Unitarian statue loses spot in U.S. Capitol

Unitarian statue loses spot in U.S. Capitol

Statue of Thomas Starr King, Unitarian orator, to be replaced by one of Ronald Reagan.
Donald E. Skinner


Thomas Starr King, first a Universalist and later a Unitarian minister whose statue resides in the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol, is about to be removed from his pedestal. The California Legislature voted September 1 to replace his statue with one of Ronald Reagan, a move that has surprised and dismayed many Unitarian Universalists and others.

Starr King played a key role in keeping California from withdrawing from the Union during the Civil War. In his day he was revered as an orator, minister, and agitator for social justice, but today he is not as well known as Reagan, the two-term president, governor, and actor.

The resolution to remove Starr King’s statue and replace it with Reagan’s was written by State Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth, a Republican from Murrieta, Calif. Hollingsworth told the San Francisco Chronicle that when he visited the hall during events surrounding President Bush’s second inauguration, he was surprised to learn that Starr King was representing his state. “To be honest with you, I wasn’t sure who Thomas Starr King was,” he told the newspaper. “And I think there’s probably a lot of Californians like me.” Hollingsworth said he proposed the statue swap because Starr King was not a native Californian—he only lived in the state for four years—and could not compete historically with Reagan or with Franciscan priest Junipero Serra, the other Californian to have a statue in the national hall.

The National Statuary Hall, a large room just off the Capitol Building Rotunda, houses two statues from each state showcasing the contributions of individuals with distinguished records of civic or military achievement. Serra, who died in 1784, was a driving force in the Spanish conquest and colonization of what is now California, establishing nine missions along the coast.

The Rev. Lindi Ramsden, director of the UU Legislative Ministry of California, said the resolution to replace Starr King was introduced at the end of the last day of the legislative session, and did not mention Starr King directly and thus went nearly unnoticed. Sponsors had also gotten a waiver on holding normally required hearings. “We had just spent a lot of time helping get a universal health care measure passed and we were feeling good about that when this came up,” said Ramsden, who was out of town on the last day of the session.

State Sen. Debra Bowen, a Democrat from Redondo Beach, and the only UU in the Senate, was the only senator to vote against removing Starr King’s statue. Bowen, in the legislature for 14 years, is running for secretary of state this fall.

“I truly had 40 seconds to get my thoughts together on this,” she said. “I was trying to explain who Thomas Starr King was, but there just wasn’t time. With more time and some actual discussion the outcome might have been different. I was really offended by the way it happened. It was so politicized.”

Bowen, a member of the UU Community Church of Santa Monica, said she’s unsure if there’s any possibility of undoing the switch. “It’s not clear whether the legal requirements have been fulfilled, including whether the governor needs to sign off on it.”

Starr King, born in 1824 in New York City to Universalist minister Thomas F. King and Susan Starr King, went to work at age 15 when his father died, according to biographers. He attended lecture courses at Harvard, but never graduated. Through independent study he developed a strong preaching and public speaking style that won him the support of prominent Unitarians of the day.

For 11 years he served the Unitarian Hollis Street Church in Boston. He also lectured widely. Theodore Parker, Unitarian preacher, lecturer, and writer, called him the best preacher in Boston. In 1860, needing more money to support his family, Starr King moved to California where he served what is now the First UU Society of San Francisco.

He also felt a strong calling to a larger ministry, to help preserve the Union during the Civil War, lecturing up and down the state for that cause. Abraham Lincoln credited him with preventing California from becoming a separate republic during the Civil War, despite pressure from secessionists.

Starr King also raised money for the then-new U.S. Sanitary Commission, a forerunner of the American Red Cross. He raised $1.25 million for the commission from California alone. He also raised funds for flood and drought relief in California and worked for the rights of San Francisco’s African Americans and Chinese.

Today, Starr King is memorialized with two mountain peaks named in his honor, one in Yosemite National Park and another in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, as well as a statue in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Schools bearing his name include Starr King Elementary in San Francisco and Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, one of two Unitarian Universalist seminaries.

Starr King died in San Francisco in 1864 at age 39 of diphtheria and pneumonia. Upon his death, the California legislature adjourned for three days and flags in the state were at half-staff. Author Bret Harte composed a eulogy for him and a military honor guard stood by his casket. Twenty thousand people came to his church to pay their respects.

The Rev. David Sammons, acting president of Starr King School for the Ministry, while Starr King School president the Rev. Rebecca Ann Parker is on sabbatical, said he opposes the decision to remove Starr King’s statue. “In California, the two people who were chosen (for inclusion in the hall) were both clergy,” said Sammons. “Starr King is a stellar example of religion having a positive effect on the world.”

Hollingsworth said lawmakers will seek a new home for the Starr King statue and are considering placing it somewhere in the state capitol building. Ramsden believes that this might have a positive outcome. “I would love to see his presence increased here in Sacramento where many more people actually come to learn something of their California history,” she said. “If this switch does take place, our goal will be to make sure he gets a prominent place here so that children and others will get to know the values he held and the contribution he made.”

Related Resources

  • Rev. Thomas Starr King.Biography from the Unitarian Universalist serminary named after him in 1941. (Starr King School for the Ministry)
  • Thomas Starr King.Dictionary of Unitarian Universalist Biography entry by Celeste DeRoche and Peter Hughes. (UU Historical Society)
  • Thomas Starr King.Includes information about the statue. (Wikipedia.org)