Thinking about Abigail Eliot

Abigail Eliot was a member of the Unitarian Universalist church I grew up in. I have only vague memories of her, but somehow knew she was someone important. I didn’t realize just how important she was until I read No Silent Witness: The Eliot Parsonage Women and Their Unitarian World by Cynthia Grant Tucker.

It turns out that Abigail Eliot was a pioneer of early education in the United States, and one of the founders of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Eliot first trained at Margaret McMillan’s famous nursery school in England. McMillan developed the nursery school for children who lived in English slums; her school was designed to educate the whole child, mind and body, including nurturing health through outdoor education. Eliot returned to the United States and founded the Ruggles Street Nursery School in Boston.

While Eliot was not the first person to bring the nursery school concept to a city in the United States, she was one of the most influential pioneers of American nursery schools. She founded her school in 1922, and four years later turned her school into a training center for other nursery school teachers. Eliot’s training center for educators continues in the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School, a lab school that’s part of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development at Tufts University.

In addition to the material on Abigail Eliot in No Silent Witness, here are links to more information about her life and work:

I think Abigail Eliot has become a spiritual exemplar for me. She dedicated her life to child-centered education, and in so doing used her significant intellectual talents for the betterment of humankind. I wish I had better memories of her, but all I really remember is seeing her walk down the driveway to her house near the church. My friend Alison, who is my age and grew up in the same Unitarian Universalist church I did, is lucky enough to retain vivid memories of Abby Eliot. Perhaps not surprisingly, Alison went on to a lifelong career as a kindergarten teacher, and now Alison’s daughter is a schoolteacher in East Boston.

Those older Unitarian Universalists, people like Abigail Eliot, inspired many of us younger Unitarian Universalists to devote our careers to making the world a better place. Many of those older Unitarian Universalists worked in fields that are mostly ignored by the public. (Sadly, Abigail Eliot’s contributions to humankind receive far less recognition than those of her famous poet cousin, T. S. Eliot.) Yet what I learn from those older Unitarian Universalists is that public recognition is less important than doing good work in the world. That’s one of the reasons why we should continue to hold them up as spiritual exemplars.

Charles Knowlton, sexuality education pioneer

Back in 1832, a Massachusetts physician named Charles Knowlton published a pamphlet on sexuality education, including instructions for contraception. Titled The Fruits of Philosophy: The Private Companion of Young Married People, Knowlton wrote his pamphlet for young married couples. He printed it privately (and anonymously), and distributed it to his patients.

Knowlton, a freethinker who didn’t attend church services, apparently got to know the famous freethinker Abner Kneeland. Kneeland published Knowlton’s pamphlet for wider distribution, this time placing Knowlton’s name on the title page. However, the laws of the time classified information about contraception as obscene, and Knowlton was tried and convicted. He had to spend three months in jail. But he never repudiated his pamphlet.

You can read more about Knowlton here. You can read a later edition of Fruits of Philosophy here.

[Researching Knowlton led me to an interesting website, The Embryo Project Encyclopedia. Produced by Arizona State University, this website contains peer-reviewed articles on “the science of embryos, development, and reproduction.” Included are basic science articles, but also articles on bioethics, people (such as Charles Knowlton), and more.]

Obscure Unitarians: Burt Estes Howard

[An excerpt from my forthcoming book on Unitarians in Palo Alto:]

A minister and a professor at Stanford University, Burt Estes Howard was born February 23, 1863, in Clayton, N.Y. He went to school at Shaw Academy, Cleveland. He graduated from Western Reserve University in 1883, received a masters’ degree from Lane Theological Seminary, and was ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1886. He served as a Presbyterian minister in Michigan and Ohio from 1887 to 1892.

He married Sarah Gates 1890, and they had three children: Grenville (b. 1891), and twins Graeme and Emily (b. 1896). Sarah was a college graduate, having received her A.B. from Vassar in 1869.

He became the pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Los Angeles, in 1892, moving his wife and infant son to California. He only remained a pastor of that church for three years. In 1895, Burt was convicted of “insubordination” by the Los Angeles Presbytery, on what some considered to be trumped-up charges. The presbytery stripped him of his ministerial authority. Burt and his supporters appealed the conviction to the judiciary commission of the Presbyterian Synod in San Jose, which reversed the local decision. But then he was brought up on charges of heresy and insubordination again a few months later. On January 25, 1896, the Los Angeles Herald reported in a page two story:

“The Rev. Howard is to be charged with high crimes and misdemeanors innumerable. The bill of particulars, it is said, will allege that he has been guilty of denying the atonement. It will furthermore be alleged that he also questioned the integrity of the scriptures. This is not all. It will be claimed that the doughty pastor has advanced, stood by and defended the doctrine of evolution. He will also be accused, in all probability, of pantheism. This is something new, but it means that he has enunciated that all nature is good. Not content with this, an endeavor will be made to show that Mr. Howard has stood up for Unitarianism. These charges will be made, so it is claimed, by some of the members of Mr. Howard’s congregation. The congregation split, and those who withdrew formed another church.”

This second heresy trial finally drove him away from Presbyterianism. In 1897, while also serving as a lecturer in professional ethics at Los Angeles Law School, he organized the Church of the Covenant, a congregation independent of any denomination. He served as the minister of that congregation for three years.

Continue reading “Obscure Unitarians: Burt Estes Howard”

In memoriam: Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk known for popularizing the concept of “Engaged Buddhism,” has just died. (He died Jan. 22 in Vietnam, on the other side of the International Date Line, which was Jan. 21 here in the U.S.) He had been incapacitated by a stroke in 2014, and in 2018 finally received permission from the Vietnamese government to return to his home temple to spend his final days. His name is more properly rendered as Thích Nh?t H?nh, but I’ll use the more common romanization without tonal indications.

Thich Nhat Hanh is probably best known for his series of popular books on Buddhism. Worldcat lists the following titles as the five “most widely held works” in libraries: The Miracle of Mindfulness; Living Buddha, Living Christ; Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life; Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames; and Being Peace. Nhat Hanh arguably did more than anyone else to popularize the concept of mindfulness in the West.

The book of his that I found most interesting, though, one to which I’ve returned a number of times, is The Sutra of the Full Awareness of Breathing (Parallax Press, 1988). This book includes Nhat Hanh’s translation of the ?n?p?nasati Sutta, along with his commentary on the text. This Sutra is no. 118 of the “medium length” sutras that have been collected into the Majjhima Nik?ya. (A later revised version of his translation is now freely available on the website of his Plum Village Buddhist community here.) Nhat Hanh translated the text into French, which was then translated into English; I found the English translation to be lucid, readable, and non-technical. I also liked his The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra; I find Buddhist scriptures difficult to understand, and Nhat Hanh’s commentary helped me understand a little bit about this complex text.

But I think Thich Nhat Hanh’s real impact as a writer and teacher was through his many popular books which give good sound advice for living life. I’ve read a little bit in some of his many books on mindfulness, and was impressed by the good common-sense tone of these books. Unfortunately, mindfulness grew into a fad, and big corporations have learned how to use mindfulness as an opiate to drug their workers into submission. But what Nhat Hanh said about mindfulness had nothing to do with submission to a corporate overlord. Quite the contrary: Nhat Hanh’s writings are permeated with the spirit of Engaged Buddhism, and mindfulness connects one fully with the fate of all beings; instead of quietism and retreat from the world, Nhat Hanh’s mindfulness moves us to become engaged in seeking justice.

If your corporate overlord forces you to do mindfulness — or if your school forces you to do mindfulness — try reading Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness. You’ll find out that mindfulness is not a drug forcing you to submit to your employer or your school. Nhat Hanh used mindfulness as a way to advocate for peace during the long-running war in Vietnam. Mindfulness helped empower him to criticize both South Vietnam and North Vietnam, and also to stand up against U.S. involvement in Vietnam, at great personal cost. Mindfulness helped bring Nhat Hanh to the U.S. in 1966, where he helped convince Martin Luther King, Jr., to speak out against the injustices of the Vietnam War. In short, unlike the mindfulness that corporations and schools teach, which seems designed to ensure passive compliance with tyranny, Nhat Hanh’s mindfulness is designed to resist tyranny, oppression, and injustice.

I’m less interested in Nhat Hanh’s teachings on mindfulness — personally, mindfulness does nothing for my spiritual self — and far more interested in him as a teacher. Everyone I’ve talked to who saw him in person has said he was a riveting teacher. Apparently, his English skills weren’t great — I’m told Vietnamese and French were his main languages — but even through an interpreter his teaching was compelling. I get the sense that it was his presence as a teacher that most impressed those who went to hear him. This has been true of the best teachers I’ve known: there’s something about the way they move, the way they hold their bodies, it is their very being that teaches us. The best teachers, I think, cultivate their persons — or as we might say in the West, cultivate their souls — and it is this cultivation of the person which shines through in their teaching. While I never experienced Nhat Hanh in person, I can catch glimpses of this cultivated soul in his writings. I would unhesitatingly call him a brilliant teacher.

Our troubled world needs brilliant teachers like him, teachers who can empower us to stand up for justice and peace. Thich Nhat Hanh will be sorely missed.

Unitarians in Palo Alto, 1926-1947

Part Six 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 One — Part Two — Part Three — Part FourPart Five

Decline and dissolution, 1926-1934

In late 1925, Elmo Robinson could look back on “four happy years, profitable to me, and I hope to the church.” But he had grown restive. He received a grant so that he could study for a semester at Harvard University in the first half of 1926. He found, or the church found, Leila Lasley Thompson to fill in for him while he was away. Thompson had married a soldier in 1918 who then was killed in action a few months later, leaving her a war widow. She then studied for the ministry at Manchester College, Oxford, England, a Unitarian theological school; was fellowshipped as a Unitarian minister by the American Unitarian Association; and pursued post-graduate study in 1925 at the Pacific Unitarian School for the Ministry.

Robinson departed at the end of 1925, leaving Leila Thompson in charge of the congregation. The congregation ordained her on Sunday, February 7, 1926. A month or so later, Robinson decided that he wasn’t going to return to the church. He apparently decided to pursue an academic career, although a note from him dated April 5, 1926, has a cryptic reference about protecting himself from “the charge of using this leave of absence as an opportunity of running away from an unpleasant situation without giving everyone a chance to be heard.” The “unpleasant situation” may well have been the long-standing conflict between the pacifist faction and the pro-war faction. Not even Robinson, with his skill and experience, had been able to heal that conflict.

After going east, Robinson never returned to Palo Alto — which sounds a little too much like Bradley Gilman’s departure from the church. In September, 1926, the church called Leila Thompson as the sole minister of the church. She was reportedly the first regularly ordained woman to serve a minister of a Palo Alto church.

Sadly, Leila Thompson received little support from the lay leaders. Sunday morning attendance dropped even more, from 34 in 1925, down to 27 in 1926, and then to 22 in 1927. Sunday school plummeted from 62 in 1925 down to 25 by 1927. The Young People’s Group continued to be active; Gertrude Rendtorff was still a Stanford student, and perhaps her continued participation kept that group going.

Alfred S. Niles, a lifelong Unitarian, moved to Palo Alto with his wife Florence, also a Unitarian, in the fall of 1927. When they arrived in town, Alfred and Florence sought out the Unitarian church. He found a church that was “still functioning, but rather feebly.” He was told that the church had once been active, “but the minister at the time of World War I had been a pacifist and conscientious objector [i.e., William Short, Jr.], and this had caused a split in the church from which it never recovered.”

Attendance got so low that the congregation tried moving the services to the evening, but that didn’t help matters. At the end of December, 1927, Leila Thompson resigned. It appears from the extant records that everyone became aware that there really wasn’t enough money to pay her salary any more, not even with the assistance the church still received from the American Unitarian Association. The church got Clarence Vickland, a student at the Pacific Unitarian School for the Ministry, to come preach to them in 1927-1928. Sunday morning attendance continued to drop, down to an average of 21, and by December, 1928, the Sunday school had closed “as there was not sufficient interest manifested to justify continuing the work.”

Finally, in 1929, the church stopped holding services altogether. Clarence Vickland wrote to the Women’s Alliance asking if they would like to host a visiting Unitarian minister on March 3, but they replied that “it would be impossible to get the congregation together.” 1929 was also the year that Karl and Emma Rendtorff retired to Carmel. With the Rendtorffs about to leave town, there was no real hope for the church. In May, 1930, Rufus Hatch Kimball reported to the Women’s Alliance that the Board of Trustees had turned the church building over to the American Unitarian Association. The church had finally dissolved.

The Women’s Alliance was declining, too. They continued to work on charitable projects — at their June, 1932, meeting, they worked on sewing for the Needlework Guild — but their numbers were shrinking. By May, 1930, the membership list had only nineteen names, and after Anna Probst Zschokke’s name appeared the notation, “Died May 30, 1929.” Like the church, the Alliance was slowly winding down and dying away.

The building sat vacant until early 1931. Then in February, 1931, Mary Engle reported to the Alliance that the American Unitarian Association had begun fixing up the building, and it was “now all in good repair and new locks have been put on the doors so that no invading hands could open them and…have access to Church of Alliance property.” By Easter Sunday, services were once again being held in the church, and Merrill Bates, the theological student who had been given charge of the church, had started up the church school once again.

The Alliance tried to help with the revived Sunday school, but grew discouraged with the tiny attendance, leaving Merrill Bates to manage on his own. Merrill Bates, Berkeley Blake, regional field secretary for the American Unitarian Association, and William S. Morgan, president of the Pacific Unitarian School for the Ministry, each preached to the church once a month, with Bates arranging supply preachers for the other Sundays.

Bates continued in the Palo Alto church until he graduated in spring of 1934. It’s hard to know how many of the old-time members still participated in the church. On March 27, 1932, Henry David Gray, who had become a member of the church in 1905, preached the Easter sermon. But most of the old members had either died, or moved away, or given up on the church. The Alliance held its last meeting on October 11, 1932, without even coming to a conclusion as to whether they should formally dissolve or not.

In April, 1934 — a month or so before Merrill Bates graduated from the Pacific Unitarian School for the Ministry — the American Unitarian Association put a “For Sale” sign up in front of the building. The building soon sold, for less than its mortgaged value. The American Unitarian Association retained possession of the organ, however, and gave it to the Unitarian church in Stockton, Calif. on permanent loan (Clarence Vickland was then the minister in Stockton). As Alfred Niles put it, there would be “no more organized Unitarianism in Palo Alto for several years.”

Interregnum, 1934-1947

Indeed, there was no organized Unitarianism in Palo Alto for almost exactly thirteen years. In 1936, the liberal Quaker Elton Trueblood became the chaplain at Stanford University, and some Unitarians — like Alfred and Frances Niles — found Stanford’s Memorial Church a congenial place to go on Sunday mornings. Other Unitarians found other religious homes. Josephine Duveneck became active with the American Friends (Quaker) Service Committee, and eventually became a Quaker herself. Alice Locke Park also became a Quaker. Several Palo Alto Unitarians gave up on organized religion altogether.

Even for the Unitarians who went to hear Elton Trueblood preach each week at Stanford, there was no Unitarian Sunday school for those with children, and there was no Unitarian minister to officiate at rites of passage such as weddings and funerals. Perhaps more importantly for many, there was no Unitarian community of which to be a part. Then when Elton Trueblood left Stanford in 1945, there wasn’t even any liberal preaching in town.

In May, 1944, the American Unitarian Association organized the Church of the Larger Fellowship to serve Unitarians who didn’t have a nearby Unitarian church that they could belong to. This was a sort of mailorder church which sent monthly newsletters with sermons and other material of interest to Unitarians; it was, in a sense, an expansion of the old Post Office Mission. The Church of the Larger Fellowship grew quickly, and within three years, a dozen or so Palo Alto Unitarians had already joined.

A New Congregation, 1947

In November, 1946, Alfred Niles saw a notice in the Christian Register, then the name of the denominational periodical, that the American Unitarian Association had appointed Rev. Delos O’Brian to be the the Regional Director for the West Coast, with an office in San Francisco. In February, 1947, Alfred Niles made an appointment to visit Delos O’Brian, who showed him two lists of names from the Church of the Larger Fellowship, one with a dozen names from the Palo Alto area, and another with a dozen names from San Mateo. Delos O’Brian was still undecided whether to organize a new Unitarian church in Palo Alto or San Mateo, and Alfred Niles later claimed that it was his visit that helped tilt the balance to Palo Alto. And on April 6, 1947, Delos O’Brian held an initial meeting to organize a new Unitarian group in Palo Alto. The Palo Alto Unitarian Society, as it was first known, grew quickly. Organized Unitarianism had finally returned to Palo Alto.

But even though many of the members of the old Unitarian Church of Palo Alto still lived in the area, most of them did not join the new congregation. Ruth and Everett Calderwood, who were only in their fifties, first claimed they were too elderly to take part, though later they did make financial contributions to the church. Katherine Carruth, who was then seventy-one, said she was sorry but she was too old to participate.

Edna True, on the other hand, who at seventy-two was older than the Calderwoods or Katherine Carruth, attended the very first meeting of the society, and became a member of the congregation. Clearly, while some Palo Alto Unitarians retained their enthusiasm for being part of a Unitarian church, others had lost all such enthusiasm. When Dan Lion arrived in Palo Alto as the first full-time minister of the new church, he made contact with some of the former Palo Alto Unitarians. He made an audio recording of his memories of calling on some of those former Palo Alto Unitarians, and while that recording has been lost, nevertheless, we can make a pretty good guess why those former Palo Alto Unitarians stayed away — the bitter conflicts that split the church, the incessant lack of money, the sense that they had been betrayed by some of their ministers and by the denomination, all contributed to drive these people away from any Unitarian congregation.

Other former Palo Alto Unitarians were happy to join the new congregation. Alfred and Frances Niles were central figures in the new congregation. Edna True was a member of the congregation up until she died, when she left a large bequest to the church. Rufus Kimball was integral in helping the new congregation claim its tax-exempt status. Ruth Steinmetz, a graduate of the old church’s Sunday school, joined the new church and remained active in it the rest of her life. Cornelis Bol, who had moved to Holland before the First World WAr, returned to Palo Alto in time to join the new congregation. Walter Palmer, who lived in Oakland by then, heard about the new church, and contacted them saying that he had been one of the charter members of the old church, and would like to be on the mailing list, though he wouldn’t be able to participate. Gertrude Rendtorff, living in Monterey, also heard about the new church in Palo Alto and asked to be on the mailing list.

Then too, as time went on, descendants of some of those former Palo Alto Unitarian families resumed a connection to the church. Guido Townley Marx, grandson of Palo Alto Unitarians Guido H. and Gertrude Marx, was married in the new church. Candace Longanecker, granddaughter of Errol and Laura Longanecker, was another grandchild who was married in the new church. And over the years, Dan Lion officiated at the memorial services of a handful of those former Palo Alto Unitarians.

The new congregation, renamed the Palo Alto Unitarian Church in 1951, was wildly successful. By 1965, they had three worship services each Sunday, and the Sunday school had some six hundred children enrolled. In less than twenty years, the Palo Alto Unitarian Church became one of the largest Unitarian congregations on the West Coast. So why did the old Unitarian Church of Palo Alto die, and the new Palo Alto Unitarian Church succeed?

Partly, it was a matter of demographics and the economy. Before the Second World War, Palo Alto was a small town, probably too small to support a viable Unitarian church. After the war, both Palo Alto and the surrounding area gained population rapidly while at the same time the economy was booming. This meant the new congregation could grow quickly so it didn’t need to be subsidized by the denomination, and furthermore the new congregation could attract, and pay for, excellent professional leadership. But then when the new congregation faced financial stress in the late 1960s and early 1970s, due both to demographic decline and a declining economy, conflict erupted and membership and participation plummeted. Demographics and the economy are major influences on congregational growth and decline.

It was also partly because the old Unitarian Church of Palo Alto was unable to integrate new leadership. It’s no coincidence that the congregation died within a year after Karl and Emma Rendtorff retired to Carmel. By the 1920s, the Women’s Alliance consisted solely of elderly and middle-aged women; the older women had not made room for young women to be part of the Alliance. As they aged, the small core of leaders that ran the old church was reluctant to share power with younger people.

Then too, the conflicts that engulfed the old church never healed. Marion Alderton, Alice Park, Josephine Duveneck and others never really forgave their fellow Unitarians. And there were others who didn’t formally resign from the church, but nor could they ever quite forgive. The old Unitarian Church of Palo Alto proved unable to deal effectively with the conflict between the pro-war faction and the pacifists.

Perhaps most importantly, though, the old Unitarian Church of Palo Alto didn’t have a compelling vision for itself. For much of its history, it was little more than a social club that happened to own a beautiful little building. This was part of the reason they couldn’t overcome their conflicts — when a congregation is little more than a social group, with no big purpose, there is nothing larger to inspire people to move past the conflict. Because the congregation was little more than a social group, when Elmo Arnold Robinson came along and welcomed people of different classes and ethnic groups into the church, the long-time members didn’t even bother to engage with the newcomers. As a result, they were unable to retain the newcomers who could provide new leadership, and help pay the bills. Indeed, by the late 1920s the long-time members seemed to have lost interest in Unitarianism, and to have lost interest in figuring out how their Unitarian church could affect the wider community.

In late 1947, Rev. Nat Lauriat ran into a similar problem, with a new generation of Palo Alto Unitarians. Lauriat was the dynamic minister of the San Jose Unitarian church who drove up to Palo Alto each week to preach to the new Palo Alto Unitarian Society, and to help them get organized. He wrote to denominational officials that “the general feeling was to proceed with great caution, and just have a pleasant little group.” However, Nat Lauriat found younger Unitarians who “wanted more action and growth,” and with his encouragement, these younger Unitarians were the ones who took over leadership, and built a thriving new congregation on their vision of Unitarianism as a force for good in the world. Nat Lauriat challenged the Palo Alto Unitarians to think of liberal religion as more than just a social club.

This is a perennial challenge for any Unitarian Universalist congregation. It is a challenge that Palo Alto Unitarian Universalists face today. There is still a feeling among some of today’s Palo Alto Unitarian Universalists “to proceed with great caution, and just have a pleasant little group.” But when we hear the story of the old Unitarian Church of Palo Alto, we find that proceeding “with great caution” and having “a pleasant little group” ultimately leads to decay and dissolution. It’s the congregations with a larger vision — the congregations that hunger for “more action and growth” — that grow and thrive, that nurture the growth of their members, and that ultimately change the world around them for the better.

Unitarians in Palo Alto, 1921-1925

Part Five 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 ThreePart Four

A Fresh Start, 1921-1925

In November, 1921, Elmo Arnold Robinson, known as “Robbie,” arrived at the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto with his wife Olga and sons Kelsey, who was 9 months old, and Arnold, almost 5 years old. Robbie, ordained as a Universalist minister, had lots of experience in small congregations, plus he had just finished a two-year stint as the Director of Religious Education at a church in southern California. Olga was also licensed as a Universalist minister, although her time was taken up with her small children. It’s hard to imagine that the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto could have found a better match for their needs.

Not much happened in Robinson’s first year, except that Sunday school enrollment dropped still further. Emma Rendtorff had been the superintendent of the Sunday school in the 1920-1921 school year, and Sunday school enrollment crept back up to 31 children, but that was Emma’s last year as superintendent; her daughter Gertrude entered Stanford University in the fall of 1921, so Emma was no longer quite so invested in the Sunday school. In 1921-1922, Elmo Robinson’s first year, the church went through three Sunday school superintendents: Jessie Morton, who was William H. Carruth’s mother-in-law; William Ewert, a student at Stanford University; and Frank Gonzales, another Stanford student who served the longest of the three. With all that turnover, it’s not surprising that enrollment in the Sunday school dropped to 20, probably the lowest enrollment since 1908.

But Elmo Robinson had already turned his thoughts to religious education. In the summer of 1922, his essay “The Place of the Child in the Religious Education Community” was published in the Pacific Unitarian. This essay outlined a progressive philosophy of religious education that was tied to social reform:

“Every religious community believes that the future can be made better than the present. Every church, while cherishing certain ideals and methods of the past, must fire its young people with a vision of the future which will encourage them to devise new ways and means to realize it. Do you want world peace? World justice? The cooperative commonwealth?… All these things can be accomplished only by admitting children and young people to the full fellowship of the religious community as friends….”

Presumably, this essay repeated what had already been going on in the Palo Alto church. Bertha Chapman Cady was one of the teachers in the Sunday school in 1921-1922, and she involved the children in helping to run the class; one of her daughters, for example, became the class secretary. Children were becoming fully involved into the religious community of the church. The lay leaders seem to have found his vision a compelling one. The next school year, 1922-1923, the charismatic William Carruth agreed to be the superintendent of the Sunday school, and enrollment immediately shot up to 33 children.

Continue reading “Unitarians in Palo Alto, 1921-1925”

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.

Continue reading “Unitarians in Palo Alto, 1915-1920”

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?

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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.'”

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, Helene and Ewald 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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