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Memorials: Palo Alto Friends Meeting

Paul Seaver

Date of birth

March 19, 1932

Date of death

Aug. 1, 2020


Palo Alto Friends Meeting

Memorial minute

Paul Siddall Seaver, historian, teacher, pacifist, and beloved member of Palo Alto Friends Meeting, died on August 1, 2020, at the age of 88. He is survived by his wife Kirsten, children Hannah and David, and four nephews and their families. 

Paul and his twin brother David were born in Philadelphia on March 19, 1932, to Benjamin and Madge (Tompkins) Seaver. In 1942 the family moved to a dairy farm in Gwynedd, northwest of Philadelphia. There his parents were attracted to the Quaker meeting with its roots in the Welsh Quaker community founded in the late 1690’s. Following World War II Gwynedd Meeting experienced an influx of young men who had performed Civilian Public Service as conscientious objectors during the war. Paul and David were inspired by the idealism and commitment of these young Quaker pacifists who became their heroes and role models. Both decided at the age of 14 to join Gwynedd Meeting. 

When Paul and David graduated from high school in 1950 they found themselves facing the draft for the Korean War. Already firm pacifists, they could easily have invoked their Quaker upbringing to obtain classification as conscientious objectors. However, they felt they could not in good conscience cooperate with a system (Alternative Service) designed to “keep pacifists passive” by quietly “getting them out of the way,” nor could they accept such treatment when pacifists not associated with traditional peace churches generally did not have that option. So they refused to register for the draft and were sentenced to 18 months in federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut. They were paroled after serving 6.5 months. Commenting on his prison experience in a 2016 interview Paul said “You learn that you can say no. There are some things that you won’t do and [you] live with the consequences.” 

After the interruption Paul and David completed their undergraduate educations at Haverford College, where Paul was mentored by historian Wallace MacCaffrey.  He went on to earn his graduate degrees at Harvard University in early modern English history, focusing on religion and radicalism and on the growth and urbanization of London. 

In 1954 Paul met Kirsten Andresen, a Norwegian foreign student at Bryn Mawr. After a wonderful first date that included the only American football game either of them ever cared to attend, they quickly formed a bond. They married in 1956. Their daughter Hannah was born in 1960 during a year spent in London while Paul was doing doctoral research. In 1962 Paul took a teaching job at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and it was there that their son David was born in 1963. Paul and Kirsten loved to travel and made many trips to all parts of the world.  They also maintained a tiny flat near Paddington Station for 32 years, which enabled them to make frequent trips to London to do research. 

Paul was always very, very close with his twin brother David, though the two had very different temperaments.  “David,” he said in a 2014 interview, “was a natural pacifist who couldn’t imagine inflicting pain. I wasn’t. I might have shot back with a gun in my hands, so I had to make sure not to put myself in such a position.” It was a painful loss when David died unexpectedly of a stroke at age 53.

In 1964 Paul began a long and distinguished career in the History Department at Stanford University, retiring in 1997. For much of that time he held leadership positions in the University’s required humanities program for first-year students, the title (and content) of which evolved from “Western Civilization” to “Western Culture” to “Cultures, Ideas and Values.”  Moving tributes to his service at Stanford – his quiet unassuming brilliance, his wise counsel, his captivating teaching, his selfless devotion to undergraduate education (recognized by two university awards), his role in building one of the strongest British history programs in the country, his pioneering research that reshaped our understanding of English Puritanism – all can be found in a memorial notice on the Stanford website. His most acclaimed publication, “Wallington’s World: A Puritan Artisan in Seventeenth Century London,” was one of the first detailed looks at the religious life and thought of a “lower class” Puritan (that is, one who was not clergy or gentry).

In his early years at Stanford, while the Vietnam War was tearing America apart, Paul was very active counseling young men on their options regarding the draft. He worked closely with activist theologian Robert McAfee Brown and others at Stanford and Friends meetings including his father, Ben Seaver, who was then Peace Education Secretary for AFSC in San Francisco. In addition to counseling individual men, Paul served as Chairman of the Board for the Western Region of the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, the national draft counseling organization. It was extremely demanding work on top of his academic load, but it was a commitment he couldn't set aside, not even in the face of the threatening phone calls the family began receiving after his home phone number was published in Herb Caen’s column in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Paul had a strong commitment to his Meeting, anchored in the profound gratitude he felt for the members of Danbury Meeting in Connecticut who came week after week to the federal prison to hold a meeting for worship with him and his brother. Reflecting on this in the 2014 interview he said, “After that, the thought of ever not being a Quaker became unimaginable to me.” Once, at the beginning of a committee year when Paul was beginning a term on the Worship and Ministry Committee, members were invited to talk about why they were drawn to that committee. Paul’s answer was simple: “When your Meeting calls, you serve.”

And indeed, Paul has served Palo Alto Friends Meeting in various capacities.  Not surprisingly he acted as our Historian-Archivist for many years. Also not surprisingly, he shared his knowledge of Quaker origins and history with us on multiple occasions. Through primary source readings and his carefully crafted lectures he invariably gave us a nuanced picture of the historical context and personalities that shaped (or one could say hammered) early Quakerism.

Paul was a most regular attender at meeting for worship in Palo Alto, reliably sitting in his preferred seat next to those that his mother Madge and his aunt Frances Tomkins had occupied for many years. His steady, thoughtful presence and warm smile will be acutely missed when we gather again after the COVID-19 shutdown and see his empty seat.