Timeline          Histories          
People Publications Events The Campus Athletics Daily Life



Stephen Phelps

First President of Coe College (1881-1886)

February 6, 1839 in Lewiston, Illinois
March 4th, 1930 in Council Bluffs, Iowa
Educational Background: Jefferson College, Pennsylvania, 1859; Western Theological Seminary, 1862; Doctor of Divinity, Lenox College, Washington College, and Jefferson College; Doctor of Laws, Coe College, 1915
Teaching Experience:
Professor of Homiletics and Pastoral Theology, Omaha Theological Seminary; Professor of Bible, Bellevue College in Bellevue, Nebraska
Ministerial Experience:
Presbyterian pastorates in Sioux City, Waterloo, Janesville, Cedar Valley, Vinton, Council Bluffs, Essex, and Bellevue
Administrative Experience: 
None besides Coe College presidency
Key events/accomplishments during administration:
Old Main building doubled in size; Williston Hall erected; the first three classes graduated; many student extra curicular activities originated; famous students include Col. Robert W. Stewart and Hon. James W. Good, Secretary of War
Post-Coe Career:
Professor of Bible at Bellevue College and Pastor in Bellevue, Nebraska

Letter from Stephen Phelps Regarding Coe College

In honor of Founders' Day, 1922, Dr. Burkhalter asked Stephen Phelps, the first President of Coe College, to write a biographical letter to be read in his honor at the festivities. Rev. Phelps penned the letter himself, with beautifully artistic penmanship. Excerpts from the letter follow.

Dear Dr. Burkhalter:

You requested something from me for the Founders Day program of December 5th. You entitled it "A Paper of Precious Reminisces." I gladly respond as follows in this form of a personal letter of you, and will consider it an honor if you will kindly read it for me on that occasion... 

My first experience, of which of course I have no remembrance, was that I was born. This occurred at Lewistown, Illinois, February 6, 1839, making me now nearly 84 years old. The night of my birth was the time of my father’s conversion. In the double joy of his heart - he and my mother dedicated me to the Lord and to the Ministry of the Gospel...I was to be a minister of the family...my education, from the beginning, pointed directly forward to the ministry...

At the age of seventeen I was sent to Jefferson College, Pennsylvania...(where) I was admitted into the Sophomore class. It was a college of some 300 students - all new. About half of them were from the South.  

This contact, in college classrooms and campus, for three years, with the hot blooded but beautiful young southern manhood, just before the Civil war, and with the Eastern students as well, was a valuable experience to me. It broadened me, having gone as I had, from the then far West, where I had seen but little of the world at large...

A number of the students were armed with revolver or bowie knife and chips of challenge to conflict were carried on the shoulders of leaders, on both sides. On one occasion, at least, we seemed very near to a battle on the campus.

We had a splendid faculty. My favorite among them was a Scotchman "Little Johnnie Fraser," we called him...He would stop, turn and face us, rise on tiptoe, his chest expanding, his eyes dilated, his face glowing with intensity. His words at such times were not as to Mathematics, but of manners, morals and manhood: of might - of right, of the reach and power of truth; of men and measures; of success and failure, and the causes underlying them. He opened our eyes to look into our own future, in such a country and times as ours, and to prepare for a manly part in it...

Graduating from college, I attended for three years, the Western Theological Seminary, at Allegheny, now a part of Pittsburgh. That splendid city of coal and glass, of steel and smoke! That city of churches, schools, factories and mills; that city of Western Pennsylvania's noble people, afforded me many wonderful opportunities for education and improvement. 

In Pittsburgh, too, I met or saw, or heard many others who influenced me greatly and for good...

I saw the Prince of Wales who afterward became Edward VII, of the British Throne. He was giving an enthusiastic reception in Pittsburgh. Under the stars and stripes of our flag and the British Union Jack, he was led in a gorgeous procession through the streets, with bands playing our and their national airs.

My young heart was thrilled by it with renewed patriotic devotion to, and gratitude to God for our country, which as the land of the free, and the home of the brave, knows no King but Christ -; no Prince but - the Prince of the House of David, the Prince of Peace…

Even Abraham Lincoln came into my young life. His name was a household word in my Father's home when I was born. They had been young men together, for a time, and a friendship sprang up between them, which ceased only at their death. I hope it did not cease even then. I love to think of my Father and Mr. Lincoln as still friends in Heaven.

Mr. Lincoln and Judge Stephen A. Douglas, acknowledged as the "Little Giant of Illinois," made their famous Senatorial Debate in our town. I heard it, every word of it. I think that - I was never more thrilled by any address, than I was by Mr. Lincoln's speech in that debate. It was probably the greatest speech I ever heard. I love to remember that just before he delivered it, he took my hand in his, and looking down into my very soul with his wonderful eyes, he said "God bless you, my boy." It was the touch of a mighty spirit upon my youthful soul. That benediction of that great man, at such a moment in his life, had remained as a living thrill in my soul to this day, and it was given me sixty-four years ago.

I was licensed a minister on the very day, perhaps at the very hour, of the firing of the first-gun at Fort Sumter, the opening of the Civil War... I had to face, at once, the stupendous question, ought I not heed that compelling call to the man I loved, and whom my Father loved, for the country that we all loved and enlist? I wrote to my Father about it, for he had dedicated me to the ministry and had educated me for it. I have reason to believe the he consulted Mr. Lincoln. The president felt that it would be better for the ministers to remain in their pulpits, to keep the home fires of patriotism burning...

I think also that Mr. Lincoln, through my Father, influenced me to come West - to preach, instead of remaining in the East, where I had been educated and also that - he had to do with my coming into Iowa. He and Father felt that it would be good for me to have the experiece of pioneer work as they both had had together in frontier life in Illinois. Northwestern Io...was undeveloped pioneer country. There was only one ordained Presbyterian Minister in all Northwester Iowa when I took charge at Sioux City, and to Sioux City I was sent.

...We went to Waterloo, Iowa...for seven years...From Waterloo we went to Vinton. There I preached for almost ten years at the New School Churches, which I found there, united and became one church and I was made its pastor.

...While I was there, I became acquainted with many of the Cedar Rapids people, and became interested in Coe Collegiate Institute...Mr. B.E. Jewell, son-in-law and heir of Mr. Daniel Coe, came to me at Vinton. He told me that he had come North to recover, if possible, the money which Mr. Coe had put into Coe Academy. He though the school had been abandoned; that was, Mr. Coe had given for Christian education and was not being used ought to be released, and taken to the South, where it was greatly needed for the same purpose.

I persuaded him to go with me to a meeting of the Presbytery, where he stated the object of his coming North.

You know, doctor, of the Presbytery's action. It resulted in the school being turned over to a Board of Trustees appointed by the Presbytery and opened in the following October as Coe Collegiate Institute, with Dr. Condit as its head.

After it had done faithful work for four years, the Presbytery concluded that such was the excellence of the High schools of Cedar Rapids, Marion, Vinton and other towns, a school such as outs was not really needed, but that it was too valuable a property, and too eminently suited to be the site of a Christian College, to be lost either to the city or to the Presbyterian denomination. 

The Presbytery therefore took action offering the Institute to the Synod, asking that body to develop the school into a College. We had a stirring but friendly strife on the floor of Synod over the proposition. It was contended that the Synod already had a college only forty miles away, at Hopkinton. At length, however the Synod voted to accept the institute, and as soon as possible develop it into a College. A board of Trustees was immediately appointed. The institute was formally and legally transferred. The Synod asked me to become its President. I did not feel competent for such a task, and I did not want to give up my place at Vinton. I therefore declined.

...Three times this committee of the Synod pressed to work upon me. I persistently continued to decline...One morning...I was in my study, on my knees praying for help to know what to do. A voice seemed to say, almost audibly, "You will have light by the noon mail." I waited eagerly for that mail. It brought me a note from Mr. A.V. Eastman, the Secretary of the Trustees, saying, "Mr. Sinclair had fallen through his elevator. We fear it will be fatal." I immediately said to myself, 'That is light, indeed. If Mr. Sinclair is taken away, there is no use for me to take the College.'  But quickly came to better thought - 'If Mr. Sinclair has gone, you are needed all the more.' I came down to his funeral. You and I, Dr. Burkhalter...stood together at his graveside, while his beloved body was sealed into that strong cement vault at the bottom of the grave, and then until the grave was filled. There, in the rain, at his graveside, his last words kept repeating themselves, over and over, in my head; "If you cannot say yes, do not say no - wait." I had a strange sensation. I almost saw his hand reaching down and placing itself on my shoulder. I could almost hear him saying in my very soul, "Don’t say no, wait." I decided, right then and there, to accept the college offer.

I accepted the Presidency of the College, with the definite understand that when the Institution had been so far developed that I would be justified in leaving it, I would do so and return to the pulpit in farther fulfillment of my Father's dedication of me to the preaching of the Gospel.

Six years later, I felt that this time had come.

We had a catalogue of 243 students and a property estimated at a quarter of a million dollars. The old twenty thousand dollar debt had been all paid. Williston Hall stood there on the Campus, filled with young lady students. A goodly and growing number of young gentlemen students were comfortably housed in rooms and homes around about. The Main building too had been enlarged to completeness. We had a good library, museum and laboratory; a splendid faculty, and departments and courses of study unsurpassed in the state; and the College was forging forward rapidly toward the Goal, which I had long cherished for it, and still do, that Coe should be The Princeton of The West.

...Yours very truly, Doctor, in the love of God, and in the love of Coe, and in the living faith in both God and Coe,

 Stephen Phelps

  Home Coe College Contact Us  

Copyright 2006
Coe College
1220 1st Avenue NE
Cedar Rapids, IA 52402