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Starr King in California
by William Day Simonds
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Horace Davis, Starr King's son-in-law, was accustomed to insist that writers had wholly failed to note one element of the great orator's power, namely, his humor. Not wit, Mr. Davis would remark, but a most genial and kindly, and at the same time illuminating humor. A careful examination of King's published sermons, speeches and lectures gives but slight evidence of this gift, owing doubtless to false ideas of what constitutes decorum in the work of a preacher. Occasionally satisfying evidence is found of the truth of Mr. Davis' judgment, as in the following:

"On many a tombstone where it is written, 'Here lies so and so, aged seventy years', the true inscription would read 'In memory of one who in seventy years lived about five minutes and that was when he first fell in love.'"

Writing of his lecture work in California which he called "detestable vagrancy," he says:

"There is a great flood in the interior. California is a lake. Rats, squirrels, locusts, lecturers, and other like pests are drowned out. I am a home bird, and enjoy it hugely."

King greeted the mention of his name as candidate for United States Senator with the statement, "I would swim to Australia before taking a political post," and added, "a dandy lives from one necktie to another, a fashionable woman from one wrinkle to another and a politician from one election to another."

Certainly there is a smile, as well as a truth, in the following:

"Our popular definition of a ghost is just the reverse of truth; it makes one consist of a soul without a body, while really a specter, an illusion, a humbug of the eyesight and the touch, is a human body not vitalized through and through with a soul."

"King was the best story teller of his time," thought Dr. Bellows. "Gifted with an exquisite, a delicious sense of the ludicrous, and given to bursts of uncontrollable merriment, happy as childhood and as innocent," this is the verdict of one of his earliest biographers,—E. P. Whipple. That sunny mirth and infectious laughter was no mean element of his power over the people, we can readily believe.

Another explanation of his far reaching influence both in the pulpit and on the platform, is found in the rare skill with which he made the discoveries of science, and the beauties of nature, serve his need as a teacher of morals and religion. And here, again, he was helped by the spirit of his age. Darwin's "Origin of Species" was published in 1859, a kind of crown and culmination of a half century of brilliant progress in science. Starr King but shared the temper of his time as he turned with delight to the writings of the masters and reveled in the new universe there revealed. Modern science, which troubled the faith of many, only deepened and strengthened his own, as he idealized and spiritualized each new wonder of earth and heaven. The comet of July, 1861, gave noble opportunity to enforce in his pulpit the religious lessons of that mother of all the sciences, Astronomy. "I am glad," he began, "at every new temptation to consider in the pulpit and the Church the wonders and laws of modern astronomy."

"Does it ever occur to you, brethren, how we waste truth? Have you ever felt what a sad thing it is that so little of the vast accumulation of inspiring knowledge should reach our deepest, our religious sentiments, to kindle and feed them? The most certain knowledge which men now hold is that which is gathered from the sky. Astronomy, dealing with objects thousands of millions of miles away, and with forces that rule through limitless space, is the most symmetrical and firm of all the structures of science which have been reared by the human mind. Immeasurably more than David could have known, the heavens, as Herschel reads them, declare the glory of God. Yet how seldom do we think of the splendors and harmonies which a modern book of astronomy unveils as part of God's appeal to our wonder; how seldom does the solemn light from the uppermost regions of immensity, the light of nebulae which science has broken up into heaps of suns, converge upon a human soul with power enough to stimulate devout awe and make the heart bend before the Creator of the universe."

A few days at Lake Tahoe, when not a hundred white men had visited its shores, inspired a sermon long remembered by those who heard it, and today, after numerous nature-sermons by the world's most gifted preachers, this discourse remains an almost perfect example of what such a sermon should be. The following single excerpt must suffice to suggest its beauty:

"I must speak of another lesson, connected with religion, that was suggested to me on the borders of Lake Tahoe. It is bordered by groves of noble pines. Two of the days which I was permitted to enjoy there were Sundays. On one of them I passed several hours of the afternoon in listening, alone, to the murmur of the pines, while the waves were gently beating the shore with their restlessness. If the beauty and purity of the lake were in harmony with the deepest religion of the Bible, certainly the voice of the pines was also in chord with it.

"The oracles of Greece are connected with the oak. And the lightness, the gaiety, the wit, the suppleness, of the Greek mind find in the voice of the oak their fit representatives; for the oak, though so stubborn and sinewy in its substances, is cheery and gay in its tone when the wind strikes it. But the evergreen trees, though so much softer in their stock, are far deeper and more serious in their music; and the evergreen is the Hebrew tree. The Cedar of Lebanon is the tree most prominent when we think of Palestine and the clothing of its hills. As I lay and listened to the deep, serious, yet soft and welcome sound of those pines by the lake shore, I thought of the inspiration of old which had wakened such lasting and wonderful music from the great souls of Israel. When we want knowledge or the quickening of intellect, we enter the groves of Greece; when we would find quickening, when we would feel the deeps of the soul appealed to, we enter the deeper and more sombre woods of Palestine. The voice of the pine helps us to interpret the Hebrew genius. Its range of expression is not so great as that of the oak or the elm or the willow or the beech, but how much richer it is and more welcome in its monotony! How much more profoundly our souls echo it! How much more deeply does it seem to be in harmony with the spirit of the air! What grandeur, what tenderness, what pathos, what heart-searchingness in the swells and cadences of its 'Andante Maestoso,' when the wind wrestles with it and brings out all its soul."

To the graces and gifts we have mentioned it is but necessary to add that King's gospel of religion was in itself a veritable glad tidings to the people. Not a mere deliverance of doubt, or morality veneered with icy culture, but faith clear, strong and radiantly beautiful. His thought of God, of Man, of Immortality, was full of comfort and inspiration. "God is the infinite Christ," he was wont to say. "Jesus revealed under human limitations the mercy and love of the Father."

King rivalled Theodore Parker in the strength and tenderness of his faith that "man is the child of God." Saint and sinner, master and slave, learned and ignorant, rich and poor, all are children of the Infinite God,—born of His love ere the world was, certain of His love when the world shall have passed away. He felt that if this is not true, there is not enough left of religion to so much as interest an earnest soul. Religion is everything,—the sun in the heavens,—or it is a star too distant, faint and cold, to cast upon our path a single ray of light.

And the unseen world! How very real it was to this man of faith and prayer. The immortal life is the life. These earthly years but lead us thither. Such was his faith. In excess of world-wisdom we say, "Eternity is here and now." Well and good. But if we lose for a kind of technicality the dear old trust in a higher and nobler life beyond the swift-coming night of death, what have we gained? Said our beloved preacher, our "Saint of the Pacific Coast," as he lay dying, "I see a great future before me." Without that vision he would not have been Starr King.



Part V. In Retrospect

Above that of all other men the fame of the orator is transient. Eloquence may be "logic on fire" as Dr. Lyman Beecher defined it. Oratory may be, as Emerson said, "the noblest expression of purely personal energy." But it is so far personal, so allied to grace of gesture, to charm of manner, to melody of voice, to perfection of speech, to a commanding presence, that it carries to the future but a fraction of its power. The cold type and the insentiate page constitute at best only the record of nature's rarest gift.

Moreover oratory today is at its ebb, as it has been a hundred times before, and with us the man of eloquence passes to quick oblivion. It would be futile to deny that the common fate of orators has overtaken Starr King. Even in California the present generation knows painfully little of his great services to the State. This is the first serious attempt, let us hope it will not be the last, accurately to measure the extent and value of that service so nobly rendered. It is gratifying, however, to recall that Californians of his own time, and the years immediately following, paid ample tribute to his work and his memory. Extraordinary honors, such as never have been given to any private citizen, were freely and lovingly accorded the patriot-preacher.

On the evening of March 4, 1864, the day of King's death, the San Francisco Bulletin, then, as now, one of the leading papers of the city, contained the following tribute:

"The announcement of the death of Rev. Thomas Starr King startles the community, and shocks it like the loss of a great battle or tidings of a sudden and undreamed of public calamity. Certainly no other man on the Pacific Coast would be missed so much. San Francisco has lost one of her chief attractions; the State, its noblest orator; the country one of her ablest defenders."

Scarcely forty years of age, a Californian only from 1860 to 1864, he had in this brief period so won the hearts of men that in honor of his funeral the legislature and all the courts adjourned, the national authorities fired minute guns in the bay, while all the flags in the city and on the ships hung at half-mast, including those of the foreign consuls and those on the vessels of England, Russia, Hamburg, Columbia and France. It is believed that in American history no private individual has been so honored by the federal army and by foreign nations.

That Starr King's tomb might serve as a daily reminder to the people of his unique devotion to Union and Liberty, a city ordinance forbidding burials within certain districts of the city was set aside, and to this day his grave can be seen close to one of San Francisco's busy thoroughfares. Nor is this all. One of the giant trees of the Mariposa bears his name and a proud dome of the Yosemite is called Starr King. On the 27th of October, 1892, a beautiful and impressive monument was dedicated in Golden Gate Park to his memory. Its base bears the inscription:

"In him eloquence, strength and virtue were devoted with fearless courage to truth, country and his fellow-men."

The dedication address was given by the Hon. Irving M. Scott, a leading business man of San Francisco. Speaking with the care and sobriety the occasion demanded, Mr. Scott made the following statement, which the writer believes will also be the sober verdict of history:

"We do not say that Starr King determined for California the course which she pursued; but we do say that he was the most potent factor in effecting that determination."

"The most potent factor in effecting that determination," to establish this beyond the possibility of cavil or denial, we have told here once again his inspiring story. The fact that as late as 1913, the Legislature of California appropriated $10,000 to place a bust of Starr King in our National Capitol at Washington would seem to indicate that the people have resolved that this man shall go down to latest generations as par excellence,—"our hero."

It would be natural, and entirely proper, to close by recounting the numerous tributes that in the years since King's death have been paid to his memory, in magazines, memoirs, speeches and poems, but it would seem like sweetness too long drawn out. And, perhaps, few could resist the feeling that no human being ever really deserved such "largeness of love." But they seem so real, they ring so true, that the conviction grows almost to a certainty that here was one who drew men to him by the incarnate sweetness and nobility of his nature. "Doubtless," writes his friend, and co-worker in the Sanitary Commission, Dr. Henry W. Bellows, "he had his own consciousness of imperfection and sin—for he was human, but I have yet to know and yet to hear the first suggestion of what his faults and errors were."

In no spirit of fulsome adulation did a prominent San Franciscan write, on the Sunday following King's departure to "what lies beyond," these tender words, "Bells sadly ringing this Sabbath morning remind me that one pulpit stands empty; and that it must stand empty, to all intents and purposes, until the church walls crumble, and pulpit, pillars, and all are resolved into dust."

Another prominent resident of the State, writing a half century later,—seeing all after the sobering lapse of years, writing as though the cloud of sorrow for his friend had never been lifted, thus pays his sincere tribute of respect:

"And so, in the prime of life, at the zenith of his achievement, before its noon, this sweet, great soul passed away, leaving to those who loved him, dust and anguish. Well do we remember that almost at his death a minor earthquake shook the city, and men said, 'Even the earth shudders at the thought that Starr King is dead.'"

Of the many poetical tributes, two at least, are of permanent significance. One by his friend Bret Harte, dear companion of those great years in San Francisco, on "A Pen of Thomas Starr King," is at once so penetrating and so just that it well deserves here a place:

"This is the reed the dead musician dropped, With tuneful magic in its sheath still hidden; The prompt allegro of its music stopped, Its melodies unbidden.

But who shall finish the unfinished strain, Or wake the instrument to awe and wonder, And bid the slender barrel breathe again, An organ-pipe of thunder!

His pen! what humbler memories cling about Its golden curves! what shapes and laughing graces Slipped from its point, when his full heart went out In smiles and courtly phrases.

The truth, half jesting, half in earnest flung; The word of cheer, with recognition in it; The note of alms, whose golden speech outrung The golden gift within it.

But all in vain the enchanter's wand we wave: No stroke of ours recalls his magic vision: The incantation that its power gave Sleeps with the dead magician."

Could Starr King have been given the privilege of selecting his poet-laureate we may be sure he would have named Whittier. For they were both lovers of nature and of man. Both earnest abolitionists, intensely patriotic, loving liberty and the rights of the humblest of God's creatures, they were kindred spirits. So Whittier wrote not alone for New England, not alone for East and West, but from the deeps of his own loyal and gentle soul, as he penned, these beautiful lines:

"The great work laid upon his two-score years It's done, and well done. If we drop our tears, Who loved him as few men were ever loved, We mourn no blighted hope nor broken plan With him whose life stands rounded and approved In the full growth and stature of a man. Mingle, O bells, along the Western slope, With your deep toll a sound of faith and hope! Wave cheerily still, O banner, halfway down, From thousand-masted bay and steepled town! Let the strong organ with its loftiest swell Lift the proud sorrow of the land, and tell That the brave sower saw his ripened grain. O East and West! O morn and sunset twain No more forever!—has he lived in vain Who, priest of Freedom, made ye one and told Your bridal service from his lips of gold."

Whittier refuses to believe that King's life, though he lived but "two score years" was a "broken plan." All who believe that life is of divine ordering, our days, our duty, our destiny to the last hour will, with resignation, accept this teaching of faith. To others it will seem in the nature of an irreparable loss that one so good, and so greatly useful, should have died so young.

And though he met death with a smile, and said, "Tell my friends that I went lovingly, trustfully, peacefully," yet it is true that he was cut off in the midst of noble dreams of service he would still render humanity. Some one has said that "aspiration, not achievement, is the measure of human worth." If this be true, or partly true, we may not pass in silence the unfulfilled ambitions of Starr King.

His first great dream looked toward a career in Boston. He would found a lectureship, somewhat like, yet most unlike, that afterward conducted by Joseph Cook. How grandly he would have interpreted from such a platform the spiritual significance of modern science is made evident in those great lectures, "Substance and Show," "Laws of Disorder," and in those memorable sermons dealing with natural phenomena. All the progress of more than half a century has not rendered them obsolete. They can still be read with pleasure and profit.

King also planned, when leisure should be afforded him, a work in philosophy. Something of permanent value to all thinkers and students. One needs but to read King's lecture on "Socrates" to understand how rich and valuable such a work would have been. Indeed, here are paragraphs that could have been written only by one of philosophic mood and habit of mind. How much of modern "New Thought Philosophy" is expressed in the following:

"Few acknowledge that thoughts are as substantial as things, that a feeling is as real as a paving stone, that the soul is a congeries of actual forces as truly as the body is, that a moral principle is as persistent and fatal a thing as a chemical agent, and that, in the deeps of the mind and of society, laws are at work as constant and stern as those which spin the planets and heave the sea and poise the firmaments."

Accepting as the ground work of his philosophy such principles as these King tells us that "Socrates came to the conclusion that the stone which his chisel chipped was less substantial than the soul in every human form: and that the beauty which his cunning carved into the block was less charming and permanent than the beauty of truth, temperance, and holiness, which faith and culture could leave upon the invisible essence of man. He therefore resolved to abandon the lower for the higher art of Sculpture, and instead of being an artist in marble to be a fashioner of men."

King's aptness for historical and philosophical generalization is quite evident as we read:

"Socrates was the father of a new method of study. His thoughts were the seed corn of systems. His pupils were the teachers of centuries. Each bump of his brain was the nucleus of a philosophical school. Hardly had he left the world, than the strong and simple light he shed was scattered in various hues by the prismatic minds that had surrounded him or that succeeded him; and in almost every case,—as so often happens when the strands of the solar beam are brilliantly dishevelled,—the actinic ray was lost."

In all our reading we have never met a description of the Grecian philosopher so complete and accurate as one brief phrase in the lecture from which these excerpts are taken, "Socrates, the slouchy ambassador of reason." Or what could be truer of Socrates and Plato than to say that "Arm in arm, the stately duke and the democrat of philosophy walk down the lists of fame?"

Read and re-read the closing paragraph of King's "Socrates" impresses the thoughtful mind more and more by its depth and beauty, and we ask,—what might not this man in his full maturity and in scholarly leisure have contributed to enrich the philosophy of our time?

"Down the River of Life, by its Athenian banks, he had floated upon his raft of reason serene, in cloudy as in smiling weather, for seventy years. And now the night is rushing down, and he has reached the mouth of the stream, and the great ocean is before him, dim heaving in the dusk. But he betrays no fear. There is land ahead, he thought; eternal continents there are, that rise in constant light beyond the gloom. He trusted still in the raft his soul had built, and with a brave farewell to the few true friends who stood by him on the shore he put out into the darkness, a moral Columbus, trusting in his haven on the faith of an idea."

It was an open secret among King's friends in California that he meditated writing of the Yosemite as he had written of the White Hills of New Hampshire. Had he done so that region of incomparable beauty would have been known to the people of our country at least twenty years earlier. What a volume it would have been, "The Beauty and Glory of the Yosemite" by Starr King! What a vision he would have given us of that mighty gorge; of the crystal clearness of Mirror Lake; of the majesty of Cathedral Rock, of Sentinel Dome, or El Capitan; of the bright waterfalls, Vernal and the Bridal Veil; or in exquisite artistry of word painting how he would have pictured for us the wonderful coloring of the Yosemite, the morning tints of gray, the perfect white of noon shading into blue, the afternoon tinge of silver and gold, the sunset's gauze of crimson, and then the varying shades of approaching night. But our artist never lived to paint the picture for us, and are we not the poorer? Is there any such thing in this sad world as superfluous genius? Let our philosophers answer. At all events these were the noble and the unfulfilled ambitions of Starr King.

It would seem that of American statesmen Mr. King most admired Daniel Webster. He never shared the feeling of his fellow abolitionists that Webster's well-known longing to be President had caused him to be false to liberty, but rather that the great "Defender of the Constitution" endeavored to preserve the Union for the sake of liberty. As we have already noted, when the Civil War broke out King found in the service Webster had rendered the Nation some of his strongest arguments for the Northern Cause. He was quite ready to accept the judgment of the English publicist that "Webster was not only the greatest man of his age,—he was the greatest man of any age." No doubt he had followed every stage of that momentous career to the very end. All thoughtful Americans went into retirement with Daniel Webster, and in his last sickness watched in a kind of reverent awe as his life ebbed away. From the solemn death chamber in Marshfield, his home by the stormy Atlantic, came tidings of the great statesman's last moments, in which he repeated, again and again, the Lord's Prayer and the Twenty-third Psalm. Loving friends bore tearful witness to the pathos and heavenly beauty of the old words as they fell from the trembling lips of the dying man, "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me."

If it be a coincidence, it is one of striking appropriateness that when the last hour came to our foremost "Defender of the Constitution and the Union," that with unclouded mind, here by the Pacific Sea, he, too, should have passed to his rest, even as the older patriot, whispering with untroubled faith, "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil." "I will fear no evil," these were his last words, and it is good to read that having so spoken, without a struggle or a pang, he entered upon his exceeding great reward. His work on earth was done, and well done.

Here ends Starr King in California, as written by Reverend William Day Simonds, Published in book form by Paul Elder and Company, and seen through their Tomoye Press by Ricardo J. Orozco in the city of San Francisco, during the month of April, Nineteen Hundred and Seventeen.

THE END

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