Family tree for Unitarian Universalism

Drew asked about a “family tree” for the Unitarian Universalism, and as it happens I had drawn one back in 2003, so I revised it and sent it to him. It might be of interest to others:

Simplified family tree of the Unitarian Universalism

This family tree is based on a revisionist interpretation of Unitarian Universalist history, and therefore some explanation is in order.

First, this family tree shows Transylvanian Unitarianism as quite separate from North American Unitarianism. This is based on my reading of Earl Morse Wilbur’s history of European Unitarianism; Wilbur dearly wanted to connect Transylvanian and North American Unitarians, but the few connections he documents may be summed up as: maybe a few English-speaking Unitarians read a few books about Transylvanian Unitarianism. When you look at the two Unitarian groups today, some of the differences are more pronounced than the vague theological similarities: the Transylvanians have bishops, their religion seems more narrowly ethnic, etc. Thus, I depict the two groups as quite separate.

I understand North American Unitarianism and Universalism as being reactions against aspects of Calvinism. Thus I show both groups as having roots in Calvinism.

North American Unitarians came in large part from the New England Standing Order churches; there wasn’t enough room to show the small but important influence of Joseph Priestley and a few other early Unitarians who brought their Unitarianism from England, rather than getting it from Boston. Thus I show the major event in the beginning of North American Unitarianism to be the split between the conservatives — people like Jonathan Edwards — and the liberals — people like Charles Chauncy, a split which took place after the Great Awakening. However, the first openly Unitarian congregation in North America was King’s Chapel; originally affiliated with the Church of England, it became Unitarian in 1785, long before any of the Standing Order churches openly declared themselves to be Unitarian.

The beginnings of North American Universalism are a little more tangled. John Murray and George DeBenneville brought their Universalist beliefs from England when they came to live in the coastal cities of the New World; that history is well known. But there’s another history, well documented by scholar Stephen Marini and others, of how Universalism also arose in central New England, often in formerly Baptist churches. Thus I show Universalism as having some roots in Baptist traditions; this is perhaps most evident in the institutional structures (or lack thereof) of early Universalism. Then too, it is important to mention John Murray’s marriage to Judith Sargent; she came from a prominent and wealthy New England family, and both her family connections and her own intelligence contributed a great deal to John’s eventual success as a Universalist standard-bearer.

By about 1825, both Unitarians and Universalists were well established in North America. But the boundaries of both denominations remained somewhat porous. In the early nineteenth century, Unitarians sometimes cooperated with the Christian Connexion denomination (not show in the family tree). In the late nineteenth century, a small group of ministers split from the Unitarians to form the Free Religious Association, and in a few cases they brought their congregations with them; some of those congregations reportedly never rejoined the Unitarian denomination (though I’ve never been able to document that myself). Then around 1900, some Icelandic Lutheran churches in the prairie provinces of Canada switched to the Unitarian denomination; at least one other formerly Lutheran church, Nora Church in Hanska, Minnesota, also joined the Unitarians.

However, Unitarian boundaries were not completely porous. When William Jackson, an African American Baptist minister, tried to join the American Unitarian Association in 1860, bringing his congregation with him, he was carefully kept out.

In Universalism, the porous boundaries become most evident in the late nineteenth century, a time when many Universalists became enamored with spiritualism. Then spiritualism became an organized religion, and some Universalists, such as minister John Murray Spear, left Universalism to become Spiritualists. But again, the boundaries of Universalism were not completely porous. A splinter group of Primitive Baptists (Baptists who, among other things, refuse to have musical instruments in church, relying instead on a capella singing) adopted Universalist beliefs, probably after having read books by Hosea Ballou, the great Universalist theologian. But there has been very little interest in exploring the commonalities between Primitive Baptist Universalists (PBU) and Universalists, or for that matter Unitarian Universalists (the PBU-UU connection between may seem more robust theologically than the connection between Transylvanian and North American Unitarians; but the class difference is far greater).

As for the racial boundaries of Universalism, they were slightly more porous than those of the Unitarians. The Universalists accepted Joseph Jordan, an African American and former Baptist minister, into fellowship and ordained him in 1889. However, the racial boundaries were not all that porous: there remained little denominational support for African American Universalists outside of a couple of congregations in Virginia, and individual Universalist congregations in the South remained explicitly segregationist up into the mid-1960s.

The late nineteenth century saw a growing number of connections between Unitarians and Universalists ; this is symbolized on the family tree by Eliza Tupper Wilkes; she was ordained a Universalist minister, but worked for both groups at different times, and founded both Universalist and Unitarian congregations. There were also strong connections between both the Unitarians and the Universalists with the Congregationalists. During the early twentieth century, there were Universalist congregations that merged into Congregationalist congregations, and both Universalist and Unitarian congregations that federated with Congregationalist congregations. Some of the federated congregations still exist; they are one congregation in real life, but on paper they also exist as two separate congregations, and when you join a federated congregation you decide if you’re joining as, e.g., a Congregationalist or a Unitarian.

In 1961, the Unitarians and the Universalists consolidated (the legal term is “consolidated,” not “merged”). This now seems inevitable to us here in North America, but groups like the Khasi Hills Unitarians in India, or the Universalist churches in the Philippines, had no corresponding group to merge with.

Finally, it is worth remembering that several features of contemporary North American Unitarian Universalism which today seem diagnostic in helping to identify who’s a Unitarian Universalist are actually recent innovations. The “seven principles,” the widespread use of the flaming chalice in worship services, the water communion service — all these grew out of the feminist revolution of the 1980s, a revolution led by people like Natalie Gulbrandsen. Feminist theology has helped drive us further away from groups like the Primitive Baptist Universalists, while driving us closer to the United Church of Christ (UCC), a very liberal Christian group that is the inheritor of the old conservative New England churches from which the Unitarians split in the early nineteenth century. The UCC and the UUA today are close religious relatives, sociologically, politically, and demographically. The UCC and the UUA cooperated to produce the innovative “Our Whole Lives” comprehensive sexuality education program; politically, UCC churches are often to the left of UU churches; demographically both groups a dominated by white college-educated professionals. The only big difference today is that more UCC members believe in God than do Unitarian Universalists; though that too may be changing, as a friend of mine who’s a UCC minister says that most of the children and teens in her church are professed atheists.

PDF of the family tree.

New book: Unitarians in Palo Alto

For the past five years, I’ve been researching Unitarians who lived in Palo Alto from 1895 to 1934, and writing short biographies of these ordinary Unitarians. I’ve finally collected these biographies and printed them in a perfect-bound paperback book, Available on Lulu.com either as a print copy for $10.84 (plus whatever Lulu charges for shipping and handling), or as a PDF download. The Introduction to the book appears below the fold.

Unitarians in Palo Alto, 1895-1934: A Biographical Dictionary
by Dan Harper
ISBN: 978-0-9889413-5-9

A biographical dictionary of Unitarians living in Palo Alto, Calif., from 1895 to 1934, most of whom were associated with either the Unity Society of Palo Alto (1895-1897) or the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto (1905-1934).

Continue reading “New book: Unitarians in Palo Alto”

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.

UU history trivia

Rev. Felix Danforth Lion was the first settled minister of the Palo Alto Unitarian Church in 1947. His daughter-in-law just stopped by to donate his doctoral robes to us, and while she was here she happened to mention that Dan Lion (as he was known then) officiated at the California wedding of folk musicians Richard Farina and Mimi Baez.

This wedding, in the summer of 1963, would have been the second ceremony for Mimi and Richard. They had married secretly in Paris in April, 1963. Mimi was only 18, and reportedly her parents didn’t like the fact that she had married an older man, a man who had been married when she met him at age 16. But it is not clear to me why Dan Lion performed this second marriage ceremony. The Baez family had raised their daughters as Quakers, so why get a Unitarian minister?

(Coincidentally, on Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, we’ll be singing a Mimi Farina’s tune for “Bread and Roses” at the 9:30 service.)

Woman’s relation to religious freedom (1892)

Back in 1892, Rev. Celia Parker Woolley, a feminist, antiracism activist, and Unitarian minister, gave a short talk on the need for women’s intellectual and spiritual freedom. In this talk she places freedom before love, and for this reason I think Woolley’s talk remains relevant: she is telling us that the problem is not whether to put family or career first, or how to “lean in” and have it all; the problem, simply put, is that women must have the same kind of freedom that men have.

Woman’s Relation to Religious Freedom
delivered during the fiftieth anniversary celebration of the First Unitarian Society of Geneva, Ill., 11 June 1892; stenographically recorded

[At a Saturday evening collation, the Chair called on Rev. Celia Parker Woolley to respond to the toast “Woman’s relation to religious freedom.”]

I have been wondering, Mr. Chairman, whether you stopped to consider the amount of moral dynamite in the selection of this subject, the combination of two such words as “woman” and “freedom.” It is a rather serious subject to me and I fear I shall not be able to treat it with that lightness and ease that belong to after-dinner efforts of this kind. It has prompted me to take a text, not from the Bible, but from one of our modern prophets, Olive Schreiner. It is from one of the shorter allegories in her latest volume of Dreams, and is entitled, if I remember aright, “The Angel of Life,” and runs as follows:

“The Angel of Life approached a woman sleeping, bearing a gift in each hand [Freedom in one hand, and Love in the other], and saying to the woman ‘Choose.’ The woman waited long and finally chose— Freedom. The Angel smiled and said ‘That is well. Hadst thou chosen the other I would have given thee thy choice, but I should have gone away, not to return. Now I shall return, and when thou see’st me again, I shall bear both gifts in one hand.’ (Note 1)

There is a profound truth in this little fable whether you regard the sleeping woman as typical of the entire race of men and women together, typical of both as truth-seekers, or whether you take the figure as standing for woman alone, in her search for a higher and more complete womanhood. It leads us also to think of the comparative merits of love and freedom as factors of growth. I don’t know that I would go so far as to say that a broader and truer synthesis is reached in the word Freedom than the word Love, but I certainly feel that the last word is used in often a very injurious and misleading way. I hear much preaching of love in the pulpits that offends both my taste and judgment, still, undoubtedly love is the grander, more inclusive word than any other in our human speech, when rightly used. What the allegory means to teach is, I think, that if Love is the word defining the spirit that governs all things, Freedom is the word which defines that method of growth by which we reach the truest conception of love and become its helpful ministers.

Historically, the allegory does not speak the truth. Historically, as a matter of fact in her own personal experience and that of her race, woman has never chosen freedom before love. On the contrary, all her choices have been those of love, those choices represented in the various relations in life which she has been called on to sustain, of society, the family, the church. So that when we try to talk about woman’s relation to freedom, or to religious freedom, we seem to have little to say. We should find a great deal to say if we were to speak of woman’s relation to religion. Then we could speak of her zeal, her devotion, her piety, the large numbers she has always brought to the support of the church compared with man. But when we remember how often that devotion has been purchased at the cost of real intelligence on her part, how her zeal has generally stood for bigotry and ignorance, then we see the difficulty of saying much in her favor on this special subject. But the past is one thing, the future another, and my subject is justified by the hope and the promise held out to woman and to the world through her, in this era of awakening intelligence and responsibility in which we live.

Today, we stand at that point in the development of religious thought, or rather in the development of all thought, when freedom is seen to be a necessary condition of intellectual life. Socially, religiously, domestically, woman never enjoyed that degree of liberty that is given her to-day, freedom to use her own mind and heart in solving the problems of life, that comes to her not as a woman but as a human being. To be of great worth to the world and to man she must cultivate all her powers unhindered, must make the most and best of herself. She must choose freedom first, before love, or love will be unworthily chosen. As I think of this, and remember how complex are all the relations of life, see how much of pain, misunderstanding and seeming wrong such choice on woman’s part means, I see how the strain and pain of new growth must be felt by man as well as by her, how she has in some respects the easier task, since she has but to choose for herself; while man who has so long held the reins of privilege, influence and authority must make her choice his, choosing freedom for her with freedom for himself. Men have much to learn and suffer here.

In their religious life women have had a voice and influence only on the lower plane of the church’s practical work. Woman has contributed too little to the thought the higher spirituality of the church. Men will be her natural leaders here for a long time to come. Not until she has learned to think independently as well as reverently will her relation to the coming creed founded on perfect mental liberty, be established.

— ed. T. H. Eddowes, Frances Le Baron, and George Brayton Penney, Fifty Years of Unitarian Life: Being a Record of the Proceedings on the Occasion of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Organization of the First Unitarian Society of Geneva, Illinois, Celebrated June Tenth, Eleventh, and Twelfth, 1892 (Geneva, Ill.: Kane County Publishing, 1892), pp. 122-124.

Celia Parker Woolley

 

Notes

Note 1:

(The story as actually printed in Schreiner’s book reads as follows:)

Chapter VIII: Life’s Gifts

I saw a woman sleeping. In her sleep she dreamt Life stood before her, and held in each hand a gift — in the one Love, in the other Freedom. And she said to the woman, “Choose!”

And the woman waited long: and she said, “Freedom!”

And Life said, “Thou hast well chosen. If thou hadst said, ‘Love,’ I would have given thee that thou didst ask for; and I would have gone from thee, and returned to thee no more. Now, the day will come when I shall return. In that day I shall bear both gifts in one hand.”

I heard the woman laugh in her sleep.

— Olive Scheiner, Dreams, “Author’s Edition” (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1891), pp. 115-116.

Palo Alto Unitarians and the 1906 earthquake

Palo Alto Unitarians were getting ready to build their first church building when the great earthquake of April 18, 1906, struck.

1. A first-hand account by a Unitarian

Gertrude and I were rudely awakened by the shaking of the house and the accompanying rumble, roar, and crash. “What is it?” said she. “It’s an earthquake — and it’s a bad one,” I replied. “What shall we do?” “Stay right here. This little house will last as long as anything.” I knew the sturdy construction of our bungalow … but in my heart I felt that nothing could survive such a vicious shaking—that this was the end for us. It was like a terrier shaking a rat.

— Guido Marx, husband of Gertrude V. D. Marx, a charter member of the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto; quoted in Sandstone and Tile, vol. 30, no. 1, Winter, 2006 (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Historical Society, 2006), p. 3.

———

2. Unitarians join the relief effort

Palo Alto.— The hall in which services have been held was wrecked by the earthquake, and there has been but one regular meeting of the church since that event. The men and women of the church have been most active in relief work. All the churches and societies united for relief work, with headquarters at the Congregational church. We undertook an employment agency for men and women, and this was one of the valuable helps in the restoration to normal living. Of a sum of money sent to Mrs. Stone [wife of Rev. George Stone, AUA Field Secretary] by the women of our Alliance in Detroit, $25.00 came to us. Never was such a sum stretched to cover many wants,— clothes for babies and uniforms for nurses. These nurses had been burned out and lost everything except the clothes they wore. They had volunteered to form a new hospital for the care of children with contagious diseases. When discovered they had worn their clothing a week among these contagious cases, and their only supply of water had to be carried entirely by hand. It was hard to decide whether the Women’s Alliance which made the uniforms, or the nurses who received them, were the happier.

Many of our church members are connected with the University, and as soon as work closed there they left town. Those of the Alliance who are still in Palo Alto met on the 12th of June and each woman pledged herself for a contribution of articles for the fall sale.

Our hearts are full of gratitude for the bright future. To know that our church building is assured and that Mr. Snow has accepted the call of the parish is a constant inspiration. The great opportunities of a university town lie before us. We shall try not to be unworthy of them.

The Pacific Unitarian, San Francisco, vol. 14, no. 8, June, 1906, p. 260.

———

3. Architectural plans destroyed Continue reading “Palo Alto Unitarians and the 1906 earthquake”

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….

Continue reading “A new Unitarian church in Palo Alto, 1947”

Rebirth and Decline, 1919-1934

A continuation of a documentary history of the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto.

After the departure of Rev. Bradley Gilman, the congregation managed to get back on its feet, first with no minister, then with the experienced leadership of Rev. Elmo Arnold Robinson, a Universalist minister. But the financial situation worsened through the late 1920s, the congregation began to decline, and the Great Depression made it impossible to continue.

An Experiment in Palo Alto (1920)

[In the previous post, the excerpt from Josephine Duveneck’s autobiography told how the relationship between Rev. Bradley Gilman and the congregation grew strained. It is worth noting that Palo Alto was the last congregation that Gilman served. This chapter begins with an explanation of how the Palo Alto church experimented at having an entirely lay-led congregation. Edith Mirrielees asserts that the reasons for not hiring a minister were not financial, leaving us to conclude that Bradley Gilman soured the congregation on ministers.]

The Unitarian church in Palo Alto was established in 1905. From its establishment until the autumn of 1919, the church followed the way of most Unitarian churches, retaining a resident minister and supporting him with an enthusiasm that waxed or waned according to the circumstances surrounding the individual pastorate.

In May, 1919, the Rev. Bradley Gilman, at that time the incumbent, left Palo Alto for a visit to the Eastern coast. Some months later he sent in his resignation. When the congregation came together to consider the resignation, many of its members felt unwilling to begin the search for a new minister until an experiment had been made in conducting the church in another manner. For some years there had been a growing conviction among members of the Unitarian Society in Palo Alto that the presence of a professional minister was not necessarily essential to the continuance of their church or to its welfare, and after thorough discussion in congregational meeting it was determined to do without one, the pulpit to be tilled by members of the congregation and community or by visiting Unitarians. the other duties of the pastorate to be assumed by the congregation. It is worth noting that this decision was not reached because of money difficulties. The church at this time, though by no means wealthy, was in sound financial condition, without debt and with as many contributors as it had had during the previous year when a minister had been in residence. It should be noted, too, that the essential Unitarianism of the church is in no way affected by the change; the congregation is a congregation of Unitarians, but one wherein congregational government and responsibility is now carried a step farther than it has been before.

The attempt was at first frankly experimental. After four months of trial, it seems so far to have justified itself that there is at present no probability of a return to earlier conditions. Throughout the winter months, the pulpit has been regularly filled, often by speakers with a notable message, membership in the church and attendance at services have both materially increased, money has come in in quantity sufficient to meet all obligations and to make possible the establishment for next year of a scholarship at Stanford University, which it is the hope of the congregation to continue from year to year.

Rut these things, though they are encouraging, are only the outside results of the experiment. More important than any one of them is the effect of the change upon the relation of members of the congregation to the church and to each other. A new unity of purpose, an increased sense of fellowship, has been the most promising growth of the last few months. The presentation from the pulpit of many points of view 1ms promoted that tolerance essentially dear to Unitarians. The necessary sharing of responsibility has, as it is likely to do, increased the willingness to take responsibility. It goes without saying that the work has not been equally shared; as is the case in practically every congregation, one or two members have carried the heaviest part of the burden, but in very considerable number — a number much larger than was normally found under the old condition — have taken some part, with a resultant growth in actual neighborliness and interdependence.

It is by no means the thought of the Unitarian Society in Palo Alto that other bodies of Unitarians would necessarily be wise to follow in their footsteps. For any congregation, the wisdom or unwisdom [sic] of such an attempt depends upon the nature of the community in which the church is situated. It has to be a community which provides a fair number of thoughtful speakers; it has to be a congregation blessed with at least one member ready steadfastly to put the church’s welfare before his own, and neither of these things is easy to find. For Palo Alto, however, the experiment thus far has been promising enough to justify its further trial.

— Edith R. Mirrielees, The Pacific Unitarian (San Francisco: Pacific Unitarian Conference), vol. 29, no. 5, May, 1920, p. 125.

[Note: Mirrielees was professor of creative writing at Stanford, and a teacher of John Steinbeck (Jeffrey Schulz and Luchen Li, Critical Companion to John Steinbeck [Facts of File: 2005), p. 301.]

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