Project Canterbury

Memories of a Great Schoolmaster: Dr. Henry A. Coit
by James P. Conover

Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1906.

Chapter VIII. The Sunday Evening Hymn

MANY will agree that a man who has done a noble work is a great man, but none have exactly the same memory or make exactly the same estimate of his greatness. As I look back over twenty years of intimate relation with Dr. Coit, more and more reverently do I cherish my own particular memory, and the less inclined I am to discuss its correctness. What may be called his faults seem to have turned out to be virtues; but all I dare trust myself to say or to write are these memories of his sayings and doings among us. For characterizations I shall quote others older and wiser.

Perhaps in no one thing is the Doctor more distinctly recalled than in our old custom of "the Sunday evening hymn."

At half-past eight the school bell rings, and straightway from every quarter the inhabitants of the colony begin to pour into the big school-room. As Sunday evening has been in later years a time of general visiting, many boys have been out of their places; but each is soon at his desk, and lower schoolers, sixth formers, masters, and ladies find standing room as best they may, while the Doctor himself goes to the master's desk. If there is a bishop or other notable person at hand who has won our attention by his sermon in chapel, he too is "in attendance." (The Doctor was always "royalty" before his boys, and this public attention at "the evening hymn" we considered a great honor to any man.) Calmly and apparently seeing everything without looking, the Doctor stands waiting till all have risen. Then a voice, the voice that has so long given the key-note to our music, wakes an echo from every boy, as we join with full volume in those words so familiar to St. Paul's men:--

"Now the day is past and gone,
Holy God we bow to Thee!
Again as nightly shades come on,
To Thy sheltering side we flee.

"For all the ills this day hath done,
Let our bitter sorrow plead;
And keep us from the wicked one,
When ourselves we cannot heed.

"Rav'ning, he prowls Thy fold around,
In his watchful circuitings;
Father! this night may we be found
Under the shadow of Thy wings.

"O! when shall that Thy day have come!
Day ne'er sinking to the west;
That country and that holy home
Where no foe shall break our rest.

"Now to the Father and the Son
We our cheerful voice would raise,
With Holy Spirit joined in one,
And from age to age would praise."

(This hymn, I believe, had been carried from Dr. Muhlenberg's school at College Point. In the early days of St. Paul's, the boys stood about the piano in the old "front study" and sang to the Doctor's accompaniment.)

Then follows the Lord's Prayer while we are still standing. And then in a voice of which one never wearied, so perfectly did it fit the occasion and the words, follows the benediction,--

"Unto God's gracious mercy and protection we commit you.
The Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord make His face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you.
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace, both now and evermore. Amen."

If the day had been more than usually fatiguing, can you not distinctly recall how he would stand, and say, as a signal for beginning at the fourth verse,--

"O, when shall that Thy day have come"?

And as soon as it was all over, this Sunday strain, lifted, as it were, by the mighty shout of the hymn and the gentle words of the blessing, how we, boylike, pushed forward to say "good-night!" In a mass we stood before him, each waiting for his turn; and then the long line stretched out around the room to every master and Mrs. Coit. It will always be a marvel how at the end of his Sunday he was able to go through this ordeal, remembering each boy's first name and often with a special word: "Tom, I am so glad to hear of your little sister's improvement;" or having noticed the absence of a fellow would say to his friend, "Where is Dick to-night? Tell him that I have missed him;" or, "Now for a good week, John;" or "My dear, I should like to speak with you afterwards." But the line never stopped, and what boy who was trying to do his duty did not feel the brace of the evening closed by that loving personal appeal of voice, hand, and eye?

Thus ended our Sunday at St. Paul's, a day devoted beyond the capacity of the ordinary boy to the direct worship of God: but not more beyond than everything that the Doctor did to raise each one above the "ordinary boy."

Too much religion? With him life was all religion; and though criticism grieved him, he paid little heed. Let me quote just here some words written by an old boy at the time of the Doctor's death: "We used to think him narrow sometimes; but I am not sure that, as we ourselves grow older, we are not coming to perceive that what we then esteemed 'narrowness' was ultimate truth of insight. It is not given to many men to be thoroughly religious from the outset to the end of their lives. The heart of most men roams restlessly for a long time before it rests at last in God. But Dr. Coit was religious always. There was no humbug about him. That is why he had such power over us, in spite of ourselves. From the class-room and playground to the Thursday evening talks and the daily chapel, that is the sort of man he was, the religious man. Here, in very truth, was a man 'alive unto God.' It seemed as if he never opened a book, nor touched a topic, nor met a boy or man, without having 'God in all his thoughts.' And somehow he never bored us. Other men bored us boys with their religiousness, but 'the Doctor' never did. Rather, it appeared as if he had merely gotten on ahead of us, and very likely we should try to catch up with him by and by. The pathos, the beauty, the risks, the awfulness and the joy, the prospects and the power of the sincere religious life of the human soul, they have been realized in our lifetime by this man whom we have known, whom we have called our master."

The late Dr. Hall Harrison, long associated with Dr. Coit, has written: "The true secret of his great influence is, undoubtedly, to be found in the depth of his religious convictions, in the spirituality and unworldliness of his nature. He lived close to the cross of his Redeemer; his Greek Testament was his daily study, and his knowledge of it was profound. His daily self-examination was strict; his faith in the efficacy of prayer was unshakable. All these things tell on a man's character and give him a source of power hidden from the observation of ordinary men, who are impressed without knowing how or why."

The words from an old boy's pen, followed by those of a life-long friend and assistant-master, suggest what a fellow priest, Dr. Roberts of Concord, has written: "There is but one name in the world ever set beside his in the roll of famous educators, that of Dr. Arnold of Rugby. But Dr. Coit, the humble and devoted follower of the Christ, the faithful priest, the self-sacrificing pastor, the moving preacher, the man with a genius for holiness, cannot be known in the same way. The world of wealth and fashion, feeling instinctively the greatness and worth of the man, would range itself beside him, be glad of the light of his presence and the force of his personality, but could never penetrate the reserve behind which was veiled the devout disciple of the lowly Redeemer, the man of God, nor know the deep spiritual sources of that singular power which impressed itself upon the young and developing manhood intrusted to his fostering care.

"His deep and ardent enthusiasm for the truth, for the right, and for the highest and best things of the earth which have the glow of heaven in them, did not expend itself in outward or idle demonstration, and so men might have thought him cold; but it burned in his heart with a mighty intensity, and the fervor of it, and the potency of it, entered into all his work and made it great."

This was the kind of a man who could get together into a school-room three hundred boys and more at the end of every Sunday for such a function as the "evening hymn."

Among others Mrs. Coit was always there, and no testimony could be too strong to the influence which she had directly and indirectly in the school. The boys of the very early days, who knew her well and saw her constantly among them, would rise up, one and all, and call her blessed. To all the graces of a cultivated Christian woman was added a fund of common sense and business capacity which for many years, no doubt, was a great factor in the development of the school. My first year was the last spent by the Doctor's family in the old school building, but I well recollect our evenings with Mrs. Coit then, and afterwards the constant gatherings at the rectory. But the early years had overtaxed her strength, and she was obliged more and more to withdraw from her active place in the school; yet, till almost the very last, the Sunday evening hymn saw her in the accustomed stall beneath the clock.

The last time that she joined any of us in this hymn was at her home near Newport. Five or six of the older boys were off on a summer cruise, and we had run into Newport harbor for Sunday. We knew that the Doctor's home was somewhere on the east side of the island, so in the afternoon we started to the eastward on foot. We explored the country as we went along, discarding the use of roads, so that when at last the house was pointed out to us on a distant hill we found swamps and thickets in the way. Nevertheless, boy-like, we kept straight on, to arrive in anything but regulation Sunday order. There was not a soul to be seen about, so we started to find the church. Nestled in the valley about two hundred yards from the sea we came upon a little stone church. The roadside was lined with carriages, so we knew that all must be here. As we came near we heard the Doctor's voice, and we made bold to enter; but once in we repented, for not a seat could we see, and the sermon was in progress. However, places were somehow found and we shamefacedly settled down. The Doctor's reputation, we were proud to conclude, had gathered all these gay people so far from the town. There was, moreover, a fair sprinkling of country people, among whom, as I afterwards learned, he and Mrs. Coit were much beloved. [It was one of the pleasures of his vacation to visit about among the farmers. In a letter written from Newport, August 28,1886, he says: "I have been in charge of the mission chapel near us during July and August, and this is to be consecrated on Tuesday. I have been much interested in my neighbors, and I trust that they may have a faithful and efficient clergyman."]

The Doctor greeted us most warmly and took us all home to supper. In the evening he sat at the piano, and played the "evening hymn," while we sang. There was something about the connection of the Doctor with that hymn that has fastened itself in a peculiar way upon the memory. On another cruise, when some of the same crowd were together, we spent a Sunday in the Horse-Shoe behind Sandy Hook. As we sat and talked in the moonlight, we were back at school once more; and it seemed perfectly natural when some one said before going below to turn in, "Let's have the evening hymn." So under the stars, with the twin lights of Navesink soberly watching us, we sang the whole hymn with more heart than music.

There were two other special channels through which the religion of this man was imparted to his boys, namely the Missionary Society and the Orphans' Home, both of which deserve more than a passing notice.

The Missionary Society was composed of a limited number from the two upper forms. These boys had the power of electing their own officers as well as new members. But it was a sort of conge d'elire delivered by the Doctor which sometimes produced heart-burnings and misunderstandings; for this society had a prestige which made membership the coveted goal of all the older boys. Some of the articles of the constitution are worth quoting, as they evidently bear the mark of the Doctor's hand.

There shall be a Missionary Society at St. Paul's School from date .(Jan. 1st, 1860); said society to be composed of such members as shall have been duly elected . . .

It shall be the object of the Society and of its members individually to do all in their power actively by word and deed, to extend to others of their fellow beings the same blessings of the church and of the Gospel which they themselves enjoy: to obtain and communicate information in regard to the great Missions of the Church of England and of our own church, and thus to seek out and obtain that blessing in the Psalm, "They shall prosper that love Thee."

The president was an autocrat, appointing committees and assigning work, with the power to fine delinquents. The meetings were instructed by readings from appointed members, and were enlivened by elections and motions of all descriptions. Money was collected from fines and dues as well as from sales of pie and other delicacies. In fact, almost the whole range of schoolboy finance to these enterprising missionaries was an open field. The minutes abound with situations of interest and excitement: zeal often outran wisdom and sometimes fair dealing, but the whole effect was a stirring of interest throughout the school and a great blessing and increase of wisdom to many individuals. The master with his burning zeal was always felt behind, in spite of the apparent freedom given to individual caprice.

The Orphans' Home was another practical link between the soul of this man and the school at large. We would frequently see him going there, and we knew by many outward signs how close to his heart and to that of Mrs. Coit were the little homeless children.

On a hill overlooking the school the home was ever an object lesson, while the little tramp and shuffle into chapel on Sunday of the mixed company in all kinds of clothes never ceased to be more than interesting. Indeed, this work of love was always in evidence. On Sunday night, for instance, while one was deep in a letter home, suddenly a voice in front, "a penny for the orphans," and the bright, eager face of Fr-tz G-rr-tts-n or N-d T-bb-ts would be peering over the little charity box. (These pennies in a few years built a substantial fence about the whole nine-acre lot assigned to the home.) Then, the Thursday after Thanksgiving was proclaimed a half holiday, on which the whole school in detachments visited the home. Each form carried up on a sled its offerings of groceries, etc., and then proceeded to inspect the building and devour a substantial meal. These occasions were great fun. Once I happened to be on the committee of purchase for my form. We bought a huge pig, the carcase of which we graced with many adornments, and paraded to the door with great pomp. The form going down the hill used to rush the form coming up; and that custom was very dear to the quondam lover of orphans. I remember that our whole sixth, being far inferior in numbers to the fifth, was carried bodily back and placed one by one on the roadside by the Doctor's front gate. I am afraid that this episode, together with the amount of food consumed at the home, impelled the Doctor to substitute committees for the whole forms.

What with the Orphans' Home, the Doctor's interest in the neighbors, the Missionary Society, and the frequent sermons from missionaries, there was little fear of our learning to live for ourselves. I remember after a sermon from Bishop Morris, in which he incidentally described the huge apples on the Oregon farms, that I wrote home to say that I could hardly wait to offer myself as a missionary. Some will recall the breathless interest with which we listened to tales of Indians in Manitoba or of "busting bronchos" on the Western prairies. Such men as Bishop Whipple and Bishop Morris, both of whom had sons at the school, were, however, more than interesting. They are all part of that old life at St. Paul's, and are indelibly engraven in our memories as filling out for us the work of our great master.

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