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.

A new Unitarian church in Palo Alto, 1947

Alfred Salem Niles (1894-1974), professor of aeronautic engineering at Stanford [note 1], helped start the present church — then Unitarian, now Unitarian Universalist — after the Second World War. In 1958, he wrote this detailed memoir of how our present church began. Since he was one of the few people to attend both Unitarian churches in Palo Alto, his memoir helps connect those of us in the present-day church with the early Palo Alto Unitarians.

I am publishing only the 500 words of this 11,000 word essay here. The complete essay will soon be available in print form at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto.

The Spring of 1947

In 1927 when the writer came to Palo Alto, the old Unitarian Church at Cowper St. and Charming Avenue was still functioning, but rather feebly. The minister was a woman who later gained considerable notoriety as a fellow-traveler, though her proclivities along that line were not yet apparent [note 2]. There was no Sunday School that I know of, and attendance at the morning services was small. In earlier years the church had been much more active, but 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. Another thing which I think was an important obstacle to recovery was the quality of the pews in the old building. They were the most uncomfortable ones that I have ever encountered. Since mortification of the flesh does not appeal to Unitarians as a technique of salvation, those seats must have discouraged many possible members. Morning attendance got so small that we tried having services in the evening. But that did not help. Our woman minister resigned, and for a while we had a student from the Starr King School preach to us. Finally, about 1929, services were discontinued, and after a few years the church organization was dissolved, the church building returned to the American Unitarian Association, (3) which sold it to a Fundamentalist group for about $230 less than the mortgage, and there was no more organized Unitarianism in Palo Alto for several years.

During the 1930s the Chaplain at Stanford was Dr. D. Elton Trueblood, a Friend [i.e., a Quaker] with quite liberal views and an excellent speaker. Many Unitarians got into the habit of attending services at the Stanford Church as a result. But he resigned and was succeeded by more orthodox men, and most of the Unitarians in town lost the church-going habit. One result of this was that quite a few of us, although well acquainted with each other, did not realize that we were fellow-Unitarians. The writer can testify to his own surprise, in 1947, to find that the head and one of the professors of his department at Stanford were also Unitarians. We just had never discussed religion with each other.

In the autumn of 1946, Rev. Delos 0’Brian came to San Francisco to be the American Unitarian Association (A.U.A.) Regional Director for the West Coast, with the objective of reviving some of the dormant Unitarian churches and organizing new ones in favorable locations. I was then a member of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, and noticed an item about Mr. O’Brian’s activity in the Christian Register for November 1946. It was not until some time in February 1947, however, that I went to see him at his office at the corner of Sutter and Stockton Sts. It was about noon when I got there, so we went across the street to the Piccadilly Inn to have lunch and talk about the possibility of starting something in Palo Alto. He had the names of about a dozen members of the Church of the Larger Fellowship in Palo Alto, and a similar number in San Mateo, but had not yet made many contacts with those in either group, and was undecided as to which one to start and I think it was my visit which caused him to decide to start with Palo Alto, and that the revival of the Palo Alto Church started at that meeting….

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