Take It On Faith with a Press Photo of the Rev. Sheldon Shephard, Los Angeles, ca. 1913

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The religious scene in greater Los Angeles in the early 20th century was one of significant diversity and major transformation as was the case for so many areas of life. The growth of evangelical sects, Eastern ways of thought, so-called cults, Theosophists, and other aspects reflected the search many people had for spiritual sustenance and expression that were not being met by the mainstream Catholic and Protestant churches, which were dominant in the Angel City during the 19th century.

Tonight’s featured object from the Homestead’s holdings is an interesting case study of a religious figure who evolved significantly in his work. Clyde Sheldon Shephard (1887-1973), who went by his middle name, had a multi-faceted approach to his calling, involving oratory, psychology, drama, music and dance, among others, and he also went from a mainstream pastorate in the Congregational Church to being a Universalist minister.

A University of Missouri yearbook page concerning Shephard, 1906.

Shephard was born in the hamlet of Cottonwood Point in the little projection of the southeast corner of Missouri that adjoins the Mississippi River near the borders with Arkansas and Tennessee. His mother was Virginia Taylor and his father was Charles Shephard, a saw mill owner and merchant who became an attorney.

Shephard completed his education at the University of Missouri and joined his father’s law office, but there was a separation of his parents, which included his mother moving to Los Angeles and residing at Bunker Hill, though the reason may have been health-related, as Virginia Shephard died in the Angel City in 1915.

Los Angeles Express, 31 May 1912.

In the meantime, the young man abandoned the practice of law and, being raised in the Methodist Episcopal Church, was ordained a minister in that domination, while also pursuing studies at the National School of Oratory in Philadelphia. While being one of the top-ranked of his graduating class, Shephard received a signal honor as the only graduate chosen to deliver the closing address for commencement, of which such luminaries as William Jennings Bryan and Henry Ward Beecher had been prior speakers.

The Los Angeles Express of 31 May 1912 reported that “the new departure of selecting a graduate was made this year for young Shepherd [sic]” and the paper added that “it is his intention to make Southern California his home, and at the next conference [of the Methodists] he probably will be appointed to a church.” That, in fact, is what transpired and he was assigned to the church at Belvedere, which we know as East Los Angeles, and the photo of the young minister is undoubtedly taking in front of the building, on which a scroll of the Ten Commandments, was posted.

Los Angeles Times, 27 March 1921, about a Pomona battle over showing movies on Sundays.

His gifts of oratory were recognized early on with a 1914 address to the Evening City Club in Los Angeles concerning “Individual Obligations Towards Individual and Public Health,” a topic that went clearly beyond scriptural subjects, while obviously tied to Biblical teachings with a social service bent. By the time, however, Shephard registered for the draft in June 1917 in the early stages of America’s entry in World War I, he had changed denominations and was pastor of the Mt. Hollywood Congregational Church in East Hollywood. It is not why he made the shift, however.

Shepherd, who was married to Helen Tyler, who studied music at the University of Southern California and with which he had two sons, spent a couple of years at a pastorate in Chicago before returning to this region by 1920. He made another career shift, though, by becoming a professor at Pomona College in Claremont and was chair of the oratorical department.

Pomona Bulletin, 17 November 1922.

Among his many efforts was the directing of plays and, in 1921, he got into a spat with a traveling evangelical minister who aggressively lobbied for the city of Pomona to ban the showing of motion pictures on Sundays. When the evangelist, Robert Scoville demanded whether the audience at a community forum would given in “to the moving picture interests, or to the young man or woman?” and called the former “the same Godless gang and Christless clique that put the crown of thorns on Jesus,” Shephard responded that “it is a shame that the religion of Jesus Christ should be represented in a community by the so-called preaching now being delivered in these meetings in Pomona.”

Shephard was taking notes for his students as Scoville spoke and the latter turned to the former and thundered, “you dirty low-down bunch that is here taking notes—I am glad you are here. You are getting what is coming to you!” For his part, Shephard replied, “it hardly becomes a Christian church to hold meetings in which any one of the congregation is likely to be insulted” and he added “I do not think a community would want to take its moral and religious instruction from a man who would make that kind of remark.”

Long Beach Telegram, 28 July 1923.

In fact, by the early Twenties, the minister was garnering some attention for his willingness to marry religion to the arts. He left Pomona College by 1922 for yet another change in his trajectory by becoming a faculty member at the Long Beach School of Music and not only directed community singing events, but was known for his impersonations of historical religious characters as well as his readings of famous authors, like Rudyard Kipling, and his own poems. He also taught on contemporary poetry in the coastal metropolis, while instructed on public speaking and sales at Sawyer College in Los Angeles.

By 1924, Shephard became president of the University of the West and Long Beach Business College, which advertised that “concentrated, personal, result-getting, rapid Business Training CAN BE GIVEN in a dignified, cultural atmosphere” so that the course was equivalent to a year i in college from a cultural perspective.

Los Angeles Express, 31 July 1924.

Consequently, in addition to the usual business college subjects, Shephard’s institution offered art, dancing, dramatics, fencing, music and whistling (that is, musical whistling, something Josephine Workman, granddaughter of Homestead founders William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste did before she became a prominent early Hollywood film star.)

Meanwhile, Shephard found a new technology to communicate with the local community by becoming a featured speaker on radio programs from the early Twenties, when the first stations were established, through subsequent decades, including on KFI by at least 1924, on which he regularly gave inspirational talks.

Los Angeles Record, 12 November 1927.

Still another shift in his career was his being promoted as a psychologist and “personal counsellor” when he appeared in April 1927 at the Ultra Science Center on Hope Street south of the 6th Street. In a week-long series of daily talks, Shephard focused on “arousing hidden powers and creating desired conditions” through what were described as a form of “dynamic, magnetic presentation” and which sounded as if he was heading more into a esoteric realm.

Just prior to that, the Pomona Progress of 17 March observed that Shephard was also “secretary of the national health movement,” which hearkened back to his 1914 address topic, as well as a psychologist and quoted him from a Y.M.C.A. talk called, strangely, “The Ethyl Gas of Personality—Imagination” in which he intoned somewhat obliquely,

I wouldn’t trust will power too far; it can’t compete with emotion and imagination . . . Don’t worry about developing more power until you use what you have in the right way . . . You are all using creative thought to a remarkable degree, but the trouble is that you are using a lot of it in the wrong way. The kind of thing one fastens his mind on, comes to him. We inevitably become like our dreams. Anybody will do what he thinks about, if he think about it enough.

For the Easter season of that year, the Los Angeles Record quoted Shephard about the purported fact that “a 200 per cent increase is evident this year in the number of plays being featured in Easter services.” He added that “progress, for once, seeming to move in a circle, has arrived at the old-time belief in the utility, eloquence and effectiveness of the drama as a means of conveying the spirit and text of religion to the people.”

Long Beach Press-Telegram, 17 March 1929.

Moreover, the minister noted that “apparently, the church has seized the wisdom of using the play to tell the good story, thus competing with the secular stage on its own grounds.” With this demonstrable shift in presentation , Shephard concluded, “there is no way in which religion can be taught so impressively and so convincingly as through the pageant or play.” The Mission Play at San Gabriel, of which Homestead owner Walter P. Temple was an avid supporter, was probably one such example.

Other interests included his taking part, in June 1925, in “a new world fellowship organization” meeting at Trinity Auditorium and which was launched “to further education and practice in the principles of physical, mental and spiritual right living.” Not quite two years later, in February 1927, Shephard became director of the Hollywood Forum, a new entity which he explained was an “open forum at which no subjects or viewpoints will be barred” so that “every speaker must permit free discussion from the floor and free discussion by all desiring to speak.”

Record, 7 December 1929.

Sometime during 1927, it appears, Shepherd also changed direction with his ministry and joined the First Universalist Church, located where Alvarado and Hoover streets meet in Los Angeles. Today, Universalists and Unitarians are a combined sect and identify as coming from “liberal Christian traditions” while also drawing “from Eastern and Western religions and philosophies.

The minister continued working with other religious groups during the late 1920s, appearing at the Pico Heights Congregational Church, whose pastor was John M. Schaefle, as well working with an ecumenical group of Catholics, Jews and Protestants raising funds for the Wilshire Boulevard Congregational Church.

A later reference to Shephard, San Fernando Valley Times, 5 April 1945.

Shephard’s embrace of dance and music continued during this period with a March 1929 lecture before the Musical Arts Club including the statement “music arouses whatever is in the personality” and “although it has a tendency to raise it to a higher standard, it deals with every individual as he is” while he stressed the importance of the individual in developing skills. At the end of the year, it was reported that, at the First Universalist Church, “worship in dance form will be conducted” and “Dr. Sheldon Shephard points out Biblical references to the dance.”

While he was prone over some fifteen years to dramatic changes his his work, Shephard remained a Universalist minister for many years and also got involved in a peace movement by the mid-1930s, stating in 1936 that another world war “will drop the curtain on Western civilization” and warning “we must keep America’s private interests from making money out of anybody’s war, anywhere!” That year, he even toyed with seeking the Democratic Party nomination to a seat in the House of Representatives, but, apparently, decided against the idea.

Shephard continued making radio presentations, as well, and remained active in his ministry until at least the early 1960s, with a 1961 lecture on the “Science of Prayer” given to the Human Science Society of Los Angeles. He died a dozen years later in the San Diego area and, while he is an unknown figure, his diverse work in religion, psychology, business education, oratory and the arts made him an unusual and interesting individual in early 20th century religious circles in greater Los Angeles.

Leave a Reply