’re talking to me, the same is true.” — Rev. Dr. Jacqueline J. Lewis, senior minister, Middle Collegiate Church

“As a church, we said: We’re publicly going to affirm the LGBTQIA community. We don’t have to be uniform in that belief right away, we can question it, we can disagree, but this is the stance our church is going to take from here on out.… We lost lots of people. We lost thousands of dollars. And it was such a good move. We can sit here and be comfortable, and say OK, the money’s still rolling in and there’s a lot of people coming through my doors, and we can feel good about that. But when there’s literally people out there who are told that they’re not loved, people whose families are disowning them for this, we need to step up and become safe spaces.” — Jonathan Williams, former lead pastor, Forefront Church, Brooklyn, and son of a trans woman

“We really feel that the only way we can combat that negativity [about LGBTQIA people] is with people of faith standing up and saying: No, this is actually not in alignment with how we understand our faith, that you can be Christian and trans, and you can be Christian and gay, and that they’re not mutually exclusive.” — Jamie Brusesehof, mother of a trans child