Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A refresher on the history of some (non-native) religions in San Diego

From a review of San Diego history published in 1908:

Catholics:  San Diego was originally a Catholic mission, later abandoned and Old Town became secularized, and in the late 1840's, according to records, a priest arrived to lead a congregation.  They built a church, and then replaced it in 1858 with the Church of the Immaculate Conception (shown above).  There was a succession of priests, and then Father Antonio Urbach held office from 1866 to 1908.  He oversaw the growth of San Diego from small settlement to town (San Diego City's population in 1860: 771; in 1900: 17,700).  Part of this growth was moving out of Old Town and into St Joseph's Cathedral in what is now downtown (at the time it was "Horton's Addition", located to the west of San Diego).

Protestants:  The first Protestant service was held in Old Town in 1853, led by an Episcopalian army chaplain.  When that Reverend left, services became sporadic as occasional itinerant preachers came through town.  Only in 1868, did a minister arrive to take over.  He cleaned the abandoned army barracks and held services there, until the first Episcopalian church in San Diego went up in 1869 (now the Cathedral Church of St Paul).

At nearly the same time, a succession of Methodist ministers held services in various locations, and then in the first Methodist Church in 1870.  In 1887 they tore that church down and put up a gigantic (for that time) three-story building with mixed use for the church and businesses, and then sold off that building when they outgrew it in 1905.  The First Methodist Episcopal Church opened downtown in 1906, and the congregation then moved to Mission Valley in 1964.  The Mission Valley location has an original stained glass window, a cornerstone, and other pieces of the 1906 church on display.

The first Baptist church saw service in 1869, on Seventh Street between F and G (today that area is parking lots and hotels).  The second, larger Baptist church went up in 1888 on Tenth and E (again, long gone).  By 1900, the Baptist congregation boasted a membership of almost 700. Also in 1869, a small Presbyterian church was built on Eighth and D, and they also moved to a new facility in 1888. 

Jews:  An article in the San Diego Herald  in 1851 reported that the three Israelites of San Diego were observing the Day of Atonement.  The first congregation, with 18 members, began renting spaces for holiday observances in 1872.  With the temporary population boom of the late 1880's, the Jewish population of San Diego was over 300.  In 1889, the congregation (then organized as Beth Israel) built a facility on Beech and Second.  But the congregation diminished with the economic and population collapse of the 1890's, and there was no rabbi and only sporadic services for two decades.  With local prosperity things turned around, and Beth Israel moved to a new place in 1926.  The old temple went through several owners, including a Spiritualist group led by a psychic, then fell into disrepair before being declared San Diego Historic Site Number 82 in 1973, and Beth Israel bought the site back for renovation.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Lomaland and equality

As Women's History Month commences, we can look back to a time in San Diego when women could not vote, serve on juries, or participate in many aspects of society.  Yet there was a place in San Diego where women did have quite a measure of equality, that place being the Point Loma Universal Brotherhood and Theosophical Society Homestead (called Lomaland for short). 

Theosophy was a movement founded in 1874 by psychic Helena Petrovna Blavatsky.  This was the time of the popular spiritualism that had taken hold of the nation starting with the fraudulent Fox sisters, so the field was ripe for new seeds.  As for Theosophy, it consisted of a large set of revealed truths about the individual and the universe and according to Blavatsky was a replacement for all other religions.  Among the beliefs was equality between the sexes, with our eternal spirits being perpetually reincarnated in male or female bodies.  For these and other reasons, Theosophy held particular interest for women:
Theosophy appealed to a segment of white, middle-class, intellectual women who sought spiritual power, usefulness in the world, and greater control over their lives. Since the Theosophical Society had no ordained ministry, it opened leadership opportunities to women, "[allowing] its women and men leaders alike to travel the world lecturing and organizing. In it, women no less than men rose to the highest positions of responsibility."
When Blavatsky died, she was replaced by William Judge, and when Judge died Katherine Tingley took over.  Tingley had only joined the Theosophical Society two years previously, but she convinced the leadership that she was channeling Judge's spirit, and he was giving her full control of the organization.  Having declared herself absolute authority over the movement for life, she instituted changes such as shutting down the national branches and concentrating resources in the new national headquarters in Point Loma.  The Theosophists arrived in the late 1890's and would stay for almost half of a century, with thirty of those years under Tingley's control.  Lomaland became particularly known as a place of culture, with regular patronage of the arts and well-cultivated lands serving as an attraction for San Diego residents looking for a pleasant day out.

Lomaland operated as a commune, with the role of women different from that of general society, but not too different.  While a woman herself, Tingley had a Victorian sense of morality that colored the original Theosophical doctrine.  She believed women did belong in the home, and other than Tingley, the rest of the leadership in Lomaland were mostly men.  Yet conditions were better for women and other minorities in Lomaland, they could find acknowledgment as fully-functioning human beings, and at least sixty percent of the residents were usually women. 

In today's parlance, we would refer to Lomaland as a cult, and contemporaries looked upon it askance.  A Los Angeles Times headline from 1901 blared:  "Outrages at Point Loma; Exposed by an 'Escape' from Tingley. Startling Tales told in this City. Women and Children Starved and Treated Like Convicts. Thrilling Rescue."  Tingley sued for libel and defamation and won, but the sentiment was not eradicated.  Tingley died in 1929, just before the decline of Lomaland.  Her successor loosened her authoritarian dictates, but liberalization proved disastrous.  He brought back the national lodges for example, which took resources from Lomaland.  The uniforms and other strict rules were lifted, and the colony began to dissolve.  By 1941, there were about 130 residents left in Lomaland, most of whom were elderly.  The property moved into foreclosure and the society moved to the Los Angeles area.

What can we make of Lomaland and its morality?  As a religion with revealed wisdom, the Theosophy leadership could create rules that cut through the strictures holding society back.  As such, the commune was particularly attractive to the underserved of society, such as women.  But not all of the rules were positive and healthy, and while the status of women could be changed in the law, how do you change a universal truth revealed by spirits?   And, of course, there is the matter that Theosophy was, as a whole, made-up nonsense and adherents were wasting time in its study.  As Humanists we can recognize the good that religious orders are capable of providing, but we can also see that the associated baggage is often too great a burden.  Better to work out a morality from rationality rather than proclamation in order to create a just society that will serve all of its members.