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.

Obscure Unitarians: Eliza Corbett Thompson Stebbins

Eliza (Elsie) Corbett Thompson Stebbins was born in England on April 6, 1879, and emigrated to the United States in 1884. She attended the University of California at Berkeley c. 1898-1901, but she does not appear to have graduated. In 1900, she gave her occupation as “Teacher of Music,” and lived in a boarding house in Oakland.

She married Horatio Ward Stebbins in Santa Barbara on February 14, 1906; Horatio was the son of Rev. Horatio Ward Stebbins, long-time minister of the Unitarian church in San Francisco. The younger Horatio, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, taught mechanical engineering at Stanford University. Presumably the younger Horatio was also affiliated with the Unitarian church, though the extant documents do not mention him. Elsie and Horatio had one child, Amelia “Amy” Adams Stebbins (b. June 11, 1912).

Elsie served on the Board of Trustees of the Unitarian Church in Palo Alto beginning in 1916.

She died May 25, 1968, in San Mateo.

Notes: 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930 U.S. Census; University of California Reg-ister, 1898, 1901; “Marriages,” Christian Register, March 1, 1906, p. 249; Eliza “Elsie” Corbett Thompson, “The New England Mathers,” https://wc.rootsweb.com/cgi-bin/igm.cgi?op=GET&db=mikemather63&id =I147333 accessed 11 September 2018); Bulletin of the Massachusetts In-stitute of Technology, Boston: Register of Former Students (Boston, Mass.: May, 1915), p. 470; California Death Index, 1940-1997, Department of Public Health Services, Sacramento.

Obscure Unitarians: “Mr. Wolff”

A “Mr. Wolff” served on the Committee of Ushers of the old Unitarian Church in Palo Alto in 1908. Who was this man, mentioned only once in the extant records of that long-defunct church?

A likely candidate is Franklin Fowler Wolff. The son of a Methodist minister, he was born in Pasadena in 1887, and rejected orthodox Christianity while he was in his teens. He studied mathematics, psychology, and philosophy at Stanford University, and received his A.B. in mathematics in 1911. He then did graduate study in philosophy at both Stanford and Harvard, returning to Stanford in 1914 to teach mathematics. But after only a year, he left academia to pursue his own studies, and changed his name to Franklin Merrell-Wolff. He eventually became known as a spiritual teacher, a mystic, and a writer.

This identification of “Mr. Wolff” should be considered tentative. Another possible “Mr. Wolff” is Marcus Wolff, who received his A.B. in economics from Stanford in 1906; however, he appears to have been living in San Francisco in 1908.

But if Franklin Merrell-Wolff did indeed attend a Unitarian Church while an undergraduate at Stanford, barely out of his teens, it would not surprise me — the Emersonian philosophy that underlies much of Unitarian theology could have had a distinct appeal to a developing mystic.

Notes: Ron Leonard, The Transcendental Philosophy of Franklin Merrell-Wolff (Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 1999).

Obscure Unitarians: Alice Locke

A writer, feminist, and pacifist, Alice Elizabeth Locke Parke was born Feb. 2, 1861, in Boston, Mass.; her father, John Locke, a lawyer, was from New Hampshire and her mother Harriet was from Nantucket.

She graduated from Rhode Island Normal School in 1879. She taught in the public schools in Cumberland, Smithfield, and North Kingstown, R.I., in 1880-1882.

She married Dean W. Park, Sept. 27, 1884, and they had two children, Carl J. (b. Oct. 13, 1885, Colo.) and Harriet (b. Feb. 7, 1887, Colo.). Dean was a mining engineer and graduate of M.I.T., and the family lived in a number of places, including Montana, Colorado, Mexico, and Texas, following his jobs. Alice moved to Palo Alto in 1906 while her children were attending Stanford Univ.; Dean died in Palo Alto May, 1909, in a bicycle accident.

In 1910, Alice gave her occupation as “writer” for “papers, etc.” She was active with the California Equal Suffrage Assoc., and participated in the successful 1911 campaign for women’s suffrage in California. Subsequently, she continued to be active in suffrage work outside of California.

She was branded as a “subversive” by the New York State Legislature, which noted that she belonged to the National Women’s Suffrage Party, and branded her a “sympathizer” of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). In 1912, she wrote a letter to the editor of Pacific Unitarian in support of the IWW.

She later said that she could not remember when she became a pacifist, and called it a family tradition. She opposed the Spanish-American War, and displayed a peace flag on her house during the First World War. She helped form the Palo Alto branch of the Women’s Peace Party (WPP); Jessie Knight Jordan, wife of David Starr Jordan, the president of Stanford University, was also involved with the WPP. In 1915, she went to Europe on the Ford Peace Mission. With the entrance of the U.S. into the war in 1917, the Palo Alto branch of the WPP disbanded; Park then joined the American Union Against Militarism, and began holding meetings of the Palo Alto branch in her house beginning April 16, 1917; and when the Palo Alto branch publicly supported conscientious objectors, she was threatened with arrest.

She went to meetings of the People’s Council in San Francisco (of which Rev. William Short, formerly minister of the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto, was an officer); she was presiding at a meeting in August, 1917, with David Starr Jordan on the speaker’s platform, when the meeting was raided by police. She continued her pacifist activities throughout the war, sometimes enduring illegal searches by the police. After the war, in 1919, she planned a meeting at the Palo Alto Community House (which Edith Maddux, another Palo Alto Unitarian, helped organize) to call for the release of all political prisoners.

She was an early member of the Women’s Alliance of the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto, joining before 1910. However, she and Marion Starr Alderton withdrew from the Palo Alto church in June, 1920, in protest against “the attitude taken” by the church in the First World War.

She described her religion thus:

My religion is humanity — humanitarianism — confident that the present time is all that we are sure of and our duty, our progress and our usefulness are all here and now — If we think earnestly of the present and try to do all we can right here and now — we are at least sure of immediate results. My religion is boundless — Nothing human is alien to me. (quoted in Eichelberger; see Notes)

She died Feb. 17, 1961, just after her hundredth birthday.

Notes:

Notes: 1900, 1910, 1920 U.S. Census; Birth, Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts, United States, town clerk office, FHL microfilm 592,869; Thomas W. Bicknell, A History of the Rhode Island Normal School, 1911; “School Officers and Teachers in Public Schools, 1880-1881,” Twelfth Annual Report of the Board of Education…of Rhode Island, Providence, R.I.: E. L. Freeman & Co., 1882, p. 9; “School Officers and Teachers in Public Schools, 1881-1882,” Thirteenth Annual Report of the Board of Education…of Rhode Island, Providence, R.I.: E. L. Freeman & Co., 1883, p. 9; Class of 1884 M.I.T.: 25th Anniversary Book, Boston, 1909, p. 114; “Dean W. Park” obituary, The Mining World, Chicago: Mining World Co., May 22, 1909, p. 991; Eunice Eichelberger, “‘Hearts Brimming with Patriotism,’” ed. Robert W. Cherny, California Women and Politics: From the Gold Rush to the Great Depression, Univ. Neb. Press, 2011, pp. 321-332; Pacific Unitarian, July, 1912, pp. 271-272; “The Ford Peace Party,” Revolutionary and Subversive Movements Abroad and at Home, Albany: N.Y. Legislature, 1920, p. 98 (for the meeting of the People’s Council that was raided, see also San Francisco Daily Call, Aug. 9, 1917); Board of Trustees minutes, archives of the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto; Nancy L. Roberts, American Peace Writers, Editors, and Periodicals: A Dictionary, Greenwood Press, 1991, p. 216.

Park deserves additional research (though such research lies outside the scope of my current research interests). Sources for further research include the Alice Park papers at the Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif. (mssPK 1-338), and the Register of the Alice Park Papers 1883-1951 at the Hoover Institution, Stanford Univ. There is a Masters thesis on her, written by Paige G. Greenfeld: Yours for Women and Peace: The Feminism of Alice Locke Park, San Diego State University, 2003.

Obscure Unitarians: Bertha Chapman Cady

A writer, biologist, and sexuality educator, she was born July, 5, 1873, in California. There she knew John Muir, and went hiking with him in the Sierra Nevada mountains. She received her A.B. in English from Stanford University in 1895, and her A.M. in entomology in 1902. After graduating from Stanford, she taught high school from 1900-1907; was assistant in nature study at the Univ. of Chicago, 1907-1909; taught biology at Calif. State Teachers College in Chico in 1918; was a lecturer at Stanford 1921-1923.

She married Vernon Mosher Cady on Dec. 15, 1908, at the Abraham Lincoln Center in Chicago. The Abraham Lincoln Center was a Unitarian church and community center with permanent and transient residents; Bertha and Vernon had both lived in the Center in the summer of 1908. They were probably wed by Rev. Jenkin Lloyd Jones. They had two children: Carol (b. c. 1910) and Jean (b. c. 1913).

She was a graduate student at Stanford 1920-1922, and received her Ph.D. in entomology (at age 50) in 1923. Subsequently, she worked for the Girl Scouts as a naturalist from 1924-1936.

Bertha’s career encompassed biology and education. She and her husband co-wrote The Way Life Begins: An Introduction to Sex Education (New York: American Social Hygiene Assoc., 1917). As the Girl Scout National Naturalist, she wrote for, or wrote in their entirety, many Girl Scout publications.

While she was at Stanford earning her Ph.D., she was active with the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto. She taught the 4th and 5th grade Sunday school class at the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto in 1921-22.

She died Jan. 26, 1956.

Notes: “John Muir,” Guide to Nature, Feb., 1914, Sound Beach, Conn.: Agassiz Assoc., 1909, p. 312; Stanford University Alumni Directory, 1921; Unity, Chicago, Unity Publishing, Abraham Lincoln Center, Jan. 7, 1909, p. 293; Oakland Tribune, Dec. 9, 1908 (gives the name of the officiating clergy as “Lloyd Paul Jones”); Tiffany K. Wayne, American Women of Science Since 1900, vol. 1, Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2011, p. 275; 1920 U.S. Census; Stanford University Alumni Directory, 1931.

Obscure Unitarians: Mabel and Louise Mead

Mabel Mead lived in Palo Alto for less than a year, but her life story is interesting enough to recount in some detail. A schoolteacher for many years, she was born Dec. 30, 1870, in Ledger, New York to Louise and Alexander Mead (Greeley Daily Tribune, May 12, 1961).

She received her B.S. from Cornell in 1898 (Fifteenth Annual Register, 1905-06, Stanford University); her sister Mildred was at Cornell at the same time she was (Cornell Era, April 21, 1900, class notes, p. 257). By 1900, at the age of 29, she was a schoolteacher, living with her parents in Greeley, Colo. (1900 U.S. Census).

A short digression to tell something of her mother, Louise Mead:

Louise was born Mar., 1851, in New York. She married Alexander Mead c. 1870 in New York state. In 1880, Louise and Alexander were living in Greeley, Colo., where Alexander was an agricultural implements dealer. By 1900, Louise and Alexander were running a rooming house in Greeley, with seven children: Mabel (b. Dec., 1870, N.Y.); Edgar (b. Sept., 1872, N.Y.); Ella (Jul., 1874, N.Y.); Mildred (b. Jul., 1875, N.Y.); Worthen (b. Sept., 1880, Colo.); Alexandra (b. July, 1884, Colo.); and Wilhemina (b. Sept., 1889, Colo.) (U.S. Census, 1880, 1900; in the 1900 Census her name is misspelled Luiese). The family Moved to Greeley sometime between 1875 and 1880. Alexander Mead was a Trustee for the city of Greeley for the year 1883. A Unitarian church had formed in Greeley, Colorado, in 1880; perhaps the Meads were members. (David Boyd, A History: Greeley and the Union Colony of Colorado, Greeley Tribune Press, 1890).

The Cornell Alumni News, vol. 7, Dec. 21, 1904 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University), ran the following notice: ” ’98 B.S. The marriage of Miss Mabel Mead to R. J. Wright was celebrated at Greeley, Col., this fall. Mrs. Wright is now connected with the social settlement work in the Italian District of Denver. She has charge of the North Side neighborhood house, the centre of settlement work in the northern part of the city.” But I found no other mention of R. J. Wright, and Mabel had resumed the name Mead by 1905. Perhaps this mysterious event precipitated her removal to Stanford for a year of study?

In any case, by autumn, 1905 she was a student at Stanford, living with her mother Louise at 742 and later 750 Bryant St. (Directory of Palo Alto, Mayfield, Stanford University, Jan., 1906; Cornell Alumni News, vol. 3, no. 25, March 28, 1906). She studied Romanic Languages (Fifteenth Annual Register, 1905-06, Stanford University); however, her name does not appear in later alumni directories.

She lived in Palo Alto for less than twelve months. While living in Palo Alto, she and her mother Louise were two of the early members of the Women’s Alliance of the newly formed Unitarian church (Women’s Alliance records).

By fall, 1906, she was teaching German, Spanish, and “physical culture” at a high school in Orange, Calif. (Cornell Alumni News, Oct. 3, 1906). She married Tracy C. Marsh before 1917; they had one son, Alexander Mead Marsh who was born c. 1913 (1920 U.S. Census). After her husband died in Nevada, she moved to Sutler, Calif., where she taught school until her retirement sometime before 1935; then she moved back to Greeley, where she was “prominent in civic and club work” (Greeley Daily Tribune, May 12, 1961). Back in Greeley, she lived with Edgar, Ella, and her son (1940 U.S. Census). In 1961, at age 90, she moved to Aberdeen, Md., to live with her son (Greeley Daily Tribune, May 12, 1961). She died in Annadale, Va., Feb. 2, 1975 (Cornell Alumni News, May, 1975, p. 80).

Further research might uncover additional information about Mabel Mead Marsh. It would, for instance, be interesting to search the membership records of the Greeley Unitarian church to see if the Mead family had been members there. It might also be possible to track down records of the Denver settlement house where she worked. However, it seems unlikely that we’ll ever find out what happened with R. J. Wright, and why she decided to attend Stanford at the age of 36.

Mabel Mead Marsh

Above: Detail from a photograph in the collection of the Denver Public Library (call. no. Z-7616) showing Mabel Mead Marsh in a horse-drawn coach in Greeley, Colo., between 1890 and 1900; Mabel is at the back, right of center.

Obscure Unitarians: Mary and George Rosebrook, pioneers

Mary Frances (Greer) Rosebrook, and George H. Rosebrook, lived a pioneer life in Oregon before settling in Palo Alto in 1892. Mary Frances (known as “Fannie” at the time) traveled the Oregon Trail in 1852, when she was 6 years old, with her parents and siblings. George married Fannie in 1882, the same year he received a patent for a homestead farm in the Willamette Valley.

Here are brief biographies of Mary and George:

ROSEBROOK, MARY FRANCES GREER — Over the course of her life, she went by Frances, Fannie, and (after 1900) Mary.

She was born Jan., 1846, in Missouri; her parents, James and Margaret, were both from Ireland, where they were married in 1832. James went to the California gold fields in 1850, where he heard about Oregon; in 1852, James and Margaret took their family, including Fannie, on the Oregon Trail; a quilt that Margaret had made in 1840, and which came with them on the trail, may be seen in the book Quilts of the Oregon Trail (Mary Bywater Cross, 2007, p. 68). The family settled in Kings Valley, Ore., in Sept., 1852, and there James worked as a farmer.

“Fannie” married George H. Rosebrook on Apr. 12, 1882, in Polk, Oregon. She and George had no children together, although George had one child by a previous marriage. They moved to Palo Alto in 1892.

Mary was a member of the Palo Alto Woman’s Club. She was active in the women’s suffrage movement, and served as treasurer for the 1907 Annual Convention of the California Equal Suffrage Assoc. (Western Woman, vol. 1, no. 14, Oct. 1907 [San Francisco], p. 12).

Mary was one of the charter members of the Unity Society in 1896, a lay-led Unitarian group gathered by Rev. Eliza Tupper Wilkes, and she served on the Committee on Executive and Finance. Then in 1905, she became one of the earliest members of the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto. She joined the Women’s Alliance in about 1905. She also served in other leadership roles in the church.

She died after 1920.

 

ROSEBROOK, GEORGE H. — He was born Oct., 1846, in Gouldsboro, Maine. He married Margaret A. Graham, Sept. 9, 1874, and they had one son, Joseph Wilton (Benton County [Ore.] Genealogical Society, www.chateaudevin.org/bentongs); Joseph was born May, 1876, in Oregon. By 1880, George was widowed and living “in [a] Lighthouse” (1880 U.S. Census) in Newport, Oregon, with his son Joseph and his mother Mary A.

George was issued a patent for 150 acres of land for a homestead near Willamette, Ore., on Apr. 10, 1882 (Benton Cty. Gen. Soc.). He married Fannie (Mary Frances) Greer on Apr. 12, 1882. He and Fannie came to Palo Alto in 1892; once in Palo Alto, he became a carpenter who built a number of houses, including a house he built for himself and Mary F. in 1893, at 225 Emerson St. (Historic Buildings Inventory, City of Palo Alto, 1978).

George’s son, Joseph, also moved to Palo Alto. He attended Stanford briefly in 1897. He became a builder like his father, married a Presbyterian in 1900 (Palo Alto Times, June 22, 1900); Joseph appears never to have gotten involved with the Unitarian Church.

George’s wife Mary was part of the Unity Society of Palo Alto in 1895-1897; George may have been, too, but almost no records of that early Unitarian group survive. George was one of the early members of the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto, probably joining in 1905. He served on the Board of Trustees of the church.

He died before 1920.

Obscure Unitarians: the Rendtorff / Meyer family

Karl and Emma E. Rendtorff were two of the key leaders of the old Unitarian Church of Palo Alto (1905-1934). Emma’s mother and sister happened to be living in Palo Alto 1905-1908, and also got involved with the church. With baby Gertrude, there were thus three generations of Meyers/Rendtorffs involved with the founding of the church.

Palo Alto was a small town, with a population of 4,486 in 1910; 5,900 in 1920 (Sawyers, History of Santa Clara County, California, 1922). The town really wasn’t big enough to support a Unitarian church, and I suspect the church never got bigger than what Arlin Routhage calls “family-size” — that is, a small church that acts more like a family, with matriarchs and patriarchs. I further suspect that Karl and Emma E. Rendtorff were two of the matriarchs/patriarchs. Their extended family is of interest for this reason alone.

But their extended family is also of interest because of the characteristics they share with so many other members of the church. Karl and Emma both spoke German, and both were associated with Stanford; as was true of many members of the church. Karl was trained as a librarian, and there were at least half a dozen other librarians who were part of the congregation; he was a pacifist, and there were many other pacifists in the congregation. Emma was a woman with a college degree in an era when that was uncommon, and she was an experienced teacher; many other women in the congregation also had college degrees, and some were experienced and dedicated teachers (like her sister and daughter).

Without further introduction, here are brief biographies of the Rendtorff / Meyer family, three generations of five fascinating people who were part of the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto: Continue reading “Obscure Unitarians: the Rendtorff / Meyer family”

Obscure Unitarians: Melville B. Anderson

Melville Best Anderson was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 1851. He studied at Cornell University in 1870-72, where he was a classmate of David Starr Jordan, who became president of Stanford University.

Melville Anderson received his A.M. from Butler University in 1877, and taught there for the next three years; he was then professor at Knox College, 1881-1886; Purdue University, 1886-1887; University of Iowa, 1887-1891; and finally, professor of English at Stanford University, from 1891 until his retirement. He was a charter member of both the Unity Society and the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto. He married Charlena Van Vleck April 27, 1877; she received her A.B. at Lawrence University in 1874. They had four children: Balfour (1878-1895); Malcolm Playfair (b. 1879, A.B. Stanford ’04); Gertrude (1883-1892); Robert (1884-1949, A.B. Stanford ’06).

Anderson was a distinguished scholar best known for his translation La Divina Commedia: The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, a Line-for-Line Translation in the Rime-form of the Original (Yonkers-on-Hudson, N.Y., World Book Co., 1921). He became friends with Ewald Flügel in 1891, while staying in Leipzig. Flugel joined the faculty of Stanford partly through the good offices of Anderson; and Flugel was another one of the early members of the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto. Unfortunately their differing viewpoints on the First World War put a damper on their friendship; Flügel was a pacifist, while as early as 1916, Anderson advocated for the entry of the United States into the First World War in a long self-published poem; one stanza will suffice to give a sense of the dreary whole:

Since men first gathered into clans
    Was peril never yet so sharp;
    Loud would I smite the chorded harp:
    Awake! awake! Americans…

The Stanford Daily, vol. 49, no. 48, Nov. 2, 1916, p. 3, said: “The poem, which is a denunciation of the apparent apathy of Americans in regard to the issues of the great war, was dedicated to David Starr Jordan, and written during Anderson’s stay in Florence, Italy, where he has been translating in triple rhyme ‘The Divine Comedy’ of Dante.”

Anderson died on June 22, 1933.