The Unity Society of Palo Alto

An excerpt from a history of early Unitarians in Palo Alto. I haven’t made much progress on this project, due to the long hours I’ve been putting in dealing with the pandemic. With luck, I’ll be able to get back to it.

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.” (1)

Organizing churches in college towns had been a standard missionary strategy for the American Unitarian Association (AUA) since the denomination had funded a Unitarian church in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1865. These “college missions” were seen as “one of the most effective ways of extending Unitarianism,” (2) and many of them resulted in strong Unitarian congregations.

But who had the time and the skills to organize a Unitarian church in Palo Alto? The Unitarian church in San Jose was the one nearest to Palo Alto. In early 1893, the two ministers of the San Jose church, Revs. N. A. Haskell and J. H. Garnett, organized two new Unitarian congregations in Los Gatos and Santa Clara, ignoring Palo Alto. (3) Support for a new Palo Alto congregation would have to come from somewhere else.

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Documents on Eliza Tupper Wilkes in Palo Alto

The documents below tell the story of Rev. Eliza Tupper Wilkes and her efforts to start a Unitarian organization in Palo Alto, in the years 1895-1896. (Though a Universalist, she was at that time working for the Unitarians.)

Wilkes first came to the Bay area in 1890: “By the early 1890s, as heart problems and a hectic schedule caught up with her, Wilkes began to spend the winter months in California. During the winter of 1890-91 she served the Alameda, California, Unitarian Church.” [Article on ETW, http://www25.uua.org/uuhs/duub/articles/elizatupperwilkes.html accessed Oct. 10, 2013, 14:32 PDT]

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In 1893, she began serving as Rev. Charles Wendte’s assistant in Oakland. “It should be added that when, in 1893, Mr. Wendte reassumed the Unitarian superintendency for the coast for two years more, he invited Rev. Mrs. Eliza Tupper Wilkes to become his assistant and substitute during his absence. Mrs. Wilkes greatly endeared herself to the congregation during her eighteen months of earnest and efficient service.”

— The Unitarian (collected ed., Boston: George Ellis), March, 1897.

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Since hiring Wilkes allowed Wendte to hold down another paying job, as the Pacific Coast superintendent for Unitarians, he had to pay her out of his own pocket. She was charged with overseeing the Sunday school, pastoral calling, adult organizations, and she was asked to do occasional preaching. Wilkes resigned from Oakland in March, 1895. “Her health had not improved, and Wendte could not afford to pay her.”

— Arnold Crompton, Unitarianism on the Pacific Coast (Starr King Press / Beacon Press, 1957), p. 151.

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By November, 1895, the Pacific Unitarian reported that the Women’s Unitarian Conference voted to continue its support for Wilkes’s missionary work. At that time, she was living in Berkeley.

— “Notes,” November, 1895, vol. 4, no. 1 (San Francisco: ), p. 6.

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According to Doug Chapman, Wilkes “was the first woman to preach at the Stanford University Chapel — in May, 1895. Her sermon was titled ‘Character in the Light of Evolution’.”

— “Dakota Territory’s Eliza Tupper Wilkes: Prairie Pastor,” paper delivered at the Dakota Conference on History, Literature, Art, and Archaeology, Augustana College, 2000. [For an account of this sermon, see this blog post.]

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The Woman’s Club was addressed, at its last meeting, not by Miss Holbrook as advertised, but by Rev. Eliza Tupper Wilkes, of the First Unitarian Church, Oakland. Not having a special address prepared, she was asked to speak of Woman’s Clubs. She said they were in no sense an achievement but a prophesy: the worst use to make of them is as a mutual admiration society, as has been done. That they are needed is an advertisement to the world that women have not yet found their place. Until this is accomplished and men and women stand on the same plane in our meeting Woman’s Club will be a necessity as a means to an end. Separate clubs are a training school for women. In these they hear their own voices, learn executive ability, and gain experience. Yet such clubs are one-sided, disjointed affairs.

As a mother of six children she spoke from experience when she said that mothers needed relief from their home duties, hence she would not have the club a mother’s meeting but a meeting of mothers; a place where they should not hear so much of their own duties, but something of the duties of fathers, if need be. but particularly of outside things, of literature, science, art, that they might take home with them some thought to brighten the daily routine.

— The Palo Alto Times, vol. 3, no. 18, May 10, 1895, p. 2.

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Mrs. Wilkes will hold Unitarian services at Parkinson’s Hall, Sunday afternoon, November 3rd, at 4 o’clock. All are invited.

— The Palo Alto Times, vol. 3, no. 44, November 1, 1895, p. 3.

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