Did Thomas Starr King Save California for the Union?
Well, that’s the legend anyway. In reality – his efforts didn’t amount to the whole difference…but he certainly did what he could. For Californians, King’s popularity as a preacher and a lecturer made him the “moral tutor to the commonwealth.” According to one historian, King challenged Californians to “highmindedness” and to seek, as he put it, “Yosemites of the soul.”
During the Civil War he preached the Union – one and indivisible. And he did so when other preachers foresaw alternate futures for the Golden State. Charles Edward Pickett, for example, called for a independent Pacific Republic free from the colonial relations with the East. William Anderson Scott thought that California could be a great pluralist haven for northerner and southerner alike. Scott was run out of the state when he offered prayers for both Presidents Davis and Lincoln.
But King was all for the Union. He stumped for Lincoln in 1860 and Leland Stanford in 1861. He spoke up and down the state and inspired Californians to lead the nation in contributions to the Sanitary Commission. Imaging a reconciled future – he preached of the Pacific Slope in reconciliationist terms. “And they shall come from the east and the west, and from the north and from the south, and shall sit down in the kingdom of God.”
In his efforts – he wore himself down. King died of pneumonia and diphtheria on March 4, 1864. “Keep my memory Green,” King said as he died, and Californians obliged. His statue, along with that of Junipero Serra, represent the state in the National Hall of Fame.
I recently read Kevin Starr’s Americans and the California Dream, in which he notes King’s enduring significance and the ecclesiastical side of California’s history. The earliest historiography was near silent on the religious history of the state – not until the 1880s did secular historians begin to take religion in California seriously. Check out Starr’s book – it is lively and engaging and well worth the read.