Project Canterbury

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

Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1906.


THE Coits are New Englanders. John Coite landed from Wales at Salem, Mass., in 1636. The ruins of Coite Castle, built about 1091, stand "on a playne ground a mile by Nortest from Penbout, a good market town standing on Ogor" in Glamorganshire, writes Leland in his itinerary; so that in all probability this shire is the ancient home of the Coits.

John Coite was a shipbuilder; and, after a few years at Salem, and Gloucester, where he was made selectman, he received a grant of land at New London, Conn., in 1650; there he soon established a shipyard. After his death in 1659, his son Joseph, one of seven children, carried on the business till he died in 1704, bequeathing an ample estate to his widow, Martha Harris of Wethersfield, his sons John, Joseph, and Solomon, and the heirs of William deceased.

Joseph, the second son of the above and Martha his wife, born in New London, April 4,1673, was graduated at Harvard College in 1697, and was admitted to a master's degree at the first commencement in Yale, 1702. He became a Congregational minister and preached in Norwich. Soon afterwards he went to Plainfield, where he remained until his death at the age of seventy-seven, July 1, 1750. Twenty years after his death, a Plain-field correspondent of Dr. Trumbull, the historian, described him as an ornament to his profession. He married Experience Wheeler of Stonington, September 18,1705, by whom he had ten children.

From John, the elder brother of this Joseph, were numerous worthy descendants, of whom a grandson, Daniel Lathrop Coit, a friend of Lafayette and Franklin in Paris, and a brother-in-law of Joseph Howland of New York, built the old Coit mansion still standing in Norwichtown. His daughter Eliza married W. C. Gilman, and became the mother of President Gilman of Johns Hopkins.

But to return to the line of special interest; Samuel, second child and oldest son of Joseph and Experience, was born at Plainfield, Conn., in 1708; he married Sarah Spalding of Plain-field, March 30, 1730. "He settled in the North Society of Preston (now the town of Griswold), and there spent a long and honored life, dying October 4, 1792. ... In military life he rose to the rank of colonel, and, in 1758, had command of a regiment raised in the neighborhood of Norwich. He was also much employed in civil matters, representing Preston in the general assembly in 1761 and subsequent years, and sitting as judge on the bench of the county court and of a maritime court in the time of the Revolution. The posterity of Colonel Coit have been quite numerous, and, as they filled a large place in the town for one or two generations, they have been distinguished from their New London cousins as 'the Preston Coits.' They have now entirely withdrawn from Preston and Griswold, but the graves of the past generation are numerous in the cemetery east of Griswold Church."

William Coit, third child of Colonel Samuel and Sarah Coit, was the ancestor of the subject of this memoir. He was a shipmaster and merchant in Norwich. He died at the age of eighty-six, and is buried in the old burial-ground. His wife was Sarah Lathrop of Norwich.

Levi, their seventh child, was the grand-father of Henry Augustus Coit. He was born in Norwich, April 24, 1770. He made his home in New York city, where he died at the age of eighty. For many years he was engaged in trade with the Indies in partnership with George N. Woolsey, under the firm name of Coit and Woolsey; hut in the later years of his life he was a stockbroker in Wall Street. He married Lydia Howland, daughter of Joseph Howland, mentioned above.

Of the seven children of Levi, only three came to mature age, the eldest of whom, Henry Augustus, married Sarah Borland of Boston. He was associated in business with August Belmont. A younger brother, Joseph Howland, born November 3, 1802, was the father of our Dr. Coit. (A distant cousin, Thomas Winthrop Coit, a contemporary of the Doctor's father and a priest of the Church, was also well known as Dr. Coit. He was rector of St. Paul's, Troy, when I first heard of him, but I frequently noticed his name in "The Churchman" and used to wonder how there could be two Dr. Coits.)

But to return. The father of our Dr. Coit, after honorable graduation from Columbia College, went to the Princeton Theological Seminary with a view to becoming a Presbyterian minister. But his studies led him to seek ordination in our own branch of the Church. He was ordained deacon by Bishop Griswold. The early years of his ministry were passed in Vermont, where he was ordained priest. He married Harriet Jane Hard of Arlington, Vt.

(The Hards were stanch Church of England people. Many of us remember Dr. Coit's mother, whom he closely resembled. She had a face of peculiar power and sweetness. On one occasion she was present in the old chapel when it was my lot to preach, and I shall not forget her interest and her kind comments, as well as the later words of the Doctor himself, "And she knows whereof she speaks." My last sight of her was at the window of her home in Norwich, trying not to show her anxiety, as she watched us off for a cruise to New York. It was a peaceful, quiet spot, this home in Norwichtown, with its old-fashioned flowers and walks and superb trees, provided by the care of the sons at St. Paul's School, and it was an ideal old age that ripened there under the loving watchfulness of her daughter.)

In 1828, Dr. Coit's father and mother went to St. Andrew's, Wilmington, Del. The first church of the parish was built during his rectorship. After four years he left Delaware to take charge of the church in Plattsburgh, N. Y. There he remained, with only a few years' absence as rector of St. Stephen's, Harrisburg, Pa., until his death in 1866.

Henry Augustus Coit, born January 20, 1830, was the second of nine children, the first child dying in infancy.

Only one incident remains in my memory of the few references that I have heard to the home in Plattsburgh. Speaking of the reverent consuming of the "elements" after the Holy Communion, he mentioned his father's custom of leaving the altar to distribute the bread and the wine to those of the congregation near by while still upon their knees. He remembered that on one occasion his father stopped in passing his place and gave him some of the consecrated bread even though he had not yet been confirmed. In connection with his confirmation, he had a distinct experience of "conversion," having been greatly agitated about his spiritual state. (Though he had little faith in anything partaking of the nature of sensationalism, his effort in preparing his boys for confirmation was to make them realize the importance of the step. He used to keep a book, in which after the six months' special preparation, boys desiring to be confirmed entered their own names.)

His own confirmation was by Bishop Onderdonk of New York.

When at school under Dr. Muhlenberg, at College Point, L. I., his life was without reproach; he was a boy far advanced in mind for his years, devotional and religious. One of his tutors there was the late Dr. Houghton of New York, with whom he used to recite daily some religious office. The late Dr. Mahan was also tutor at that time. Owing to his father's large family and small means he had much responsibility as the oldest, as well as the necessity for making his way at school by assisting in school duties. During these days he used to visit the family of his granduncle, Gardiner Howland, on Washington Square

At St. Paul's we were not allowed to forget those early days, for I have often heard the Doctor speak of his love for Dr. Muhlenberg, whose picture then hung and still hangs in our schoolroom.

He entered the University of Pennsylvania, in the time of Professor Reed, described as a delightful scholar; but his health was so delicate that he was obliged to spend a year in the South. He lived there as tutor in the family of Bishop Elliott of Georgia. Then he passed a year as tutor in the classics at St. James's College, Maryland, under Dr. Kerfoot. In those early days his brother, the Rev. Dr. Joseph H. Coit, was associated with him on the teaching staff at St. James's, later to be for so many years his associate and support in the work at St. Paul's School, and to follow him in the rectorship. Among the boys at St. James's College at this time was the Rev. Hall Harrison, whom St. Paul's boys gratefully remember as a master for many years at the school. Another pupil of St. James's of a somewhat later generation was the Rev. Thomas J. Drumm, now for more than thirty years a master at St. Paul's.

At St. James's College the degrees of B. A. and M. A. were conferred upon Dr. Henry A. Coit for his scholarship in letters, although owing to delicate health he had never completed the traditional four years' residence of a college course. Thence he returned to Philadelphia and lived in the family of the Rev. Richard Newton, while he was occupied in theological studies and acting as tutor to the sons of Bishop Alonzo Potter. (Bishop Henry C. Potter of New York has sometimes remarked that he was really "the oldest boy;" and now we have a pleasing connection with those early days, in that the name of Alonzo Potter, f the son of the bishop, stands on our roll of honor, inscribed on the walls of the school-room among the Ferguson Scholars.)

The next work of Henry Coit was the mastership of the parish school for boys at Lancaster, Pa. Here he was ordained deacon, and became one of the assistants to Dr. Samuel Bowman. The Rev. John C. Eccleston was an associate with him here, and though but a short time together these two formed a lifelong friendship. (We all remember Dr. Eccleston's visits to the school and his interesting lectures on the Crusades and other historical subjects.) Here also Mr. Coit may have met Miss Mary Bowman Wheeler, whom he afterwards married. He was ordained priest in St. James's Church, Philadelphia, together with the Rev. John Huntington, sometime a professor of Greek in Trinity College, and later in life a neighbor in the country near Newport, B. I. From Lancaster Mr. Coit passed to northern New York, first as assistant to his father and then to missionary work at Malone, and Ellenburg where he built a church.

Not long ago I was called to minister to a dying woman at the hospital in Concord. I found her well instructed and a lover of the Church, to which she had given her allegiance under the leading of Mr. Coit in those early days at Ellenburg. From her and from our own bishop, who once made a visitation to those parts for the Bishop of Albany, I have learned of the great love and esteem held by those people for Mr. Coit.

Bishop Doane of Albany wrote, in the official paper of the diocese, at the time of Dr. Coit's death, "I am thankful to remember that the Diocese of Albany has at least one part in the story of this noble life. The earlier years of his ministry were given to hard and patient and faithful missionary service in the northern part of our diocese, where he founded at least three congregations; in every one of which his name and memory are embalmed, and from every one of which, little and feeble as they still are, holy and blessed influences continue to go out, for the glory of God and the consolation of men. I find in my first address to the first convention of the diocese a note of visitations to the churches of Ellenburg and Centreville, 'built in the faith and fear of God, through the devoted exertions of the Rev. Dr. Henry A. Coit.' I cannot resist the temptation, since it was impossible for me to be present at the burial, to pay this simple tribute to a most beautiful and beloved memory."

But now the great work begins. At the I age of twenty-six Mr. Coit was called to be the first rector of St. Paul's School.

On March 27, 1856, he was married, in the Church of the Epiphany, Philadelphia, to Mary Bowman, third daughter of Mr. Charles Wheeler of the Philadelphia Bar. A week later, April 3, Mr. and Mrs. Coit established themselves about two miles from Concord, N. H., at a country seat which had been ~ given by Dr. and Mrs. Shattuck of Boston for the site of St. Paul's School. Among the first boys came John Hargate, youthful in spirit and sympathy to the end. From the first devoted to the Doctor, he gave himself unreservedly to the work of his great leader. His record of faithful and loyal service extends through every year of the life of St. Paul's. On one occasion when some older masters were slow in returning at the beginning of term the Doctor said to me, "Never mind! If I only have Mr. Hargate, I have no fear; we shall make it go."

Through all these thirty-nine years Dr. Coit was a great schoolmaster, though not for want of other opportunities; for, in addition to the posts of president of Hobart and of Trinity College, he was called to the rectorships of many large and important parishes, while his name was prominent in connection with several bishoprics. He received the degree of Doctor of Divinity from both Trinity and Columbia and LL, D. from Yale. But he was so convinced of the importance to church and country of training the Christian gentleman that he turned a deaf ear to other calls, though, as he once said, "It is harder to stay than to go."

The wisdom of his choice is proven, not only in what he has accomplished, but in the inspiration which St. Paul's School has given to Christian education all over the land. In speaking one day of the number of good schools becoming prominent and drawing boys from St. Paul's, he said, "I sometimes hear people speak as if these schools were our rivals. I can but feel joy and a right pride that others are following our example, and that the church at large is stirred to the great cause of education."

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