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In Old New England
When Starr King entered the Golden Gate, April 28, 1860, he had passed by a few months his thirty-fifth birthday. A young man in the morning of his power he felt strangely old, for he wrote to a friend just a little later: "I have passed meridian. It is after twelve o'clock in the large day of my mortal life. I am no longer a young man. It is now afternoon with me, and the shadows turn toward the east."
There was abundant reason for this premature feeling of age. Even at thirty-five King had been a long time among the most earnest of workers. Born in New York City, December 17, 1824, of English and German ancestry, son of a Universalist Minister who was compelled to struggle along on a very meager salary, the lad felt very early in life labor's stern discipline. At fifteen he was obliged to leave school that by daily toil he might help to support his now widowed mother and five younger brothers and sisters. Brief as was his record in school, we note the following prophetic facts: he displayed singular aptitude for study, he was conscientious yet vivacious, he was by nature adverse to anything rude or coarse. Joshua Bates, King's last teacher, describes the lad as "slight of build, golden haired, with a homely face which everybody thought handsome on account of the beaming eyes, the winning smile and the earnest desire of always wanting to do what was best and right."
This is our earliest testimony to the lovable character of the man whose life-story we are now considering. It will impress us more and more as East and West, Boston and San Francisco, in varying phrase tell again and again, of "the beaming eyes, the winning smile, and the earnest desire of always wanting to do what was just and right."
A bread-winner at fifteen, and for a large family, surely this is the end of all dreams of scholarship or of professional service. That depends on the man - and the conditions that surround him. Happily King's mother was a woman of good mind who knew and loved the best in literature. Ambitious for her gifted son, she read with him, and for him, certain of the masters whom to know well is to possess the foundations of true culture. It is a pretty scene and suggestive - the lad and his mother, reading together "till the wee small hours" Plutarch, Grote's History of Greece, Bullfinch's Mythology, Dante and the plays of William Shakespeare. Fortunately his mother was not his only helper. Near at hand was Theodore Parker who was said to possess the best private library in Boston, and whose passion for aiding young men was well known. He befriended King as he befriended others, and early discovered in the widow's son superior talents. In those days very young men used to preach. Before he had reached his majority, King was often sent to fill engagements under direction and at the suggestion of Parker. The high esteem of the elder for the younger man is attested by the following letter to an important church not far from Boston.
"I cannot come to preach for you as I would like, but with your kind permission I will send Thomas Starr King. This young man is not a regularly ordained preacher, but he has the grace of God in his heart, and the gift of tongues. He is a rare sweet spirit and I know that after you have met with him you will thank me for sending him to you."
This young dry-goods clerk, schoolmaster, and bookkeeper, for he followed all of these occupations during the years in which he was growing out of youth into manhood, was especially interested in metaphysics and theology. In these, and kindred studies he was greatly impressed and inspired by the writings of Victor Cousin, whose major gift was his ability to awaken other minds. "The most brilliant meteor that flashed across the sky of the nineteenth century," said Sainte-Beuve.
When Thomas Starr King was eighteen years old, William Ellery Channing died. Of that death which occurred amid the lovely scenery of Vermont upon a rare Autumnal evening, Theodore Parker wrote, The sun went toward the horizon: the slanting beams fell into the chamber. Channing turned his face toward that sinking orb and he and the sun went away together. Each, as the other, left 'the smile of his departure' spread on all around: the sun on the clouds, he on the heart."
Channing's "smile on the heart," his pure philosophy, his sweet Christian spirit so influenced King that his best sermons read not unlike the large, calm utterances of Channing when he spoke on the loftiest of themes. To other good and great men our student preacher was deeply indebted. To Dr. Hosea Ballou (2d) for friendship and wise counsel. To Dr. James Walker for the inspiration of certain notable lectures on Natural Theology. Most of all to Dr. E. A. Chapin, his father's successor in the Universalist Pulpit at Charlestown, Mass. Dr. Chapin - but ten years King's senior - was then just beginning his eminent career as pulpit orator and popular lecturer. He recognized the undeveloped genius of his young friend, he knew of his earnest student-ship, he delighted to open the doors of opportunity to him. It was a gracious and honorable relation and most advantageous to the younger man. Writing to a good Deacon of a neighboring church Chapin said: "Thomas has never attended a Divinity School, but he is educated just the same. He speaks Greek, Hebrew, French, German, and fairly good English as you will see. He knows natural history and he knows humanity, and if one knows man and nature, he comes pretty close to knowing God."
In 1846 Chapin was called to New York, and through his influence Starr King, then twenty-two years old, was installed as his successor in the pastorate of the First Universalist Church of Charlestown. If his preparedness for an important New England pulpit is questioned it must be admitted that he entered it wholly without academic training, but we need not be distressed on that account. From the first he had adopted a method of study certain to produce excellent results, thorough acquaintance with a few great authors, and reverent, loving intercourse with a few great teachers. Little wonder that the "boy preacher" made good in the pulpit from which his honored Father had passed into,the Silence, and wherein the eloquence of Chapin had charmed a congregation of devoted followers.
Two years pass and he is called to Hollis Street Church in Boston, a Unitarian Church of honorable fame but at the time threatened with disaster. It was believed that if any one could save the imperilled church, King was that man. Not yet twenty-five years of age, established as minister of one of Boston's well known churches; a co-laborer of Bartol, Ballou, Everett, Emerson, Theodore Parker and Wendell Phillips, - surely he is to be tried and tested as few men so young have ever been, here in the "Athens of America," the city of beautiful ideals and great men.
It is certain that King regarded the eleven years he gave to Hollis Street as merely preparatory to his greater work in California. Writing playfully from San Francisco to Dr. Bellows in Boston he said: "At home, among you big fellows, I wasn't much. Here they seem to think I am somebody. Nothing like the right setting." The record shows that even among the "big fellows" Starr King was a very definite somebody, for although crowds did not attend his preaching in Boston as in San Francisco, he was able to congratulate himself upon the fact that he preached his last sermon in Hollis Street Church to five times as many people as heard his first. Nor do we need to await the judgment of California admirers to be convinced of his ability as a preacher or his popularity as a lecturer. It was said of him that "he was an orator from the beginning:" that his first public address "was like Charles Lamb's roast pig, good throughout, no part better or worse than another." "His delivery," says a candid and scholarly critic, "was rather earnest than passionate. He had a deep, strange, rich voice, which he knew how to use. His eyes were extraordinary, living sermons, a peculiar shake and nod of the head giving the impression of deep-settled conviction. Closely confined to his notes, yet his delivery produces a marked impression."
Hostile criticism, which no man wholly escapes, enjoyed suggesting that King had been educated in the common schools of Portsmouth and Charlestown, and that he had graduated from the navy yard into the pulpit. A Boston correspondent passed judgment upon him as follows: "He was not considered profoundly learned; he was not regarded as a remarkable orator; he was not a great writer; nor can his unrivalled popularity be ascribed to his fascinating social or intellectual gifts. It was the hidden interior man of the heart that gave him his real power and skill to control the wills and to move the hearts, and to win the unbounded confidence and affection of his fellow-beings."
William Everett is authority for the statement that in those early years in Hollis Street Church "Starr King was not thought to be what a teacher of Boston Unitarianism ought to be. He was regarded rather as a florid platform speaker, one interested in the crude and restless attempts at reform which sober men distrusted." Another reviewer mingles praise and criticism quite ingeniously. "He astonishes and charms his hearers by a rare mastery over sentences. He is a skilful word-marshal. Hence his popularity as a lyceum lecturer. However much of elegant leisure the more solid and instructive lecturers may have, Mr. King is always wanted. He is, in some respects, the most popular writer and preacher of the two denominations which he equally represents, being a sort of soft ligament between the Chang of Universalism and the Eng of Unitarianism."
This last criticism invites us to notice - all too briefly - a phase of King's experience in New England fitting him most admirably for the larger work he was to do on the Pacific Coast. From 1840 to 1860 the Lyceum flourished in the United States as never before or since. Large numbers of lecture courses, extending even to the small cities and towns, were liberally patronized and generously supported. In many communities this was the one diversion and the one extravagance. To fill the new demand an extraordinary group of public speakers appeared; Emerson, Edward Everett, Wendell Phillips, Dr. Chapin, Oliver Wendell Holmes, George William Curtis, Henry Ward Beecher, Frederick Douglas, Theodore Parker and others, whose names are reverently spoken to this day by aged men and women who remember the uplift given them in youth by these giants of the platform.
That he was always wanted with such rivals as those is proof enough of King's power with the people, of his fame as an orator, even before his greater development and his more wonderful achievements in California. His lecture circuit extended from Boston to Chicago. His principal subjects were "Goethe," "Socrates," "Substance and Show," a lecture which ranks next to Wendell Phillips' "Lost Arts" in popularity. Not withstanding the academic titles King gave his lectures they seemed to have been popular with all classes. "Grand, inspiring, instructive," lectures," said the learned. "Thems' idees," said unlettered men of sound sense. It was thought to be a remarkable triumph of platform eloquence that King could make such themes fascinating to Massachusetts farmers and Cape Cod fishermen. In fine phrase it was said of him that he lectured upon such themes as Plato and Socrates "with a prematureness of scholarship, a delicacy of discernment, a sweet innocent combination of confidence and diffidence, which were inexpressibly charming."
It may be claimed with all candor that few public teachers have ever been able so to enlist scientific truth in the service of the spirit. That spirit and life are the great realities, that all else is mainly show, at best but the changing vesture of spirit, is set forth in King's lectures so completely that he may be said to have made, even at this early age, a genuine and lasting contribution to the thought of his time. All this be it noted before he had set foot upon the Pacific Coast, where he was destined to do his real work.
One other service King had rendered the country, and especially New England, should here be gratefully recalled. Always in delicate health, he had formed the habit of spending his vacations in the White Hills of New Hampshire. Benefited in mind and body, and charmed by the rare beauty of a region then unknown, he endeavored to reveal to the people of Boston, and other Eastern cities, the neglected loveliness lying at their very doors. The result was King's "The White Hills, Their Legends, Landscape and Poetry." Although this pioneer nature-book is now probably quite forgotten, even by the multitudes who visit the scenes it so glowingly describes, it is well to remember that it was, indeed, one of the first attempts to entice the city dweller "back to nature." Published in 1859, it followed Thoreau's at that time unread "Walden" by only five years, while it preceded Murray's "Adventures in the Wilderness," and the earliest of John Burroughs' delightful volumes, by a full generation. It was in every way a commendable, if not great, adventure in authorship.
From this brief review it is evident that when Starr King preached his last sermon in Boston, March 25, 1860, he had made for himself an enviable reputation in three difficult fields of work, as preacher, lecturer and writer. The feeling of Boston and New England upon his departure was fittingly expressed by Edwin Percy Whipple in a leading journal of the day in which this eminent author "appealed to thousands in proof of the assertion that though in charge of a large parish, and with a lecture parish which extended from Bangor to St. Louis, he still seemed to have time for every noble work, to be open to every demand of misfortune, tender to every pretension of weakness, responsive to every call of sympathy, and true to every obligation of friendship; all will indulge the hope that California, cordial as must be the welcome she extends him, will still not be able to keep him long from Massachusetts."
On the day before he sailed from New York a "Breakfast Reception" was given him at the Fifth Avenue Hotel, at which three hundred guests were seated at the tables. The poet, William Cullen Bryant presided, and other men hardly less distinguished testified to the nature of King's work, and to the varied charm of his unique personality. Best of all, perhaps, was the tribute of his friend and neighbor, Dr. Frederick H. Hedge. "Happy Soul! himself a benediction wherever he goes; a living evangel of kind affections, better than all prophecy and all knowledge, the Angel of the Church whom Boston sends to San Francisco."
Such was the man who came to California in the greatest crisis of her history to exert upon her destiny an influence unequalled and unexampled even in that most romantic and eventful story of the Golden West.