Obscure Unitarians: Isabel Dye Butler

A key figure in the history of Unitarianism in Palo Alto, and a Mexican-American (but not an immigrant), Isabel Dye was born July 9, 1840 (other sources say June, 1840), in an old adobe house in Santa Cruz, California, the child of Job Francis Dye and Ecolástica Rodriguez.

Isabel’s mother, Ecolástica Rodriguez, born in 1822, was a Mexican citizen — this was before Mexico ceded California to the U.S. — and reportedly the daughter of the Minister to Mexico from Spain. As a young beauty, Ecolástica owned a Parisian lace dress, allegedly worth $1,000 when new (roughly $24,000 in 2015 dollars).

Isabel’s father, Job Francis Dye, was born in Kentucky in 1807, and traveled over land to southern California, arriving in Jan., 1832. In 1839, he lived in Monterey, where he met and married Ecolastica; ran a distilling business in Santa Cruz in 1840, where Isabel was born. The family returned to Monterey when Isabel was barely a year old; she was carried by her father on a pillow on his saddle.

Not long thereafter, Job received a land grant from the Mexican government of 26,700 acres along the Sacramento River in what is now Tehama County. The family stayed in Monterey, but Job had 1,000 head of cattle and 200 horses on the Central Valley ranch, called “Antelope Rancho.”

When she was about five years old, Isabel’s mother drove her around in old Monterey, bringing baskets of food and clothing to poor people. She continued doing charitable and benevolent work throughout her life.

In 1848, Job went to fight with General Fremont of the U.S., and Isabel Fremont and his troops march into Monterey. She gave a loud “Hurrah!” when she saw them, only to be slapped on the face by Alvarado, an older relative on her mother’s side. She participated in the raising of the new flag in Monterey.

The Gold Rush prompted Job to move to Antelope Ranch in 1849, to take advantage of economic possibilities there. Isabel, however, went to school at Notre Dame Convent in San Jose, a part of the first class of students in that school. Her chief attainments at school were facility in a number of languages, and skill at the piano.

Within a few years of the move, Job and Ecolástica apparently divorced, for Job married a second wife in 1853. Isabel went to live with her father in Tehama County, and at this time broke with her mother’s Catholic religion.

Isabel married John Strange Butler Jan. 15, 1859, in Tehama County, Calif. John was born Nov., 1829, in Indiana; he came to California in 1852, and after mining for three years started the first newspaper in Red Bluff, Tehama County, Calif.

She and John had four children of their own: Thomas (b. c. 1860), Minnie (b. Dec., 1861), Charles E. (b. April 14, 1868, Idaho; d. Dec. 20, 1897, Palo Alto), and Isabel (b. Jul., 1872). She also took care of 28 orphans over the course of her life. The first orphan she took in was in the early years of her married life; after whites massacred local native Americans, there were several babies left alive, and Isabel took one in.

After starting the newspaper, John S. then turned to farming until in Sept., 1862, Job Dye asked him to help sell cattle to miners headed to the silver mines in Idaho. He decided to start a newspaper in Idaho with his brother Thomas, and by Sept., 1863, they began publishing the Boise News. The rest of the family joined him in Idaho, and Isabel and John’s third child, Thomas E., was born in Idaho in 1868.

Thomas and John tried to maintain political neutrality in their newspaper, but it was quickly apparent that they were die-hard Republicans, in a state dominated by Democrats who supported the Confederacy. Even though they were financially successful, they felt pressure to sell out to a Democrat. They went on to start two other newspapers elsewhere in Idaho. In 1870, John finally decided to leave Idaho and return to California. The family settled in Oakland, where John established a job and book printing business.

In Feb., 1877, Isabel came into a large amount of money. The San Francisco Call reported the story this way: “In 1877, Isabel came into a large amount of money: “Fortune has showered its gifts profusely on Mrs. I. Butler, wife of John S. Butler, a printer, of Oakland. Mrs. Maria Isabel Toomes, of Tehama county, came to San Francisco in ill-health some time ago for medical treatment. Six months heretofore she removed to Oakland and recovered rapidly, but two months ago she was seized with typhus fever and sank under it. She was accompanied to the city by her adopted daughter, an invalid, about 20 years of age, and by a housekeeper. Mrs. Butler, living next door to the sick lady, was Samaritan-like in her attentions, and, on her death-bed, Mrs. Toomes summoned her lawyer, and devised all her property, real and personal, to Mrs, Butler, merely stipulating that her adopted invalid daughter, Nellie Toomes, should be provided for and maintained during her life out of the estate.” (quoted from the Call in the Isabella County Enterprise, Mount Pleasant, Mich., Feb. 21, 1877)

The truth was less romantic. Maria Toomes was the wife of Albert G. Toomes, a partner of Isabel’s father, Job Dye, back in the Red Bluff days’ Albert and Job had received adjacent land grants from the Mexican government. Maria Toomes had grown up in Monterey, and probably knew Isabel there. in any case, Isabel inherited $141,000, equivalent to $3.1 million in 2015 dollars.

The Butlers moved to Palo Alto in the early 1890s. Rev. Eliza Tupper Wilkes, then serving part-time as the associate minister at the Unitarian Church in Oakland, and part-time helping start up new congregations throughout northern California, came to preach in Palo Alto several times in 1895. On Feb. 12, 1896, thirty people met in the Butler’s living room to form a “Unity Society,” a lay-led Unitarian fellowship; John became the Treasurer of the Committee on Executive and Finance. One wonders if the Butlers had been members of the Unitarian church in Oakland, and whether they helped bring Wilkes to preach in Palo Alto to help start up the new Unity Society.

The Unity Society did not last more than a year or two. But a core of Uitarians remained in Palo Alto, and finally in 1905, with the help of funding from the American Unitarian Association, a new Unitarian church was formed. Once again, the initial meeting was held in the Butler house.

Both Butlers were active in the new church. John once again became the Treasurer of the new organization. For her part, Isabel was one of the charter members of the Women’s Alliance. They were the largest single contributor to the fund to purchase a lot for the Unitarian Church building in 1905 ($200, about $5250 in 2015 dollars).

Isabel died June 4, 1913, after which John moved back to Oakland; he died there Oct. 30, 1916.

Notes: 1900 U.S. Census; Ewald Flügel, “Isabel Dye Butler: Memorial Address given at the Unitarian Church, Palo Alto,” Pacific Unitarian, July, 1913, pp. 264-266; Federal Writers Project, Works Progress Administration, California: A Guide to the Golden State, New York: Hastings House, 1939; “Job Francis Dye,” An Illustrated History of the State of Idaho, Chicago: Lewis Pub. Co., 1899; Ronnie R. Hayes, Idaho World: A Pioneer Chronicle of the Territory 1863-1918, dissertation, Univ. of Montana, 1982; obituary, Oakland Tribune, June 6, 1913, p. 10; Tehama County Genealogical and Historical Society, “Mexican Land Grants in Tehama County,” tcghsoc.org/MexicanLandGrantsTC.pdf, accessed Nov. 30, 2016; obituary, The Grizzly Bear, Los Angeles: Native Sons of the Golden West, July, 1913, p. 26; Harvard College Class of 1890, 1903-1909, 1909; “Active Veteran Printer Passes,” American Printer and Lithographer, New York: Oswald Publ., Nov. 20, 1916, pp. 54-55; death notice, San Francisco Call, June 6, 1913.

Obscure Unitarians: Mabel and Louise Mead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mabel Mead Marsh

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

Obscure Unitarians: Mary and George Rosebrook, pioneers

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

Here are brief biographies of Mary and George:

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

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

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

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

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

She died after 1920.

 

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

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

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

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

He died before 1920.

Obscure Unitarians: the Rendtorff / Meyer family

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

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

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

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

Obscure Unitarians: Melville B. Anderson

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

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

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

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

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

Anderson died on June 22, 1933.

Obscure Unitarians: John Merton Aldrich

John Merton Aldrich was born Jan. 28, 1866, in Olmsted County, Minnesota, and went to school in Rochester (where there is a Unitarian church founded in 1866). He graduated from South Dakota State University in 1888, and received his M.S. there. In 1893, John founded the Department of Zoology at the University of Idaho. He married Ellen Roe of Brookings, South Dakota, and they lived in Moscow, Idaho.

After four years of marriage, his wife and infant son died, and he lost himself in his researches on insects of the order Diptera, or true flies. On June 28, 1905, he married Della Smith of Moscow, Idaho. He then took a year of sabbatical leave, went to Stanford University to study, and received his Ph.D. in May, 1906. While at Sanford, he was active in the formation of the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto.

One of the pre-eminent entomologists of his day, he became Associate Curator and Custodian of Diptera at the Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C., and became a member and trustee of All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington. He died May 7, 1934, just before setting out on a collecting trip to the West Coast.

More on Wikipedia.

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.

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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.

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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.]

Continue reading “Rebirth and Decline, 1919-1934”

War and influenza, 1915-1919

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

The years of the First World War proved difficult for the Palo Alto Unitarians. It was a congregation full of pacifists, but after the entry of the United States into the World War, the American Unitarian Association demanded that every congregation that received funding must support the war wholeheartedly. A financial report of the A.U.A. published in the June 6, 1918, issue of The Christian Register (p. 19) shows that the A.U.A. was paying their minister of the time, Bradley Gilman, $50 a month, or $600 a year.

The Palo Alto Unitarians had been accustomed to the pacifist views of former ministers Rev. Sydney Snow and Rev. William Short, but the war years forced them to accept the pro-war ministry of Bradley Gilman. The relationship with Gilman appears to have been strained; he left after only two years, and never served another congregation as minister; and the Palo Alto Unitarians tried to do without a minister for nearly two years.

New Unitarian Pastor (1915)

The church at Palo Alto has called to the vacant pulpit Rev. William Short, Jr., now in Boston, and highly recommended by those who know him, and also know the requirements of the church calling him. Mr. Short has accepted the call and will enter upon his ministry on the third Sunday of November.
— The Pacific Unitarian, vol. 15, no. 1, November, 1915 (San Francisco: Pacific Unitarian Conference), p. 7.

New Unitarian Pastor.— A reception in honor of the new Unitarian church pastor, Mr. William Short, Jr., who has recently arrived from the east, was held in the Unitarian church hall last evening.
— from “Palo Alto Notes” in The Daily Palo Alto [Stanford], vol. 47, no. 58, November 18, 1915, p. 3.

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A “Centre of Liberalism” on the Peninsula (1917)

Palo Alto, Cal.— Unitarian Church. Rev. William Short, Jr.: The Palo Alto church has had a very interesting two years with Rev. William Short, Jr., as minister. Although new to the service, Mr. Short has brought to it an earnestness and vigor, and a great broad humanity, which have meant to the church increased growth in those principles upon which it is founded. In this tremendous national crisis, when the democracy of the country is on trial, the Palo Alto church has been one of the very few where the privilege of complete freedom of speech in the pulpit has not been restrained. The membership of the church is small, about forty in number, and the lack of moral support due to isolation from other centres of liberal thought is very keenly felt. The nearest sister church is in San Jose, eighteen miles distant, and the next nearest in San Francisco, over thirty miles in the other direction, the dominating note in the theology of the region being definitely conservative.

The congregation is of a vigorous and thoughtful kind, avoiding a deadly conformity of opinion. It has maintained its stand for the universal character of religion. The pamphlet-rack in the vestibule must be constantly refilled. In conformity with its Unitarian heritage, the church hall has given hospitality during the past winter 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 and an ardent advocate of the cause of oppressed nations. Two physical training clubs for women and girls have had their home in the hall, as well as a dub 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. The Women’s Alliance at its annual meeting was fortunate in having as guests Dr. Franklin C. Southworth and Mrs. Southworth and Secretary Charles A. Murdock. It has been the privilege of the church to welcome to the pulpit Rev. Charles F. Dole of Jamaica Plain, Mass. His sermon was “The Religion Beneath All Religions.” The church, probably in common with most others, has suffered somewhat from the mental and financial depression due to war conditions, though the members realize the importance of maintaining its integrity as the only centre of liberalism in a wide extent of country.

— The Christian Register (Boston: American Unitarian Association), vol. 96, no. 29, July 19, 1917, p. 694.

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Denial of Writ of Habeus Corpus for William Short (1918)

[The following is excerpted from the hearing for a writ of habeus corpus filed by Rev. William Short’s wife, following his arrest and detention on charges of draft evasion. The Peoples’ Council mentioned in the writ was a national pacifist organization headed by Scott Nearing.]

Ex parte SHORT.
(District Court, N. D. California, First Division. September 5, 1918.)
No. 16417.

In the matter of the application of the wife of William Short for a writ of habeas corpus to secure his discharge from the custody of military authorities. Writ denied, and Short remanded to the custody of military authorities. …

DOOLING, District Judge. The wife of William Short seeks his discharge on habeas corpus from the custody of the military authorities. The record shows that Short, who will be designated herein as the registrant, on January 14, 1918, returned to his local exemption board his questionnaire, in and by which he claimed exemption as “a regular or ordained minister of religion.” In support of such claim he stated:

That “he had been admitted to Unitarian ministerial fellowship In January, 1916, at Palo Alto, Cal., and that on June 5, 1917, he was minister of Palo Alto Unitarian Church.”

To the question, “State place and nature of your religious labors now,” he returned no answer; but in response to the question, “Give all occupations at which you have worked during the last 10 years, including your occupation on May 18, 1917, and since that date, and the length of time you have served in each occupation,” he answered:

“Unitarian minister 1 year and 10 months. From May 15 to June 25, Unitarian minister, time included above. Chairman Northern California branch Peoples’ Council (temporarily) 5 months. Student for balance of time during 10 years.”

Upon these answers he was placed in class VB; that is to say, in the class of a regular or duly ordained minister of religion.

On June 6, 1918, a letter was sent to the local exemption board by the United States attorney, stating that registrant — “registered for the draft at Palo Alto on June 5, 1917. At that time he was acting as a minister in the Unitarian Church of that town, but shortly thereafter resigned from the church and has not been connected in any way with any church since, but has, on the contrary, devoted his time to the activities of the Peoples’ Council, which organization is decidedly unpatriotic in my opinion. I believe that Short should be reclassified and compelled to do military service, other things being equal.” …

From this reclassification he appealed to the district board, which on June 15th denied the appeal.

Thereafter, and on July 19, 1918, he was arrested and on July 20, was by the local board for division No. 1 in San Francisco, certified as a deserter, and delivered to the commanding officer of the United States army, and now is in the custody and under the control of such officer. …

Registrant has suffered no injury at the hands of the local board, and the writ of habeas corpus is therefore discharged, and he is remanded to the custody of the military authorities.

— The Federal Reporter: Cases Argued and Determined in the Circuit Courts of Appeals and District Courts of the United States (St. Paul: West Publishing Co.), Dec. 1918-Jan. 1919, vol. 253, p. 839.

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