Thomas Starr King

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Thomas Starr King
Thomas Starr King.png
Born 17 December 1824
New York City
Died 4 March 1864 (1864-03-05) (aged 39)
San Francisco
Occupation Minister, orator

Thomas Starr King (December 17, 1824 – March 4, 1864) was an American Universalist and Unitarian minister, influential in California politics during the American Civil War, and Freemason.[1] Starr King spoke zealously in favor of the Union and was credited by Abraham Lincoln with preventing California from becoming a separate republic. He is sometimes referred to as "the orator who saved the nation."[2][3]

Early life

He was born on December 17, 1824, in New York City to Rev. Thomas Farrington King, a Universalist minister, and Susan Starr King. The sole support of his family at 15, he was forced to leave school. Inspired by men like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Ward Beecher, King embarked on a program of self-study for the ministry. At the age of 20 he took over his father's former pulpit at the Charlestown Universalist Church in Charlestown, Massachusetts.


In 1849, he was appointed pastor of the Hollis Street Church in Boston, where he became one of the most famous preachers in New England. He vacationed in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and in 1859 published a book about the area entitled The White Hills; their Legends, Landscapes, & Poetry. In 1860 he accepted a call from the First Unitarian Church of San Francisco, California. In July of that year, he visited Yosemite and was moved spiritually by its splendor. Upon returning to San Francisco, he began preaching a series of sermons on Yosemite, published letters about it in the Boston Evening Transcript, and aligned himself with fellow abolitionist and landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, to have Yosemite set aside as a reserve. Yosemite would become a California State Park and eventually a National park.[4] Starr King joined the Freemasons and was raised to the sublime degree of Master Mason in Oriental Lodge No. 144 in San Francisco, now Phoenix Lodge No. 144, and served as grand orator of the Grand Lodge of California in 1863.[1]

Starr King's younger brother, Edward Starr King, served as captain of the clipper ship Syren. Capt. Starr King arrived in San Francisco aboard Syren just two days after his elder brother's stirring 1861 speech about Washington and the Union, remarking, "Starr has the brains of the family, and I the brawn."[5]

Plaque at Thomas Starr King sarcophagus.

During the Civil War, Starr King spoke zealously in favor of the Union and was credited by Abraham Lincoln with preventing California from becoming a separate republic. At the urging of Jessie Benton Frémont, Starr King teamed up with writer Bret Harte, and Starr King read Harte's patriotic poems at pro-Union speeches.[6] Starr King also read original verses by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and James Russell Lowell which captured the imagination of the Californians. In a letter by Starr King wrote to James T. Fields, the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, "The state must be Northernized thoroughly, by schools, Atlantic Monthlies, lectures, N.E. preachers."[6]

In addition, he organized the Pacific Branch of the United States Sanitary Commission, which raised money and medical materials for wounded soldiers and was the predecessor to the American Red Cross. A fiery orator, he raised more than $1.5 million for the Sanitary Commission headquarters in New York City, one-fifth of the total contributions from all the states in the Union.

Sarcophagus of Thomas Starr King in San Francisco


The relentless lecture circuit exhausted him, and he died in San Francisco on March 4, 1864, of diphtheria and pneumonia. His dying words were said to be, "Keep my memory green."[7] Over twenty thousand people attended his funeral and several of his friends including Charles Stoddard, Bret Harte and Ina Coolbrith published tributes.[8] King is interred at First Unitarian Church of San Francisco between Starr King and Geary Streets in San Francisco. In the 1940s, most of San Francisco's dead were disinterred and moved to new resting places outside city limits; the grave of Starr King was one of the very few allowed to remain undisturbed.[9]



Mount Starr King in Yosemite


  • In 1941, the Pacific Unitarian School for the Ministry (Unitarian Universalist), in Berkeley, California, was renamed the Starr King School for the Ministry in his honor
  • Starr King K-8 School in Carmichael, California
  • Starr King Elementary School in Long Beach, California
  • Thomas Starr King Middle School in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles
  • Starr King Elementary School in San Francisco
  • The Starr King Parent-Child Workshop, founded in 1949 in Santa Barbara, California, is an active cooperative nursery school and parent-education resource


  • Starr King Unitarian Universalist Church in Hayward, California
  • Starr King Unitarian Universalist Fellowship (SKUUF) in New Hampshire


  • Starr King Way in San Francisco
  • Starr King Circle in Palo Alto, California


  • Starr King Openspace, a park in Potrero Hill, San Francisco


  • Starr King Lodge A.F. & A.M., a Masonic lodge founded in 1864 in Salem, Massachusetts

Statuary and monuments

  • Thomas Starr King Statue in Golden Gate Park, facing JFK Drive, close to the De Young Museum.[10]
  • King's church, the First Unitarian Church and his sarcophagus in San Francisco are designated historical monuments.

Statue in California State Capitol

Thomas Starr King (National Statuary Hall Collection statue, now located at the California State Capitol)

As part of honors originally paid to Rev. King, he was judged worthy of representing California in the National Statuary Hall Collection displayed in the United States Capitol. In 1913, King was voted one of California's two greatest heroes and funds were appropriated for a statue. In 1931, California officially donated a bronze statue of King to be mounted in Statuary Hall.

On August 31, 2006, however, the California Legislature approved a joint resolution to replace Thomas Starr King's statue in Statuary Hall with a statue of Ronald Reagan.[11] The resolution was authored by Republican State Senator Dennis Hollingsworth, who stated the reason for the resolution as, "To be honest with you, I wasn't sure who Thomas Starr King was, and I think there's probably a lot of Californians like me."[12] He also went on to observe that King was not a native of the state though, of course, neither is Reagan (nor was Junipero Serra, the other statue representing California in Statuary Hall).

As a result of this resolution, King's statue was removed from Statuary Hall, and the statue of Ronald Reagan was placed in Statuary Hall on June 10, 2009.[13] In November 2009, Starr King's statue was reinstalled within the Civil War Memorial Grove in Capitol Park, which surrounds the California State Capitol in Sacramento. It was formally dedicated in a ceremony held on December 8, 2009.[14]


  1. ^ a b "Thomas Starr King Honored at State Capitol". Masons of California. Retrieved 2017-08-21.
  2. ^ "Thomas Starr King (Replaced)". Architect of the Capitol. Archived from the original on 2015-06-02. Retrieved 2015-05-16.
  3. ^ Congressional Record, V. 152, PT. 17, November 9, 2006 to December 6, 2006. Retrieved 2015-05-16.
  4. ^ Smith, Jordan Fisher (June 7, 2016). Engineering Eden: The True Story of a Violent Death, a Trial, and a Fight Over Controlling Nature. New York City: Crown Publishers. pp. 19–20. ISBN 978-0307454263.
  5. ^ Wendte, Charles William (1921). Thomas Starr King, patriot and preacher. Boston: Beacon Press. pp. 160–161. ISBN 978-0-548-00757-0.
  6. ^ a b Tarnoff, Benjamin (2014). The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature. Penguin Books. pp. 30–31. ISBN 978-1594204739.
  7. ^ Tully Shock, Oscar (1870). Representative and Leading Men of the Pacific: Being Original Sketches of the Lives and Characters of the Principal Men, to which are Added Their Speeches, Addresses, Orations, Eulogies, Lectures and Poems, Including the Happiest Forensic Efforts of Baker, Randolph, McDougall, T. Starr King, and Other Popular Orators (Google ebook ed.). San Francisco: Bacon and Co. p. 166.
  8. ^ a b c Tarnoff, Ben (2014). The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature. Penguin Books. pp. 66–67. ISBN 978-1594204739.
  9. ^ "Why Are There So Many Dead People in Colma? And So Few in San Francisco?". KQED News. December 16, 2015. Retrieved 2017-08-21.
  10. ^ "Thomas Starr King (sculpture)". Save Outdoor Sculpture!. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Retrieved 12 May 2012.
  11. ^ "Senate Joint Resolution No. 3". California Legislature. September 8, 2006. Retrieved 2017-08-21.
  12. ^ Geiger, Kimberly (October 25, 2006). "Debate urged on Starr King eviction". San Francisco Chronicle. Archived from the original on May 23, 2013. Retrieved 2013-04-15.
  13. ^ Lovely, Erika; Martin, Jonathan (June 3, 2009). "Congress honors Ronald Reagan with figure in Statuary Hall". Politico. Retrieved 2017-08-21.
  14. ^ Kennedy, Gerrick D. (December 21, 2009). "A giant of California history returns to Sacramento". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2011-05-11.


  • A Vacation Among the Sierras: Yosemite in 1860.
  • The White Hills; their Legends, Landscapes, & Poetry. (1864).
  • Patriotism and Other Papers. Boston: Tompkins, 1864.
  • Christianity and Humanity. Boston: Osgood, 1877.
  • Substance and Show, and Other Lectures. Boston: Houghton & Osgood, 1877.

Further reading

  • C.D. Bradlee, The Life, Writings, and Character of Rev. Thomas Starr King: A Lecture. Boston: Press of John Wilson and Son, 1870.
  • Richard Frothingham, A Tribute to Thomas Starr King. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1865.
  • Tyler Green, "Carleton Watkins: Making the West American." Oakland: University of California Press, 2018.
  • Glenna Matthews, The Golden State in the Civil War: Thomas Starr King, the Republican Party, and the Birth of Modern California. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • William Day Simonds, Starr King in California. San Francisco: Paul Elder and Co., 1917.
  • Arliss Ungar, Nature Writings: Words of the Rev. Thomas Starr King. Paper presented at the UUA 2004 General Assembly, Long Beach, CA.
  • Charles William Wendte, Thomas Starr King, Patriot and Preacher. Boston: Beacon Press, 1921.

External links

  • Thomas Starr King, article from the Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography
  • Starr King School for the Ministry
  • Thomas Starr King statue in the National Statuary Hall, U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C.
  • Thomas Starr King Middle School of Los Angeles, California
  • Starr King Elementary School of San Francisco, California
  • United States Sanitary Commission (historical website)
  • First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco: Our History
  • SF Landmark: Sarcophagus of Thomas Starr King at Franklin Street and Starr King Way
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