Letter from Stephen Phelps Regarding Coe
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
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...
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...
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
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...
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.
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
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.
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…
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.
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.
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...
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.
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.
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.
persuaded him to go with me to a meeting of the Presbytery, where he
stated the object of his coming North.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
years later, I felt that this time had come.
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.
very truly, Doctor, in the love of God, and in the love of Coe, and in
the living faith in both God and Coe,