We are a community with a long-standing tradition of freedom of thought, speech and religion. The First Unitarian Church of Berkeley was founded on July 12, 1891. In 1997, the congregation voted to change the name to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley.
In 1898, we moved into our first building, a beautiful redwood structure that still stands at the corner of Dana and Bancroft in Berkeley. The early years were a period of growth and enthusiasm, characterized by a close relationship with UC Berkeley and the Starr King School for Religious Leadership. During the McCarthy era in the 1950s, we were one of several UU congregations that refused to sign the California Loyalty Oath, an action successfully upheld by the Supreme Court.
In 1961, we moved to our present eight-acre site in Kensington looking out to the San Francisco Bay. Today, there are approximately 325 UUCB Members and numerous additional Friends.
Below is a history of the church written in 1981, during the 22-year ministry of Rev. Richard Boeke. He was succeeded by Revs. Barbara and Bill Hamiltion-Holway, co-ministers from 1996 to 2014. After their retirement, Rev. Greg Ward came in for a two-year period as Interim Minister. Revs. Christian and Kristin Schmidt served as senior co-ministers from 2016 to 2020, followed by another Interim Minister, Rev. Michelle Collins who is serving through July 31, 2023. Please note that this is a historical document written in the context of that time.
The Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley: A History
By Merv Hasselmann, © 1981
Background to the Founding
Stated in simplest terms, it might be said that histories are written to inspire and inform. It is hoped that readers of this history—present and potential members and friends of this church, particularly—will be rewarded with good measures of both.
It might also be said that the evolvement of the large and influential Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley was inevitable; that conditions in the university town of Berkeley in 1891 and following—decades of great scientific discovery and enlightenment—made a temple of “the religion of reason” a surety.
Yet others might argue that nothing is inevitable, that all institutions are the shadow of one person; a few, then substantial numbers of inspired and determined people, some to start, some to continue through periods of adversity and to utilize new opportunities. In the case of this church, the preponderance of evidence is that the latter is true.
Rev. Thomas Starr King
It is quite possible that Thomas Starr King, second minister of the First Unitarian Church of San Francisco, 1860 – 1864, and Western Unitarians’ great hero, looked across the Bay and envisioned a large and influential Unitarian church standing there beside a magnificent institution of higher learning. After all, in addition to being the state’s outstanding spiritual force in the early 1860’s, Starr King was an apostle of education. He had been the principal speaker at the dedication of San Francisco’s first high school, and was a director of the College of California, forerunner of the University of California.
He is most revered, of course, as the great speaker-citizen who, addressing many, many audiences throughout the state, did more than anyone else to keep California in the Union and free of slavery. His statue, one of two representing California in the National Capitol, commemorates this achievement. At the same time, he spearheaded, here in California, the raising of funds for the Unitarian-conceived U.S. Sanitary Commission, which became today’s Red Cross, and more money was raised for it in this new state than in all the other states combined.
Rev. Charles William Wendte
If Starr King didn’t envision this church, he at least inspired the man who did: Charles William Wendte, a young man in Starr King’s congregation. Twenty years later, Wendte, aided by Dr. Horatio Stebbins, successor to Starr King in the San Francisco pulpit, advocated the establishment of the First Unitarian Church of Berkeley, along with a seminary in Berkeley, at the September 1890 meeting of the Pacific Unitarian Conference. Their proposal was accepted unanimously and enthusiastically and they proceeded forthwith.
Heretofore due credit has not been given to Wendte for his part in the establishment of the Berkeley church. In 1864, though well along the way to a promising business career in San Francisco, he decided to go back East for the best ministerial training he could get, plus some good experience, and then came back to the West Coast to promote the opportunities for Unitarianism that he felt were here.
He did precisely this, coming back in 1886 as Western States Superintendent for the American Unitarian Association. In the following six years, he established twelve new churches in his territory. The most notable of these was the First Unitarian Church of Oakland, where, as part-time minister, he built up a congregation of more than 500 and personally raised most of the $86,000 needed to erect the imposing Oakland church, now a state landmark.
At the same time, this human dynamo made the Oakland church the cultural center of the East Bay, with a large auditorium (seating for 600) and a non-sectarian literary-philosophical club and library. Numerous notables from the East, Unitarian and otherwise, addressed this forum.
Wendte used the then-new university extension courses of both UC and Stanford on a grand scale, inviting a half-dozen professors from each school to come to lecture to his large audiences. For example, President David Starr Jordan of Stanford gave six lectures on evolution, then very controversial.
The success and prestige of Wendte’s Oakland church had to be a factor in the planning for a Berkeley church. It gave the Berkeley Unitarians confidence and later, as the University took over the cultural leadership of the East Bay, the Berkeley church steadily took over the East Bay’s Unitarian leadership.
During his six years in his East Bay headquarters, Wendte spent substantial amounts of time in Berkeley and at the University of California. He was invited to join the Berkeley Literary Club, the town’s most prestigious cultural society of business, professional and university people (membership limited to 30). For a year, he taught classes for the University’s History Department, after a professor abruptly resigned. Unitarians were especially close to the University in those days.
In September 1890, before the Berkeley church was in existence, Wendte founded the Berkeley Unitarian Club of California, “after a similar institution in Boston and after conferences with UC President Davis, Stebbins and Charles A. Maddock.” It was limited to 200 members, “had a long and auspicious career, was a rallying place not only for Unitarian lay [people], but for large-minded and liberal men of various denominations and eventually led to the Unitarian Laymen’s League.” A similar organization he founded in San Francisco is the ancestor of that city’s prestigious Commonwealth Club.
UC President Davis (1888-1890), a prominent San Francisco businessman and political leader, was a long-time friend of Wendte; as young men they were members of Starr King’s church. Together they worked out the plans for the University’s seminary, described later. UC’s first president, Henry Durant, was a Unitarian and the University’s policy on religion could well have been written by its Unitarians. As Wendte describes it, “The University maintained toward religion a reverential and friendly attitude, while declining to identify itself with any church of doctrine. There were Unitarians and Israelites, as well as orthodox Protestants and Roman Catholics on its Board of Regents and on its faculties.”
Thus, when plans for establishing a Unitarian church in Berkeley were under discussion, Wendte was very helpful in recruiting leaders for it and lists of potential members. In December 1890, he recruited a successor, with AUA approval, for the Western States Superintendent, Rev. Thomas Van Ness, and Wendte coached and assisted him in the formation of the Berkeley church.
Before he resigned from the Oakland church and went back East for a much needed one-year rest, Wendte could point to three Unitarian churches in the East Bay, largely due to his leadership – Oakland, Alameda and Berkeley. For a total population of 50,000, this was a record for Unitarianism, which may still stand.
One reason why Unitarianism flourished here before and after the turn of the century: it was the only religion that could fully accept the greatly expanding findings of science of the times. Many religions still cannot do so.
Dr. Horatio Stebbins
Dr. Horatio Stebbins, a deliberate, competent, solid citizen, contributed much to the decision to form a Berkeley church. He was a Regent of the University of California from its inception in 1868 to 1894 and, thanks to his prestige as a prominent citizen, added much to the acceptance of Unitarianism in the East Bay.
Together Stebbins and Wendte must have provided the new Berkeley congregation with the ready-to-use constitution it had at its first meeting. Stebbins also persuaded them to accept sixteen-year-olds (“of good report”) as members and to adopt the name First Unitarian Church of Berkeley instead of First Unitarian Society of Berkeley. There was much behind Stebbins’ urging “church” in preference to “society.” One of the efforts of the Socialist political party of the time was to try to make Unitarian churches ethics-only societies, and to identify them with the Party. There was also a threatening schism developing within Unitarianism. Beginning in 1867, among Midwestern churches particularly, there were many who wanted to make all Unitarian churches ethics-only societies, whereas almost all East Coast and West Coast churches wanted to continue emphasizing ethics along with essentially religious, non-Trinitarian Christianity.
This schism was resolved in 1892, with the understanding that each church could be as ethics-oriented or as religiously-oriented as it wished and still be in the American Unitarian Association. Over the years, the relative importance of these two philosophies and others varied in the First Unitarian Church of Berkeley.
First six years
The First Unitarian Church of Berkeley was founded on Sunday, July 12, 1891, in space rented from the Berkeley Odd Fellows Temple, then on Shattuck Street, a couple of blocks south of its present location. Some have said that this first meeting was held in a saloon on the first floor, but if so, suitable quarters were found for subsequent meetings.
Details of what happened before that July 12 meeting have gone with the founders to their graves, but it has been said that, as early as Easter of the year, some were, in the idiom of those horse-drawn carriage days, “champing at the bit to get going.”
On that great Founders Day, 32 charter members signed the book. A few more signed the following week, and by the end of the year, membership was 50. Then, as now, there were as many who didn’t sign the book as did, so that the total church family was approximately 100.
First Board of Trustees
On Sunday, July 19, Rev. Thomas Van Ness came to extend the right hand of fellowship to the new congregation. On Sunday, July 26, the first Board of Trustees was elected, followed immediately, as today, by the Board’s election of officers, as follows: N.S. Trowbridge, Chair; W.H. Payson, Secretary; D.L. Bishop, Treasurer; J. L. Scotchler; Prof. Mellen W. Haskell; A.W. Jackson; H. Sangster. As might be expected of a Unitarian church in the shadow of a university, two board members were professors. The others were prominent in Berkeley’s business and social life. Most, including Trowbridge, served in Board capacities for much of the following decade. The descriptions of two of them are typical:
It was learned from a distant relative, Mrs. Wm. R. Cox of Alameda, that Trowbridge had come with his parents from the East in a covered wagon, was a prominent businessman in real estate and was once a candidate for Regent of the University though not elected.
From a grandson of the same name, we know that Joseph Scotchler was born in San Francisco in 1856, was graduated from UC in 1878, moved to Berkeley in 1880, was an officer of an insurance company and prominent in Berkeley affairs. He was a boyhood friend of George Pardee, also a Unitarian, and they gave the two student speeches at their UC graduation. Pardee became a governor. Scotchler, a very outgoing person, was a member of the Berkeley Board of Trustees and, in 1893, its president, which is equivalent to today’s mayor.
Congregation, Committees, First Actions
The zeal and determination of our church’s founders and their thoroughly democratic decision-making on every matter is especially impressive. There were frequent after-service meetings of the Board and/or the congregation, but over the years, as the church grew, meetings of the congregation became fewer and fewer. One wonders if this is all for the good. Probably avoidable.
The first committee formed was a Music Committee, and it immediately authorized spending $2.25 for music. By October 11, it was decided to buy 20 hymnals and 40 “service books,” and by November 8, 25 more hymnals had to be purchased. Bertha Brehm, the first church organist, was paid a salary of $5 a month.
In September, the church’s first piece of printing became available, a church constitution. In December, a second printed piece appeared, asking for pledges. By January 10, the first $1,000 had been collected or pledged. On February 14, the third printed piece came out, a brochure telling what the church had to offer: services, Sunday School, Women’s Auxiliary and the Unity Club (then forming).
The good women of the church had their firsts, too. On October 28, 1891, the First Annual Meeting of Women’s Unitarian Conference of the West Coast met in Los Angeles, and some of the Berkeley church’s women attended. By February 12, 1893, those women and others of the church family had their own Women’s Auxiliary ready to go. Mrs. Jane Thomas was elected President, Mrs. Kate Trowbridge, Vice President and Miss S.T. French, Secretary-Treasurer. Church member Captain Thomas lent his stereopticon and war scenes for entertainment. Not long after organizing, and often since, the Women’s Auxiliary has saved the day by coming forward with critically needed loans or contributions. For example, on May 28, 1893, the church, $240 in debt, decided to try to borrow $75 from the Auxiliary. They came through with $125 and the Unity Club, now flourishing, contributed another $75.
1892-1897 – First Minister, Edward A. Payne
When organization of the Berkeley church was begun, the AUA offered to contribute $1,000 toward a minister’s salary for the first year. They did not make it clearly understood that they were thinking that $500 of their $1,000 would be minister’s salary and $500 would be the salary for the head of the proposed seminary. Then, in December, when the first minister was being hired, Superintendent Van Ness explained what the AUA had meant. The congregation would have none of it, and finally had its way. With the AUA’s contribution, $500 from the Pacific Unitarian Conference and $500 from the church, the first pastor’s salary was a workable $2,000.
Beginning in the fall of 1890 and all through 1891, Wendte and Van Ness sought unsuccessfully to find a qualified pastor-seminarian who would come to this “remote,” doubly-challenging, doubly-uncertain assignment. In the meantime, the congregation found its own minister, nearby Edward A. Payne. He was pleased that it was a minister-only call. The congregation loved him and were fiercely loyal to him and he did a thoroughly satisfactory job. However, the AUA never indicated sincere satisfaction with his efforts, and probably took its pique over the seminary-salary matter out on him. As a result, the church “severed diplomatic relations” with AUA for a time. Payne resigned during the first half of 1897 “to write.”
The new church especially wanted to attract students, “to fill the vacuum for discussion of religious matters” that then existed on the UC campus. Payne’s appeal to the students, included here, is an excellent statement of Unitarianism. The Berkeley church always enjoyed a good relationship with the students and made its facilities available to them for meetings, parties and plays. Comparable facilities did not exist on campus until after UC President Benjamin Ide Wheeler, in 1899, began agitating for what became Stephens Union and Eshleman Hall.
1892 to 1897
In its first six years, the First Unitarian Church of Berkeley experienced just about every difficulty a new and growing congregation could experience. While Wendte and Van Ness had helped with Sunday sermons that first half-year, member Prof. Mellen W. Haskell, as “supply” minister, did most of them for $10 a Sunday. After January 1, of course, Rev. Payne’s salary had to be paid.
The Odd Fellows Hall facilities soon proved inadequate and the church rented Stiles Hall from the University, continuing this arrangement until it could build a church, despite complaints form other churches that that was a “violation of church and state.” Stiles Hall was a large community-sponsored YMCA at Allston and Dana, just north of where the first church was located.
Finances were always a problem. The AUA was most considerate and repeatedly helpful. The Panic of 1893 brought extra difficulties for both the local church and the national organization and the AUA completely shelved the idea of a Pacific Coast seminary. Almost everything done by the church came under the guise of “refinancing” and was a maze of transactions, borrowings from members, funds and banks.
The women’s group was always a money-making body and borrowing from them was done at a rate of 1% interest, whereas borrowing from the bank was 7 to 8%. Maybe the women’s awareness of this discrepancy led to the election of the first woman to the Board of Trustees, Miss Carolyn Bates, April 3, 1895. “Treasurers wore out fast, at the rate of 5 to 1 for chair [persons].”
Some members organized a separate corporation to buy land, presumably because the church had no financial standing and to prevent losing all should the church fail. The church experimented with having one member solicit all who did not promptly pledge, but that must not have been productive for it was not tried a second time.
Despite all the financial difficulties, the continuing effort to buy a desirable and affordable site for a church, begun in 1893, was completed in 1897 as membership and potential income had grown to where planning became feasible. Well, almost.
1897 – 1915, We Build a Church, Enjoy Some “Prosperity”
“From the pits to a peak” might characterize this period of church history. The financial condition could be described as “desperate” for all of 1897 and well into 1898, and there was no minister from January to October. Board member Prof. Haskell was again “supply” minister with some help from guest ministers.
1897-1899 – Rev. William B. Geohegan
In 1897, Rev. William Geohegan came from the East and the Board said he was a “gentleman of broad culture and highly recommended as a preacher of more than ordinary force and eloquence.” He was properly convinced, then became enthusiastic about the congregation’s plans for a church building. He was very likable and must have served his role well for, though he stayed only two years, the church was dedicated to him.
To a banker, the Berkeley congregation’s plans for a church building early in 1898 were almost incredible. That very year, the bank required the co-signatures of ten prominent members on a church loan. Yet the members proceeded doggedly along, met Sunday, January 30th to discuss how their church would be financed – what combination of loans, mortgages plus gifts – and completed the building plans.
The Beloved Church at Bancroft and Dana, 1898
The new church was of unique design and, like most Unitarian churches built since, symbolized this faith’s difference from orthodox faiths. It was the creation of architect A.C. Schweinfurth of the office of A. Page Brown & Co. of San Francisco and New York. He had been instructed to use only the best materials for each purpose. Bernard Maybeck, then a young member of the congregation and eventually a famous California architect, worked in the same offices and may have helped with the church’s design. It was an excellent early example of the Bay Area Shingle style. The building was 40 feet square, with a basement. A member gave the redwood pillars that graced the two front entrances and there were other gifts.
Dedication was November 20, 1898, at 3:30 p.m., with four Unitarian ministers and a rabbi participating. Opinion was divided as to its architectural beauty. One passerby was heard to say “It looks like a powerhouse,” to which the pert answer, of course, was “It is a powerhouse.” Cost, as an interesting comparison, was as follows: Building proper, $5,130.00; Furnace, $167.21; Furniture, $600.00; Insurance, $27.60 – a grand total of $5,924.81.
The front walk and stone facing of the low embankment would come later. To pay for the church, $3,500 was borrowed from AUA on a no-interest, pay-back-one-tenth-each-year basis. The second largest amount was from mortgaging the lot, right after the final payment was made on it.
Other 1898 Highlights
The Channing Club, of young college age people, was organized and, with one interruption, succeeded for a number of years, sponsoring parties, plays, musical evenings and other promotional activities. In April 1901, it sponsored a photographic contest, something of a first for those days, and 227 photos were exhibited in the church parlors.
The Women’s Auxiliary, never ceasing its efforts, that year accomplished the monumental achievement of publishing a book (probably prompted by a similar publishing effort by the women of the Oakland church). Titled “The Berkeley Year,” it consisted of a bird and wildflower calendar and ten short essays, each contributed by a notable of the area. One, accompanied by a reproduction of William Keith’s painting of Strawberry Canyon, was a romanticizing explanation of how, in 1858, the canyon and valley fields had been selected for the UC campus (then the College of California) and how the name “Berkeley” had been chosen. One thousand copies, at $1 each, were printed and sold that year, as was a reprint of 1,500 in 1909.
1900-1904 – Rev. Frederick Lucien Hosmer
The great Unitarian hymnologist, Frederick L. Hosmer, who had retired to Berkeley about the time Geohegan was leaving, promptly volunteered to be interim minister, and soon after was persuaded to continue – with the understanding that his duties would be “limited.” He was always held in highest esteem as a man, scholar, poet and gentle soul. As he had at Harvard, he lectured on hymnology and regularly took part in dedications and other important community affairs. Some of his sermons were published in the Berkeley Gazette. He became minister emeritus of our church until his death in 1929, with an honorarium of $50 a month.
In 1903, a small organ, twin of the one installed in the chapel at Stanford University, was given to the church and with it, Hosmer began the tradition of fine music for which our church has since been known. The organist’s salary was increased to $18 a month, and section leaders were paid – soprano and bass $10, alto and tenor $7.50 a month.
That year, the State of California, following a state constitutional amendment, began to tax churches. Income from recitals, entertainments, lectures and other such events were taxable. This jolted all churches at that time. For a while, the church Board declined proceeds from entertainment, but later paid taxes on the income from renting its parish hall. Eventually, churches asked for “donations” instead of tickets, a practice continued to the present.
The Pacific Unitarian School for the Ministry, Founded 1904
At last the seminary became a reality, beginning operations in the Oakland church with academic standards the same as those at Harvard Divinity School. Its name was changed several times, until it took Starr King School for Religious Leadership. For years, it was located close to the Berkeley church. Dr. Earl Morse Wilbur, father of past member Elizabeth Nelson, became its dean. He was a graduate of Harvard’s Divinity School and had been minister of the Portland, Oregon and Meadville, Pennsylvania churches. When Hosmer resigned on July 1, 1904, Dr. Wilbur agreed to be interim minister so that the church could “take its time to find a man as good as those it had had to date and whose choice would be unanimous.”
It must be explained that, during his UC presidency, 1888 to 1890, Horace Davis, assisted by Wendte, Stebbins and Frank Cutting, a prominent lawyer and member of the Oakland church, conceived another Unitarian first: to have the University collaborate with all the seminaries and allow seminary students to take courses at the University for full credit, thus eliminating expensive duplication in the seminaries as much as possible. Of course, they were thinking of their own proposed seminary, too. Davis sold the idea to the Regents and it has been a boon ever since, the seminaries cooperating in the same way between themselves.
Mr. and Mrs. Cutting and Davis gave substantial sums to the seminary, including land at Dana and Allston, and guaranteed its expenses for the first five years. Our church contributed too, mostly in hospitality to the students, who numbered fifteen the first year. In 1907, the seminary built its “impressive” library, with 4,000 volumes. It still has the largest collection of books on Unitarianism in existence.
Wilbur served most commendably as head of the seminary during its first 26 years. Especially after his retirement, he also did yeoman service for Unitarianism as its historian, first with his famous “Our Unitarian Heritage” and later with his magnum opus “History of Unitarianism.” At the 1953 May Meeting (the national convention), he was given the “Distinguished Unitarian” award. He lived out his 90 years in Berkeley, a helping hand and much respected member of the First Unitarian Church.
1905-1911 – Rev. John Howland Lathrop In March 1905, Dr. Samuel Eliot, President of AUA, personally recommended John Howland Lathrop, who would graduate from Harvard that June, for the position of minister, as did Dean Wilbur and others in the congregation who knew him. His choice was unanimous and, because his experience was limited, he agreed to a starting salary of only $1,500. he did a good job. Some of his sermons were printed in the Berkeley Gazette that first year. All the unmarried women of the church and beyond were making eyes at this fine young man, and by October 1907 church soloist Lita Schlessinger had captured him. Or was it the other way around? Their wedding was a romantic highlight in the church’s history.
The feelings of success and prosperity, begun during Hosmer’s ministry, continued. At least for a while finances were not in a critical state. The AUA offered to write off $700 of the $1,050 still owed on the church mortgage if the church would pay off the other $350 and promise not to ask AUA for financial help again. That year, the church gave $30 to AUA and $20 to the Pacific Coast Conference.
On March 1, 1905, the first of two “Church Yearbooks” appeared, showing 346 adults in the congregation, 103 families, 58 single persons, 154 signed-the-book members, 49 in the Women’s Auxiliary, and 67 “scholars” in the Sunday School. The 72 who had moved away but considered themselves still members were not included in the above figures.
That fall, member Bernard Maybeck was engaged to design a portico over the door to the minister’s study. One hundred hymnals were purchased. At the November 10 Annual Meeting, the cautious Board reported a “flourishing and hopeful condition.” It was voted that all Board members become Directors of the Corporation known as Trustees of the First Unitarian Church of Berkeley, and also that two or three Trustees would go out of office every year. The service of baptism was continued.
February 1906 – Unity Club of Berkeley
Wendte’s Berkeley Unitarian Club had disappeared from the scene and the Unity Club was organized “for prominent citizens interested in developing highest ideals in religious, political and social life of the community.”
At its first meeting on March 12th, UC President Benjamin Ide Wheeler gave the address. Though not a Unitarian, he seemed to sound like one: “We are all ritualists and formalists when it comes to church worship. The great truths of religion have become so secularized they have no direct relation to life…a great mistake to allow formalized worship to take the place of real religion…public worship is good for many but not necessary for some…” A year later, the club included smokers in the Men’s Faculty club. Unity was eventually superseded by the Laymen’s League.
The 1906 Earthquake
Though the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fire were catastrophic for San Francisco, damage was not severe in Oakland and was even less in Berkeley. The fireplace in the minister’s study moved slightly askew and never was realigned. The AUA, fearing that many members’ homes were damaged and would need prompt repair, thus interrupting their contributions to the church, sent money to pay the minister’s salary for three months.
Our church did its full share for the refugees, bedding them in the pews and preparing simple but sustaining cooked food from its small kitchen. An aside: The minister had slept through the quake, and only learned of it at the ferry which he expected to board for a trip to San Francisco. Later that morning, he was told by the church’s Irish cleaning woman of the damage to his “heathen church!”
Unity Hall, Unity House
Steady growth of the church was experienced during the years of Lathrop’s ministry. A second “Church Yearbook” in 1908 showed that the congregation had grown to 534, with 159 families, 133 singles, “but only 61 scholars” in Sunday School, a disappointment. Rev. Lathrop became Dr. Lathrop and he participated in public events as far away as Palo Alto. In June 1907, the seminary had its first commencement, graduating two at services in our church.
In 1909, the much-needed Unity Hall, more often called Parish Hall, was finally completed and dedicated on September 10th. Hosmer composed a hymn for the occasion and Mrs. Richard Thomas, a charter member and first president of the Women’s Auxiliary, lighted a fire in the fireplace. Planning the hall had begun in January 1906, the church corporation had financed it and retained title until the church could pay for it. Bernard Maybeck was the architect.
Unity Hall was located just north of the church, and a nearby house, usually called the Parish House, was also acquired to be the kitchen for the hall and apartments for students and for other purposes. Unity Hall was used for church meetings and events, and was rented out for meetings of around ten Berkeley groups, such as the Women’s Club, Hillel, and Town and Gown. The church women served luncheons and dinners for as many as 200. Curiously, Unity Hall was not equipped with Sunday School rooms, with a basement, or at least folding partitions. In 1950, a bus was rented to take children from the church to Sunday School facilities and later that year, Stiles Hall was again rented for this purpose.
1911-1915 – Rev. Arthur Maxon Smith
The distinguishing characteristic of Rev. Arthur Smith, the next minister, was “gentle soul.” He was “handsome and lovable” but nothing particularly outstanding chargeable to his leadership seems ever to have taken place. One significant thing that did happen was that equally gentle “purists” persuaded the Board and congregation to substitute collection boxes at the rear of the sanctuary for collection plates. Collections, then a much larger share of church income than today, fell off drastically, but it took a thief’s rifling of the boxes to awaken everybody to the realities of human nature and to go back to the collection plates.
Smith’s leave taking in May, for reasons of ill health, was marked by the most flowery resignation-acceptance speech afforded any minister. Soon afterward, the congregation was told that the church’s finances were again critical. Six months later, the Board had to discontinue the monthly bulletin. During Smith’s ministry, the remaining “oldtimers” faded from the church leadership and others took over.
1915-1945, Two World Wars and the Great Depression Test Our Mettle
At the church’s 25th Anniversary Celebration, September 1916, Rev. C.S. Dutton of the San Francisco church titled his sermon “A Transfigured Church.” He was probably speaking of all Unitarian churches, the Berkeley church included. Events and changes in people’s thinking generally seemed to make this a turning point in the church’s history. A leveling off of growth was reached, and it was difficult to maintain an average plateau of existence.
1915-1921 – Rev. Harrold Speight
Harrold Speight, selected from three well-qualified candidates, came to Berkeley from Vancouver, Canada in October 1915, an English citizen. He got busy immediately. In his first ten months, he included 435 calls on parishioners, finding 309 of them at home. The statement was abroad: “Maintenance of a strong liberal church in this university center is important,” and Speight concurred.
His salary was increased to $200 a month and an assistant, Harley Begin, seminary student, was hired at $100 a month. Especially when he accompanied the young men to outings at Inverness, Speight was called “Spaytie,” shocking many members. In 1916, the Unitarian Club of Berkeley voted itself out of existence, to be succeeded by the Laymen’s League, Hosmer Chapter. The League paid $1,000 a year toward the minister’s salary, for work done among the students on campus. Not advocating free speech as the church does today, it petitioned UC to “restrain or suppress” the student magazine, which was ridiculing the Law Dean, Chair of our Board of Trustees, with “Father William” cartoons and many editorials.
The church hired the first custodian to live on the premises, and added to the salaried staff a Religious Education Director, at $60 a year. New hymnals were purchased. Speight urged changing the name to “Unity Church” and adding some sacraments, but both of his proposals failed. The Board decided “henceforth memorials yes, memorial plaques no.”
Soon Speight became chairman of Berkeley’s Red Cross Chapter and organized other chapters. Next, he was sent to France to do some special work, taking a six-month leave, and was followed by Begin, who went into the Ambulance Corps. Church members rolled bandages, sewed, knitted, sent contributions to Belgian Relief. For several years, the church sent $100 a year to a sister church in Transylvania, in the village of Homovoijfalfa.
In the fall of 1918, the influenza epidemic raged and our church was closed. Hospitals were filled, and everyone who could helped out. Though rarely making political resolutions, the congregation, in 1920, vigorously protested the massacres of Armenian people, sending the protest to the President, California members of Congress, and the Near East Relief Agency.
Eventually, the war ended, most who had left for it returned, and the U.S. refused to join the League of Nations. Another East Coast church hired a good man away, and “to our sorrow,” Speight left for King’s Chapel in Boston.
1922-1925 – Dr. Robert French Leavens
Dr. Robert Leavens, with his wife and eight-year-old daughter, came promptly from Omaha on a six-month “minister-in-charge” trial basis and they stayed. Leavens had requirements, which were complied with. One was that couples to be married must have medical examinations – perhaps another Unitarian first. It made a splash in the newspapers. Another of Leavens’ requirements was that a lay assistant must be hired as secretary, custodian, gardener, publicity person and record keeper, at a salary of $100 a month. It proved an excellent investment. The Laymen’s League withdrew its $1,000 a year for on-campus work, but there was no crisis this time – members’ war prosperity continued in cities, though farm prosperity did not.
Reported in the 1922 Annual Meeting: 70 students, 4 to 20 years of age; 209 members; 340 in parish; 140 average Sunday attendance. Dignified Dr. Leavens spent some time with the young men at Inverness, where they called him “Skipper,” again annoying many members. Times were changing.
In the spring of 1925, the First Unitarian Church of Berkeley and other Unitarian churches in the East Bay cooperated with AUA in sponsoring a “Preaching Mission.” Rev. Horace Westwood, later our minister, managed the mission. A former Catholic priest spoke at eight meetings in seven days, first in the large Oakland church, then, because crowds were so large, in the Oakland Auditorium. However, no one ever noticed any results in the signed-the-book members.
More Evidence of Changing Times
In 1923, an old friend, Rev. R. Dodson, from Alameda’s First Church, gave a series of nine lectures on “The New Psychology.” At that early time, it was amazing and the newspapers scooped it up, printing all nine: “The diagnoses of the new medical psychology are far truer than Calvinism.” “Science explains the tendencies in human nature that have been called ‘original sin’.” “The Puritan therapeutics of mere repression are wrong, cause civil war in human nature, make life one long fight.” Titles of talks included: “Relation of Religion to the Sub-Conscious,” “New Astronomy and the Idea of God,” and “Biology and Kinship of Life.”
After an extended leave of absence in 1925, Speight did not return to the church. At this time, the Channing Club, unable to create club rooms in the church basement, borrowed tools and pooled resources and gifts of lumber, and built a cabin at Inverness on land owned by member Everett Dempster. He took the necessary legal steps to make the church “holders” of the property. Later, he and his family gave this property to the church.
Also, that fall, a new organization, young people past the age of Channing Club members and calling themselves the Inverness Club, asked permission to meet. They were the equivalent of the present Singles Group. For many years, it was a sizable and vigorous organization but a constant vexation to the church because its members demonstrated no particular interest in the church. In America, as in all post-war European societies, there was a certain rebelliousness among young people and it continued to some degree for twenty years. Finally, two ministers later, the group, then calling itself the Emerson Club, resigned in a body from the church.
1926-1932 – Dr. Eldred C. Vanderlaan
Dr. Eldred Vanderlaan was a good speaker, a well-known Humanist and a Socialist who was sometimes called a Communist. (But so were other liberal, progressive ministers, including the notable Dr. Ernest Fremont Tittle of the large First Methodist Church of conservative Evanston, Illinois.)
Before Vanderlaan began, Dean Wilbur of the seminary announced that Vanderlaan had been elected to the Chair of Church History and the seminary would pay $2,000 of his salary. Because he would be serving two masters, the church commitment dropped from $3,000 to $2,000 and his total salary was $4,000. The following year, as the stock market boomed, the church had $1,000 left over and agreed to split it with him.
But as Vanderlaan focused on his Humanist sermons (“too intellectual, not inspiring enough” except perhaps to the Humanists in the congregation), church programs died and too many members stayed away. As the Great Depression deepened, his seminary salary stopped and church income was strained. A strong voice, Constance Daggett, advocated and sternly led every-member canvasses. She also inaugurated a memorial fund program that brought in $750 a year.
In a desperate effort to help minister and church, the Board authorized a large Church Council…there were tumultuous all-congregation meetings…at one point, the whole Board resigned…Eventually, in December 1932, Vanderlaan resigned.
In the midst of these hungry times, a check for $10 came “to take care of the wisteria vine,” a church trademark known throughout Berkeley. Vines, shrubs, flowers and redwoods, which always enhanced the church, became one continuing note of cheer.
Dr. Aurelia Henry Reinhardt, who grew up in the church, became the first woman president of a major college (Mills in Oakland). She held “dual membership” in the Berkeley and Oakland churches and preached frequently in both. Our church especially needed a close-by and integral Sunday School facility and the University needed more land…relocation of the church was mentioned for the first time.
The church was without a minister for a whole year in 1933. Highlight of that year was a series of twelve forums. Notables such as John Hayes Holmes, Richard and Ella Cabot and Dr. Henry Newmann spoke to audiences of 500 and 600, with net proceeds of $50.58. Did it help the church of the church’s prestige in the community? Members hoped so, but wondered.
1934-1945 – Dr. Horace Westwood
Dr. Horace Westwood had impressed the membership when he managed the Preaching Mission in 1925. He arrived with a long list of requirements and, as one member observed, “ideas to burn.” He wanted “an atmosphere of worship…definite objectives…young people attending services…make ours the Cathedral Church of the area…courses on Unitarianism and its history…regular pamphleteering and advertising…attendance because of convictions and church’s worthiness…” Most of these, he explained, would be accomplished by volunteers while he focused on sermons.
At the end of his first year, Westwood, discouraged, scolded the congregation: “Lack of a sense of churchmanship…audience psychology rather than congregation psychology…subject matter as implied in sermon topics rather than attendance based upon the desire for fellowship and a feeling of abiding loyalty…” etc., etc. How many more scoldings were given is not recorded, except that a particularly severe blast was mailed to the members in January of 1940.
To these, Board member Frank Lawrence responded: “All that he has said, we find familiar in our own questionings…scolding doesn’t make a member worshipful…perhaps we don’t understand what is happening inside our members when they come to church…allowing our members to be honestly what they are is the only way we can get anywhere…”
In the fall of 1936, members learned that the orthodox churches were following their lead, becoming more liberal, thus more competitive. The church records for the eleven years are dull, focusing on financing. AUA’s Building Loan Fund sent another $6,000 to add to this $1,500 debt already owed, again the “hope this is the last.” The whole Unitarian denomination, the church was told in 1941, was at its lowest ebb in this century.
World War II came and went and at this time, the church helped with canteens and with the Red Cross. All were very difficult years. Westwood tried hard but was not in tune with the times. He especially did not understand young people, nor they him. Early in 1945, Westwood left for the Charleston, South Carolina church where he promptly had a wish fulfilled: a new letterhead said it was “The Cathedral Church of the South.”
That our church persisted and survived is a special tribute to the members and leaders. The different groups continued to be active: the Elliot Club for highschoolers; the Channing Club for college and recent graduates; a chapter of AUA’s Young Peoples Religious Union. The Laymen’s League continued, reaching its peak of 95 members (men) later. The Women’s Alliance (formerly the Women’s Auxiliary) was as solid, industrious and dependable as ever.
Big Problems, Big Solutions, Big Progress
In 1946, the First Unitarian Church of Berkeley entered upon a 22-year period of opportunity transformed into achievement, big difficulties faced but surmounted. The area served by the church, beginning with the exodus from San Francisco following the 1906 earthquake and culminating in World War II, became big-city, with much industry and commerce.
The nation began a period of great economic prosperity combined with unprecedented government borrowing from future generations – plenty of money to defend free enterprise and democracy in war and to share-the-wealth on a massive scale. This concern for the less fortunate has continued to this day. In all churches, particularly Unitarian Universalist, religious faiths, as such, in my opinion, became less important as socio-political advocacy became more important.
The First Unitarian Church of Berkeley family swelled to over 1,000. Its influence in the community rose. The University expanded into a huge, nine-branch institution and this church’s influence on it and on the student body, once high, faded steadily to almost nothing. However, in outgrowing the church, UC became, unwittingly, its benefactor.
1946-1968 – Dr. J. Raymond Cope
The more one knows about this period in the church history – Dr. J. Raymond Cope’s 22-year ministry – the better one understands why so many who knew him esteem him so highly. He came from a Salt Lake City pastorate, at age 40, with a philosophy-teaching and social service, as well as ministerial, background. He served here until his retirement, the big church on the hill his crowning glory.
Cope had character, charisma, modest friendliness and intellectual ability combined with open-mindedness, inventiveness and willingness to progress. He was sincere about himself but could always take a humorous approach to himself. He was not above doing a church maintenance or carpentry chore. To him, religion was a great and enduring human need. His concepts of God, morality, forgiveness and conscience were taken over intact by many.
His sermons were interesting and challenging. Neither Humanist, Theist nor Deist, he minimized differences between members’ philosophies and maximized what they had in common. He could inspire and lead the young as well as adults and the elderly. As with all strong personalities, he had some dissenters to his leadership, but, forgive the pun, Dr. Cope could cope better than most, and much of any minister’s life is coping.
New Horizons, New Heights
One of the first activities under Dr. Cope’s inspiration was a series of lectures on philosophy. They were well-attended, covered a wide range of subjects, and utilized the abilities of the many people who characterized the growing congregation. A permanent Philosophers Club resulted.
Dr. Cope once remarked that he almost did not come to this pastorate “because there were so many famous names on the church rolls. They frightened me. Most churches today are confused as to why they are in existence and a minister fears to say what he wants to say, because it might alienate. But a congregation should not be afraid to hear what the minister has to say.” Were the scientific thinkers, who had turned to Unitarianism fifty years before, now feeling they had outgrown it?
After only three years here and at 43 years of age, Cope was invited to give the 1949 May Meeting (the national Unitarian convention) sermon, a once-in-a-lifetime honor. His title: “Modern Man in Search of a Soul.”
In 1950, the Liberal Jewish community, which had been using the church’s facilities for years, expressed its gratitude by sending Dr. and Mrs. Cope to Israel with a tour sponsored by the American Christian Palestine Committee. He shared the experience by giving lectures on Israel and Near East difficulties as far away as Utah and wrote a feature article for the Christian Register. A year later, he received B’Nai B’rith’s “Most Distinguished Citizen” award.
In 1950, Cope became chair of a local non-profit radio station. That same year, the church cooperated in a group therapy experiment with UC’s Psychology Department experts. Cope filled the sample of referrals and participated throughout this first and largest experiment of its kind. The study was reported in the Journal of Social Issues and the church continued with a group therapy program of its own.
The formative months of the United Nations were big moments in the life of the church and some of its members (e.g. Aurelia Henry Reinhardt). That support continues today.
One of the outstanding workers in the church in the memory of members of this period was Maizie Newman, the Executive Secretary, and Dr. Cope’s right hand person. She was asked to take the job, and as she has told the legend, “didn’t want to fill it herself as she felt he should have only the best, but nobody turned up who was good enough, and eventually she found herself doing it.” With a background of organization of musical events and social causes, she was instrumental in developing the high quality of the music program and the many social action projects carried on by the church. It has been said with some admiration that she seemed to “run the church out of her apron pocket.”
Cope continued his activities vigorously until his retirement, became prominent in civil rights, marched at Selma, was an opponent of the war in Vietnam and an organizer of Minister’s Mobilization. Pacific Coast Unitarianism had not seen such industry since Wendte. Our second and third resolutions were drafted, passed by the congregation, and sent to Washington: a protest against the Marshall Plan and against Truman’s sending an ambassador to the Vatican.
We Defeat the Levering Act
Early in the 1950’s, the State of California extended the control over the religious activity of citizens that had begun in 1930 with the Constitutional Amendment and taxation of “outside” church income. First, having the Bible read fifteen minutes a day in all classrooms was legislated. In 1952, Dr. Cope advised the congregation that this law should be protested. In 1953, the Levering Act required that all teachers and college faculties sign a loyalty oath, with the choice of do or be discharged. In 1954, churches were notified that ministers must sign the loyalty oath or their churches would be subjected to additional taxation.
The church stood firm, refusing to have the minister sign a loyalty oath, and paid the tax. Then, with the cooperation of three other California churches, two of them Unitarian Universalist, we took the matter to court – all the way to the Supreme Court – where all of the Levering Act was declared unconstitutional. The taxes that had been paid were refunded with interest. It was another case of Unitarian leadership for the good of all. Did California’s citizens here and elsewhere fully appreciate that effort, and do they now?
We Build Our Second Church
In the 1950’s, with new spirit, growth and activity, plus the baby boom, the church was bursting at the seams. Having paid off the mortgage on the first church and, following the settlement of financial and legal negotiations with the University, we went into action on new plans for a building in a new location. Knowing a large building fund would be necessary, the church employed a fund-counseling service and, with their recommendations and help, raised $195,000 in a three-year period. The generosity of fellow member Bernard Maybeck and his family enabled the purchase of our present site, originally a total of eleven acres, at 10¢ per square foot. Bill Ulp chaired the Building Committee.
In 1955, building and landscaping architects were engaged, surveying begun. At the same time, UC, as a state agency, condemned the church’s property at Dana and Bancroft, insisting the value that they gave it was correct. We disagreed and, engaging the best lawyer, appraisers, contractors and engineers we could find, took the matter to court. After a two-week, hair-graying trial, we won a settlement of $329,400, $130,000 higher than the best UC offer. With this and the fund drive money and “a half-ton of blueprints,” the church was built. Again an original design, spacious and minimizing maintenance (inside and outside walls do not need painting), it must be visited to be appreciated. High on the Berkeley hills, it offers a view of the whole bay and Golden Gate, a magnificent panorama.
Most unfortunately, in the midst of all of this supreme effort, 60 families left the church and formed the Berkeley Fellowship. Dissatisfactions – some are always present in any organization – came to a boil in the heat of the fund raising, church planning activity. Church building causes as much emotional strain as financial strain and this one was no exception.
A 22-Year Period of Great Vigor
During the 22 years of Cope’s pastorate, congregation participation rose to a crescendo. In 1952, so many helped that the church was redecorated on a weekend and the Parish Hall in a day. In the new building, by 1965 there were twenty volunteers helping the paid staff on a regular basis and seventeen active committees reporting to the Annual Meeting. “War babies” swelled the Sunday School and promptly a new building and an addition to the main building was erected. A custodian’s cottage was added, the fountain was added in the Atrium, the cottage at Inverness modernized…Rev. Frank Randall came as the Director of Religious Education; he stayed on as Assistant Minister and Custodian until 1981.
As a memorial gift to the memory of her parents and grandparents, who had been members of the church, Edith McGrew cancelled the $93,000 second mortgage she held on the church, bringing members’ equity in the church property to $900,000. Annual budgets were in the eighty thousands. Choir, musicals, plays, lectures prospered. A symphony orchestra was sponsored, the Women’s Alliance established the Stebbins Institute, an annual summer religious conference at Asilomar near Monterey. Honorary “Doctors of Durability” were conferred annually upon still active oldsters. Visual aids were adopted in the Sunday School.
1969 to Present
After Dr. Cope’s resignation at 62, the socio-political developments of the 1960’s continued, particularly in the city of Berkeley, where they seem to have led the rest of the country in timing and in degree. These events and developments resulted in considerable turmoil within the church family, particularly between the younger activists and the middle-aged and elderly. It is possible that Cope foresaw such effects and, despite his experience and momentum, thought that a younger minister could surmount or channel them more effectively than he.
1969-1973 – Dr. Howard W. Oliver
Cope was “a difficult act to follow” and the evidence suggests that the many programs, the momentum and the pressures were more than his successor, Dr. Howard Oliver, could effectively handle. A spinal condition became severe and eventually resulted in his resignation.
Oliver was in his early 40’s, a very kind, likable, intelligent person whose sermons were excellently conceived and delivered. He was well-educated. Two of his three degrees were from the University of Southern California, including his ministerial degree. He had been a chaplain with the military and director of the Actor’s Labor Union in Los Angeles.
The church was continuing its programs on a plateau level. In 1971, for example, 930 people (or couples) were personally canvassed for pledges and an additional 122 by mail. The proposed 1971-72 budget was in the 80,000’s, as before, and the minister’s salary continued at $9,890 with a housing allowance of $5,700. The church plant remained the same, with private schools renting the Sunday School facilities on weekdays; the Inverness cabin was replaced by the Freestone Retreat Center property in Sonoma county, which, a result of inflation and other difficulties, is still to be completed. [The Freestone Retreat Center is now fully operational-8/3/99]
In these years, the falling off of interest in all religions and church life were being felt in this congregation, too. So many other things to do and to afford, on Sundays, particularly. Women were being “liberated;” more and more had careers, contributed to family income and, like the men, had less time to volunteer to the church.
1973 to  – Rev. Richard F. Boeke
When the congregation read his qualifications and after he demonstrated his pulpit stance on two occasions, everyone knew that Richard Boeke was the man for the times at this church. Many, using the best minister-measuring ruler they had, must have said that he “measured up very favorably with Dr. Cope.”
When Boeke arrived, he was 42, married, with two small daughters, athletic, educated at Iowa State, Yale and Columbia Teachers College plus selected post-graduate courses at Harvard and Starr King. He was widely read, traveled, well-informed in the arts, with a great deal of experience in community and denominational affairs plus a flair for organization (ministerial groups, civil rights groups, church groups). He was even a delegate to the 1958 National Democratic Convention. With all this, he had sound convictions of the future of the liberal church. “One of the warmest, friendliest, most personable men you are ever likely to meet,” the selection committee said.
After Maizie Newman retired and moved from the Bay Area, Dee Haynes held the position of Executive Secretary briefly. Then in 1973, Grace Ulp was chosen for this very necessary function. Born in China to a medical missionary family, she was educated in California, she became active in this church during Cope’s early years as a minister. She is a weaver, has broad interests in the arts and in people. When hired, she took up the reins with “grace” and verve, and today’s beehive of church activities are under her skilled and joyful guidance.
Current Projects [as of 1981]
Most church programs continued during Boeke’s eight years as minister of this church, and new ones were added as circumstances required or opportunities were presented. An effort to become more visible in this community led the church to establish its right-of-way to Arlington Avenue and to construct a path where a sign more visible to passers-by was placed. Successful programs continued and new ones were organized to bless our presence in Kensington/El Cerrito and the East Bay.
Perhaps the congregation was becoming more comfortable in its relation to church finances. It is astonishing that in spite of predictions of disaster almost every week of our 90 years, we still functioned, had paid off our mortgage and were attempting to organize our endowment so that it would help us grow and be a protection for the future.
From the beginning, the First Unitarian Church of Berkeley has had an interest in Starr King School for the Ministry – the seminary. Starr King students who have held positions in the church as part of their training have gone on to their own ministries, after their periods of intense exposure to “big church” problems and pleasures.
In 1981, our minister’s growing awareness of and active role in interfaith media outreach planning gave the church another connection with the larger community. Boeke’s international activity in the area of religious freedom is ongoing, and in 1981 he received the annual award for Service to International Liberal Religion from the American chapter of the IARF. In 1981, our assistant minister was Stephen Furrer, our minister-in-training was Stan Aronson, and our sexton was Brian Jessup.
The Wide Horizon’s Grander View – A Design for the Next 90 Years [as of 1981]
Our church, as it moves into the future, will begin to play a larger part in the denomination. It will work to be a growing source of strength to Unitarian Universalism, as once it was nurtured.
A continuing relationship with Starr King School will be important to the school as well as to the church as it assists in the education of ministerial interns. The list of the church’s “graduates” will continue to grow.
The rich musical program of the church will continue to be enhanced by choral music of high quality and by organ and harpsichord music for services and in concert, by our talented organists. The successful choir tour in Europe in 1981, led by Phyllis Wells, choir director, may have an encore somewhere else in the world.
The Religious Education staff will continue to develop new materials for the children in the program. Freestone dome and surroundings will be a further enrichment of our environment. The present UU-UC Luncheoneers [currently called UUs at UC] and the student group will strengthen our connections with the University. And no matter how many projects are in progress or planning, others now undreamed of will come into being, continuing and enlarging the significance of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley.
Principal sources of the information on which this history is based are: Charles William Wendte’s two-volume “The Wider Fellowship.” A rough draft history written in the 1960’s by Maizie Newman, my own research for and write-up of “Unitarians and the University of California,” plus perusal of hundreds of pages of the church’s Board minutes, scrapbooks, and the photograph archive. Finally, some information was obtained in interviews with long-time members, especially Lester Frank and Newell Nelson.