Unitarians in Palo Alto, 1915-1920

Part Four of a history I’m writing, telling the story of Unitarians in Palo Alto from the founding of the town in 1891 up to the dissolution of the old Unitarian Church of Palo Alto in 1934. If you want the footnotes, you’ll have to wait until the print version of this history comes out in the spring of 2022.

Part OnePart TwoPart Three

Years of Turmoil, 1915-1920

The American Unitarian Association sent William Short, Jr., to be the next minister of the Palo Alto church. Short, the son of an Episcopalian priest who had died when he was just 17 years old, entered the Episcopal Theological school, in Cambridge, Mass., in 1912. He became interested in Unitarianism, and two days before he graduated from the Episcopal Divinity School, he applied for fellowship as a Unitarian minister. Louis Cornish and others at the American Unitarian Association advised him to serve as assistant minister under some more experienced Unitarian minister, but Short insisted he was ready for his own parish. Cornish later remembered that Short had “the ready gift of awakening friendship in other men.” After serving as the summer minister in the Unitarian church in Walpole, Mass., Cornish assigned Short to the Palo Alto church. Short arrived in Palo Alto in November, 1915.

At first, it seemed like a good match between congregation and minister. True, the Sunday school enrollment dropped from 90 students in 1915 down to 54 the next year, but under Emma Rendtorff’s leadership enrollment rebounded to 63 students in 1917. Church membership was low in 1916, with just 40 members, and that probably represents a significant decline. But for a small church, it was quite active:

“[In winter, 1916-1917] the church hall [i.e., the Social Hall] has given hospitality…to Mr. John Spurgo, the noted Socialist speaker; to the American Union against Militarism, which is earnestly fighting the cause of democracy; and to Mme. Aino Malmberg, a refugee from the persecutions of Old Russia.… Two physical training clubs for women and girls have their home in the hall, as well as a club to encourage the finer type of social dancing. The church passed a resolution of approval of the visit of Mr. Short to Sacramento in March [1917] in the interests of the Physical Training bills.”

It appears that much of this activity sprang from Short’s theory of religion:

“[I]f religion is to awaken and triumph over the soullessness of life it must be based on unquestionable sincerity and bear a stirring message for the oppressed and the outcasts of society; it must be the potent factor in the reconstruction of the social order.…”

But none of this activity really had much to do with Unitarianism. The church was proud that the “pamphlet-rack in the vestibule must constantly be refilled,” but the congregation was the smallest it had ever been since the completion of the church building in 1907.

By early 1917, William Short decided he didn’t want to continue working as a minister any more. On March 15, 1917, after just a year and a half serving the Palo Alto church, he wrote to Louis Cornish, “I have failed [as a minister in Palo Alto], and my intention is to try to understand life better before I try to preach again in some other place.” Short’s resignation was not even mentioned in the minutes of the Board of Trustees.

Short was a strong pacifist: his next job was with the People’s Council of San Francisco, an anti-war group, and he wound up being arrested for draft evasion in 1918 after military authorities decided he was not exempt from the draft under the exemption for ministers. As a pacifist, Short inspired some of the pacifists in the Palo Alto church, including Guido Marx, who attempted to bail him out of jail when he was arrested for draft evasion. But Short also annoyed the pro-war contingent in the congregation, and the simmering conflict between the two groups split the church and contributed to the decline in membership and participation during the war years. When Alfred S. Niles came to the church in 1927, more than a decade after Short had left, he was told that “the minister at the time of World War I had been a pacifist and conscientious objector, and this had caused a split in the church from which it never recovered.” By all accounts, Short’s ministry ended in failure.

The Palo Alto church was at such low ebb after Short’s departure that a denominational field representative “recommended the merging of the San Jose and Palo Alto churches” in April, 1917. Denominational officials agreed, and “proposed the federation of the churches for reasons of economy in January, 1918.” However, the San Jose Unitarians were not interested in merging, and they began to raise funds and increase their membership; by early 1920, the San Jose Unitarians paid off all their debt to the denomination. The denomination was stuck with the Palo Alto church, and had to figure out what to do with it.

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Unitarians in Palo Alto, 1910-1915

Part Three of a history I’m writing, telling the story of Unitarians in Palo Alto from the founding of the town in 1891 up to the dissolution of the old Unitarian Church of Palo Alto in 1934. If you want the footnotes, you’ll have to wait until the print version of this history comes out in the spring of 2022.

Part OnePart Two

Building the Institution, 1909-1915

Following Rev. Sydney Snow’s departure, the leaders of the Palo Alto church were able to attract Rev. Clarence Reed as their next minister. Reed had been ordained in the Methodist Episcopal church in 1894, served a series of short-term pastorates in that denomination, and wound up in San Francisco in 1904. He then decided he was a Unitarian, resigned from his Methodist pastorate to spend a year at Harvard Divinity School, and was called to the Alameda Unitarian Church. The Alameda church was even smaller and had less money than the Palo Alto church, but it proved convenient for Reed to serve there while pursuing graduate study in philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley. The Alameda church had paid him $1500 per year (roughly $44,000 in 2020 dollars), and by moving to Palo Alto he received a modest increase in his salary to $1600 per year (roughly $47,000 in 2020 dollars).

Reed took two extended sabbaticals while at Palo Alto. In 1910, just a year after arriving at the church, he spent eight months traveling in Europe recovering from a health crisis. Then in 1914, he spent six months traveling in East Asia. Thus although he served the Palo Alto church from 1909 to 1915, he was actually at the church for only five of those six years.

Reed’s relationship with the Board of Trustees was not entirely harmonious. There are moments in the Board minutes where Reed is portrayed as ambitious, driven, and annoying, while for their part the Trustees seem content to remain a small, close-knit group comfortably supported financially by the American Unitarian Association. Not to put too fine a point on it, Reed wanted the church to grow, and the Trustees weren’t that interested. Reed also managed to ruffle the feathers of other lay leaders. Emma Rendtorff sounds slightly resentful when she notes in her Sunday school records that Reed took over running the Sunday school from her, and then didn’t even keep careful records of attendance. Yet Reed must have done something right, for he increased average attendance in the Sunday school to around 60 students, probably twice the average attendance Emma Rendtorff was able to achieve.

Despite the low-level tension between Reed and some lay leaders, the years when Reed was minister were a golden age for the church. Sunday attendance probably averaged around 60 to 70. The congregation finally built the social hall that they had hoped for since they bought the building lot in 1906. Sunday school enrollment climbed to 90 children and teenagers; the church had enough children and teens to stage a fairly elaborate play, “King Persifer’s Crown,” in May, 1916. But beyond these statistics, what was the church like during this golden age?

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Unitarians in Palo Alto, 1905-1910

Part Twoof a history I’m writing, telling the story of Unitarians in Palo Alto from the founding of the town in 1891 up to the dissolution of the old Unitarian Church of Palo Alto in 1934. If you want the footnotes, you’ll have to wait until the print version of this history comes out in the spring of 2022.

Part one, 1891-1905

The Unitarian Church of Palo Alto Begins, 1905-1910

In 1905, Ewald and Helene Flügel invited Rev. George Whitefield Stone, the Field Secretary of the American Unitarian Association for the Pacific States, to come to Palo Alto to christen their children. When Stone arrived in September, 1905, the Flügel children were aged 4, 10, 13, and 15 years old. The family had lived in Palo Alto since 1892; it may be Rev. Eliza Tupper Wilkes had christened the two eldest children in 1895. In any case, Stone came to Palo Alto, and while there he conducted Unitarian services each Sunday from September 10 through October 8. At the conclusion of the service on October 8, Stone said he was willing to continue with weekly worship services if those assembled showed sufficient interest. Karl Rendtorff made a motion “that a Unitarian Church be formed at once,” giving Stone the authority to appoint a “Provisional Committee” to transact any necessary business until a regular congregational organization could be formed. The motion was seconded by Melville Anderson, and “carried by a rising vote.”

Stone promptly appointed five men and two women to the Provisional Committee: Melville Anderson, John S. Butler, Henry Gray, Agnes Kitchen, Ernest Martin, Fannie Rosebrook, and Karl Rendtorff, who became the Secretary-Treasurer. Melville Anderson, Henry Gray, Ernest Martin, and Karl Rendtorff were all professors at Stanford. John Butler and Fannie Rosebrook had both been on the executive committee of the old Unity Society. Agnes Kitchen was active in civic affairs in Palo Alto, including the Woman’s Club. Once again, women filled leadership positions in the new Unitarian congregation from the very beginning.

Collection of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, used by permission.

Just two weeks later, on October 23, the women formed their own Unitarian organization. The Women’s Alliance, formally known as the “Branch Alliance of the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto,” became a local chapter of the National Alliance of Unitarian and Other Liberal Christian Women. How did the Palo Alto women decide to form their own Branch Alliance so quickly? Perhaps George Stone promoted the idea. The national organization existed to “to quicken the life of our Unitarian churches,” which would have suited Stone’s goal of building a self-sustaining Unitarian church. But it’s equally possible that some of the women had already belonged to a Unitarian women’s group. The National Alliance had roots in several earlier organizations, including the Western Women’s Unitarian Conference, organized in St. Louis in 1881; Emma Rendtorff and her mother Emma Meyer were active Unitarians in St. Louis in that year. Closer to Palo Alto, the women’s organization of the San Francisco Unitarian church, called the Channing Auxiliary had been active in promoting Unitarianism along the entire Pacific Coast ever since it was formed in 1873; perhaps some of the early members of the Palo Alto Alliance had contact with the Channing Auxiliary.

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Unitarians in Palo Alto, 1891-1905

Part One of a history I’m writing, which tells the story of Unitarians in Palo Alto from the founding of the town in 1891 up to the dissolution of the old Unitarian Church of Palo Alto in 1934. Rather than telling history as the story of a succession of (mostly male) ministers, my focus is on the lay people who made up the congregation. If you want the footnotes, you’ll have to wait until the print version of this history comes out in the spring of 2022.

The first Unitarian and Universalists in Palo Alto, 1891-1895

Unitarianism and Universalism arrived in Palo Alto before there was a congregation. Some of the first residents who arrived in Palo Alto in 1891, the year Stanford University opened, were already Unitarians and Universalists.

Emma Meyer Rendtorff began studying at Stanford University in 1894, eight months before Rev. Eliza Tupper Wilkes, a Universalist and Unitarian minister, preached the first Unitarian Universalist sermon in Palo Alto, at Stanford’s Memorial Church. Emma’s parents had been Unitarians, and as a girl she had attended Sunday school the Church of the Unity, a Unitarian church in St. Louis, Missouri. She was a lifelong Unitarian, and would play a key role when the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto was organized in 1905.

David Starr Jordan, the first president of Stanford, grew up in a Universalist family. As a young adult he briefly joined a Congregational church. While president of Stanford he disavowed any denominational affiliation, although he often spoke in Unitarian churches and at Unitarian gatherings. Whether or not he would have called himself a Unitarian or Universalist when he arrived in Palo Alto, he was often perceived as a Unitarian and often provided financial and moral support to the Palo Alto Unitarians. And when he retired from Stanford, he finally did join the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto.

Luna, Minnie, and Leander Hoskins were probably Unitarians before arriving in Palo Alto. Minnie moved in Palo Alto in 1892 when her husband Leander became a Stanford professor, and Luna had joined them in Palo Alto soon after. Luna and Minnie Hoskins were recognized as delegates by the Committee on Credentials of the Pacific Unitarian Conference at San Jose on May 1-4, 1895, a few days before Eliza Tupper Wilkes arrived in Palo Alto. Since they knew about Unitarianism before Eliza Tupper Wilkes arrived, she couldn’t have been the one to introduce them to Unitarianism, so it seems likely they had been Unitarians when they came to Palo Alto.

Eleanor Brooks Pearson, who came to Palo Alto in 1891 from South Sudbury, Massachusetts, may have been a Unitarian before she arrived in Palo Alto; her childhood home in South Sudbury would have been close to the Unitarian church in Sudbury Center, she was one of the organizers of the Unity Society in 1895, and she later married a Unitarian, Frederic Bartlett Huntington. Some sources hint that there were others who were Unitarians or Universalists before arriving in Palo Alto, but so far it has proved impossible to name them.

The Unity Society, 1895-1897

In November, 1892, the very first issue of the Pacific Unitarian, a periodical devoted to promoting liberal religion up and down the West Coast, declared that a Unitarian church should be organized in Palo Alto:

“The University town of Palo Alto is growing fast. Never was there a field that offered more in the way of influence and education than this. A [building] lot for a church ought to be secured at once, and the preliminary steps taken towards the organization of a Unitarian Society.”

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Ordinary Unitarians: Martha Ziegler

As the years go by, I find I’m less interested in how famous or “important” Unitarian Universalists live their lives, and increasingly interested in the lives of ordinary Unitarians and Universalists. Maybe this is because I don’t know any important or famous Unitarian Universalists, but I’ve known lots of ordinary Unitarian Universalists. With that in mind, here’s a brief biography of Martha Clara Elizabeth Ziegler Greenlaw [a.k.a. Reynolds, Seymour, and Fancher], a member of the old Unitarian Church of Palo Alto:

A housewife and mother who experienced more than her share of domestic challenges and tragedies, Martha Clara Elizabeth Ziegler was born Feb. 27, 1894, in Chicago. In 1900, she was living in Hyde Park Township (which became part of Chicago). She lived with her father Gustav, a machinist’s helper, who had been born in Denmark; her mother Ida, who had been born in Germany; and her younger brother Charles.

When she was 17 years old, on Aug. 1, 1911, she married Charles Greenlaw (q.v.) in Chicago, Ill. Charles worked for American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) installing new phone systems in communities across the country, and his job required him to relocate every few months. His wife and a growing number of children had to move with him, and some of their moves can be traced from the birthplaces of their four children: Arnold Ziegler (q.v.) was born July 12, 1912, in Chicago; Colin Torrey was born March 27, 1914, in Baltimore, Md. (q.v.); Morrison Bronk was born Aug. 3, 1918, in San Francisco; and Margery Ellen was born Nov. 3, 1920, in Chicago. All these moves put strain on the family.

To try to reduce some of the strain on the family, from about 1918 to 1920 they spent significant amounts of time in a cabin Charles owned in Willits, Calif. But soon they had to move again, and in January, 1920, they were living in Detroit, Mich. And by 1923, the family had moved to 523 Webster St. in Palo Alto.

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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.

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Unitarian and Universalist views on baptism, late 18th C.

Here are two documents that give a picture of late eighteenth century Unitarian and Universalist views of baptism.

1783: Unitarian baptism ceremony
late 18th C.: Description of Universalist dedication ceremony

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Unitarian views on christening and baptism, 19th C.

As a follow up to this post, here are Unitarian documents from the nineteenth century describing naming ceremonies (baptism and christening).

1827: Description of Unitarian naming ceremonies
1844: Unitarian naming ceremony
1884: Unitarian naming ceremony
1891: Description of a Unitarian naming ceremony

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UU views on christening and dedication, 20th C.

Amy Morgenstern, the senior minister, and I have been talking about child dedications recently. As we talked, I realized that one of the results of the social process known as “secularization” (which in the U.S. is more of an adjustment away from communal religious organizations to individualized religious practices) is that fewer and fewer people know that there are established communal practices to welcome babies. Even if they do know about such practices as Unitarian Universalist child dedications, they may find it difficult to understand why they would want to have a communal ceremony, within a religious community, rather than something more individualistic.

This realization has led me to rethink the entire concept of child dedications. After I was born in 1960, I was christened (not dedicated) in a Unitarian church — but what was a Unitarian christening, and was there then a distinctive way of thinking about this naming ceremony? What about Universalist understandings of naming ceremonies? How have Unitarian and Universalist naming ceremonies combined and evolved into Unitarian Universalist naming ceremonies?

I don’t yet have answers to these questions, but I’ve been collecting relevant historical documents. Without further ado, here are documents from the 20th century that relate to Universalist, Unitarian, and Unitarian Universalist naming ceremonies.

1903: Unitarian naming ceremony
1922: Universalist naming ceremony
1966: Description of Unitarian naming ceremonies
1999: Description of Unitarian Universalist naming ceremonies

(Updated 28 Feb 2020: corrections and revisions, added another document)

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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.