Obscure Unitarians: Bertha Louise Chapman Cady

This is a major revision of an earlier short biography of Bertha Cady Chapman.

A writer, biologist, and sexuality educator, Bertha Louise Chapman was born July 5, 1873, in Santa Barbara, Calif., the daughter of Truman (sometimes given as “Freeman”) Fletcher Chapman and Mary Elizabeth Furlong Chapman; Bertha’s older sister Elizabeth Corinne Chapman had been born in the same place in 1870. By August, 1873, the family was living in San Buenaventura (now known as Ventura), Calif., where Truman worked as a druggist.

After Bertha was born in 1873, Truman became involved in mining, and he moved the family to New Mexico to operate mines there. In 1880, Bertha, her parents, and both siblings were living in Las Vegas. Truman was the postmaster of Las Vegas, New Mexico, from Jan., 1878, to Sept., 1880. In 1880, he owned the St. Nicholas Hotel on the Plaza. Las Vegas had grown into a bustling town with the coming of the railroad in 1878, but the Plaza retained a distinctly Southwestern flavor:

“The Plaza is in the center of the town.…About the center of the Plaza is the relic of the old well, the windmill having been torn down, and the well long out of use. It was the scene of [a] horrible sight this Spring, as on the night of February 9th the vigilantes hung one cowboy to the windmill, and laid his two companions out beneath him, riddled with bullets, because of their murder of Joe Carson, a few weeks previous. The Plaza is the principal market for the produce of the farmers.… Almost daily one will see large droves of burros standing about, loaded with wools, hides, or pelts.…Little, narrow, crooked streets lead out from the Plaza, and on all side of the town are scattered those queer little adobes, which give the place its ancient and foreign appearance to strangers.” (H. T. Wilson, Historical Sketch of Las Vegas, New Mexico [Chicago: Hotel World Pub., 1880?], p. 18)

This is the town where Bertha lived when she was perhaps 5 to 8 years old.

Continue reading “Obscure Unitarians: Bertha Louise Chapman Cady”

Westerners misappropriating non-Western religious imagery

A broad-based interfaith coalition, including Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, and Jews, has targeted a nightclub chain that uses Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain statues for interior decoration. As reported by Religion News Service, the “Foundation Room” night clubs operated by Live Nation Entertainment in U.S. cities including Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Las Vegas, and New Orleans uses the following religious imagery as decor: statues of Buddha (Buddhism); statues of Ganesha, Hanuman, Shiva, and Rama (Hinduism); statues of Mahavira and Parshvanatha (Jainism).

Live Nation said in a statement that the Foundation Room clubs are (according to them) all about “promoting unity, peace, and harmony.” Before you cynically respond “Bullshit!” — it may be that Live Nation’s management really did see the misappropriation of these religious images as promoting unity. Since they’re based in the U.S., we can assume that they — consciously or unconsciously — see the “Judeo-Christian tradition” as normative; and while “Judeo” is merely a modifier of “Christian” in this formulation, Judaism is still seen as somehow normative. Since Christianity and Judaism are part of mainstream U.S. culture, Live Nation’s management would never think of putting up a cross or star of David in one of their nightclubs.

Why then is it OK to use religious images from Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism? Well, part of the answer might well be that “religion” as a concept is a Western concept that only dates back to the Enlightenment. Prior to the Enlightenment, the West did not have a concept that corresponds to our current notion of “religion.” And “religion” as a concept was developed in part as a way to bolster Western colonialist ambitions: “religion” was defined in such a way that only Christianity (and perhaps Judaism, in a debased way) fit the definition; this allowed Western powers to justify domination of non-Western cultures on the grounds Christianizing them. (For more on the link between “religion” and colonialism, see e.g. Timothy Fitzgerald, The Ideology of Religious Studies [Oxford Univ. Press, 2000]; William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict [Oxford Univ. Press, 2009]).

Not surprisingly, colonized peoples are accorded less respect than the colonizers. This might make more sense if I put this in racial terms, since so many of us are thinking about race these days: in the Western worldview, Christianity is seen as the property of the West, which means it’s a white religion; while Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism are generally seen as having adherents who are people of color; while you wouldn’t use white people’s religious symbol in a night club, it would be OK to use the religious symbol belonging to people of color.

However, while colonialism and racism are strongly linked, I find it more helpful to view this dispute over religious imagery in nightclubs as a legacy of colonialism. After all, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism do have white adherents, and there are strong traditions of black and Latinx Christianity. But non-Christian religions are still seen as somehow “primitive” or less advanced than Christianity, and thus may be accorded less respect; and just as in the past, this viewpoint still allows Western nations to see non-Western nations as suitable for colonial domination through both economics and military action.

Maybe I’m making too much out of this. But I do want to explain why Live Nation Entertainment didn’t put crosses or statues of Jesus Christ in their nightclubs; why does Jesus Christ get their respect, but not the Buddha?

Back in time…

This Sunday, during our congregation’s online service, we’re going to go back in time…

…using the congregation’s time machine…

…to the year 29 C.E., to a small town in the land of Judea. There we will meet a fellow named Ishmael, who’s the kind of person who loves to spread rumors.

“They say,” says Ishmael, “that….”

If Ishamael lived today, he’d be the kind of fellow who emails you the latest internet conspiracy theory. But since he lives in the year 29 in Judea, he spreads his rumors face-to-face in the town’s marketplace. He meets up with a woman named Martha. When he learns that Martha’s brother Peter has joined the entourage of the famous rabbi Jesus of Nazareth, not surprisingly he has a few conspiracy-theory-type rumors to tell Martha. This causes Martha to wonder if her brother is going to be OK….

“Now you’ve got me wondering,” says Martha….

Our trip to the past will take less than three minutes, allowing us plenty of time for the usual singing, music, preaching, etc. The whole thing will be livestreamed on the Facebook page of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, this Sunday at 9:30 and 11.

An obscure Unitarian in the 1918 pandemic

Helen Katharien Kreps was a Unitarian theological student who died of influenza in 1919.

She was born Oct., 1894, in North Dakota, when her father was based at Fort Totten, then on the Indian frontier. Since her father was a military officer, the family moved frequently in her first ten years; her younger brother was born in Nebraska, and in 1900 the family was living near San Diego.

At the time of the 1906 earthquake, her father was based in Fort McDowell, Calif., though it is not clear if his family was with him. The family must have been in Palo Alto for at least part of 1910, for Helen attended the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto when Rev. Florence Buck was filling in for Rev. Clarence Reed. Helen, then in high school, was deeply influenced both by Unitarianism, and by seeing Florence Buck, a woman, in the pulpit.

Later in 1910, Helen and her family were living at Cape Nome, Alaska. But Helen returned to Palo Alto to enter Stanford in the 1911-12 academic year. She worked as a filing clerk in the Stanford library beginning in 1912. While at Stanford, Helen majored in German, and participated in the summer, 1914, session of the Marine Biological Library. She was elected president of the Stanford English Club.

In 1915, she graduated from Stanford with high honors, and worked in the Stanford library in 1915-1916. She taught the first and second graders in the Sunday school at the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto in that same year. She made regular financial contributions to the church in 1916, after which the notation “discontinued thru removal” (meaning she moved away) appears under her account.

In the fall of 1916, Helen entered the Pacific Unitarian School for the Ministry. There she showed impressive intellectual gifts. Earl Morse Wilbur, the president of the school, also remembered Helen’s exceptional character:

“Quiet and modest in bearing though she was, never asserting herself or her views, yet we instinctively felt that in her there was depth and breadth of character, and as she moved about among us she won a respect and exerted an influence that belong to few. I remember saying to myself at the end of her first chapel service, in which the depth and sincerity of her religious nature were revealed, that I should count myself happy if she might sometime be my minister; and those who were present at the devotional service which she conducted at the Conference at Berkeley last spring will not soon forget the impression she then made.”

During the summer of 1918, Helen supplied the pulpit of the Unitarian church in Santa Cruz, returning to the Pacific Unitarian School for the Ministry in the fall. She was well on her way to receiving her degree summa cum laude, when the world-wide influenza epidemic struck the Bay Area in October, 1918. In March, 1919, Earl Morse Wilbur reported the following in the Pacific Unitarian, the West Coast Unitarian periodical:

“It happened that Miss Kreps and Miss [Julia] Budlong [another theological student] had last year both taken a University course in Red Cross nursing; and when the emergency call came for nurses to care for the hundreds of victims on the campus they both volunteered without a moment’s hesitation. It was expected that the trouble would be over and that they would return to work within two weeks. Instead they paid as dearly for their patriotic service as many soldiers have done. Both were soon stricken with the influenza. … Miss Kreps’s case developed a dangerous attack of pneumonia, and for weeks her life hung in the balance; and she is even yet in the military hospital in San Francisco, slowly regaining her strength, and will be unable to return to her studies before next autumn….”

But Helen did not recover, and in the same month, March, 1919, the Pacific Unitarian carried Earl Morse Wilbur’s obituary for Helen, who had died Feb. 23, 1919, at the Letterman General Hospital in the San Francisco Presidio.

Her death is an example of what we hope will not happen during the current pandemic: we hope we don’t wind up with well-intentioned but barely trained people serving as nurses in makeshift hospitals, hospitals hastily set up to deal with an overwhelming number of sick people.

Notes: 1900, 1910 U.S. Census; M.H.T., “Jacob F. Kreps,” West Point Assoc. of Graduates, http://apps.westpointaog.org/Memorials/Article/3011/ accessed Nov. 18, 2016; Annual Registers, Stanford University, 1912-1915; Stanford Daily, Dec. 3, 1914; Earl Morse Wilbur, “Our School for the Ministry,” Pacific Unitarian, March 1919, p. 63; Earl Morse Wilbur, “Helen Katharine Kreps,” Pacific Unitarian, March 1919, pp. 65-66; Stanford Daily, Feb. 25, 1919.

Unitarians in Palo Alto, 1891-1934: A Biographical Dictionary

A couple of years ago, I printed a biographical dictionary of Palo Alto Unitarians from 1891 to 1934. Since then, a missing box of old records resurfaced, and those records provided me with many more names of early Palo Alto Unitarians. Today, I completed the draft version of a new, expanded biographical dictionary.

Eventually, this biographical dictionary will be printed out and placed in the archives of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, successor to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Unitarian congregations in Palo Alto. But first I have to proofread it (a task which I abhor), and check it for errors (marginally less abhorrent). Who knows when I’ll get that done?

In the mean time, I’m releasing a PDF of the uncorrected proof — mostly to get this information on the Web for people who might be looking for it, including genealogical researchers and people looking into Unitarian history.

Unitarians in Palo Alto, 1891-1934: A Biographical Dictionary — uncorrected proof (PDF, 2.3 MB)

Many of biographical appeared here earlier, in a slightly different form, as blog entries.

For scholars of Unitarian and Universalist history, perhaps the most interesting point made in this biographical dictionary is that David Starr Jordan did indeed formally become a member of a Unitarian church, contrary to what is stated in his biography on the UU Historical Society Biographical Dictionary Web site. Records of the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto show: “In his annual report for 1925, Rev. Elmo Arnold Robinson noted that David became a member of the church in that year, and he appeared in the 1926 List of Resident Members.” [Note that in the uncorrected proof, “1925” is mistyped “1295.”] I also touch on Jordan’s now-controversial embrace of eugenics.

Local historians will be interested to learn a little more about Rev. Leila Lasley Thompson, the first duly ordained woman installed in any Palo Alto congregation. Feminist historians will appreciate the effort made to trace the lives of women in the congregation; too many histories of congregations ignore women members and participants.

However, this biographical dictionary is going to appeal to a very limited number of people; if it bores you, ignore it.

Obscure Unitarians: Sylvie Grace Thompson Thygeson

An advocate for woman suffrage, and an early birth control activist, Sylvie Grace Thompson was born June 27, 1868, in the small town of Forreston, in central Illinois. Progressive activism had a long history in her family: her name “Sylvie,” a French name, came from a girl that her father had met when he was a boy; his parents were active with the Underground Railroad, and this girl was one of a family of fugitive slaves escaping from Louisiana.

Her family had no religion, and was the only family in town that were atheists. When interviewed at age 104, she stated that she had never had any religion, though as we shall see she associated for a brief time with a Unitarian church.

She entered high school at age twelve and graduated at sixteen, then taught in a country school for a month until her father died; thereupon she went to live with an uncle who lived in St. Louis, Mo. She worked for her uncle, an appellate judge, as a stenographer. She later recalled that time in St. Louis as a broadening experience, one that made up in part for her family’s inability to send her to college. After two years in St. Louis, she rejoined her mother and younger siblings, who were then living in St. Paul, Minn.

She married Nels Marcus Thygeson, a lawyer, in 1891. They had children including Ruth Adelaide (b. April 9, 1895, Minn.), Elling Henry McKee (b. Feb. 26, 1898, Minn.), Phillips Baker (b. March 28, 1903, Minn.), and Mary Ellen Baker (b. May 26, 1906, Minn.).

While living in St. Paul, Sylvie became active both in the suffrage and birth control movements. Her suffrage work in St. Paul was centered in the Women’s Welfare League, of which she was the First Vice President. The Women’s Welfare League also financially supported birth control efforts. Around 1915, working with two other women, Sylvie started a birth control clinic in St. Paul. Margaret Sanger came to speak to them, and they found two (male) physicians to work with them, to actually provide the “birth control instruments.” Birth control was illegal, so while they arranged public lectures on the topic, actually providing birth control was done in secret, relying on word-of-mouth referrals.

In 1917, Nels died after a long fight with cancer, upon which Sylvie and her four children moved to Palo Alto — after a brief stop in Old Orchard, Maine — so the children could attend Stanford Univ. By 1920, Sylvia was widowed and living with Elling, Phillips, and Mary in Palo Alto; Sylvie gave her occupation as “none”; Nels’ death apparently did not cause her financial hardship. In Palo Alto, Sylvie was active with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILF) — as were Annie Tait and Marion Alderton, who were both members of the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto, and may have introduced her to church.

Sylvie was listed in the 1919 parish directory of the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto with her daughter Ruth, and Sylvie appeared on the 1920 membership list. This church would have been a good fit for her; the young adult group called themselves the Humanist Club, and there were many other pacifists and advocates for women’s rights in the church. However, Sylvie’s name was crossed out in the 1921 revision. Fellow pacifists Marion Alderton and Alice Locke Park resigned from the church in June, 1920, in protest against “the attitude taken” by the church in the First World War; Sylvie left the church at about the same time, perhaps for the same reason.

In 1925, Sylvie was still living in Palo Alto with Elling, Mary, and Phillips; Ruth had married in 1918, and had moved to San Francisco with her husband. Mary was the last to finish her studies at Stanford, receiving her degree in 1928, and she and Sylvie were still in Palo Alto in that year. After that, Sylvie moved to Los Angeles. In 1930, she was living there with her mother, her son Elling, a brother and other relatives. In 1940, she was still in Los Angeles, now living with her mother and two brothers. While in Los Angeles, she continued her social activism, and was a member of the Anti-Nazi League. Her mother died in May, 1946. Sylvie returned to Palo Alto in 1955.

Late in life, she expressed her world view as being based on the theory of evolution. She died in San Mateo County, Calif., in 1975, at age 107. At her request, there was no funeral service.

Though she was a Unitarian for only a couple of years, given her strong commitment to women’s rights and her commitment to women’s access to birth control, we should be proud that this freethinker and atheist was willing to affiliate with a Unitarian church for even that brief time.

Notes: 1870, 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930, 1940 U.S. Census; 1895, 1905 Minnesota State Census; Feminist History Research Project, interviews conducted by Ralda Sullivan, and Sherna Gluck and Mary Shepardson, “Sylvie Grace Thompson Thygeson: In the Parlor,” The Suffragists: From Tea Parties to Prison, Berkeley: Univ. of Calif., 1975; Directory of Palo Alto, Mayfield, Stanford Univ., Ravenswood, and East Palo Alto, Palo Alto: Willis Hall, 1925; New York, New York Passenger and Crew Lists, 1909, 1925-1957, S. S. Majestic sailing from Cherbourg, May 2, 1928; Obituary, Mary Ellen Thompson, Los Angeles Times, May 13, 1946, p. 8; California Death Index.

Obscure Unitarians: historian Frank Golder

A historian, Frank Alfred Golder was born near Odessa, Russia, on Aug. 11, 1877, and emigrated to the United States about 1880. He attended schools in New Jersey and Kentucky, and attended Bucknell Univ., from which he graduated in 1898. He then taught for three years in a government school in Alaska, where he collected Aleut songs and stories which he published in the Journal of American Folklore. He went to Harvard Univ. in 1902, received his A.B. in 1903, then did graduate study relating to Alaska, receiving his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1909. He taught briefly at Boston Univ. and the Univ. of Chicago before joining the faculty of the State College of Washington in Pullman, Wash.

His dissertation was published in 1914 under the title Russian Expansion on the Pacific, 1641-1850. He was studying in Russia in 1914, and on Aug. 2 saw the Tsar address an excited crowd in front of the Winter Palace, telling the nation that they were at war. He returned to the United States by way of Siberia, and resumed teaching in Pullman. But he returned to Russia in 1917, sailing from Seattle to Petrograd, arriving on March 4, less than two weeks before the Tsar was overthrown. He remained in Russia through August, working in the archives on material relating to Russian expansion on the Pacific Coast of North America, but he also witnessed the July uprising in the capital city of Russia; he also traveled in Russia between Vladivostok and Petrograd, and in European Russia as well. The notes during 1917 he took helped him write The Russian Revolution and the Jugo-Slav Movement, published in 1918; his work in the archives studying the Russian presence in North America led to the book Bering’s Voyages (vol. 1, 1922; vol. 2, 1925).

In 1920, he returned to Russia, and did relief work there under the auspices of Herbert Hoover’s American Relief Administration; this work led to the book On the Trail of the Russian Famine (coauthor Lincoln Hutchinson, 1927).

In 1923, he went to the Hoover War Library, Stanford Univ., where he was both professor of history and one of the directors of the library. He visited Russia again in 1925 and 1927.

He joined the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto in 1924, and was listed in the 1926 “List of Resident Members.” He died Jan 7, 1929, in Santa Clara County, Calif.

Notes: 1920 U.S. Census; Passport application, Frank Golder, Aug. 23, 1920 (no. 84075); H. H. Fisher, “Frank Alfred Golder,” Journal of Modern History, June, 1929, pp. 253-255; California Death Index.

A new history of Universalism

A blog post by historian John Fea alerted me to a new history of Christian universalism by Prof. Michael McClymond, The Devil’s Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism, and pointed me to an essay by McClymond that summarizes some of the book’s arguments. I turned to this essay with high hopes, because I would love to see a scholarly history of both organized universalism, and universalist theology.

And indeed, in the essay, McClymond makes what I think is an important argument: “Twenty-first-century Christian universalism may be interpreted as a form of [a] religion of humanity, minimizing humanity’s ineradicable spiritual divisions and annexing the biblical God to a secular affirmation of total human solidarity…. Universalism admits that the first-century Jesus was crucified, but it insists that the twenty-first-century Jesus will be crowned by the crowd. Universalism is the Gospel narrative frozen at the moment of the triumphal entry, when everyone stands in solidarity applauding Jesus.” In other words, Universalism is linked to rationalism, and more specifically to a rationalist interpretation of Biblical texts that selectively ignores any texts that disprove the idea of universal salvation.

Also of great interest to me was the way McClymond traces recent belief in universal salvation through twentieth century theologians such as Karl Barth, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Jurgen Moltmann, up into twenty first century authors David Hart and and Richard Rohr. McClymond doesn’t mention my favorite twenty first century Quaker Universalists, Philip Gulley and James Mulholland — but why should he? — they are marginal figures at best, especially compared to Richard Rohr who, according the McClymond, hobnobs with Oprah and Bono.

So far, so good.

But even though McClymond has an important argument to make, his essay reads more like an apologetic for traditional “limitarian” theology, rather than careful history. Indeed, I’d say his history comes across as slapdash. For example, his essay includes several inaccuracies just in the first two sentences:

“Not until the nineteenth century did any Christian body make universal salvation its official teaching. The first to do so, the Universalist Church, later merged with another to form the Unitarian Universalist Association.”

Organized Universalism dates to the late eighteenth century: the General Conference of Universalists was organized in 1793 (according to David Bumbaugh, former professor of history at Meadville Lombard Theological School). And New England Universalists organized themselves as early at 1785, so there is an argument to be made that organized Universalism in North American began in that year. The General Conference changed its name to the Universalist Church of America in 1942, less than twenty years before it consolidated (not merged; there is a legal difference) with the American Unitarian Association.

Elhanan Winchester (1751-1797) was one of the founders of the General Conference of Universalists.

Minor details, but not unimportant details. Universalism did not originally call itself a “Church,” but rather named itself a “General Conference.” Theologically, this was consistent with Universalists’ emphasis on what historian Stephen Marini calls “Gospel liberty,” which in turn is important because there were multiple theologies of universal salvation among eighteenth and nineteenth century Universalists. Compare Hosea Ballou, Elhanan Winchester, John Murray, and James Relly, all active in the eighteenth century, and you will find diverse universalisms: trinitarian and unitarian, ultra-universalism (the belief that the soul goes immediately to heaven upon dying) and restorationism (the belief in punishment after death, but not for all eternity), and many other diversities of belief. This internal diversity in organized Universalism could actually strengthen McClymond’s argument that Universalism depended on rationalism, for each of these universalisms was argued on the basis that God gave humans rationality and expected them to use it to find out answers for themselves; thus these organized Universalists of the General Conference of Universalists placed rationality at least on a par with scriptural authority, and it could be argued that some of them placed rationality as superior to scriptural evidence.

There is even more theological diversity once you get outside the General Conference of Universalists, especially once you get into the twentieth century; by the mid twentieth century, the real strength of Universalism lay outside that denomination. The Great Depression caused the Universalist General Conference to shrink rapidly; changing the name to Universalist Church of America in 1942 was what we’d call today a rebranding effort, but rebranding didn’t work; according to some old Universalists I knew, the Universalists didn’t consolidate with the Unitarians, they were taken over by them; and perhaps a misinterpretation of these historical facts is why McClymond makes this unhistorical pronouncement: “Once human reasoning had deconstructed the divine mysteries of election and eschaton, it applied its tender mercies to the Trinity and Incarnation as well…. No election, no hell, no atonement, no divine Son, no divine Spirit, and no Trinity — all that remained was moral uplift and human solidarity, or, as one wit put it, the Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of Man, and the Neighborhood of Boston.” Oops: that last epigram was directed at the Unitarians, not the Universalists. But it’s simply wrong to conflate the Universalists and the Unitarians: Bob Needham, an old-time Universalist I once knew, is probably turning over in his grave to hear McClymond conflate Universalism and Unitarianism, for that kind of sloppy thinking infuriated him.

In truth, at the time of consolidation in 1961, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) retained very little of Universalism, and retained less and less as the years went by. By the twenty first century century, there are very few actual Universalists within the UUA, and the real strength of universalism lies outside the UUA — and also outside the Primitive Baptist Universalists (PBUs), the other main denominational home of the doctrine of universal salvation in North America. Today, Universalism is barely a footnote within the UUA; and the UUA and the PBUs are barely footnotes in the religious life of the United States.

Judith Sargent Murray published a Universalist catechism in 1782, which taught a “triune God.”

I still want a good solid history of universalism (small “u,” i.e., not restricted to the General Conference of Universalists and its successor bodies) that extends from at least the eighteenth century up through the present day. I’d like to see both an intellectual history, and a social history. I’d like to see a history that recognizes the diversity of beliefs within universal salvation — and there’s a great deal of diversity amongst Judith Sargent Murray, Karl Barth, Gulley and Mulholland, the Primitive Baptist Universalists, Richard Rohr, and Jurgen Moltmann. I’d like to see a history that pays careful attention to facts, even seemingly insignificant ones. Sadly, I don’t think I’m going to get any of that from McClymond’s book. And I’m not willing to pay ninety bucks to buy his book to find out.

Oh well.

Any other scholars out there interested in writing a history of the doctrine of universal salvation?

Update, Nov. 13: revised captions and added parenthetical note defining ultra-Universalism; numerous minor edits for clarity.

Tracing Nathan Johnson in Census Records

Nathan Johnson was an African American who is best known for welcoming Frederick Douglass into his house on Douglass’s first night of freedom in New Bedford, Mass. In the late 1830s, Johnson was a member of the Universalist church in New Bedford, then served by the staunchly abolitionist minister John Murray Spear.

A few years ago, I wrote a brief biography of Nathan Johnson. Since then, online searching of federal and state census records has gotten much easier, and I easily tracked Johnson in Massachusetts through three U.S. Censuses. Of greater interest, I believe I have found him in the 1852 California census.

First, here are the U.S. Census records from Johnson’s time in New Bedford (note that links will require you to sign in to FamilySearch.org to view the photos of the census records):

1830 U.S. Census [see image 71 of 102]: Nathan Johnson listed as head of household; only white persons are enumerated in the census, and no one is enumerated in Nathan Johnson’s household, leading to the conclusion that he is black. Most probably our Nathan Johnson; I could find no other Nathan Johnson listed living in New Bedford.

1840 U.S. Census [see image 43 of 204]: Nathan Johnson, head of household; in the household were on black male between 10 and 24 years old, one black male between 33 and 55 [probably Johnson himself], 3 black females between 10 and 24, 1 black female between 24 and 33, 2 black females between 33 and 55, and one black female over 55. This corresponds well enough with what we know of Johnson’s household. Most probably our Nathan Johnson; I could find no other Nathan Johnson listed living in New Bedford.

1850 U.S. Census [see image 111 of 388]: Although I believe that Nathan was in California by 1850, his wife, Mary “Polly” Johnson may have expected him to return soon, and so reported him to the census taker. The household is listed as follows: Nathan Johnston [sic], 54 year old male, black, occupation “Waiter,” owning real estate valued at $15,500, born in Penna.; Mary J. Johnston, 60 year old female, black, born in Mass.; Charlotte A. Page, 10 year old female, black, born in Mass.; Clarissa Brown, 14 year old female, black, born in Ohio; Emily Brown, 75 year old female, black, born in Penna.; George Page, 17 year old male, black, occupation laborer, born in Mass. Probably our Nathan Johnson; I could find no other Nathan Johnson listed living in New Bedford.

Next, the 1852 California census:

An N. Johnson is listed as living in Yuba, Calif, age 57, born in Penna. In consulting other records, I had tentatively placed Nathan Johnson in Yuba City, so this could possibly be our Nathan Johnson. (No image of the census records available.) This was the only record I could find that matched our Nathan Johnson in California. Update on 8/29: Lisa deGruyter, who commented below, sent me the image of the 1852 California census, and reveals that this N. Johnson was white, probably age 36 (the handwriting is hard to read), born in Germany, and last lived in Louisiana — clearly not our Nathan Johnson.

Further update on 8/30: Lisa deGruyter has found our Nathan Johnson in the 1852 California census. He is listed as N. Johnston, age 54, black, occupation Miner, born Penna., last residence Mass., currently living in Yuba County.

Screenshot of the 1852 California Census; Nathan Johnson is on the first line.

And I was unable to find any further U.S. Census records of Nathan Johnson living in Massachusetts or California. Update on 8/29: Lisa deGruyter found a Nathan Johnson listed in the 1855 Massachusetts census as living in New Bedford, with occupation given as “Cal.” (in quotation marks), which, as Lisa points out, could mean that Nathan was working in California; listed as a black male, age 55, with Mary Johnson living with him; his birthplace Penna. This is almost assuredly our Nathan Johnson, and reveals that Polly still thought of his removal to California as in some sense temporary.

The most interesting bit of information is the 1852 California Census, which seems to confirm Johnson’s presence in Yuba. The most interesting piece of information is finding Nathan Johnson listed in the 1852 California Census as a miner in Yuba County. But where he was in California from 1852 to 1873 remains a mystery. Lisa deGruyter found a little more information in a National Park Service Research Report “California Pioneers of African Descent,” available here.

Nathan Johnson returned to Massachusetts after his wife’s death, in 1873. His gravestone in Oak Grove Cemetery in New Bedford states that he died Oct. 11, 1880, “aged 85 years,” with the legend “Freedom for all Mankind.” The death records for the City of New Bedford list his birthplace as Virginia, and it is possible that prior to the Civil War he gave a free state as his birthplace because he had emancipated himself from slavery.

Obscure Unitarians: The Mortons

The Morton family included two generations of Palo Alto Unitarians. Katherine Kent Morton Carruth was the daughter of Howard and Jessie Wellington Morton, all of Kansas; Katherine married Prof. William Herbert Carruth of the Univ. of Kansas. Then Carruth, a nationally-known poet, took a teaching position at Stanford in 1913. Jessie and Howard followed, probably coming to live in Palo Alto after 1915 (they were not listed in a Palo Alto city directory of that year), but before the 1920 U.S. Census. As usual, it is more difficult to find biographical information for women of this era, but I was able to find a fair amount of detail about both Howard and William.

MORTON, HOWARD— He was born Oct. 24, 1836, in Plymouth, Mass., to Ichabod, a merchant, and Betsey Morton. In 1855, Howard was a student and living with his parents. In 1860, he was still living in Plymouth with his parents and two brothers, now working as a gardener. His father died in May, 1861, and Howard enlisted in the 30th Mass. Infantry on Dec. 10, 1861. He served in the Civil War in Mississippi and Alabama, and was mustered out on Sept. 23, 1865. Not long thereafter he moved to Kansas.

In 1868, Howard Morton participated in the Arickaree, or Beecher Island fight: “The battle of Beecher Island was fought on the 17th of September, 1868, and lasted nine days. Fifty-one scouts from Lincoln and Ottawa counties, Kansas, just over the line in Colorado, stood off [the Indians]” (Kansas State Hist. Soc., 1913). In a typescript passed down in his family, Howard recalled:

“Suddenly the valley and hillside were covered with mounted Indians, charging us at full speed. The little sandy island, so near, seemed our only refuge, so we hurried across, tied our horses and mules to the trees, threw ourselves in the sand, and began to fight for our lives….The Indians were all around and making it hot for us….Our horses were staggering and falling, and we were doing our best to keep the Indians on horseback from charging over us. The chiefs tried several times to lead their men onto the island, but when they came near, our fire was too hot for them, and they broke and rode around us. And so it went on through the long day and until after dark, when they drew off for the night….The fight virtually ended the first day, although they appeared early the next morning, and for several days fired at us occasionally from the hills.”

At night, they sent two men to get assistance from Fort Wallace, a hundred miles away. The embattled scouts lived for nine days on horse and mule meat, until a company of African American soldiers under the command of Col. Carpenter relieved them. Howard’s military pension record mentioned both his Civil War service, and his service with the U.S. Army Scouts.

In 1870, Howard was a farmer in Trippville, Ottawa County, Kan. Ottawa County was considered “one of the best counties in Central and Western Kansas, having a rich soil, desirable location, being most admirably watered, and possessing a good supply of timber.” He lived next door to, or near, the Wellington family. (Trippville’s name was changed to Culver in 1879, to commemorate one of the scouts who fought at the Battle of Beecher Island.)

Howard married Jessie Kent Wellington (b. June, 1854, New York) on Feb. 14, 1872, in Tescott, Kansas, the next town west of Trippville along the Saline River. They had nine children, all born in Kansas: Mary E. (b. March, 1873); Helen (b. Sept., 1874); Katherine K. Carruth (q.v.; b. April, 1876); Howard H. (b. c. 1878); Nathaniel H. (b. April, 1881); Jessie K. (b. Dec., 1883); Charlotte A. (b. Nov., 1885); Ruth W. (b. March, 1889); and Lucie W. (b. May, 1884).

In 1898, he wrote: “I have lived in Kansas thirty-two years; I have twenty old apple trees and 400 set two years ago…. My orchard is in a bottom with a north slope….” In 1900, he wrote that he did not recommend growing apricots, since his trees “never bore a full crop” and were troubled with frost and curculio.

By 1900, Howard, Jessie, and seven of their children were living in Henry and Morton Townships, Ottawa County, Kansas, where Howard was a farmer. In 1910, they all continued to live there: Howard was still a farmer, Katherine was a teacher in the primary schools, Jessie K. and Charlotte A. were college instructors, Nathaniel was a student at the university, and Jessie W., Mary E., Ruth W., and Lucy W. with no occupation listed.

By 1920, Howard, Jessie, and their daughter Mary were living in Palo Alto. They all reported their occupation as “none.”

He was a member of the Unitarian Society of Palo Alto. Rev. Elmo A. Robinson, in the 1925 annual report, reported his death: “Howard Morton, in whose memories were mingled the old time shipping scenes of Puritan Cape Cod and the stirring strifes of pioneer Kansas.”

Howard died Feb. 7, 1925.

Notes: 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920 U.S. Census; 1855, 1865 Massachusetts Census; United States General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934; 18th Biennial Report of the Kansas State Historical Society, Topeka, Kansas, 1913, p. 4; “My Civil War Experiences” and “Battle of Beecher Island,” typescripts from an online genealogy, www.familysearch.org/tree/person/memories/L75M-WN3, accessed 16 Aug. 2019; William G. Cutler, History of the State of Kansas, Chicago: A. T. Andreas, 1883.; Kansas Horticultural Society, The Apple…How To Grow It…, Topeka, Kansas, 1898, p. 86; Kansas Horticultural Society, The Cherry in Kansas, with a Chapter on the Apricot and Nectarine, 1900, p. 116; Veteran’s Administration pension payment cards, 1907-1933, Morton, Caroline-Mory, Henry C. (NARA Series M850, Roll 1616).

MORTON, JESSIE KENT WELLINGTON— She was born June 7, 1854, in New York, daughter of Oliver and Charlotte Wellington. By 1860, she was living in Boston with her parents and two siblings. In 1870, the family was living in Trippville (later Culver), Kansas.

She married Howard Morton (q.v.) on Feb. 14, 1872, in Tescott, Kansas. They had nine children, all born in Kansas: Mary E. (b. March, 1873); Helen (b. Sept., 1874); Katherine K. Carruth (q.v.; b. April, 1876); Howard H. (b. c. 1878); Nathaniel H. (b. April, 1881); Jessie K. (b. Dec., 1883); Charlotte A. (b. Nov., 1885); Ruth W. (b. March, 1889); and Lucie W. (b. May, 1884). Howard was a farmer.

By 1920, she and Howard were living in Palo Alto with their daughter Mary.

She was a member of the Women’s Alliance of the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto in the early 1920s.

After Howard’s death in 1925, she applied for a Civil War widow’s pension. She died April 9, 1936, in Palo Alto.

Her memoir, titled Adventure Ahead, was compiled and published in 1995 by her granddaughter, Jessie Morton Alford Kunkle. I have been unable to find a copy, and suspect it was issued in a small print run.

Notes: 1869, 1870, 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920 U.S. Census; 1855, 1865 Massachusetts Census; United States General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934.

CARRUTH, KATHERINE KENT MORTON— A schoolteacher, she was born in April 21, 1876, in Tescott, Kansas, daughter of Howard (q.v.) and Jessie (q.v.) Morton. By 1898, her father, a farmer, had an orchard with over 400 apple trees. By 1900, she lived with her aunt and uncle, Thomas and Mary Sears, near Lawrence, Kansas, while attending school; Tom Sears and Howard Morton had homesteaded in Kansas in the spring of 1866, helping to found the town of Tescott.

Katherine hoped to be a concert pianist, and practiced 8 to 10 hours daily. However, she became a school teacher to supplement the family’s income. She was teaching in the public schools of Lawrence, Kansas, in 1909 when she became engaged to be married to William Herbert Carruth. She married Carruth on June 12, 1910, in her parents’ home in Tescott. The officiant was Rev. Frederick Marsh Bennett, minister of the Unitarian church in Lawrence. They had a daughter, Katharine (b. Dec. 2, 1911), known as Trena.

When the Carruths moved to Palo Alto, Katherine was active in the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto. She taught the “sub-primary” (i.e., kindergarten and younger) grade in the Sunday school, 1925-1926.

She was included on a list of Unitarians to contact in 1947 when a new Unitarian congregation was being formed; next to her name on this list is the notation: “too elderly to take part, is sorry.”

She continued to live in Palo Alto until about 1970, when she moved to a convalescent hospital in Santa Cruz. She died January 11, 1973, in Santa Cruz.

Notes: 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920 U.S. Census; Kansas Horticultural Society, The Apple…How To Grow It…, Topeka, Kansas, 1898, p. 86; Harrison Monell Sayre, Descendants of Deacon Ephraim Sayre, Edwards Brothers, 1942, p. 8; Obituary, Palo Alto Times, Jan. 11, 1973; Jeffersonian Gazette, Lawrence, Kansas, Dec. 8, 1909, p. 8; Graduate Magazine of the University of Kansas, June, 1910, p. 341; Salina [Kansas] Evening Journal, June 10, 1910, p. 2; Graduate Magazine of the University of Kansas, Dec., 1911, p. 114; Margaret R. O’Leary and Dennis S. O’Leary, R. D. O’Leary (1866-1936): Notes from Mount Oread, 1914-1915, Bloomington, Ind.: iUniverse, 2015, ch. 6 n.1; “Names from 1947 Project,” typescript in archives of Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto; California Death Index.

CARRUTH, WILLIAM HERBERT— A poet and a professor who taught German, writing, and comparative literature, he was born April 5, 1859, on a farm near Osawatomie, Kansas. His father was a clergyman and botanist. As a child, he “distinguished himself in the Presbyterian Sunday school by repeating without mistake an amazingly large number of Bible verses.” But he left Presbyterianism for Unitarianism early in life.

William graduated from the University of Kansas in 1880. He married Frances Schlegel of Boston in June, 1882, and they had a daughter, Constance.

William received his A.M. from Harvard in 1889, and his Ph.D. in 1893. He also studied at Berlin and Munich. He was professor of German at the University of Kansas from 1880 till he went to Stanford. Frances was professor of modern languages at Univ. of Kansas until her death in 1908.

He was also involved in the eugenics movement. The opening paragraph of an address he gave at the University of Kansas on May 8, 1913, shows that he offered the usual rationale for eugenics:

“Long before the alarmed cry of Theodore Roosevelt against ‘race suicide’ called public attention in America to this subject, thoughtful students had begun to point out appalling tendencies toward degeneracy in the breeding of civilised [sic] nations. In so far as the warning against ‘race suicide’ was merely an indiscriminate appeal for more children, a revival of the Biblical admonition to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ without forethought and safeguards, it was only a blind summons to more ‘race suicide.’ What the world needs is not indiscriminately more children, but more children from the best stock and fewer from the worst stock.”

William was an active Unitarian, both locally and nationally. He was a member of the Unitarian church in Lawrence, Kansas. He served as a director of the American Unitarian Assoc. from 1906 to 1909; subsequently he served as the national president of the Unitarian Laymen’s League. In the early 1920s, he was a trustee of the Pacific Unitarian Conference, and a trustee of the Pacific Unitarian School for Ministry.

After Frances died, William married Katharine Kent Morton (q.v.) on June 12, 1910. They had a daughter, Katharine (b. Dec. 2, 1911).  William accepted a position at Stanford in 1913, and the family moved to California.

During his lifetime, William was a well-known poet. His best-known poem, widely anthologized in its day, was “Each in His Own Tongue,” first published in 1888 in The New England Magazine. This was the title poem of his 1908 book Each in His Own Tongue. At Stanford, he was professor of comparative literature, and also taught classes in writing poetry. In 1923, John Steinbeck was in his writing class. Edward Strong, who was in the same class, recalled:

“We … competed against each other in our writing of poetry to see who would receive the better grade from Professor Carruth. When we got our grades, John got an A, and I received a B+. I said to John, ‘Now look, you’ve read my poetry and I’ve read your poetry. Do you think your poetry was any better than mine?’ He said no. Then I said, ‘Well, can you explain, then, why you have received an A from Professor Carruth and I’ve received only a B+?’ He said, ‘Because you didn’t dwell in your poetry on the theme that would win an A from Professor Carruth.’ I said, ‘Theme?’ He said, ‘Professor Carruth has been strong on one theme. Some call it evolution, and some call it God [a line from Carruth’s best-known poem]. I wrote about God. I got the A.’”

William was an active member of the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto, serving most notably as president of the Board of Trustees. He also preached there upon occasion.

Towards the end of his life, he taught a course on “Religion of the Great Poets” at the Pacific Unitarian School of Religion. One of his students there, Julia Budlong, recalled him as being “tall… and sinewy, and dry-looking, like his humor,— inclined to be absent-minded and inattentive.” Budlong also recalled him driving her in his open automobile on a wild ride from the Unitarian church to his house on Stanford’s campus, with the speedometer at fifty miles an hour the whole way.

He died Dec. 15, 1924.

Notes: George W. Martin, ed., Collections of the Kansas State Historical Society, 1911-1912, Topeka, Kansas: State Printing Office, 1912, p. 87 n.; National Cyclopedia of American Biography, New York: James T. White, 1910; Eugenics: Twelve University Lectures, New York: Dodd, Mead, & Co., 1914, p. 272; Edward W. Strong, “Philosopher, Professor, and Berkeley Chancellor, 1961-1965,” 1988 interview with Harriet Nathan, Regional Oral History Office, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1992, www.oac.cdlib.org/view?docId=kt8f59n9j3&query=&brand=oac4 accessed Oct. 12, 2013; Graduate Magazine of the University of Kansas, 1913, p. 14; Graduate Magazine of the University of Kansas, Nov., 1906, p. 66; Stanford University, Annual Report of the President for the Thirty-third Academic Year, Stanford Univ., 1925; Graduate Magazine of the University of Kansas, Dec., 1911, p. 114; Pacific Unitarian, vol. 35, no. 3, March, 1925, pp. 44-46.