home discussion reviews interviews biographies events contact history page multimedia presentation exhibit
header image


Thomas Starr King – the man who saved California for the Union

David Briggs wrote a sermon entitled The First UU – Thomas Starr King that he delivered (with able assistance*) to the Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains, Grass Valley, California on June 24, 2012. We thank David for allowing us to print this tribute to a great man.


I first heard of Thomas Starr King last year, when I learned that Reverend Meghan (of UU Grass Valley) was a graduate of the Starr King School for the Ministry. But I was not aware of his importance until two months ago, when I attended a presentation about California and the Civil War given by Richard Hurley and TJ Meekins. I would like to thank them for lending this display panel, and also for helping me with the research for this service.

Today I'll talk about how Thomas Starr King saved California for the Union, and we'll hear some of the words he spoke about equality, helping the poor, and right relations.


Part I – Starr King's Early Years

Thomas Starr King was born in New York City in 1824, the oldest child of a Universalist minister. During Starr King's childhood his father moved his ministry to Charlestown, Massachusetts, near Boston.

Starr, as he was known to his family, showed great intellectual promise from an early age. By the age of thirteen he had written a sermon that was published in a denominational paper. But the long illness and early death of his father when Starr King was fifteen ended Starr's schooling. He went to work as a clerk and bookkeeper to support his mother and his four younger siblings. In the next seven years he would also be a teacher and principal of a local grammar school. Throughout this time, he devoted his spare hours to study, reading, and to attending lecture courses. He became fluent in six languages, and gained an extensive knowledge of philosophy, metaphysics, and natural science.

Among the Universalist and Unitarian ministers he impressed with his knowledge and dedication were Hosea Ballou the Second and Theodore Parker, both of whom helped prepare him for the ministry. In 1846, at the age of 21, Starr King accepted a call from the Universalist church where his father had been minister before his death. But Starr King found this situation awkward, as some members of the congregation who had known him as a child seemed incapable of accepting him as an adult.

Two years later, in 1846, Starr King was offered the opportunity to lead the Hollis Street Church, a Unitarian congregation in Boston. As the Unitarians and Universalists did not merge until over one hundred years later, some Universalists were disturbed by this, believing that Starr King was abandoning their denomination. But the similarities between the two groups were widely noted even at that time. One of the points of agreement was that neither believed in eternal damnation. Starr King said of the Universalists and the Unitarians: "One thinks God is too good to damn then, the other thinks they are too good to be damned."

The Hollis Street Church was troubled. A portion of the membership had waged a protracted struggle to remove a previous minister, leaving the congregation divided, in debt, and reduced in number. Starr King felt the need to heal the church, and at first spoke cautiously about slavery and temperance:

"I would insist as strongly as anyone on the right and duty of ministers to act as reformer, to speak in Anti-Slavery meetings, and temperance and peace meetings, if they have the power of public address. Let them act as Reformers in the proper sphere for such social action. And in the pulpit let them attack the central throne of sin in the private heart. If I can make a man loathe sin, and love right and goodness only, am I not leading him to hate slavery and drunkenness, which are only special forms of sin?"

In the eleven years that Starr King served the Hollis Street Church, its debts were paid, and the membership increased fivefold. He began to speak more directly about his social concerns, one of which was poverty:

"The question of absorbing interest to society itself is this – how shall the Church, which contains the regenerative principles of truth, be brought from its serene and comfortable elevation into redeeming contact with the streets, lanes, and cellars of the world? If we will not take up this problem of pauperism and ignorance in the spirit of Christian duty and love, and consider, through some constructive methods the rights of the poor, it will be pressed upon our self-interest as involving the existence, or at least the health of society."

He believed that human development was best achieved through community:

"We are not intended to be separate, private persons, but rather fibers, fingers, and limbs. The aim of religion is not to perfect us as persons, looking at each of us apart from others. The creator does not propose to polish souls like so many pins – each one dropping off clean and shiny, with no more organic relations to each other than pins on a card.

"There can be no such thing as justice until men, in large masses, are rightly related to each other."

In 1857, the Supreme Court handed down the Dred Scott decision, stating that people of African descent brought into the United States as slaves – and their descendants – were not protected by the Constitution, Starr King spoke out against it:

"I will pass over political methods to say that, if we are honest in our denunciation of this decision, we must respect the black man, recognize him as a brother, be ready to help him elevate himself in Northern society, plead against the disabilities that fetter him, pay reverence to him which is due the victim of arrogant tyranny."

Starr King was now married with a young daughter. He was also supporting his mother and an invalid brother. He could not provide for them on the three thousand dollars per year he received from the Hollis Street Church, and had begun supplementing his income by lecturing on subjects such as Goethe and Socrates. He became one of the most popular orators in the northeastern United States, but the lecture tours exhausted him and endangered his already precarious health. He began looking for a position that would enable him to support his family without the strain of additional lecturing. When he received an offer from the First Unitarian Society of San Francisco in 1860, he accepted it. Starr King knew that his lack of education would always limit his influence in Boston. He wrote to a friend:

"I do desire to be in a position where my labor would be of greater worth to the general cause than it can in Boston. I do think we are unfaithful in huddling so closely around the cozy stove of civilization in this blessed Boston, and I, for one, am ready to go out into the cold and see if I am good for anything."

In April of 1860 Starr King and his family set sail for Panama, where they would take another ship that would bring them to San Francisco. We will learn what they found there in the second part of this sermon.


Starr King in SF

Rev. Thomas Starr King addressing a pro-Union rally

Part II – Thomas Starr King in California

When Starr King first walked to the pulpit of the First Unitarian Society in San Francisco in April 1860, some of the congregation were doubtful. He appeared frail. He was only five feet tall, and though he was 35 years old, he still looked boyish. Starr King was used to confronting such doubts. "Though I weigh only 120 pounds," he said, "when I'm mad I weigh a ton." When he began speaking eloquently in a rich, resonant voice, they were reassured. In his first year as minister in San Francisco, he raised funds to pay off the church's twenty thousand dollar debt. Then he began to raise money for a new church building large enough for his expanding congregation. In January, 1864, the new building was completed.

During his first year in California, Starr King traveled to the Sierras. Natural beauty had always been a restorative to him. While he was a minister in Boston, he had spent time in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and had written a popular book about them. Now he wrote letters to the Boston Evening Transcript, praising the beauty of Yosemite. According to the newspaper Alta California, these letters helped people to realize that the treasures of Yosemite should be public property, not to be lavished upon a few for personal gain.

In addition to the work for his church, Starr King pursued another mission. He had arrived in California one year before the beginning of the Civil War. Southern sympathizers dominated California politics. A plan to split the state in two, and have Southern California admitted as a slave state, was passed in the state legislature, but not acted upon by the federal government. As the Civil War approached, southern sympathizers in this state promoted the idea of California and Oregon seceding from the Union and forming the Pacific Republic, with friendly ties to the Confederate States. With a governor, two Senators and much of the legislature favorable to the South, there was a real danger that California would secede.

Realizing the need to take action, inspired by a speech by Senator Baker of Oregon, and encouraged by Jessie Benton Frémont, Starr King began to speak with a ferocity he had never shown before. On February 22nd, 1861, he spoke in San Francisco:

"Washington believed that God created this country to be one. The Creator placed no Mason and Dixon's line upon it; that was the work of foolish men. He marked no boundaries for rival civilizations in the immense basins of the west. The Mississippi, like a great national tree, has its root in the hot Gulf, and spreads its top in the far icy North, a glorious tree, with boughs in different latitudes, and branches binding the Rocky Mountains and the lakes together, its great trunk the central artery of a national unity."

The effect of this speech was astonishing. Starr King gave it again and again in northern California: in Marysville, Stockton, and Sacramento. He spoke in gold mining camps, speaking extemporaneously before crowds that were armed with pistols and bowie knives. Undergirding his support for the Union was his opposition to slavery and the the Confederacy's plan to expand it.

He spoke to a group of African Americans:

"The Almighty has a great mission for this nation – here the church is to proclaim the equality of the races. Wherever the oppressed are congregated, there Christ is present – and not on the side of power."

As the war continued, Starr King became impatient for Lincoln to declare the freedom of the slaves.

"Oh that the President would soon speak that electric sentence – inspiration to the loyal North, doom to the traitorous aristocracy whose cup of guilt is full. Let him say – that this is a war of mass against class, of America against feudalism, of the schoolmaster against the slave-master, of workmen against the barons, of the ballot box against the barracoon [slave barracks]. This is what the struggle means."

Starr King helped elect Leland Stanford, who was pro-Union and a member of his congregation, Governor of California in 1861. By the next year, the danger of California seceding had passed. For his tireless efforts and eloquence, Thomas Starr King became known as "The Man Who Saved California for the Union."

With California safe for the Union, Starr King embarked on another great mission. Conditions in army camps and hospitals were unsanitary, and the facilities were inadequate. The government did not have sufficient funds for beds, medicines, or capable doctors. A colleague of Starr King's founded the United States Sanitary Commission, a forerunner of the Red Cross, to meet this need. In spite of the natural disasters of alternating floods and droughts that afflicted California during these years, Starr King was able to raise over a million dollars for the Sanitary Commission, one-fourth of all the money raised throughout the country.

I spoke before of Starr King's physical frailty. His ceaseless work on behalf of his congregation, his state, and his country finally broke his health and he died of diphtheria and pneumonia on March 4, 1864. The writings of a friend who was at Starr King's deathbed show that he was brave and gracious to the end. Across San Francisco flags dropped to half-staff. The state legislature adjourned for three days of mourning. Twenty thousand people came to his church to pay tribute. He was buried in front of the Unitarian Church in San Francisco. When the cemeteries were removed from San Francisco, his was the only grave allowed to remain in the city.

There is a great deal about Starr King that I have not been able to convey today. His sincerity, gentleness, and wit can be found in his sermons and writings, and in the writings and reports of those who knew him. But I think the inscription at the base of his statue in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco sums him up well: "In him eloquence, strength, and virtue were devoted with fearless courage to truth, country, and his fellow man."


Union angel

Starr King helped inaugurate telegraph service between the East and California with messages of support for the Union.


* Anita Wald-Tuttle, Pat Paddock, David Ferrier, Carol Hyndman, Paul Bonani, Matt Wilson-Daley, Hannah Wilson-Daley, and May Lawrence participated in the delivery of this tribute to Starr King.