Story type: Essay
The chief difference between a wise man and an ignorant one is, not that the first is acquainted with regions invisible to the second, away from common sight and interest, but that he understands the common things which the second only sees.
—Sight and Insight
If you had chanced to live in Boston in the early Nineties, alert for all good things in a mental and spiritual way, you would have made the Sundays sacred to Minot Savage, Phillips Brooks and Edward Everett Hale.
Emerson says that if you know a clergyman’s sect and behold his livery, in spite of all his show of approaching the subject without prejudice, you know beforehand exactly to what conclusions he will come. This is what robs most sermons of their interest. Preaching, like humor, must have in it the element of surprise. I remember with what a thrill of delight I would sit and watch Minot Savage unwind his logic and then gently weave it into a fabric. The man was not afraid to follow a reason to its lair. He had a way of saying the thing for the first time–it came as a personal message, contradicting, possibly, all that had been said before on the subject, oblivious of precedent.
I once saw a man with a line around his waist leap from a stranded ship into the sea, and strike out boldly for the shore. The thrill of admiration for the act was unforgetable.
The joy of beholding a strong and valiant thinker plunge into a theme is an event. Will he make the shore, or shall he go down to defeat before these thousands of spectators?
When Minot Savage ceased to speak, you knew he had won–he had brought the line safely to shore and made all secure.
Or, if you have heard Rabbi Hirsch or Felix Adler, you know the feeling. These men make a demand upon you–you play out the line for them, and when all is secure, there is a relief which shows you have been under an intense strain. To paraphrase Browning, they offer no substitute, to an idle man, for a cushioned chair and cigar.
Phillips Brooks made small demand upon his auditors. If I heard Minot Savage in the morning and got wound up tight, as I always did, I went to Vespers at Trinity Church for rest.
The soft, sweet playing of the organ, the subdued lights, the far-away voices of the choir, and finally the earnest words of the speaker, worked a psychic spell. The sermon began nowhere and ended nowhere–the speaker was a great, gentle personality, with a heart of love for everybody and everything. We have heard of the old lady who would go miles to hear her pastor pronounce the word Mesopotamia, but he put no more soul into it than did Phillips Brooks. The service was all a sort of lullaby for tired souls–healing and helpful.
But as after every indulgence there comes a minor strain of dissatisfaction following the awakening, so it was here–it was beautiful while it lasted. Then eight o’clock would come and I would be at Edward Everett Hale’s. This sturdy old man, with his towering form, rugged face and echoing bass voice, would open up the stops and give his blessed “Mesopotamia” like a trumpet call. He never worked the soft pedal. His first words always made me think of “Boots and Saddles!” Be a man–do something! Why stand ye here all the day idle!
And there was love and entreaty, too, but it never lulled you into forgetfulness. There was intellect, but it did not ask you to follow it. The dear old man did not wind in and out among the sinuosities of thought–no, he was right out on the broad prairie, under the open sky, sounding “Boots and Saddles!”
In Doctor Hale’s church is a most beautiful memorial window to Thomas Starr King, who was at one time the pastor of this church. I remember Doctor Hale once rose and pointing to that window, said: “That window is in memory of a man! But how vain a window, how absurd a monument if the man had not left his impress upon the hearts of humanity! That beautiful window only mirrors our memories of the individual.”
And then Doctor Hale talked, just talked for an hour about Starr King.
Doctor Hale has given that same talk or sermon every year for thirty years: I have heard it three times, but never exactly twice alike. I have tried to get a printed copy of the address, but have so far failed. Yet this is sure: you can not hear Doctor Hale tell of Starr King without a feeling that King was a most royal specimen of humanity, and a wish down deep in your heart that you, too, might reflect some of the sterling virtues that he possessed.
* * * * *
Starr King died in California in Eighteen Hundred Sixty-four. In Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, is his statue in bronze. In the First Unitarian Church of San Francisco is a tablet to his memory; in the Unitarian Church at Oakland are many loving tokens to his personality; and in the State House at Sacramento is his portrait and an engrossed copy of resolutions passed by the Legislature at the time of his death, wherein he is referred to as “the man whose matchless oratory saved California to the Union.”
“Who was Starr King?” I once asked Doctor Charles H. Leonard of Tufts College. And the saintly old man lifted his eyes as if in prayer of thankfulness and answered: “Starr King! Starr King! He was the gentlest and strongest, the most gifted soul I ever knew–I bless God that I lived just to know Starr King!”
Not long after this I asked the same question of Doctor C. A. Bartol that I had asked Doctor Leonard, and the reply was: “He was a man who proved the possible–in point of temper and talent, the most virile personality that New England has produced. We call Webster our greatest orator, but this man surpassed Webster: he had a smile that was a benediction; a voice that was a caress. We admired Webster, but Starr King we loved: one convinced our reason, the other captured our hearts.”
The Oriental custom of presenting a thing to the friend who admires it symbols a very great truth. If you love a thing well enough, you make it yours.
Culture is a matter of desire; knowledge is to be had for the asking; and education is yours if you want it. All men should have a college education in order that they may know its worthlessness. George William Curtis was a very prince of gentlemen, and as an orator he won by his manner and by his gentle voice fully as much as by the orderly procession of his thoughts.
“Oh, what is it in me that makes me tremble so at voices! Whoever speaks to me in the right voice, him or her will I follow,” says Walt Whitman.
If you have ever loved a woman and you care to go back to May-time and try to analyze the why and the wherefore, you probably will not be able to locate the why and the wherefore, but this negative truth you will discover: you were not won by logic. Of course you admired the woman’s intellect–it sort of matched your own, and in loving her you complimented yourself, for thus by love and admiration do we prove our kinship with the thing loved.
But intellect alone is too cold to fuse the heart. Something else is required, and for lack of a better word we call it “personality.” This glowing, winning personality that inspires confidence and trust is a bouquet of virtues, the chief flower of which is Right Intent–honesty may be a bit old-fashioned, but do not try to leave it out.
George William Curtis and Starr King had a frank, wide-open, genuine quality that disarmed prejudice right at the start. And both were big enough so that they never bemoaned the fact that Fate had sent them to the University of Hard Knocks instead of matriculating them at Harvard.
I once heard George William Curtis speak at Saint James Hall, Buffalo, on Civil-Service Reform–a most appalling subject with which to hold a “popular audience.” He was introduced by the Honorable Sherman S. Rogers, a man who was known for ten miles up the creek as the greatest orator in Erie County. After the speech of introduction, Curtis stepped to the front, laid on the reading-desk a bundle of manuscript, turned one page, and began to talk. He talked for two hours, and never once again referred to his manuscript–we thought he had forgotten it. He himself tells somewhere of Edward Everett doing the same. It is fine to have a thing and still show that you do not need it. The style of Curtis was in such marked contrast to the bluegrass article represented by Rogers that it seemed a rebuke. One was florid, declamatory, strong, full of reasons: the other was keyed low–it was so melodious, so gently persuasive, that we were thrown off our guard and didn’t know we had imbibed rank heresy until we were told so the next day by a man who was not there. As the speaker closed, an old lady seated near me sighed softly, adjusted her Paisley shawl and said, “That was the finest address I ever heard, except one given in this very hall in Eighteen Hundred Fifty-nine by Starr King.”
And I said, “Well, a speech that you can remember for twenty-five years must have been a good one!”
“It wasn’t the address so much as the man,” answered this mother in Israel, and she heaved another small sigh.
And therein did the good old lady drop a confession. I doubt me much whether any woman will remember any speech for a week–she just remembers the man.
And this applies pretty nearly as much to men, too. Is there sex in spirit? Hardly! Thoreau says the character of Jesus was essentially feminine. Herbert Spencer avers, “The high intuitive quality which we call genius is largely feminine in character.” “Starr King was the child of his mother, and his best qualities were feminine,” said the Reverend E. H. Chapin.
* * * * *
When Starr King’s father died the boy was fifteen. There were five younger children and Starr was made man of the house by Destiny’s acclaim. Responsibility ripens. This slim, slender youth became a man in a day.
The father had been the pastor of the Charlestown Universalist Church. I suppose it is hardly necessary to take a page and prove that this clergyman in an unpopular church did not leave a large fortune to his family. In truth, he left a legacy of debts. Starr King, the boy of fifteen, left school and became clerk in a drygoods-store. The mother cared for her household and took in sewing.
Joshua Bates, master of the Winthrop School, describes Starr King as he was when the father’s death cut off his schooldays: “Slight of build, golden-haired, active, agile, with a homely face which everybody thought was 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 kind of boy gets along all right anywhere–God is on his side. The hours in the drygoods-store were long, and on Saturday nights it was nearly midnight before Starr would reach home. But there was a light in the window for him, even if whale-oil was scarce, and the mother was at her sewing. Together they ate their midnight lunch, and counted the earnings of the week.
And the surprise of both that they were getting a living and paying off the debts sort of cleared the atmosphere of its gloom.
In Burke’s “Essay on the Sublime,” he speaks of the quiet joy that comes through calamity when we discover that the calamity has not really touched us. The death of a father who leaves a penniless widow and a hungry brood comes at first as a shock–the heavens are darkened and hope has fled.
I know a man who was in a railroad wreck–the sleeping-car in which he rode left the track and rolled down an embankment. There was a black interval of horror, and then this man found himself, clad in his underclothes, standing on the upturned car, looking up at the Pleiades and this thought in his mind, “What beauty and peace are in these winter heavens!” The calamity had come–he was absolutely untouched–he was locating the constellations and surprised and happy in his ability to enjoy them.
Starr King and his mother sipped their midnight tea and grew jolly over the thought of their comfortable home; they were clothed and fed, the children well and sleeping soundly in baby abandon upstairs, the debts were being paid. They laughed, did this mother and son, really laughed aloud, when only a month before they had thought that only gloom and misery could ever again be theirs.
And soon the young man’s salary was increased–people liked to trade with him–customers came and asked that he might wait on them. He sold more goods than anyone else in his department, and yet he never talked things on to people. He was alert, affable, kindly, and anticipated the wishes and wants of his customers without being subservient, fawning or domineering.
This kind of helper is needed everywhere–the one who gives a willing hand, who puts soul into his service, who brings a glow of good-cheer into all his relations with men.
The doing things with a hearty enthusiasm is often what makes the doer a marked person and his deeds effective. The most ordinary service is dignified when it is performed in that spirit. Every employer wants those who work for him to put heart and mind into the toil. He soon picks out those whose souls are in their service, and gives them evidence of his appreciation. They do not need constant watching. He can trust them in his absence, and so the places of honor and profit naturally gravitate to them.
The years went by, and one fine day Starr King was twenty years of age. All of the debts were paid, the children were going to school, and mother and son faced the world from the vantage-ground of success. Starr had quit the drygoods trade and gone to teaching school on less salary, so as to get more leisure for study.
Incidentally he kept books at the Navy Yard.
About this time Theodore Parker wrote to a friend in Maiden: “I can not come to preach for you as I would like, but with your 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 him you will thank me for sending him to you.”
Then soon we hear of Starr King’s being invited to Medford to give a Fourth of July oration, and also of his speaking in the Universalist churches at Cambridge, Waltham, Watertown, Hingham and Salem–sent to these places by Doctor E. H. Chapin, pastor of the Charlestown Universalist Church, and successor to the Reverend Thomas F. King, father of Starr King.
Starr seems to have served as a sort of assistant to Chapin, and thereby revealed his talent and won the heart of the great man. Edwin Hubbell Chapin was only ten years older than Starr King, and at that time had not really discovered himself, but in discovering another he found himself. Twenty years later Beecher and Chapin were to rival each other for first place as America’s greatest pulpit orator. These men were always fast friends, yet when they met at convention or conference folks came for miles to see the fire fly. “Where are you going?” once asked Beecher of Chapin when they met by chance on Broadway. “Where am I going?” repeated Chapin. “Why, if you are right in what you preach, you know where I am going.” But only a few years were to pass before Chapin said in public in Beecher’s presence, “I am jealous of Mr. Beecher–he preaches a better Universalist sermon than I can.” Chapin made his mark upon the time: his sermons read as though they were written yesterday, and carry with them a deal of the swing and onward sweep that are usually lost when the orator attempts to write. But if Chapin had done nothing else but discover Starr King, the drygoods-clerk, rescue him from the clutch of commerce and back him on the orator’s platform, he deserves the gratitude of generations. And all this I say as a businessman who fully recognizes that commerce is just as honorable and a deal more necessary than oratory. But there were other men to sell thread and calico, and God had special work for Thomas Starr King.
Chapin was a graduate of Bennington Seminary, the school that also graduated the father of Robert Ingersoll. On Chapin’s request Theodore Parker, himself a Harvard man, sent Starr King over to Cambridge to preach. Boston was a college town–filled with college traditions, and when one thinks of sending out this untaught stripling to address college men, we can not but admire the temerity of both Chapin and Parker. “He has never attended a Divinity School,” writes Chapin to Deacon Obadiah B. Queer of Quincy, “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.”
Where did this drygoods-clerk get his education? Ah, I’ll tell you–he got his education as the lion’s whelp gets his. The lioness does not send her cub away to a lioness that has no cubs in order that he may be taught. The lion nature gets what it needs with its mother’s milk and by doing.
Schools and colleges are cumbrous makeshifts, often forcing truth on pupils out of season, and thus making lessons grievous. “The soul knows all things,” says Emerson, “and knowledge is only a remembering.” “When the time is ripe, men know,” wrote Hegel. At the last we can not teach anything–nothing is imparted. We can not make the plants and flowers grow–all we can do is to supply the conditions, and God does the rest. In education we can only supply the conditions for growth–we can not impart, nor force the germs to unfold.
Starr King’s mother was his teacher. Together they read good books, and discussed great themes. She read for him and he studied for her. She did not treat him as a child–things that interested her she told to him. The sunshine of her soul was reflected upon his, and thus did he grow. I know a woman whose children will be learned, even though they never enter a schoolroom. This woman is a companion to her children and her mind vitalizes theirs. This does not mean that we should at once do away with schools and colleges, but it does reveal the possible. To read and then discuss with a strong and sympathetic intellect what you read is to make the thought your own–it is a form of exercise that brings growth.
Starr King’s mother was not a wonderful nor a famous person–I find no mention of her in Society’s Doings of the day–nothing of her dress or equipage. If she was “superbly gowned,” we do not know it; if she was ever one of the “unbonneted,” history is silent. All we know is, that together they read Bulfinch’s “Mythology,” Grote’s “History of Greece,” Plutarch, Dante and Shakespeare. We know that she placed a light in the window for him to make his home-coming cheerful, that together they sipped their midnight tea, that together they laughed, and sometimes wept–but not for long.
* * * * *
In Eighteen Hundred Forty-six Chapin was thirty-two years old. Starr King was twenty-two. A call had reached Chapin to come up higher; but he refused to leave the old church at Charlestown unless Starr King was to succeed him. To place a young man in the position of pastor where he has sat in the pews, his feet not reaching the floor, is most trying. Starr King knew every individual man, woman and child in the church, and they had known him since babyhood. In appearance he was but a boy, and the dignity that is supposed to send conviction home was entirely wanting.
But Chapin had his way and the boy was duly ordained and installed as pastor of the First Universalist Church of Charlestown.
The new pastor fully expected his congregation to give him “absent treatment,” but instead, the audience grew–folks even came over from Boston to hear the boy-preacher. His sermons were carefully written, and dealt in the simple, every-day lessons of life. To Starr King this world is paradise enow; it’s the best place of which we know, and the way for man to help himself is to try and make it a better place. There is a flavor of Theodore Parker in those early sermons, a trace of Thoreau and much tincture of Emerson–and all this was to the credit of the boy-preacher. His woman’s mind absorbed things.
About that time Boston was in very fact the intellectual hub of America. Emerson was forty-three, his “Nature” had been published anonymously, and although it took eight years to sell this edition of five hundred copies, the author was in demand as a lecturer, and in some places society conceded him respectable. Wendell Phillips was addressing audiences that alternately applauded and jeered. Thoreau had discovered the Merrimac and explored Walden Woods; little Doctor Holmes was peregrinating in his One-Hoss Shay, vouchsafing the confidences of his boarding-house; Lowell was beginning to violate the rules of rhetoric; Whittier was making his plea for the runaway slave; and throughout New England the Lecture Lyceum was feeling its way.
A lecture course was then no vaudeville–five concerts and two lectures to take off the curse–not that! The speakers supplied strong meat for men. The stars in the lyceum sky were Emerson, Chapin, Beecher, Holmes, Bartol, Phillips, Ballou, Everett and Lowell. These men made the New England Lyceum a vast pulpit of free speech and advanced thought. And to a degree the Lyceum made these men what they were. They influenced the times and were influenced by the times. They were in competition with each other. A pace had been set, a record made, and the audiences that gathered expected much. An audience gets just what it deserves and no more. If you have listened to a poor speech, blame yourself.
In the life of George Francis Train, he tells that in Eighteen Hundred Forty Emerson spoke in Waltham for five dollars and four quarts of oats for his horse–now he received twenty-five dollars. Chapin got the same, and when the Committee could not afford this, he referred them to Starr King, who would lecture for five dollars and supply his own horse-feed.
Two years went by and calls came for Starr King to come up higher. Worcester would double his salary if he would take a year’s course at the Harvard Divinity School. Starr showed the letter to Chapin, and both laughed. Worcester was satisfied with Starr King as he was, but what would Springfield say if they called a man who had no theological training? And then it was that Chapin said, “Divinity is not taught in the Harvard Divinity School,” which sounds like a paraphrase of Ernest Renan’s, “You will find God anywhere but in a theological seminary.”
King declined the call to Worcester, but harkened to one from the Hollis Street Church of Boston. He went over from Universalism to Unitarianism and still remained a Universalist–and this created quite a dust among the theologs. Little men love their denomination with a jealous love–truth is secondary–they see microscopic difference where big men behold only unity.
It was about this time that Starr King pronounced this classic: “The difference between Universalism and Unitarianism is that Universalists believe that God is too good to damn them; and the Unitarians believe that they are too good to be damned.”
At the Hollis Street Church this stripling of twenty-four now found himself being compared with the foremost preachers of America. And the man grew with his work, rising to the level of events. It was at the grave of Oliver Wendell Holmes that Edward Everett Hale said, “The five men who have influenced the literary and intellectual thought of America most, believed in their own divinity no less than in the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth.”
The destiny of the liberal church is not to become strong and powerful, but to make all other denominations more liberal. When Chapin accused Beecher of preaching Universalist sermons, it was a home thrust, because Beecher would never have preached such sermons had not Murray, Ballou, Theodore Parker, Chapin and Starr King done so first–and Beecher supplied the goods called for.
Starr King’s voice was deep, melodious and far-reaching, and it was not an acquired “bishop’s voice”–it was his own. The biggest basso I ever heard was just five feet high and weighed one hundred twenty in his stockings; Brignoli, the tenor, weighed two hundred forty. Avoirdupois as a rule lessens the volume of the voice and heightens the register–you can’t have both adipose and chest tone. Webster and Starr King had voices very much alike, and Webster, by the way, wasn’t the big man physically that the school readers proclaim. It was his gigantic head and the royal way he carried himself that made the Liverpool stevedores say, “There goes the King of America.”
There was no pomposity about Starr King. Doctor Bartol has said that when King lectured in a new town his homely, boyish face always caused a small spasm of disappointment or merriment to sweep over the audience. But when he spoke he was a transformed being, and his deep, mellow voice would hush the most inveterate whisperers.
For eleven years Starr King remained pastor of the Hollis Street Church. During the last years of his pastorate he was much in demand as a lecturer, and his voice was heard in all the principal cities as far west as Chicago.
His lecture, “Substance and Show,” deserves to rank with Wendell Phillips’ “The Lost Arts.” In truth it is very much like Phillips’ lecture. In “The Lost Arts” Phillips tells in easy conversational way of the wonderful things that once existed; and Starr King relates in the same manner the story of some of the wonderful things that are right here and all around us. It reveals the mind of the man, his manner and thought, as well as any of his productions. The great speech is an evolution, and this lecture, given many times in the Eastern States under various titles, did not touch really high-water mark until King reached California and had cut loose from manuscript and tradition. An extract seems in order:
Most persons, doubtless, if you place before them a paving-stone and a slip of paper with some writing on it, would not hesitate to say that there is as much more substance in the rock than in the paper as there is heaviness. Yet they might make a great mistake. Suppose that the slip of paper contains the sentence, “God is love”; or, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself”; or, “All men have moral rights by reason of heavenly parentage,” then the paper represents more force and substance than the stone. Heaven and earth may pass away, but such words can never die out or become less real.
The word “substance” means that which stands under and supports anything else. Whatever then creates, upholds, classifies anything which our senses behold, though we can not handle, see, taste or smell it, is more substantial than the object itself. In this way the soul which vivifies, moves and supports the body is a more potent substance than the hard bones and heavy flesh which it vitalizes. A ten-pound weight falling on your head affects you unpleasantly as substance, much more so than a leaf of the New Testament, if dropped in the same direction; but there is a way in which a page of the New Testament may fall upon a nation and split it, or infuse itself into its bulk and give it strength and permanence. We should be careful, therefore, what test we adopt in order to decide the relative stability of things.
There is a very general tendency to deny that ideal forces have any practical power. But there have been several thinkers whose skepticism has an opposite direction. “We can not,” they say, “attribute external reality to the sensations we feel.” We need not wonder that this theory has failed to convince the unmetaphysical common-sense of people that a stone post is merely a stubborn thought, and that the bite of a dog is nothing but an acquaintance with a pugnacious, four-footed conception. When a man falls downstairs it is not easy to convince him that his thought simply tumbles along an inclined series of perceptions and comes to a conclusion that breaks his head; least of all, can you induce a man to believe that the scolding of his wife is nothing but the buzzing of his own waspish thoughts, and her too free use of his purse only the loss of some golden fancies from his memory. We are all safe against such idealism as Bishop Berkeley reasoned out so logically. Byron’s refutation of it is neat and witty:
“When Bishop Berkeley says there is no matter,
It is no matter what Bishop Berkeley says.”
And yet, by more satisfactory evidence than that which the idealists propose, we are warned against confounding the conception of substance with matter, and confining it to things we can see and grasp. Science steps in and shows us that the physical system of things leans on spirit. We talk of the world of matter, but there is no such world. Everything about us is a mixture or marriage of matter and spirit. A world of matter–there would be no motion, no force, no form, no order, no beauty, in the universe as it now is; organization meets us at every step and wherever we look; organization implies spirit–something that rules, disposes, penetrates and vivifies matter.
See what a sermon astronomy preaches as to the substantial power of invisible things. If the visible universe is so stupendous, what shall we think of the unseen force and vitality in whose arms all its splendors rest? It is no gigantic Atlas, as the Greeks fancied, that upholds the celestial sphere; all the constellations are kept from falling by an impalpable energy that uses no muscles and no masonry. The ancient mathematician, Archimedes, once said, “Give me a foot of ground outside the globe to stand upon, and I will make a lever that will lift the world.” The invisible lever of gravitation, however, without any fulcrum or purchase, does lift the globe, and makes it waltz, too, with its blonde lunar partner, twelve hundred miles a minute to the music of the sun–ay, and heaves sun and systems and Milky Way in majestic cotillions on its ethereal floor.
You grasp an iron ball, and call it hard; it is not the iron that is hard, but cohesive force that packs the particles of metal into intense sociability. Let the force abate, and the same metal becomes like mush; let it disappear, and the ball is a heap of powder which your breath scatters in the air. If the cohesive energy in Nature should get tired and unclench its grasp of matter, our earth would instantly become “a great slump”; so that which we tread on is not material substance, but matter braced up by a spiritual substance, for which it serves as the form and show.
All the peculiarities of rock and glass, diamond, ice and crystal are due to the working of unseen military forces that employ themselves under ground–in caverns, beneath rivers, in mountain crypts, and through the coldest nights, drilling companies of atoms into crystalline battalions and squares, and every caprice of a fantastic order.
When we turn to the vegetable kingdom, is not the revelation still more wonderful? The forms which we see grow out of substances and are supported by forces which we do not see. The stuff out of which all vegetable appearances are made is reducible to oxygen, hydrogen, carbon and nitrogen. How does it happen that this common stock is worked up in such different ways? Why is a lily woven out of it in one place and a dahlia in another, a grapevine here, and a honeysuckle there–the orange in Italy, the palm in Egypt, the olive in Greece and the pine in Maine? Simply because a subtile force of a peculiar kind is at work wherever any vegetable structure adorns the ground, and takes to itself its favorite robe. We have outgrown the charming fancy of the Greeks that every tree has its Dryad that lives in it, animates it, and dies when the tree withers. But we ought, for the truth’s sake, to believe that a life-spirit inhabits every flower and shrub, and protects it against the prowling forces of destruction. Look at a full-sized oak, the rooted Leviathan of the fields. Judging by your senses and by the scales, you would say that the substance of the noble tree was its bulk of bark and bough and branch and leaves and sap, the cords of woody and moist matter that compose it and make it heavy. But really its substance is that which makes it an oak, that which weaves its bark and glues it to the stem, and wraps its rings of fresh wood around the trunk every year, and pushes out its boughs and clothes its twigs with breathing leaves and sucks up nutriment from the soil continually, and makes the roots clench the ground with their fibrous fingers as a purchase against the storm, and at last holds aloft its tons of matter against the constant tug and wrath of gravitation, and swings its Briarean arms in triumph, in defiance of the gale. Were it not for this energetic essence that crouches in the acorn and stretches its limbs every year, there would be no oak; the matter that clothes it would enjoy its stupid slumber; and when the forest monarch stands up in his sinewy, lordliest pride, let the pervading life-power, and its vassal forces that weigh nothing at all, be annihilated, and the whole structure would wither in a second to inorganic dust. So every gigantic fact in Nature is the index and vesture of a gigantic force. Everything which we call organization that spots the landscape of Nature is a revelation of secret force that has been wedded to matter, and if the spiritual powers that have thus domesticated themselves around us should be canceled, the whole planet would be a huge Desert of Sahara–a bleak sand-ball, without shrub, grass-blade or moss.
As we rise in the scale of forces towards greater subtility, the forces become more important and efficient. Water is more intimately concerned with life than rock, air higher in the rank of service than water, electric and magnetic agencies more powerful than air; and light, the most delicate, is the supreme magician of all. Just think how much expenditure of mechanical strength is necessary to water a city in the hot summer months. What pumping and tugging and wearisome trudging of horses with the great sprinklers over the tedious pavement! But see by what beautiful and noiseless force Nature waters the world! The sun looks steadily on the ocean, and its beams lift lakes of water into the air, tossing it up thousands of feet with their delicate fingers, and carefully picking every grain of salt from it before they let it go. No granite reservoirs are needed to hold in the Cochituates and Crotons of the atmosphere, but the soft outlines of the clouds hem in the vast weight of the upper tides that are to cool the globe, and the winds harness themselves as steeds to the silken caldrons and hurry them along through space, while they disburse their rivers of moisture from their great height so lightly that seldom a violet is crushed by the rudeness with which the stream descends.
Our conceptions of strength and endurance are so associated with visible implements and mechanical arrangements that it is hard to divorce them, and yet the stream of electric fire that splits an ash is not a ponderable thing, and the way in which the lodestone reaches the ten-pound weight and makes it jump is not perceptible. You would think the man had pretty good molars that should gnaw a spike like a stick of candy, but a bottle of innocent-looking hydrogen-gas will chew up a piece of bar-iron as though it were some favorite Cavendish.
The prominent lesson of science to men, therefore, is faith in the intangible and invisible. Shall we talk of matter as the great reality of the world, the prominent substance? It is nothing but the battleground of terrific forces. Every particle of matter, the chemists tell us, is strained up to its last degree of endurance. The glistening bead of dew from which the daisy gently nurses its strength, and which a sunbeam may dissipate, is the globular compromise of antagonistic powers that would shake this building in their unchained rage. And so every atom of matter is the slave of imperious masters that never let it alone. It is nursed and caressed, next bandied about, and soon cuffed and kicked by its invisible overseers. Poor atoms! No abolition societies will ever free them from their bondage, no colonization movement waft them to any physical Liberia. For every particle of matter is bound by eternal fealty to some spiritual lords, to be pinched by one and squeezed by another and torn asunder by a third; now to be painted by this and now blistered by that; now tormented with heat and soon chilled with cold; hurried from the Arctic Circle to sweat at the Equator, and then sent on an errand to the Southern Pole; forced through transmigrations of fish, fowl and flesh; and, if in some corner of creation the poor thing finds leisure to die, searched out and whipped to life again and kept in its constant round.
Thus the stuff that we weigh, handle and tread upon is only the show of invisible substances, the facts over which subtle and mighty forces rule.
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Starr King was that kind of plant which needs to be repotted in order to make it flower at its very best. Events kept tugging to loosen his tendrils from his early environments. People who live on Boston Bay like to remain there. We have all heard of the good woman who died and went to Heaven, and after a short sojourn there was asked how she liked it, and she sighed and said, “Ah, yes, it is very beautiful, but it isn’t East Somerville!”
Had Starr King consented to remain in Boston he might have held his charge against the ravages of time, secreted a curate, taken on a becoming buffer of adipose, and glided off by imperceptible degrees on to the Superannuated List.
But early in that historic month of April, Eighteen Hundred Sixty-one, he set sail for California, having accepted a call from the First Unitarian Church of San Francisco. This was his first trip to the Pacific Coast, but New England people had preceded him, and not being able to return, they wanted Boston to come to them. The journey was made by the way of Panama, without any special event. The pilot who met the ship outside of Golden Gate bore them the first news that Sumter had been fired upon, and the bombardment was at the time when the ship that bore Starr King was only a few miles from South Carolina’s coast.
With prophetic vision Starr King saw the struggle that was to come, and the words of Webster, uttered many years before, rushed to his lips:
“When my eyes shall be turned to behold for the last time the sun in heaven, may I not see him shining on the broken and dishonored fragments of a once glorious Union; on States dissevered, discordant, belligerent; on a land rent with civil feuds, or drenched, it may be, in fraternal blood! Let their last feeble and lingering glance rather behold the gorgeous ensign of the republic now known and honored throughout the earth, still full high advanced, its arms and trophies streaming in their original luster, not a stripe erased nor polluted, nor a single star obscured, bearing for its motto no such miserable interrogatory as ‘What is all this worth?’ nor those other words of delusion and folly, ‘Liberty first and Union afterwards’; but everywhere, spread over all in characters of living light, blazing on all its ample folds, as they float over the sea and over the land, and in every wind under the whole heavens, that other sentiment, dear to every true American heart–Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!”
The landing was made on Saturday, and the following day Starr King spoke for the first time in California. An hour before the service was to begin, the church was wedged tight. The preacher had much difficulty in making his way through the dense mass of humanity to reach the pulpit. “Is that the man?” went up the smothered exclamation, as Starr King reached the platform and faced his audience. His slight, slender figure and boyish face were plainly a disappointment, but this was not to last. The preacher had prepared a sermon–such a sermon as he had given many times to well-dressed, orderly and cultured Boston.
And if this California audience was surprised, the speaker also was no less. The men to women were as seven to one. He saw before him a sea of bronzed and bearded faces, earnest, attentive and hungry for truth. There were occasional marks of dissipation and the riot of the senses, softened by excess into penitence–whipped out and homesick. Here were miners in red-flannel shirts, sailors, soldiers in uniform and soldiers of fortune. The preacher looked at the motley mass in a vain attempt to pick out his old friends from New England. The genteel, slightly blase quality of culture that leans back in its cushioned pew and courteously waits to be instructed, was not there. These people did not lean back: they leaned forward, and with parted lips they listened for every word. There was no choir, and when “an old familiar hymn” was lined off by a volunteer who knew his business, that great audience arose and sang as though it would shake the rafters of heaven.
Those who go down to the sea in ships, sing; shepherds who tend their flocks by night, sing; men in the forest or those who follow the trackless plains, sing. Congregational singing is most popular among those who live far apart–to get together and sing is a solace. Loneliness, separation and heart-hunger all drive men into song.
These men, many of them far from home, lifted up their voices, and the sounds surged through that church and echoed, surged again and caught even the preacher in their winding waves. He started in to give one sermon and gave another. The audience, the time, the place, acted upon him.
Oratory is essentially a pioneer product, a rustic article. Great sermons and great speeches are given only to people who have come from afar.
Starr King forgot his manuscript and pulpit manners. His deep voice throbbed and pulsed with emotion, and the tensity of the times was upon him. Without once referring directly to Sumter, his address was a call to arms.
He spoke for an hour, and when he sat down he knew that he had won. The next Sunday the place was again packed, and then followed urgent invitations that he should speak during the week in a larger hall.
California was trembling in the balances, and orators were not wanting to give out the arguments of Calhoun. They showed that the right of secession was plainly provided for in the Constitution. Lincoln’s call for troops was coldly received, and from several San Francisco pulpits orthodox clergymen were expressing deep regret that the President was plunging the country into civil war.
The heart of Starr King burned with shame–to him there was but one side to this question–the Union must be preserved.
One man who had known King in Massachusetts wrote back home saying: “You would not know Starr King–he is not the orderly man of genteel culture you once had in Boston. He is a torrent of eloquence, so heartfelt, so convincing, so powerful, that when he speaks on Sunday afternoon out on the sand-hills, he excites the multitude into a whirlwind of applause, with a basso undertone of dissent, which, however, seems to grow gradually less.”
Loyalty to the Union was to him the one vital issue. His fight was not with individuals–he made no personal issues. And in several joint debates his courteous treatment of his adversary won converts for his cause. He took pains to say that personally he had only friendship and pity for the individuals who upheld secession and slavery–“The man in the wrong needs friends as never before, since he has ceased to be his own. Do we blame a blind man whom we see rushing towards a precipice?”
From that first Sunday he preached in San Francisco, his life was an ovation wherever he went. Wherever he was advertised to speak, multitudes were there to hang upon his words. He spoke in all the principal towns of California; and often on the plains, in the mountains, or by the seashore, men would gather from hundreds of miles to hear him.
He gave himself, and before he had been in California a year, the State was safe for the Union, and men and treasure were being sent to Lincoln’s aid. The fame of Starr King reached the President, and he found time to write several letters to the orator, thanking him for what he had done. It was in one of these letters that Lincoln wrote, “The only sermons I have ever been able to read and enjoy are those of John Murray”–a statement which some have attempted to smile away as showing the Rail-Splitter’s astute diplomacy.
Starr King gave his life to the Cause. He as much died for the Union as though he had fallen stricken by flying lead upon the field. And he knew what he was doing, but in answer to his warning friends he said, “I have only one life to live and now is my time to spend it.”
For three years, lacking two months, he spoke and preached several times every week. All he made and all he was he freely gave.
For that frail frame this life of intensity had but one end.
The Emancipation Proclamation had been issued, but Lee’s surrender was yet to be.
“May I live to see unity and peace for my country,” was the constant prayer of the devoted preacher.
Starr King died March Fourth, Eighteen Hundred Sixty-four, aged forty years. The closing words of his lecture on Socrates might well be applied to himself: “Down the river of Life, by its Athenian banks, he had floated upon his raft of reason serene, in cloudy as in smiling weather. 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 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.”