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Thomas Starr King

From A Lamp in Every Corner by Janeen K. Grohsmeyer (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 2004).

A Bright Star

A long time ago, when railroad trains were still brand new and the United States had only twenty-four stars on its flag instead of fifty, there lived a boy whose name was Starr. That may seem like an odd sort of name to us today, but his mother's last name had been Starr before she was married, and back then, children were often given their mother's maiden name as their middle name. Starr's full name was really Thomas Starr King, but there were lots and lots of boys named Thomas around, and so his family called him Starr.

Starr was bright, just like his name. He was bright in school, learning his lessons well. He was bright at home, helping out cheerfully and doing his chores without complaints—not too many, anyway. And he was bright at the Universalist church his family went to, where his father was a minister. Starr was always happy to help. He carried the hymnals, he polished the candle holders, and he helped dust the pews.

But most of all, Starr loved to ring the church bell. On Sunday mornings, bright and early, he'd climb the stairs to the bell tower. He'd grab the rope with both hands and pull! And then: bong! would go the bell, and up would go Starr. That rope would pull him right off his feet! And then down he'd come with a thump, and the bell would go dong! Then Starr would give that rope another pull, and up! he'd go again, even higher this time, and the bell would go bong!

Starr loved ringing that church bell. He loved other music, too. He loved singing, especially at church, where lots of people sang in harmony. Some sang high, some sang low, some sang in-between, but all the different voices worked together to create one glorious song.

Starr liked everything about church. "When I grow up," Starr said, "I'm going to be a minister in a church, just like my father." And Starr was. When he was twenty-one, he was a minister in a Universalist church. But then, when he was twenty-four, he changed churches. He became a minister in a Unitarian church. (Back then, the Universalists and the Unitarians were still separate. Starr was ahead of his time. He was a Universalist Unitarian over one hundred years before the rest of us became Unitarian Universalists.)

Some of his friends weren't happy to see him change. "Starr!" they said, "how can you leave Universalism?"

"I'm not leaving Universalism," Starr said. "I can be a Unitarian and Universalist at the same time. I'm just singing a different part. We all sing together to make one glorious song."

In 1860, when railroads went from state to state and there were thirty-three stars on the American flag, Starr left Boston, Massachusetts, and moved all the way across the country to San Francisco, California . His friends weren't happy to see him go. "Starr!" they said, "how can you move so far away?"

"I'm not leaving our country," Starr said. "I'm just moving to a different state. All the states work together to make one great nation." But the year was 1860, and not everyone agreed. The Civil War was coming, and the nation was being torn apart, some states to the North and some states to the South. The stars were coming off the flag. California was in the West, and no one was sure which way it would go.

Thomas Starr King was sure that the states should stay together, "one nation, indivisible," and he set out to convince everyone in California of that, too. He was a minister at his church in San Francisco , and he preached there on Sundays, but he also traveled around the state and made speeches. He made speeches in towns and in mining camps, in great lecture halls and in canvas tents. He made speeches in front of thousands and thousands of people. He didn't convince all of the people, but he convinced enough, and in 1861 California voted to stay in the Union and to keep its star on the American flag.

"He saved California for the Union," said a general in the Union army, and that helped the North win the war. The people of California still remember him for that today. California put a statue of him in the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and sent another statue to Washington, D.C. He has two mountains named after him: one in California's Yosemite National Park and one in New Hampshire's White Mountains. Both the Unitarians and the Universalists still remember him, and we've set his name on the school where some of our ministers go: the Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California .

So you may hear his name from time to time, and now you know why: Thomas Starr King was a bright and shining star.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

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Last updated on Wednesday, April 25, 2012.

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