Santa Cruz County History - Religion & Spirituality

Santa Cruz Spirituality: Liberal
by Paul Tutwiler


  1. Unitarian Universalist
  2. Transcendentalist
  3. Various Liberal

The notion of "liberal," as used here by Melton, refers to the eighteenth century Enlightenment, which applied the scrutiny of reason to the Christian religion and came up with Deism and other non-dogmatic ways of viewing the relation between man and God. In the United States the best known of the liberal groups is Unitarianism, but there are other churches which share the fundamental characteristic of liberalism and I place them, too, in this section.

Unitarian Universalist

The American Unitarian Church grew mainly as a doctrinally liberal wing of Congregationalism, becoming an independent group in the early 19th century in the East. Totally Christian in spirit, it nevertheless insisted that no one should be bound to adhere to a definitive set of Christian doctrines. The Universalist Church in America, which stressed the equality of peoples and the availability of salvation for all people, was founded in 1793, and the two at length united in 1961 as the Unitarian Universalist Church. ( 2010)

» Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Santa Cruz County, California. Aptos, 1866-2010.

"Gathered," i.e., organized, in 1866 by Charles Gordon Ames, the Santa Cruz Unitarian congregation was the second Unitarian congregation in California. Ames also organized a congregation in Sacramento and one in San Jose, and he conducted Unitarian meetings in Watsonville and Santa Clara. After he left Santa Cruz for Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1871 the Unitarian church "fell dormant for a generation." (Arnold Crompton, Unitarianism on the Pacific Coast. The First Sixty Years. Boston: Beacon Press, 1957, pp. 57-63)

Unity Church
Unity Church, built 1868
From Santa Cruz Public Libraries' Photograph Collection.

The Santa Cruz congregation built Unity Hall on Walnut Avenue in 1868. (Koch, Parade of the Past, p. 32) Known also as Unity Church, this building in some years had a pastor and services and in some years had neither. (Elliott, Santa Cruz County, p. 70) In 1886 it was "not occupied by any religious denomination but is rented for the use of any society that may apply." (SC Surf, Jan 2, 1886) Regardless of this, in 1888 the Santa Cruz Unitarian Church was one of 14 in the American Unitarian Association for the Pacific Coast. (Crompton, Unitarianism, p. 126. I do not know how to account for the apparent discrepancies between Crompton's statements and the facts reported locally.)

The original Unity Hall was built by a Grover family. Presbyterians bought it in 1891 and moved it to the corner of Pacific Ave. and Cathcart St., where it remained until "the late 1930s." In 1938 the Presbyterians built a new church on Mission St. and moved the former Unity Hall, minus steeple, to "Water Street near the then juncture of Harrison and Morrissey Avenue" to become the original structure of the Trinity Presbyterian Church. (Harold J. van Gorder, Now and Then, Santa Cruz, 1995) See Trinity Presbyterian Church in Presbyterian for the later history of the building.

Hackley Hall
Hackley Hall
Image courtesy of P. Tutwiler.

In 1902 the Unitarian congregation inaugurated the church structure at 517 Center St. (Santa Cruz County Historical Trust Landmark plaque) Then, some time before 1950 it moved to 513 Center St., Hackley Hall, which was next door to the church itself. It retained a presence in Hackley Hall through 1971. (Polk 1950-71) Hackley Hall was then moved physically from one door south of the church to one door north of it. (from a conversation I had with the caretaker of the Progressive Missionary Baptist Church in December, 2005)

The Unitarian church at either location on Center St. was known also as All Souls Unitarian Church. (SC Surf, Jan. 2, 1909 through Polk 1971) For subsequent use of the 517 Center St. structure see Santa Cruz Church of Christ under Christian Church/Church of Christ and Progressive Missionary Baptist Church under Baptist: exist in 2008; affiliation, if any, not ascertained.

The present congregation was incorporated in 1963; (Santa Cruz County Articles of Incorporation no. 2661) its website, 2008, however, informed us that "In 1957 the present fellowship was organized, and in 1961 we added 'Universalist.' Our main building was constructed in 1966 and the Bryans Building in 1993." The present address is 6401 Freedom Blvd., Aptos 95003, tel. 684-0506. (2010 Yellow Pages)

» Universalist Church. Santa Cruz, 1892-1896.

This congregation held services in the Odd Fellows Hall, Santa Cruz in 1892, (San Jose City Directory, 1892) and in 1893. (SC Surf, March 4, 1893) It seems clear that it is the same as the Universalist Parrish [sic] that was incorporated in 1896. (Santa Cruz County Articles of Incorporation no. 242)

Transcendentalism. Community, 1850-1887, Santa Cruz.

American Transcendentalism, an intellectual, non-dogmatic experience of oneness with all reality, was represented in Santa Cruz mainly by the presence of Georgiana Bruce Kirby. Born in Bristol, England in 1818, Miss Bruce lived in Boston from 1838 to 1841. Then she moved to Brook Farm, a community of Transcendentalists, nine miles west of Boston, staying there until 1844. (The single most complete and authoritative source on Georgiana Bruce Kirby is Carolyn Swift and Judith Steen, Eds, Georgiana, Feminist Reformer of the West, The Journal of Georgiana Bruce Kirby 1852-60, Santa Cruz, California: Santa Cruz County Historical Trust, 1987. A recent supplement is JoAnn Levy, Unsettling the West: Eliza Farnham and Georgiana Bruce Kirby in Frontier California, Berkeley, CA: Heyday Books, 2004.)

Transcendentalism, indigenous to New England, was an American attempt to overcome the problem posed by Immanuel Kant's destruction of the human mind's confidence in its ability to know reality. Following the lead of some post-Kantian German philosophers, the Americans held that by intuition we can attain knowledge of the ultimate realities.

Although New England Transcendentalism was considered a philosophical movement, it was more religious than philosophical in spirit. Many of the New England Transcendentalists in fact were clergymen, although their aversion to religious dogma induced some of them to leave the ministry. The best known of these latter was Ralph Waldo Emerson. Some who were the farthest from any dogma, philosophical or religious, were known for their spirit of oneness with nature: chief among these was Henry David Thoreau. The foremost poet of the movement was Walt Whitman. Besides these household names in American history, there were other intellectual lights such as the clergymen Theodore Parker and William H. Channing, and the writer and editor of The Dial, Margaret Fuller.

Bruce's stay at Brook Farm occurred during its original Transcendental phase. In 1844 it became an experiment in Fourierism, a social theory for better living rather than a community of idealists.

(The following three books taken together present concisely and accurately the rise and decline of Transcendentalism as well as of Brook Farm:

  • Octavius Brooks Frothingham, Transcendentalism in New England A History, New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1876 and subsequent editions.
  • Perry Miller, Ed, The American Transcendentalists Their Prose and Poetry, Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1957.
  • Henry W. Sams, Ed, Autobiography of Brook Farm, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1958.

A rich website for the study of Transcendentalism is

When Bruce arrived in Santa Cruz, in 1850, she appeared merely to be an out-of-place feminist intellectual like her friend there, Eliza Farnham. Her inner thoughts, however, which she confided to her Journal, were of the goodness of God and of love being at the heart of religion rather than theology. (Swift and Steen, op. cit., pp. 65-66, Journal entry for December 15, 1852) By 1855, as Mrs. Georgiana Bruce Kirby, she was working for the presence of a Unitarian, liberal, minister in Santa Cruz, although Unity Church was not founded until 1866. Long before 1866 she was distributing the sermons of Theodore Parker. (Swift and Steen, op. cit., pp. 85-86, Journal entry for July 18, 1858) In 1870 and 1871 she was publishing in national magazines an account of her experiences in Brook Farm because she feared that no others would write about their stay there. In one of these articles she stated her feelings before she went to Brook Farm in a way that seems to apply to her whole life: "What I most needed, for the present, was a philosophic statement of the amicable relations between the infinite and the finite, — a justification of my heterodox belief in universal beneficence." (Old and New, (Boston) February 1871, p. 178) At some time before 1877 she met with Horace Greeley and Mark Twain, she invited Emerson to her house, and she acquired the first West Coast copy of Whitman's Leaves of Grass. (Swift and Steen, op. cit., p. 48-50. The reference to Leaves of Grass is from Mary Hallock Foote, A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West, p. 143)

In later years Georgiana Bruce Kirby was better known for her participation in the temperance and woman's suffrage movements. Less known, but a matter of public record, was her connection with Spiritualism. (See "Classical American Spiritualism" in Chapter 5 Particulars for more about this.) In addition to these facets of her life, Transcendentalism, whether visible or not, was kept alive in Santa Cruz as long as GBK lived. Whether he knew it or not, the poet Walt Whitman sang of her as a Modern Man in his Leaves of Grass:

One's-self I sing—a simple, separate Person;
Yet utter the word Democratic, the word for En-masse.

Of Physiology from top to toe I sing;
Not physiognomy alone, nor brain alone, is worthy for the muse—I say the Form
Complete is worthier far;
The Female equally with the male I sing.

Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power,
Cheerful—for freest action form'd, under the laws divine,
The Modern Man I sing. (Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass)

Various Liberal

» Seabright Improvement Society. Service org, Santa Cruz., 1904-1915.

Incorporated in 1904, the society, which was housed in Seabright Hall at the lower end of Seabright Avenue, was the hub of community action and intellectual life in the Seabright area at least until 1915. Although without organizational ties to any church, the society included in its constitution a provision by which it "has always been free to religious services on Sunday, and so for many years a Sunday-school has been held... Every first and third Sunday in the month an Episcopal service is conducted by Rev. C. O. Tillotson." (Reminiscences of Seabright by E.M.C. Forbes, Seabright California, 1915. The quote is from p. 31)

» Sequoia Seminar. Conf center, Ben Lomond, 1950-2010.

Sequoia Seminar existed as a conference center from 1950 to 2003. It developed from the "Jesus as Teacher" seminars — essentially Bible-study groups — which were given in various non-California locations from 1915 to 1945 by Henry Sharman. In the latter year Harry and Emilia Rathbun of Palo Alto assumed the leadership of Sharman's seminar concept in California, calling their initiative the Sequoia Seminar. In 1950 they arranged with the Quakers in Ben Lomond to use part of the Quakers' property, but before the decade was over they had bought part of it, had purchased additional land, and had constructed extensive conference facilities. In 1962 the Rathbuns organized themselves and core followers as a religious association called "Creative Initiative," which lay outside of any denomination. Twenty years later, in 1982, they stripped it of religious structure and, calling it "Beyond War," worked to promote peace and unity among peoples of the world. (Steven M. Gelber, "Sequoia Seminar: The Sources of Religious Sectarianism," California History, Vol. 69, Spring 1990, pp. 36-51)

The facility as such retained all this time the name Sequoia Seminar, but at some point it began to be operated by United Camps, Conferences and Retreats according to the latter's website in 2003. ( In 2003, however, Sequoia Seminar, with its 230 acres of mountainside, was for sale. (SC Sentinel, May 18, 2003 advertisement and June 29, 2003 article, "Sounds of Silence") Some time between 2003 and 2006 "the Foundation for Global Community," the successor organization to Creative Initiative, sold the facility. ( 2006)

In 2006 the facility was "Raindance Retreat and Conference Center," 11445 Alba Road, Ben Lomond 95060, tel. 336-5060. (2006 Yellow Pages and the United Camps, Conferences and Retreats website, 2006, neither of which gives indication of a spiritual orientation) In April, 2010 the sign at the foot of its entrance read "Sequoia Retreat Center," and the 2010 White Pages listed Sequoia Retreat Center at the Alba Road address and telephone number.

» Unity Press. Service org, Santa Cruz, 1976-?.

Incorporated in 1976, (Santa Cruz County Articles of Incorporation no. 4181) this alternative book publisher of the 1970s, operated by Stephen Levine, published such titles as Ram Dass's Grist for the Mill, Jack Kornfield's Living Buddhist Masters, and Ormund and Harry Aebi's The Art and Adventure of Bee Keeping. It is listed at least in the websites 2008 and 2007.

» Universal Life Church. Santa Cruz, 1978-1984.

Founded in Modesto in 1962, the Universal Life Church was characterized by mass ordinations and mail-order Doctorates of Divinity. (Melton, Encyclopedia *704)

The 1978 and 1979 Yellow Pages list a "Universal Life Church Monastery" with a telephone number but no address. The 1980 and 1981 Yellow Pages list a Judeo-Christian Church of Universal Life with no address. The 1979 and 1983 Yellow Pages and the SC Sentinel, July 26, 1984 list the Universal Life Church at 1335 Seabright Ave. It seems to me more probable than not that these three associations are basically the same.

See Christ Temple in Pentecostal—United and Church of the Nazarene Santa Cruz in Church of the Nazarene for earlier congregations housed at the same address.

» Temple Guaracy of Santa Cruz. 1997-2006.

Temple Guaracy is the corporate name for Umbanda, a congregation of distinctively Brazilian spirituality, an extremely eclectic religion of Brazilian origin, combining elements of Brazilian and African folk religion with Christianity. For general information on Umbanda see 2008.

Umbanda was brought to Santa Cruz County in 1997. ("Spiritual approach: Corralitos hosts nation's first Umbanda wedding." SC Sentinel, Nov. 9, 2002) A telephone number, but no address, for Temple Guaracy was listed in the White Pages for 2006, but not for 2007 or 2008.

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