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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Rev. Thomas Starr King

San Francisco’s First Unitarian Church congregation gaped at its new pastor with a mix of curiosity and consternation. Could this small, frail, beardless, boyish-looking man now ascending the pulpit possibly be the famous preacher from Boston, the Reverend Thomas Starr King? But when he began speaking in a rich, musical voice, in words that were strong and beautiful, the congregant’s faces lit up with wonder—and delight in having asked him to come West to lead them.

Reverend King’s ministry in California would further increase his deserved reputation and effectiveness as a humanitarian, zealous patriot, and a tireless crusader for social justice. Born in New York on December 17, 1824, he was the oldest child of Unitarian minister Thomas Farrington King and Susan Starr King. When he was eleven, the family moved to Massachusetts and young Thomas made plans to enroll at Harvard, but the death of his father when he was fifteen obligated him to become the sole support of his mother and five younger siblings.

Despite having to work hard for a living, over the years Thomas educated himself in literature, philosophy, and foreign languages as preparation for the religious career he felt was his destiny. Ordained in August 1846, he became the pastor of his late father’s Charlestown church. Two years later, he accepted an offer to become the minister of the Hollis Street Church in Boston. He pulled the Hollis Street Church out of bankruptcy and increased its membership to five times its original size, simultaneously writing for theological magazines and spending time as a popular speaker on New England’s wide-ranging lecture circuit, giving talks on a wide variety of subjects.

After eleven rigorous years at the Hollis Street Church, doing work that battered his frail constitution, Mr. King accepted the call of the First Unitarian Church for health reasons; and because he felt San Francisco offered a greater challenge than his other offers from churches in Chicago and Brooklyn. In April 1860, he and his wife Julia Wiggins King arrived in California, just as the storm clouds of impending war were gathering in the East. He didn’t much like San Francisco, the richest urban city in the country, and his wife liked it even less. Nevertheless, in his rare leisure hours, Mr. King found joy in exploring California’s wilderness areas: Yosemite Valley, Lake Tahoe, and the giant redwoods on the coast.

In April 1861, when the attack on Fort Sumter plunged the nation into crises—raising fears that California might fall to the Confederacy—Mr. King didn’t hesitate. Although very much against slavery, he focused on saving his country. A fiery orator no one could silence or effectively oppose, his lecture circuit throughout the state’s towns and mining camps bolstered the weak-hearted and urged loyal men to stand for the Union. He covered his pulpit with an American flag and ended all sermons with “God bless the president of the United States…and the cause of a common country.”

Starr King recognized the worth and dignity of all persons, speaking out on behalf of labor and other humanitarian causes. He was a friend to the poor and oppressed . . . with the publicly expressed caveat that he could not, would not, pray for the soul of Confederate president Jefferson Davis! During the Civil War he helped raise over a million dollars for the Sanitary Fund, the forerunner of the American Red Cross.

In four short years, Thomas Starr King became a beloved hero in California. As he told a friend, “I may weigh only 120 pounds, but when I am mad, I weigh a ton.” Tragically, it only took that four short years of intense mental and physical exertion to exhaust his always frail health. In February 1864 he came down with diphtheria, complicated by pneumonia. He died on March 4, 1864, leaving behind a wife and small children.

The California Legislature adjourned for three days so members could attend his funeral parade, and many public and private buildings lowered their flags to half mast. Over 20,000 people attended his funeral. San Francisco made an exception to its long-time ban on burial within the city limits, allowing Starr King’s body to rest in a sarcophagus on the grounds of the Unitarian Church, where it remains to this day.

Today a number of schools, streets, and parks in California are named in honor of Reverend Thomas Starr King.

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