Nuggets of History: A Young Opal Whiteley is (re)discovered in a 1912 photo

The 1912 group photo of Christian Endeavor members was recently discovered to have captured a 14-year-old Opal Whiteley (center). [Photo courtesy of Debra Monsive, Cottage Grove Genealogical Society]

fortuitous treat has been discovered for Cottage Grove’s history lovers: a rare photo of a 14-year-old Opal Whiteley.

The 1912 photo featured on this page was taken in front of the Christian Church at 6th and Gibbs. Everyone is wearing a Christian Endeavor badge with the “CE” logo. To this author’s knowledge, it is the first time this picture has ever been published.

Christian Endeavor is a world-wide organization reaching youth of all ages. At its peak, it had over four million youth and adult members. Opal was just getting started in the work that would soon bring her statewide recognition for her nature and spiritual lectures.

The exact date of the picture is not known; someone wrote both May 1912 and September 1912 on the back. It was on a picture postcard, however, so there could be more copies existing.

We have Debra Monsive, president of the Cottage Grove Genealogical Society, to thank for this photo. She collects and sells historic postcards and photo reproductions. Monsive writes, “Recently, I was looking for a different picture entirely and my eyes fell on this one – and the image of Opal Whiteley! I don’t know how many times I’ve looked at the photo and had not seen her. This goes to show how you can take a new look at your old photos and see people or details you might have missed previously.”

This photograph is doubly important because it is the only known picture of Opal with her future supporter and later adversary, Elbert Bede. He is standing above Opal’s right shoulder. Although only 21 years old, he was already the publisher of The Sentinel.

Elbert Bede would write his first article about Opal just a couple of years after this picture. From then on, their lives would be linked. His news articles brought her wide attention years before the publication of her famous diary in 1920. Bede wrote numerous features about her over the years and in 1954 wrote the first biography of her, “Fabulous Opal Whiteley, From Oregon Logging Camp to Princess In India”. But in 1912, when this picture was taken, they barely knew each other.

Opal was baptized in the First Christian Church by Reverend W.A. Elkins, and soon started a chapter of Christian Endeavor for children in the logging camps. In addition to studying the Bible and doing good works, the kids had parties and field trips. It was active in campaigns to prevent teen smoking and drinking. It was open to all Christians and people of color held leadership roles.

Opal had already been teaching children in the lumber camps since she was nine. She took them on forest walks and taught them about the science of nature and God’s design of the Universe. Opal was a gifted teacher. She was elected president of the statewide Junior Christian Endeavor in 1915. Under her leadership she built the number of chapters, bringing in thousands of new members.

Christian Endeavor gave Opal the opportunity to get outside of Cottage Grove and meet people from all over the state. She crisscrossed Oregon giving lectures. CE helped her learn the skills that would later be vital to her success. She learned how to meet people from different backgrounds and how to speak to an audience of hundreds. Opal quickly became the most popular teenager in Oregon.

Many prominent people got their start in Christian Endeavor. The founder of Alcoholics Anonymous credits CE for teaching him the framework of AA. Both organizations were open to all who followed a simple creed. A Christian Endeavor meeting in Cottage Grove was much like a meeting in any other town, a model every AA follows today.

After controversy over her diary erupted in 1920, the statewide head of Christian Endeavor, Evert Baker, wrote letters strongly supporting Opal’s story that she was adopted. Baker said that he was told this by Mrs. Whiteley (d.1917) at a CE meeting in 1911. While supporting her adoption story, he did not say anything about Opal’s belief that her real parents were French aristocrats.

Readers can see his letters on this author’s website, storiesbysteve.com/opal-whiteley.

There are very few known pictures of Opal from her years in Christian Endeavor, but this old picture postcard is a reminder that more could exist.

It’s a good reminder to take another look at your old pictures; you might have history in your home and not realize it!

If you see something new in an old photo, contact the Genealogical Society, the Cottage Grove Historical Society or the Cottage Grove Museum for help identifying it. You may also contact Debra Monsive at [email protected] (you might also tell her thanks for this picture!)

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