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Philanthropist and Preacher
"As a philanthropist, Starr King raised for the most beneficent of all charities the most munificent of all subscriptions." These words were spoken at the King Memorial Service held in the city of Boston, April 3, 1864. They call our attention to a unique service our Preacher-Patriot rendered the cause he loved.
It seems almost beyond belief that the North rushed into the Civil War wholly unprepared to care for the Nation's Defenders, either in health or in sickness. Transportation facilities were of the poorest! Young men just from the home, the farm and the college were crowded into cattle cars as though they were beasts, frequently with no provision whatever for their comfort. And rarely were proper arrangements made for their reception in camp. The bewildered soldiers stood for hours under broiling southern sun, waiting for rations and shelter, while ignorant officers were slowly learning their unaccustomed duties. At night they were compelled to lie wrapped in shoddy blankets upon rotten straw. Under such conditions these brave volunteers suffered severely and camp diseases became alarmingly prevalent. But the miserable makeshifts used as hospitals were so bad that sick men fought for the privilege of dying in camp with their comrades rather than undergo the privations, and sometimes the brutality of inexperienced and careless attendants in the crowded and poorly equipped quarters provided by the government. The largest hospital available contained but forty beds, and not one afforded a trained, efficient, medical staff. Competent nurses, sanitary kitchens, proper medicines, means of humanely transporting the sick and wounded, all were wanting during early months of the war.
This condition which the government did almost nothing to remedy led to the organization of the United States Sanitary Commission. Strangely enough the founder of this most necessary and timely organization, Rev. H. W. Bellows, of New York, encountered the opposition of high officials who deemed the whole plan quixotic. Even President Lincoln at first regarded the Commission unnecessary and called it "a fifth wheel to the coach." Brief experience, however, demonstrated that the government could not provide all that was necessary for the soldier, either in sickness or in health, and the Sanitary Commission became often the only hope of brave men in dire distress. In fact, at this day, it is difficult to see how the Northern cause would have triumphed at all but for the widespread and wholly helpful activity of the army of Sanitary workers.
The greatest difficulty encountered by the leaders of this noble philanthropy was to provide necessary funds. Again and again it seemed that the work must stop because the heavily burdened people could give no more. At sundry critical junctures California came to the rescue, and made possible the continuance of this "most beneficent of all charities." But at whose motion, and under whose influence?
Fitz Hugh Ludlow says, "Starr King was the Sanitary Commission of California." This is but slight exaggeration, for King made it his peculiar mission to raise money as rapidly as possible for the suffering soldiers. In the interest of the Commission he traveled to every part of the Coast, and in the face of the greatest obstacles became the principal factor in raising $1,235,000, about one-fourth of the entire sum contributed by the country at large. Under the most favorable circumstances this would have been a phenomenal achievement, but when we learn that in 1862 a flood destroyed over fifty million dollars' worth of property in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys; that California shipping to the extent of six and one-half millions was also destroyed; that in 1863 a drought entirely ruined the wheat crop, and made hay so scarce that it sold for sixty dollars a ton, resulting in a stagnation in business which threw thousands of men out of employment, in view of these multiplied disasters, we wonder by what fire of patriotism and by what charm of eloquence, Starr King drew from the people so large a sum for use on distant battle fields. Old Californians still remember those thrilling appeals which few could resist. We are almost led to believe in the sober truth of such extreme eulogy as we find in "Lights and Shadows of the Pacific Coast," by S. D. Woods, a venerable San Franciscan, who vividly recalls King's heroic service in that far off time:
"King's personality was magnetic and winning. Gentleness radiated from him as light radiates from the sun. No one could resist the charm and fascination of his presence. It is hard to make a pen picture of his face, for there were lines too pure, lights too fleeting to be caught by words. In the poise of his head there was nobility and power inexpressible. There was in his face the serenity of one who had seen a vision, and to whom the vision had become a benediction. At the time of his death he was the first pulpit orator in America, and without doubt had no superior in the world."
This large praise might lead to incredulity were it not for the deliberate judgment of Rev. Dr. H. W. Bellows, that as an orator "Beecher and Chapin were his only competitors. He was the admirer and friend of both, and both repaid his affection and his esteem. He had the superior charm of youth and novelty, with a nature more varied, and more versatile faculties and endowments than either. He had a far more artistic and formative nature and genius. His thoughts ran into moulds of beauty."
The judgment of California as to Starr King's unequalled service to the State and the Nation was officially rendered when upon the announcement of his death, the Legislature adjourned for the space of three days after resolving "that he had been a tower of strength to the cause of his country."
Brilliant as was the record of King as the champion of the Sanitary Commission in California it was by no means the beginning and end of his philanthropic labors. The forlorn condition of the Chinese - as men without rights of citizenship - stirred his sympathy and he made earnest effort to secure for them such civic rights as belong to industry. The cause of labor, seldom thought in those days to come within the scope of a minister's interest or duty, commanded his eager attention, and he improved every opportunity to declare his reverence for the world's workers in earth, and stone, and iron. In a fine passage in a lecture on "The Earth and the Mechanic Arts," he writes:
"If we were to choose from the whole planet a score of men to represent us on some other globe or in some other system in a great human fair of the universe, it would not be kings, dukes, prime-ministers, the richest men, we should appoint as ambassadors to show what our race is, and what it is doing here, but the great thinkers, artists, and workers, the thinkers in ink, the thinkers in stone and color, the thinkers in force and homely matter, the men who are bringing the globe up towards the Creator's imagination and purpose; and on this mission the leaders of mechanic art would go side by side with Shakespeare and Milton, Angelo and Wren, Newton and Cuvier.
"In England, now, they are preparing statues of Brunel the engineer, and the Stephensons, father and son, to be finished and erected about the same time with those of Macaulay and Havelock. The nation is beginning to bow to the occupations and the genius that have added to her power ten thousand fold, - is beginning to bow to labor, noble, glorious, sacred labor."
Not alone in public pleas for unpopular causes but in private charity King seemed tireless. "He had the rare facility in everything he said and did of communicating himself; the most precious thing he could bestow." We are told that a multitude in distress came to this overburdened man. Ringing his doorbell they found entrance, and always as they came back, the "step was quicker which was slow before, the head was up which was down before, and the lips wreathed in smiles that were sad before."
Thus we can see that it was not solely his eloquent defense of liberty and justice which caused a San Francisco journal, reporting his funeral, to say, "Perhaps more deeply beloved by a vast number of our people than any other who has lived and toiled and died among us." His good deeds made him worthy of this, one of the most beautiful eulogies ever given mortal man, "No heart ever ached because of him until he died." This was Starr King the philanthropist, a friend to all who needed his friendship.
It would almost appear that in telling the story of "Starr King in California" we were altogether forgetting that he did not come to the State to influence its political action, or even to alleviate poverty and distress. He came as a preacher of Liberal Christianity, and to build up the church that had honored him with a call to its pulpit. Long before he left Boston it was written concerning him, "That he loved his calling, and that it was his ambition to pay the debt which every able man is said to owe to his profession, namely to contribute some work of permanent value to its literature." At that early period a discriminating critic bears testimony, "that his piety, pure, deep, tender, serene and warm, took hold of positive principles of light and beneficence, not the negative ones of darkness and depravity, and - himself a child of light - he preached the religion of spiritual joy."
It was King's first and chief ambition to be an effective preacher. In a letter, written in 1855, he says, "How we do need good preaching. Would that I could preach extempore." A wish that six years later "came true" in his San Francisco pulpit. In the inspiring atmosphere of his new field, and under the stress of a great era, King cast his manuscript aside, and though he made careful preparation, as every man must who speaks worthily, he never again submitted to the bondage of the "written sermon." To a man of King's gifts and temperament this was an immense gain. Indeed, Bostonian Californians were a unit in declaring that Easterners could have no conception of the man and orator Starr King became in those last great years of his brief life.
Speedily the little church in which he preached proved too small for the throng of eager listeners who gathered to hear him, and on the 3d day of December, 1862, the corner stone of a larger and more beautiful edifice was laid.
We shall find it no easy matter to analyze the sources of his power and popularity. Often-times success and failure are equal mysteries. Doubtless no small part of his triumph arose from the peculiar character of the new society to which he brought talents that commanded instant attention. The eager temper of the time fitted his sincere and earnest spirit. It was a perfect adjustment of the man and the hour, the workman and his task.
No small part of his popularity arose from the fact that he insisted upon his right and duty as a minister to discuss great questions of state in the pulpit. The vicious gulf churchmen discover between the sacred and the secular was hidden from his eyes. All that affected the humblest of his fellow men appealed to him as part and parcel of the 'gospel of righteousness he was commissioned to preach. In the old Boston days he had discussed freely in the pulpit such themes as the "Free Soil Movement," "The Fugitive Slave Law," and "The Dred Scott Decision." Burning questions these, and they were handled with no fear of man to daunt the severity of his condemnation when he declared that in the Dred Scott Decision the majority of the Supreme Court had betrayed justice for a political purpose. It was not likely that such a man would remain silent in the pulpit upon the so-called "war issues" of 1861. Early in that memorable year he boldly informed his people as to the course he intended to pursue so long as the war lasted. He would not equivocate and he would not be silent. Henceforth stirring patriotic sermons, as the demand for them arose, were the order of the day in the congregation to which he ministered. The character of these discourses may be partly determined from such titles as, "The Choice between Barabbas and Jesus," "The Treason of Judas Iscariot," "Secession in Palestine," and "Rebellion Pictures from Paradise Lost." "After the lapse of more than sixty years," so the Hon. Horace Davis assured the writer, "I can distinctly remember the fire and passion of those terrible indictments of treason and rebellion."
"Terrible indictments" truly, and in the storm and tempest of the time irresistibly attractive to men and women whose sympathies were on fire for the Northern cause. King's patriotism won for him a liberal hearing on subjects that otherwise the people would have declined to consider.
But we must not forget that "our preacher" was endowed with that rare and radiant gift, an altogether charming and persuasive personality. Appearance, manner, voice, were all instruments of attractiveness, fitting modes of expression to a gentle and noble spirit. When a friend and comrade of King's earlier ministry was asked to name the preacher's preeminent gift, he immediately answered, "his voice." The reply seems trivial. Yet it was seriously spoken by one whose knowledge of King during his Boston ministry was close and personal. William Everett, who had listened to New England's renowned orators, to Emerson's sweet and satisfying voice, and. to the music of Wendell Phillip's speech, said of King, "His was one of the noblest and sweetest voices I ever heard." Edward Everett Hale once wrote, "Starr King was an orator, whom no one could silence and no one could answer." Says another, "There was argument in his very voice. It thrilled and throbbed through an audience like an organ carrying conviction captive before its wonderful melody." If it is true that William Pitt once ruled the British Nation by his voice, as good authority affirms, if it is true, that Daniel O'Connell's voice
Glided easy as a bird may glide,
And played with each wild passion as it went,
may it not also be true that Starr King's clear, penetrating, musical voice, answering to the moods of the soul as a loved instrument to the hand of the player, was in itself a kind of gospel of good will to men?
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 infectuous 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.