Unitarian Universalists today love to talk about covenant as if it has a long history. I’m arguing that covenant was a mid-twentieth century invention by Conrad Wright and James Luther Adams. It does not have a long history. And that’s a good thing. The history that Conrad Wright invented for covenant has too many negatives for me to feel comfortable.
When we deconstruct in the Conrad Wright conception of covenant, here are some of the things that we begin to understand: — Historically, covenant was designed to promote theocracy; — it was dependent on patriarchy; — it was rooted in enslavement of Africans and Natives; — and it supported British imperialism and colonialism. Plus the Wrightian history of covenant ignores our Universalist heritage.
These are some of the things that Wright either wasn’t aware of or ignored. I don’t think we can remain unaware of these things, or ignore them, any longer. We have to deconstruct “covenant” so we can reconstruct it without quite so many negative aspects.
Since the time of Wright and Adams, others have tried to articulate a vision for Unitarian Universalist covenant, most notably Alice Blair Wesley in her Minns Lectures from the year 2000. But all these visions for covenant start with the assumptions laid out by Conrad Wright and James Luther Adams, and don’t really question those assumptions. I feel that none of these new visions for covenant adequately addresses theocracy, patriarchy, enslavement, or colonialism. And in my opinion, none of the visions for covenant takes Universalism seriously enough. To put it succinctly — none of these new visions of covenant adequately deconstructs the underlying assumptions of “covenant.”
Deconstructing “covenant” in this way has helped me to understand why I’ve been feeling increasingly uncomfortable when Unitarian Universalists talk about “covenant.” When we talk about “being in covenant,” we have to start listening for echoes of patriarchy, colonialism, enslavement, and so on. When we accuse others of “breaking covenant,” we have to start have to listening for echoes of the old Puritan practice of public shaming of church members. When we think of covenant as an organizing principle, we have to ask ourselves why we are ignoring the Universalist tradition.
If we’re unwilling to deconstruct “covenant” — how are we going to reconstruct “covenant” to remove the lingering taint of sexism, enslavement, anti-democratic theocracy, and colonialism? Perhaps deconstructing and then reconstructing “covenant” would allow us to make some much-needed progress in our anti-racism work, our ongoing efforts to get rid of patriarchal structures, and our beginning efforts to understand the role of religion in colonialism
If we’re unwilling to deconstruct “covenant” — how are we going to include Universalism once again in our central organizing principles? I’m afraid the answer here might well be that most of us don’t care about Universalism any more. Perhaps it would be better if we’d openly acknowledge this, because we’re “sitting on the franchise,” getting in the way of other groups trying to spread the happy religion of universal salvation. Or perhaps it would be best if we re-engaged with our Universalist heritage, with its incredible diversity of belief and practice; perhaps that would help us more than an attempt to unify ourselves with a tainted vision of “covenant.”
Unitarian Universalists talk a lot about “covenant.” We didn’t used to talk about covenant. As near as I can tell, our mild obsession with covenant came about during the merger of the Unitarians and the Universalists, a process which began in the 1950s and continued for years after the legal consolidation of the two groups in 1961. We were thrashing about trying to find something that held us together. The Universalist professions of faith weren’t acceptable to the Unitarians, and the Unitarian affirmations of faith (like James Freeman Clarke’s Five Points of the New Theology) weren’t acceptable to the Universalists.
Two Unitarian scholars, James Luther Adams and Conrad Wright, had long been talking about the importance of covenant to their Unitarian tradition. Wright was a historian who interpreted the entire history of Unitarianism in the United States as centering around covenant. This was a problematic interpretation, since by the early twentieth century many Unitarian congregations didn’t have written covenants. I’m not sure, but Wright may have felt that the Unitarians kind of forgot covenant, and that forgetfulness led to the decline of Unitarianism in the 1930s. In any case, he saw the re-establishment of covenant as central to the revitalization of Unitarianism in the mid to late twentieth century.
Wright continued to trumpet covenant after consolidation with the Universalists. While his primary area of expertise was in Unitarian history, he dipped into Universalist history and claimed to find that the Universalists were pretty much like the Unitarians when it came to congregational polity and the centrality of covenant.
I don’t find Wright’s interpretation of the historical facts to be terribly convincing. Covenant was in fact central to most Unitarian congregations that began life as Puritan churches in New England. Covenant was also important to some nineteenth century Unitarian churches which had been founded by New England settlers moving west. But in my research in the archives of local congregations, covenant becomes less important as an organizing principle beginning in the nineteenth century and through the early to mid-twentieth century.
In many eighteenth century New England congregations, there were two parallel organizations, the church and the society. The society owned the real property and managed the finances; the church consisted of the people who signed the church covenant and stood up in front of the congregation and confessed their sins. Membership in the society was typically through buying a pew and contributing annual rental for your pew (often restricted to males, since there were legal limitations about females owning property), and generally speaking only males could take on leadership roles in the society. It appears that on average significantly more women than men signed the covenant to become a part of the church. People of African or Native descent could join the church, but may have been barred from owning pews or serving in leadership roles in the society.
Thus the entire system of covenant was bound up with discriminatory distinctions between males and females, and between persons of European descent as opposed to persons of African or Native descent. Nor is this an accident. Covenant in the New England Puritan tradition was a means for upholding a theocracy that placed white males at the top of the social hierarchy (note that I’m being sloppy here by including the Pilgrims in the umbrella term “Puritan”). Today, some might call this racism or white supremacy, though some historians would argue that these are anachronistic concepts when applied to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; a better way to put this is to simply say that the New England Puritan tradition was inextricably linked to enslaving people of African and Native descent. On the other hand, we can say with some certainty that this Puritan social hierarchy was patriarchal and sexist. In addition, Puritan theocracy was also tied in with the larger project of British colonialism; not quite as blatantly as in the resource-extraction economies of the southern plantation colonies, but the British empire clearly say the value of exporting religious dissidents to “tame the wilderness” thus opening up the area to somewhat “softer” economic exploitation by the empire.
In short, covenant was bound up with patriarchy, colonialism, and slavery. This is not to say that covenant is forever tainted by its origins. But these are parts of the story that Conrad Wright passes over. If we’re going to put covenant at the center of our religious tradition, at the very least we need to acknowledge that covenants were part of a theocratic political structure that was rooted in the oppression of the majority of people in the society.
During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the distinction between society and church seems to have slowly been forgotten; along the way, covenants often seem to have disappeared as well. So, for example, when I was doing research for the 300th anniversary of the Unitarian church in New Bedford, Mass., I found evidence for the existence of a covenant in the congregation’s eighteenth century archives, now stored at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. By the late nineteenth century, during the long ministry of William Potter, one of the leaders of the Free Religious Association, I found no evidence for the existence of a covenant. The distinction between society and church continued into the 1940s, since the ministers were not allowed to attend the annual meeting of the congregation — it appears that in the eighteenth century the minister was charged with oversight of the church, the lay leaders with oversight of the society — but with the end of pew ownership in the 1940s, that distinction finally dissolved. By the early twenty-first century, there was no distinction between church and society, or more precisely the church withered away leaving only the society.
In another congregation I researched, the Unitarian church in Palo Alto, Calif., which existed from 1905 to 1934, I found no evidence at all for the existence of a covenant. From the research I’ve done in local congregational archives, I’ve mostly found no evidence for a covenant in the early twentieth century. The only exception is the Unitarian Society of Geneva, Ill., which still maintains the covenant originally written and signed by the founders of that church — who were all emigrants from New England to what was then the frontier. That covenant was substantially revised circa 1900, to shorten it, and to remove all mentions of God or the Bible. The church almost went moribund in the early twentieth century, until Charles Lyttle, professor of church history at Meadville Lombard Theological School, stepped in to rebuild the church for use as a training congregation for his Unitarian theological students. Perhaps it is due in part to Lyttle’s academic influence that the Geneva covenant remained active (and one wonders if the historian Charles Lyttle helped draw the attention of the later historian Conrad Wright to covenant).
Thus covenant appears to have mostly disappeared from Unitarian congregations in the nineteenth century. But Conrad Wright also argued that Unitarian churches were bound to each other through congregational polity, which was another sort of covenant. The most important document here was the Cambridge Platform, a seventeenth century Puritan document that outlined how Puritan churches were supposed to relate to one another. The Cambridge Platform looked to the Bible as revealed scripture (the Word of God) to determine how churches related one to another. The Cambridge Platform was outdated almost as soon as it was written — it called for every church to support both a preaching minister and a teaching minister, which proved to be economically impossible — but it also simply didn’t apply to some Unitarian congregations.
Take, for example, King’s Chapel in Boston, which became Unitarian in 1785. It was originally affiliated with the Church of England, but became independent during the American Revolution; at which point, it removed all references to the trinity from its Book of Common Prayer, and became Unitarian in theology. King’s Chapel came from a tradition of episcopal polity, and the Cambridge Platform formed no part of its history until, at the earliest, it affiliated with the American Unitarian Association sometime after 1825. Or take the Icelandic Unitarian churches of Canada, which came out of Lutheranism, another religious tradition based on episcopal polity. Perhaps we could argue that the Unitarian tradition of covenant in North America is syncretic, taking in various influences, and transmogrifying them.
But I think it’s more accurate to say that twentieth century Unitarian covenant was something that Conrad Wright made up, using historical materials. Covenant is not an old tradition among us, it’s a newly made-up tradition. That being the case, I’m not sure I want to use a made-up kind of covenant based on Puritan theocratic patriarchal concepts rooted in colonialism and slavery.
Furthermore, as someone who thinks of myself as more of a Universalist than a Unitarian, I’m trying to figure out why we should use a made-up kind of covenant that pretty much ignores Universalism. Conrad Wright did extensive research in Unitarian covenant, but it’s clear from his writings that his knowledge of Universalist history was not very deep. James Luther Adams, the other co-creator of twentieth century Unitarian covenant, knew his Unitarian tradition quite well but did not know Universalism nearly as well.
Whether or not the Unitarians were always actually unified by covenant (or if it was something that Adams and Wright invented in the mid-twentieth century), it’s quite obvious that the Universalists were not unified by covenant. The Universalists were unified by a common theology of universal salvation, which was expressed in affirmations of faith. Because the Universalists differed so radically in the details of their universalist theologies, their affirmations of faith had to be very broad, and mostly were quite brief. Unitarian documents, such as church covenants and the Cambridge Platform, tended to be quite wordy — the Cambridge Platform fills up a small book — but the Universalists’ “Winchester Profession” of 1803 comes in at fewer than 100 words. Not that the Winchester Profession, or any later profession of faith, actually served to unify the Universalists; they’ve been an almost anarchistic group from the start; the point is that they did not have covenants in the way Unitarians had covenants. Thus the concept of covenant, as promoted by Adams and Wright, was a Unitarian thing, but it was not important to Universalism.
Todd Eklof — a former Unitarian Universalist minister who was removed from fellowship with the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) over disagreements on approaches to anti-racism and other matters — is the new president pro tem of the recently-organized North American Unitarian Association (NAUA).
The NAUA joins the American Unitarian Conference (AUC) as a group that has broken away from the UUA over political and theological disagreements. Here’s an introduction to a few U.S. Unitarian groups, including the NAUA and the AUC…
North American Unitarian Association
The North American Unitarian Association (NAUA) website states that the group is “dedicated to courageously fostering and protecting the principles and practices of liberal religion: reason, tolerance, democratic process, freedom of conscience, freedom of speech and expression, and the inherent worth and dignity of all people.” Membership is open to congregations and to individuals. They provide the following services: monthly online worship; an online newsletter; online courses; monthly support sessions for NAUA-affiliated ministers; a “ministerial clearinghouse”; and a few other odds and ends. Congregations may affiliate with the NAUA while retaining their membership with the UUA.
The NAUA program strikes me as quite ambitious for a new organization. They do seem to have a fairly full leadership roster, mostly drawn from Todd Eklof’s hometown of Spokane, Wash. So they might be able to keep up all these new initiatives.
American Unitarian Conference
The American Unitarian Conference (AUC) formed in 2000. The founders decided to break away from the UUA for reasons I can no longer remember, nor can I remember the people who were involved in the founding of the group. The Wikipedia article on the AUC says it “was founded in 2000 by several Unitarian Universalists who felt that the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) had become too theologically liberal and too political.”
The AUC seems to have morphed into the Unitarian Christian Church of America (see below), or has been absorbed by them. The old URL, americanunitarian.org, now returns an error message saying the hosting account has expired. I checked the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, and the last version of the AUC website they have is from August 20, 2022.
Unitarian Christian Church of America
The Unitarian Christian Church of America (UCCA) appears to be a small group, based on their website. It may be that they’re the successor group to the American Unitarian Conference (AUC; see above). In any case, Shannon Rogers, head of the UCCA, is now the admin of the AUC Facebook page.
Assuming the UCCA and the old AUC are somehow linked, we might look at the the AUC Facebook page to get a sense of both organizations. This Facebook page has gotten recent comments critical of the UUA — “Unfortunately, my experiences with the UUs seemed to always have a thread of Progressivism in them” — and supportive of political conservative positions — “You can NOT be protected if guns are banned!” At the same time, the UCCA now provides children’s Christian education curriculums from ProgressiveChristianity.org. Some of their materials sound cautiously supportive of Black Lives Matter.
In short, it sounds like the UCCA is trying to become a “purple” denomination, welcoming to all political persuasions. Given that the UUA has pretty much given up trying to welcome Republicans (except for a few individual congregations), and is fairly unwelcoming to Christian Unitarians, I’m glad the UCCA provides a spiritual home for Christian Unitarians across the political spectrum.
Unitarian Christian Alliance
The Unitarian Christian Alliance (UCA) is a group of Biblical Unitarian Christians. On their website, they describe themselves as follows: “While holding to various beliefs in other areas, UCA members all agree that the God of the Bible is the Father alone, and that Jesus is his human Messiah. The mission of the UCA and its growing membership is two-fold: to promote unitarian theology and to connect like-minded believers across the globe.
The UCA claims both individual members, and nearly a hundred affiliated churches and groups. While most of the affiliated groups are in the U.S., they have affiliated groups on nearly every continent, including the countries of Brazil, Greece, Singapore, Kenya, and Australia. Interestingly, looking at the web page showing their Board of Directors, their leadership team consists of four middle-aged white men and one woman who does not have a photo.
As far as I can tell, the UCA has never had any connection to the UUA.
As far as I can tell, STFI has never had any connection to the UUA.
Other Unitarian (Small “U”) groups
There are other denominations and groups that reject the Christian doctrine of the Trinity on various grounds. These include Jehovah’s Witnesses, Latter Day Saints, Oneness Pentecostals, Christadelphians, etc. Note that these denominations do not have “Unitarian” as part of their name, and they might not identify as Unitarian per se.
Historical American Unitarian Groups
1. The most notable American Unitarian group from the past is, of course, the Free Religious Association (FRA). Though the FRA is sometimes classified as a “freethought” group, most of its members were either former Unitarians, or people who maintained dual membership with the FRA and the American Unitarian Association (the predecessor to the UUA). For most of its history, the guiding spirit behind the FRA was William Potter, the minister of the Unitarian church of New Bedford. When Potter left the FRA, it quickly died, which makes me wonder if the FRA was really just a one-man project.
(I have to admit my bias against the FRA. I’m a former minister of the New Bedford church, and while there I did some research into Potter. I felt that Potter got too wrapped up in the FRA, and perhaps neglected his own congregation. On the other hand, I was so put off by his writing that I didn’t want to spend much time researching him. After learning something about Potter, I lost all interest in the FRA.)
2. In the early nineteenth century, the Christian Connexion (variously spelled) was unitarian in theology, and even cooperated with the American Unitarian Association. A few Unitarian ministers served Christian Connexion churches. But by the second half of the century, the two groups had gone their separate ways.
3. The Swedenborgians were vaguely unitarian (small “u”) in theology. However, as I understand it, their unitarianism made Jesus Christ into a god, with God-the-Father and the Holy Spirit as aspects of Jesus Christ. There are still Swedenborgians around (with at least one Unitarian minister serving a Swedenborgian congregation) but I know nothing about their theology in the twenty-first century, so can’t comment on whether they still can be considered theologically unitarian.
[An excerpt from my forthcoming book on Unitarians in Palo Alto:]
A minister and a professor at Stanford University, Burt Estes Howard was born February 23, 1863, in Clayton, N.Y. He went to school at Shaw Academy, Cleveland. He graduated from Western Reserve University in 1883, received a masters’ degree from Lane Theological Seminary, and was ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1886. He served as a Presbyterian minister in Michigan and Ohio from 1887 to 1892.
He married Sarah Gates 1890, and they had three children: Grenville (b. 1891), and twins Graeme and Emily (b. 1896). Sarah was a college graduate, having received her A.B. from Vassar in 1869.
He became the pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Los Angeles, in 1892, moving his wife and infant son to California. He only remained a pastor of that church for three years. In 1895, Burt was convicted of “insubordination” by the Los Angeles Presbytery, on what some considered to be trumped-up charges. The presbytery stripped him of his ministerial authority. Burt and his supporters appealed the conviction to the judiciary commission of the Presbyterian Synod in San Jose, which reversed the local decision. But then he was brought up on charges of heresy and insubordination again a few months later. On January 25, 1896, the Los Angeles Herald reported in a page two story:
“The Rev. Howard is to be charged with high crimes and misdemeanors innumerable. The bill of particulars, it is said, will allege that he has been guilty of denying the atonement. It will furthermore be alleged that he also questioned the integrity of the scriptures. This is not all. It will be claimed that the doughty pastor has advanced, stood by and defended the doctrine of evolution. He will also be accused, in all probability, of pantheism. This is something new, but it means that he has enunciated that all nature is good. Not content with this, an endeavor will be made to show that Mr. Howard has stood up for Unitarianism. These charges will be made, so it is claimed, by some of the members of Mr. Howard’s congregation. The congregation split, and those who withdrew formed another church.”
This second heresy trial finally drove him away from Presbyterianism. In 1897, while also serving as a lecturer in professional ethics at Los Angeles Law School, he organized the Church of the Covenant, a congregation independent of any denomination. He served as the minister of that congregation for three years.
Part Six 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.
In late 1925, Elmo Robinson could look back on “four happy years, profitable to me, and I hope to the church.” But he had grown restive. He received a grant so that he could study for a semester at Harvard University in the first half of 1926. He found, or the church found, Leila Lasley Thompson to fill in for him while he was away. Thompson had married a soldier in 1918 who then was killed in action a few months later, leaving her a war widow. She then studied for the ministry at Manchester College, Oxford, England, a Unitarian theological school; was fellowshipped as a Unitarian minister by the American Unitarian Association; and pursued post-graduate study in 1925 at the Pacific Unitarian School for the Ministry.
Robinson departed at the end of 1925, leaving Leila Thompson in charge of the congregation. The congregation ordained her on Sunday, February 7, 1926. A month or so later, Robinson decided that he wasn’t going to return to the church. He apparently decided to pursue an academic career, although a note from him dated April 5, 1926, has a cryptic reference about protecting himself from “the charge of using this leave of absence as an opportunity of running away from an unpleasant situation without giving everyone a chance to be heard.” The “unpleasant situation” may well have been the long-standing conflict between the pacifist faction and the pro-war faction. Not even Robinson, with his skill and experience, had been able to heal that conflict.
After going east, Robinson never returned to Palo Alto — which sounds a little too much like Bradley Gilman’s departure from the church. In September, 1926, the church called Leila Thompson as the sole minister of the church. She was reportedly the first regularly ordained woman to serve a minister of a Palo Alto church.
Sadly, Leila Thompson received little support from the lay leaders. Sunday morning attendance dropped even more, from 34 in 1925, down to 27 in 1926, and then to 22 in 1927. Sunday school plummeted from 62 in 1925 down to 25 by 1927. The Young People’s Group continued to be active; Gertrude Rendtorff was still a Stanford student, and perhaps her continued participation kept that group going.
Alfred S. Niles, a lifelong Unitarian, moved to Palo Alto with his wife Florence, also a Unitarian, in the fall of 1927. When they arrived in town, Alfred and Florence sought out the Unitarian church. He found a church that was “still functioning, but rather feebly.” He was told that the church had once been active, “but the minister at the time of World War I had been a pacifist and conscientious objector [i.e., William Short, Jr.], and this had caused a split in the church from which it never recovered.”
Attendance got so low that the congregation tried moving the services to the evening, but that didn’t help matters. At the end of December, 1927, Leila Thompson resigned. It appears from the extant records that everyone became aware that there really wasn’t enough money to pay her salary any more, not even with the assistance the church still received from the American Unitarian Association. The church got Clarence Vickland, a student at the Pacific Unitarian School for the Ministry, to come preach to them in 1927-1928. Sunday morning attendance continued to drop, down to an average of 21, and by December, 1928, the Sunday school had closed “as there was not sufficient interest manifested to justify continuing the work.”
Finally, in 1929, the church stopped holding services altogether. Clarence Vickland wrote to the Women’s Alliance asking if they would like to host a visiting Unitarian minister on March 3, but they replied that “it would be impossible to get the congregation together.” 1929 was also the year that Karl and Emma Rendtorff retired to Carmel. With the Rendtorffs about to leave town, there was no real hope for the church. In May, 1930, Rufus Hatch Kimball reported to the Women’s Alliance that the Board of Trustees had turned the church building over to the American Unitarian Association. The church had finally dissolved.
The Women’s Alliance was declining, too. They continued to work on charitable projects — at their June, 1932, meeting, they worked on sewing for the Needlework Guild — but their numbers were shrinking. By May, 1930, the membership list had only nineteen names, and after Anna Probst Zschokke’s name appeared the notation, “Died May 30, 1929.” Like the church, the Alliance was slowly winding down and dying away.
The building sat vacant until early 1931. Then in February, 1931, Mary Engle reported to the Alliance that the American Unitarian Association had begun fixing up the building, and it was “now all in good repair and new locks have been put on the doors so that no invading hands could open them and…have access to Church of Alliance property.” By Easter Sunday, services were once again being held in the church, and Merrill Bates, the theological student who had been given charge of the church, had started up the church school once again.
The Alliance tried to help with the revived Sunday school, but grew discouraged with the tiny attendance, leaving Merrill Bates to manage on his own. Merrill Bates, Berkeley Blake, regional field secretary for the American Unitarian Association, and William S. Morgan, president of the Pacific Unitarian School for the Ministry, each preached to the church once a month, with Bates arranging supply preachers for the other Sundays.
Bates continued in the Palo Alto church until he graduated in spring of 1934. It’s hard to know how many of the old-time members still participated in the church. On March 27, 1932, Henry David Gray, who had become a member of the church in 1905, preached the Easter sermon. But most of the old members had either died, or moved away, or given up on the church. The Alliance held its last meeting on October 11, 1932, without even coming to a conclusion as to whether they should formally dissolve or not.
In April, 1934 — a month or so before Merrill Bates graduated from the Pacific Unitarian School for the Ministry — the American Unitarian Association put a “For Sale” sign up in front of the building. The building soon sold, for less than its mortgaged value. The American Unitarian Association retained possession of the organ, however, and gave it to the Unitarian church in Stockton, Calif. on permanent loan (Clarence Vickland was then the minister in Stockton). As Alfred Niles put it, there would be “no more organized Unitarianism in Palo Alto for several years.”
Indeed, there was no organized Unitarianism in Palo Alto for almost exactly thirteen years. In 1936, the liberal Quaker Elton Trueblood became the chaplain at Stanford University, and some Unitarians — like Alfred and Frances Niles — found Stanford’s Memorial Church a congenial place to go on Sunday mornings. Other Unitarians found other religious homes. Josephine Duveneck became active with the American Friends (Quaker) Service Committee, and eventually became a Quaker herself. Alice Locke Park also became a Quaker. Several Palo Alto Unitarians gave up on organized religion altogether.
Even for the Unitarians who went to hear Elton Trueblood preach each week at Stanford, there was no Unitarian Sunday school for those with children, and there was no Unitarian minister to officiate at rites of passage such as weddings and funerals. Perhaps more importantly for many, there was no Unitarian community of which to be a part. Then when Elton Trueblood left Stanford in 1945, there wasn’t even any liberal preaching in town.
In May, 1944, the American Unitarian Association organized the Church of the Larger Fellowship to serve Unitarians who didn’t have a nearby Unitarian church that they could belong to. This was a sort of mailorder church which sent monthly newsletters with sermons and other material of interest to Unitarians; it was, in a sense, an expansion of the old Post Office Mission. The Church of the Larger Fellowship grew quickly, and within three years, a dozen or so Palo Alto Unitarians had already joined.
A New Congregation, 1947
In November, 1946, Alfred Niles saw a notice in the Christian Register, then the name of the denominational periodical, that the American Unitarian Association had appointed Rev. Delos O’Brian to be the the Regional Director for the West Coast, with an office in San Francisco. In February, 1947, Alfred Niles made an appointment to visit Delos O’Brian, who showed him two lists of names from the Church of the Larger Fellowship, one with a dozen names from the Palo Alto area, and another with a dozen names from San Mateo. Delos O’Brian was still undecided whether to organize a new Unitarian church in Palo Alto or San Mateo, and Alfred Niles later claimed that it was his visit that helped tilt the balance to Palo Alto. And on April 6, 1947, Delos O’Brian held an initial meeting to organize a new Unitarian group in Palo Alto. The Palo Alto Unitarian Society, as it was first known, grew quickly. Organized Unitarianism had finally returned to Palo Alto.
But even though many of the members of the old Unitarian Church of Palo Alto still lived in the area, most of them did not join the new congregation. Ruth and Everett Calderwood, who were only in their fifties, first claimed they were too elderly to take part, though later they did make financial contributions to the church. Katherine Carruth, who was then seventy-one, said she was sorry but she was too old to participate.
Edna True, on the other hand, who at seventy-two was older than the Calderwoods or Katherine Carruth, attended the very first meeting of the society, and became a member of the congregation. Clearly, while some Palo Alto Unitarians retained their enthusiasm for being part of a Unitarian church, others had lost all such enthusiasm. When Dan Lion arrived in Palo Alto as the first full-time minister of the new church, he made contact with some of the former Palo Alto Unitarians. He made an audio recording of his memories of calling on some of those former Palo Alto Unitarians, and while that recording has been lost, nevertheless, we can make a pretty good guess why those former Palo Alto Unitarians stayed away — the bitter conflicts that split the church, the incessant lack of money, the sense that they had been betrayed by some of their ministers and by the denomination, all contributed to drive these people away from any Unitarian congregation.
Other former Palo Alto Unitarians were happy to join the new congregation. Alfred and Frances Niles were central figures in the new congregation. Edna True was a member of the congregation up until she died, when she left a large bequest to the church. Rufus Kimball was integral in helping the new congregation claim its tax-exempt status. Ruth Steinmetz, a graduate of the old church’s Sunday school, joined the new church and remained active in it the rest of her life. Cornelis Bol, who had moved to Holland before the First World WAr, returned to Palo Alto in time to join the new congregation. Walter Palmer, who lived in Oakland by then, heard about the new church, and contacted them saying that he had been one of the charter members of the old church, and would like to be on the mailing list, though he wouldn’t be able to participate. Gertrude Rendtorff, living in Monterey, also heard about the new church in Palo Alto and asked to be on the mailing list.
Then too, as time went on, descendants of some of those former Palo Alto Unitarian families resumed a connection to the church. Guido Townley Marx, grandson of Palo Alto Unitarians Guido H. and Gertrude Marx, was married in the new church. Candace Longanecker, granddaughter of Errol and Laura Longanecker, was another grandchild who was married in the new church. And over the years, Dan Lion officiated at the memorial services of a handful of those former Palo Alto Unitarians.
The new congregation, renamed the Palo Alto Unitarian Church in 1951, was wildly successful. By 1965, they had three worship services each Sunday, and the Sunday school had some six hundred children enrolled. In less than twenty years, the Palo Alto Unitarian Church became one of the largest Unitarian congregations on the West Coast. So why did the old Unitarian Church of Palo Alto die, and the new Palo Alto Unitarian Church succeed?
Partly, it was a matter of demographics and the economy. Before the Second World War, Palo Alto was a small town, probably too small to support a viable Unitarian church. After the war, both Palo Alto and the surrounding area gained population rapidly while at the same time the economy was booming. This meant the new congregation could grow quickly so it didn’t need to be subsidized by the denomination, and furthermore the new congregation could attract, and pay for, excellent professional leadership. But then when the new congregation faced financial stress in the late 1960s and early 1970s, due both to demographic decline and a declining economy, conflict erupted and membership and participation plummeted. Demographics and the economy are major influences on congregational growth and decline.
It was also partly because the old Unitarian Church of Palo Alto was unable to integrate new leadership. It’s no coincidence that the congregation died within a year after Karl and Emma Rendtorff retired to Carmel. By the 1920s, the Women’s Alliance consisted solely of elderly and middle-aged women; the older women had not made room for young women to be part of the Alliance. As they aged, the small core of leaders that ran the old church was reluctant to share power with younger people.
Then too, the conflicts that engulfed the old church never healed. Marion Alderton, Alice Park, Josephine Duveneck and others never really forgave their fellow Unitarians. And there were others who didn’t formally resign from the church, but nor could they ever quite forgive. The old Unitarian Church of Palo Alto proved unable to deal effectively with the conflict between the pro-war faction and the pacifists.
Perhaps most importantly, though, the old Unitarian Church of Palo Alto didn’t have a compelling vision for itself. For much of its history, it was little more than a social club that happened to own a beautiful little building. This was part of the reason they couldn’t overcome their conflicts — when a congregation is little more than a social group, with no big purpose, there is nothing larger to inspire people to move past the conflict. Because the congregation was little more than a social group, when Elmo Arnold Robinson came along and welcomed people of different classes and ethnic groups into the church, the long-time members didn’t even bother to engage with the newcomers. As a result, they were unable to retain the newcomers who could provide new leadership, and help pay the bills. Indeed, by the late 1920s the long-time members seemed to have lost interest in Unitarianism, and to have lost interest in figuring out how their Unitarian church could affect the wider community.
In late 1947, Rev. Nat Lauriat ran into a similar problem, with a new generation of Palo Alto Unitarians. Lauriat was the dynamic minister of the San Jose Unitarian church who drove up to Palo Alto each week to preach to the new Palo Alto Unitarian Society, and to help them get organized. He wrote to denominational officials that “the general feeling was to proceed with great caution, and just have a pleasant little group.” However, Nat Lauriat found younger Unitarians who “wanted more action and growth,” and with his encouragement, these younger Unitarians were the ones who took over leadership, and built a thriving new congregation on their vision of Unitarianism as a force for good in the world. Nat Lauriat challenged the Palo Alto Unitarians to think of liberal religion as more than just a social club.
This is a perennial challenge for any Unitarian Universalist congregation. It is a challenge that Palo Alto Unitarian Universalists face today. There is still a feeling among some of today’s Palo Alto Unitarian Universalists “to proceed with great caution, and just have a pleasant little group.” But when we hear the story of the old Unitarian Church of Palo Alto, we find that proceeding “with great caution” and having “a pleasant little group” ultimately leads to decay and dissolution. It’s the congregations with a larger vision — the congregations that hunger for “more action and growth” — that grow and thrive, that nurture the growth of their members, and that ultimately change the world around them for the better.
Part Five 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.
In November, 1921, Elmo Arnold Robinson, known as “Robbie,” arrived at the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto with his wife Olga and sons Kelsey, who was 9 months old, and Arnold, almost 5 years old. Robbie, ordained as a Universalist minister, had lots of experience in small congregations, plus he had just finished a two-year stint as the Director of Religious Education at a church in southern California. Olga was also licensed as a Universalist minister, although her time was taken up with her small children. It’s hard to imagine that the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto could have found a better match for their needs.
Not much happened in Robinson’s first year, except that Sunday school enrollment dropped still further. Emma Rendtorff had been the superintendent of the Sunday school in the 1920-1921 school year, and Sunday school enrollment crept back up to 31 children, but that was Emma’s last year as superintendent; her daughter Gertrude entered Stanford University in the fall of 1921, so Emma was no longer quite so invested in the Sunday school. In 1921-1922, Elmo Robinson’s first year, the church went through three Sunday school superintendents: Jessie Morton, who was William H. Carruth’s mother-in-law; William Ewert, a student at Stanford University; and Frank Gonzales, another Stanford student who served the longest of the three. With all that turnover, it’s not surprising that enrollment in the Sunday school dropped to 20, probably the lowest enrollment since 1908.
But Elmo Robinson had already turned his thoughts to religious education. In the summer of 1922, his essay “The Place of the Child in the Religious Education Community” was published in the Pacific Unitarian. This essay outlined a progressive philosophy of religious education that was tied to social reform:
“Every religious community believes that the future can be made better than the present. Every church, while cherishing certain ideals and methods of the past, must fire its young people with a vision of the future which will encourage them to devise new ways and means to realize it. Do you want world peace? World justice? The cooperative commonwealth?… All these things can be accomplished only by admitting children and young people to the full fellowship of the religious community as friends….”
Presumably, this essay repeated what had already been going on in the Palo Alto church. Bertha Chapman Cady was one of the teachers in the Sunday school in 1921-1922, and she involved the children in helping to run the class; one of her daughters, for example, became the class secretary. Children were becoming fully involved into the religious community of the church. The lay leaders seem to have found his vision a compelling one. The next school year, 1922-1923, the charismatic William Carruth agreed to be the superintendent of the Sunday school, and enrollment immediately shot up to 33 children.
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.
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  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.
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.
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?
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.
The Unitarian Church of Palo Alto Begins, 1905-1910
In 1905, Helene and Ewald 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.
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.
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.”