Titus Coan

John Emory Godbey, Allen Howard Godbey

[Chapter taken from Light in Darkness: or, Missions and Missionary Heroes.]

Titus Coan

Born at Killingworth, Connecticut, in 1801, the son of a farmer, Titus Coan was, in his youth and early manhood, a farmer and school teacher and officer in a military company. Ardent and full of energy, and possessed of a sprightly mind and an excellent physical constitution, he had eminent qualifications for the work to which he was afterward called. He was licensed to preach in 1833, and served for a time as supply of a church in Rochester, New York. He was sent by the American Board on an exploring expedition to Patagonia, and after his return was appointed to missionary work in the Sandwich Islands. He landed at Honolulu with other missionaries June 6th, 1835, where the missionaries were in counsel. He chose Hilo, in Hawaii, as his place and reached it about the middle of July. 

At Hilo 

Hilo is situated on a beautiful crescent-shaped harbor, the beach of which is composed chiefly of fine volcanic sand. Three streams of water run into it in different places, and the mouth of the harbor is protected by a lava reef, one mile from the shore. The western side of the harbor is sufficiently deep to admit ships of any size. The land is covered with beautiful vegetation of various sorts; and back of the city, in the distance, are the volcanic mountains, Kea and Loa. When Coan arrived the city had but one framed house, all the others being of stone and mud with thatched roofs. The framed house was a two story building belonging to Rev. Samuel Goodrich who left in the fall, and Mr. Coan took possession of the house. In three months he had made sufficient advancement [with the Hawaiian language] to be able to preach. He now commenced work as a traveling preacher. His district was a belt one hundred miles long, lying along the northeast and southeast coasts of Hawaii. Its width was from one to three miles, and more in some places. Next to this belt is an almost impenetrable forest of from ten to twenty-five miles in width; then comes a more open but jungly and mountainous district, with a fair sprinkling of wild animals. And last, but not least, are the two volcanic cones, Kea and Loa, the first of which is extinct; the latter, as already stated, is one of the most active on the globe. The shore belt, which is the only inhabited part of the country, contained at this time about 15,000 or 10,000 natives. Foreigners were few. Mr. Coan began to make the rounds of his field several times every year. As at this time there were no horses or other means of conveyance in Hilo, his journeys were made on foot. He often ran risks on these expeditions. His chief difficulty lay in crossing the streams, which are swift, treacherous and liable to sudden changes of rising in a few minutes from tiny rivulets to formidable torrents. With the assistance of the natives, however, and aided by his indomitable pluck, he managed to overcome all obstacles. Various means were devised for crossing these streams. Sometimes a rope would be thrown across and fastened to trees on both sides, and Mr. Coan would throw himself into the stream and drag himself over by means of the rope. Sometimes he would mount the back of a native, who would wade the stream, the increased weight enabling him to secure a better footing. He once crossed a torrent in this manner only fifty feet above a cataract 420 feet high. A single false step on the part of the native would have hurled both into destruction. He never stopped for the streams. His appointments were sent out twenty, thirty or even fifty miles ahead, and a failure in one would disconnect the whole chain. There were about eighty streams of various sizes in the district, and none of them were bridged. 

As to the natives, to whom Coan preached, open idolatry was almost unknown to them, but ignorance, superstition and vice were prevalent; and, as a consequence, the stronger oppressed the weaker. All the lower classes were the property of chiefs, who could at will drive off their cattle, take away their household goods, or otherwise abuse their poor subjects. As time passed, Mr. Coan purchased a horse to use in his journeys, but this did not aid him materially in crossing the streams. Sometimes, also, at the end of a trip, he would take a canoe and return home by sea; but even in this way he often ran great risks. In fact, he was constantly in peril, both by land and sea; but he took his life in his hand and pressed onward in the work. Such was the work in the Hilo District. 

Work in Puna 

The Puna District was also put into the hands of Mr. Coan. It is a belt one hundred miles long and three miles in width, and is almost a dead level. It has a rich volcanic soil, very porous and full of cracks and fissures, which drain off all the water, so that there are no streams above ground. Rain falls are abundant, and the rapid drainage of the surface makes numerous subterranean springs and fountains which burst out along the seashore. But farther inland the country is broken and mountainous, full of caverns and lava bubbles, and sloping up gradually to the great cone of Mauna Loa. Those highlands are for the most part covered with forest and jungle. Next to Puna lies Kau, on the border of which are several villages, containing 600 or 700 people. These villages were under the charge of Mr. Forbes, but as he had to cross an old lava bed about fifteen miles wide to reach them, Mr. Coan took them under his care. He made his first tour, in the Hilo and Puna districts, in the first six months of his work on the island. 

In the fall of the next year, he set out on foot to make the tour of the island. Great interest was manifested by the natives he preached to on this trip. He preached in Puna very often three, four and even five sermons in a day. Occasionally, when there were several villages close together, the people of the first, after hearing him preach, would follow him to the next, and so on, thus getting the benefit of several sermons. Often, in the more thinly settled districts, or where the villages were remote from the road, the people would bring their aged, sick, or infirm, down to the wayside, and request to have the gospel preached to them. This request Mr. Coan could never refuse to answer, as he always considered it might be the last time for some of them. And too often it proved to be the case. During this thirty days’ tour many converts were made; among them, the High Priest and High Priestess of the volcano. The former had been guilty of many atrocious crimes, but now seemed truly penitent. This trip aroused such interest among the people that many moved to Hilo temporarily, in order that they might hear the Word more fully. The population of Hilo was thus for about two years increased to 10,000. Little temporary cabins and sheds dotted the hillsides everywhere. The great native house of worship, 85 feet by 200, was filled to overflowing; hundreds were compelled to remain outside. After a few Sundays of this, a large number of natives provided themselves with ropes and axes, and going up into the forest three or four miles, began cutting down trees suitable for framing timber, and dragging them to town. Being asked what it was for, they replied that they were going to build another and larger house of worship, so that all could have the privilege of hearing preaching. Their plan was that the Hilo people should meet in the morning in the larger house, and the Puna and Kau people in the smaller house. In the afternoon they were to exchange places. They finished the house in about three weeks from the beginning of the work. No floors were put in either house. The ground was pounded hard and covered each week with dried grass on which the people sat. If a large crowd was present, the people were made to stand in compact rows till all were arranged, when the word was given to sit down. The men were seated apart from the women. Mr. Coan kept up his tours through the country still, however. Such a religious awakening is rarely seen anywhere. All Hawaii was astir. The fame of this revival spread among the other islands of the group. Their inhabitants were puzzled to know what it could mean. Many said the Hawaiians were thorough hypocrites, and professed to be disgusted with the proceedings. The work continued, however, and a large proportion were found to remain faithful. Many of the meetings resembled the old-fashioned Methodist camp meeting. Some of the foreign inhabitants were converted as well as the natives. 

November 7th, 1837, a great calamity overtook the people of Hilo. In the evening of that day a strange sound was heard on the beach followed by a wild wail from the natives. Rushing out to see what the matter was, Mr. Coan found a gigantic sea wave had rushed in upon the shore sweeping everything before it. About 200 people were carried off by the retiring waters, and were being tossed to and fro by the surging waves. The strongest ones by desperate efforts reached the shore, but the weaker were carried out to sea. Twelve were picked up by the boats of a whaling vessel which lay at anchor in the harbor. Thirteen were drowned. This disaster had the effect of making the survivors still more serious. The wave came almost like a thunder-clap; it was totally unexpected.

Results of the Revival 

Three thousand or more were converted during these meetings. Mr. Coan kept a pocket record of all professed converts in order to tell how many returned to their old ways of life, and how many remained faithful. Out of this pocket list 1705 were selected for admission into the church. The rest were allowed to remain awhile in order to prove them more fully. Those who had been chosen were admitted into full connection on the first Sabbath in July, 1838. The house was crowded and the baptismal ceremony was performed with great impressiveness. The converts were seated in rows along one side of the house, and, Mr. Coan passed up and down between the rows sprinkling them; a large portion of the assembly were in tears. It was a day long remembered in Hilo. Mr. Coan kept an account of all members so that he would know just what had become of each one. He also kept an account of births, deaths, marriages, etc. During the first five years that he spent in Hilo, between 7,000 and 8,000 were received into the church. Whenever any members removed to other places, he would write to the pastor in that place to look after them, and report to him occasionally and tell him how they were conducting themselves. The Creed or Confession of Faith was the Bible. Doctrinal differences were allowed to play as little part as possible. They were merely required to keep all the precepts of the Bible. The use of tobacco and stimulants was discouraged as far as possible, though not absolutely prohibited. A large number of the natives abandoned the use of these articles, and stuck to their good resolutions. Mr. Coan taught them as far as possible by precept and example instead of by restrictions and penalties, for he believed it to be the better way. 

A Boarding School 

In 1838, Mrs. Coan began a boarding school for girls. The natives built a house for the purpose. The school opened with twenty pupils, varying from seven to ten years in age. The natives engaged to bring in weekly supplies of provisions. This plan was kept for awhile, but was superseded by another. A tract of land was set apart for the school, and was cultivated by the natives. Occasionally little presents were made by strangers, but, for the most part, it was sustained by the people of Hilo. The scholars were taught the rudiments of necessary book knowledge, and trained in domestic duties. Most of them became members of the Hilo church, and were noted in after life among their companions for their neatness, industry and piety. This school was broken up in 1846. Mr. Coan, for a time, had the supervision of the common schools as a part of his regular work. There were about fifty of these, with some two thousand children. He had to see that they were supplied with slates, slate-pencils and books. As he went his rounds he examined them whenever he had time, in order to see what proficiency they had attained in their studies. 

Another branch of the missionary’s duties was attending the sick. But this involved so much work that he could not give the necessary attention to all of his patients. However, with the aid of his medical library and medicine chest, he performed the office of physician to the best of his ability until 1849, when Charles H. Wetmore was sent out to fill the place; thus Mr. Coan was relieved of a great responsibility. Also the care of the schools was taken by Mr. and Mrs. Wilcox. 

Hilo was a stopping-place for ships, especially whaling vessels. The missionaries had always received the sons of the sea as hospitably as possible, and looked after their welfare spiritually as well as bodily. Much good was done in this way. Mr. and Mrs. Coan did their part in this work also. Some evil effects, however, seemed imminent from a visit paid to the island in 1840, just after the great revival. Charles Wilkes, heading an United States exploring expedition, arrived in the bay. He had with him quite a corps of scientific men who were to make researches in their respective departments. An expedition was to be made to the top of Mauna Loa, and observations were taken from that point. A large number of natives were required to act as bearers, in order to transport provisions, instruments and materials for a house to the top of the mountain. But this involved working on Sunday, which almost demoralized the natives, who had been taught that the Sabbath must be strictly observed. Some died of the fatigue and exposure involved. The work went on for three months, during which time there was a large falling off in the congregations. It took years to restore matters to their former state. Most of the Christians, however, remained firm, but the trip had an evil influence on efforts for the conversion of others for a long while afterward. Still, it afforded our missionaries the opportunity of making the acquaintance of many distinguished scientific men. Occasionally national ships entered the harbor of Hilo. Probably four thousand of all kinds visited the harbor during Mr. Coan’s residence there. Services were held on Sunday afternoons for the benefit of seamen and all English-speaking residents or visitors. An old stone house was fitted up as a library. In these ways much good was done; many were converted. 

Volcanic Eruption 

In 1840 a great eruption took place from Mauna Loa. This mountain “is probably the largest volcanic cone in the world.” Prof. James D. Dana estimates that it is one hundred and twenty-five times as large as Vesuvius. Besides the crater at the top, it has on the eastern slope the great crater called Kilauca. This latter is the largest active crater in the world, being about seven and one-half miles in circumference, and from seven hundred to twelve hundred feet deep. The largest extinct crater is that of Haleakala in East Maui, one of this same group of islands. It is about thirty miles in circumference and eighteen hundred feet deep. Its floor is studded with extinct cones varying from four hundred to six hundred feet in height. Viewed from the top of the crater, they look like heaps of sand dropped from a dump-cart. The wall of the crater is broken down on one side, so that visitors can have access to any part of the floor. This crater, as indeed are all the Sandwich Islands’ craters, is formed of lava. In this respect it differs from Vesuvius, which is a mountain of ashes and cinders, with tufa mixed. From the nature of the materials, Vesuvius has the steepest slope, lava cones having a more gradual slope than those formed of cinders or tufa. The Sandwich Islands seem to be entirely of volcanic origin. In times of great eruptions lava, steam and sulphurous gases burst out from various places; in fact, they may appear anywhere on the mountain. 

The eruption above mentioned was first noticed on May 30th. It burst out about 1,500 feet below Kilauca, and pursued its way under ground about four miles, breaking out in the bottom of an old crater and after consuming the vegetation growing there, went on underground two miles more, when it again broke out. So it went, breaking out at different spots till within ten or twelve miles of the sea, when it burst forth and continued on its way to the sea on the surface. It entered the sea at Nanawale in a stream a mile wide, pouring over a perpendicular cliff thirty feet high. The turmoil was terrific. The waters were heated for a great distance, and this circumstance, combined with the poisonous gases, killed vast numbers of fish. Dense clouds of steam arose, obscuring everything in the immediate vicinity. This was on June 3d, five days after the eruption began, and about seventeen miles from Hilo. It continued to pour into the sea for three weeks, and the torrent of lava completely cut off all communication between the two portions of Puna. Such clouds of steam arose at the spot that the sun and stars were obscured, while the brilliant light on the mountain could be seen one hundred miles away at sea, and was so bright that fine print could be read at midnight at a distance of forty miles. The whole length of the stream was about thirty miles. No lives were lost, and only a few small hamlets destroyed. The inhabitants of these walked off with their movable property and erected their grass huts in new quarters. 

Numerous have been the eruptions from Mauna Loa during the present century. Besides the eruption of 1840, notable eruptions occurred in 1843,1852, 1855, 1868, 1880 and 1887. 

Of these the most notable is perhaps that of 1880. The eruptions are by no means limited to the craters, but are liable to burst forth from any part of the mountain. That of 1856 broke out near the summit of the mountain. Mr. Coan says: “Day after day, and night after night, we could trace this stream until it entered the deep forest, when the scene by day would often be made beautiful by the vast clouds of white vapor, rolling up in wreaths from the boiling streams and water basins below. In the nighttime the spectacle was one of unrivaled sublimity. The broad and deep river of lava, moving resistlessly on through the festooned forest trees, would first scorch the low plants and fallen timbers of the jungle, until they took fire, when suddenly a roaring flame would burst forth, covering perhaps a square mile, and rushing up the hanging vines to the tree-tops, leaping in lambent flashes from tree to tree, would make a light so gorgeous, that, for the time being, night was turned to day.” 

This eruption lasted fifteen months, and caused some little anxiety, as it headed directly for Hilo. It stopped, however, when seven miles away. But the great eruption which broke out November 5th, 1880, is the most celebrated in Hawaiian history. It burst forth from the side of the mountain, and 12,000 feet above the sea level. Says Dr. Coan: 

“The glare was intense, and was seen at a great distance. Brilliant jets of lava were thrown high in the air, and a pillar of blazing gases mounted thousands of feet skyward, spreading out into a canopy of sanguinary light which resembled, though upon a larger scale, the so-called ‘pine-tree appendage’ formed over Vesuvius during its eruptions by the vertical column of vapors with its great horizontal cloud. 

“Meanwhile a raging river of lava, about three-fourths of a mile wide, and from fifteen to thirty feet deep, rushed down the northeast flank of the great dome, and ran some thirty miles to the base of Mauna Kea This stream was composed mostly of aa, or scoria. It hardened and ceased, but a stream of pahoehoe, or field-lava, was now sent off to the southeast toward Kilauea. The roaring furnace on Mauna Loa remained in full blast. Down came a river of lava in several channels, flowing in the direction of Hilo. This divided itself in places and reunited, leaving islands in the forest. This stream crossed the flow of 1855-56, followed its southeast margin and fell into our great upland forest in a column from one to two miles wide. There was the sound as of a continuous cannonading as the lava moved on, rocks exploding under the heat, and gases shattering their way from confinement. We could hear the explosions in Hilo; it was like the noise of battle. Day and night the ancient forest was ablaze, and the scene was vivid beyond description. By the 25th of March the lava was within seven miles of Hilo, and steadily advancing. Until this time we had hoped Hilo would not be threatened; but the stream pursued its way. By the first of June it was within five miles of us, and its advance, though slow, was persistent. It had now descended nearly fifty miles from its source, and the action on Mauna Loa was unabated. The outlook was fearful; a day of public humiliation and prayer was observed. But still the lava moved onward, heading straight for Hilo. One arm of the stream was now easily accessible on its northern margin, and two more were moving in the deep jungle so far to the south that visitors had not the time or the patience to penetrate to them. It now began to appear that should these streams unite, no trace of Hilo or of Hilo harbor would remain. Some of our people were calm, others were horror-stricken. Some packed their goods and sent them to Honolulu or elsewhere, and some abandoned their houses. 

“The northerly wing of the stream now hardened, clogging the channel in which the lava was taking its way to the center of the town. But this check gave additional power to the southeast wing, so that on the 26th of June a fierce stream broke out from the great lava pond and came rushing down the rocky channel of a stream with terrific force and uproar, exploding rocks and driving off the waters. Hilo was in trouble. We were now in immediate danger. The lava, confined in the water-channel of from fifty to a hundred feet wide, advanced so rapidly that by the 30th of June it was not more than two and a half miles from us, threatening to strike Volcano Street about a quarter of a mile from Church Street, on which I live, and to fall into our harbor about midway of the beach. 

The stream was fearfully active, and the danger was now close upon us. From the town we could walk up to the living lava in forty minutes, and back again in thirty. A hundred people would sometimes visit it in a day. Its roar, on coming down the rough and rocky bed of the ravine, was like that of our Wailuku River during a freshet, but a deeper and grander sound. Explosions and detonations were frequent; I counted ten in a minute. The glare of it by night was terrific. The daily progress of the flow was now from one hundred to five hundred feet. When I visited the stream on the 18th of July, I saw a scene like this: Troops of boys and girls, young men and women, were watching the flow. They plunged poles into the viscid lava as it urged itself slowly onward; drawing out small lumps of the adhering fusion, they moulded it, before it had time to cool, into various forms at will. They made cups, canes, vases, tubes, and other articles out of this molten clay, and these they sold to visitors and strangers at from twenty-five cents to a dollar or more for a specimen. All went away with fresh spoils from the spoiler. An artist was there, who had taken sketches in oil; and the photographer has been upon the spot. 

Our town was now crowded with visitors from all parts of the Islands, from our Princess Regent, sister of the king, then absent, to the least of his subjects. Many spent entire nights upon the banks of the lava river. Just in front of one of its branches a stone wall five feet high was built, in hope of protecting the great Waiakea sugar-mill, for which this arm of the flow was heading. It was not a broad or heavy arm, but it was followed up by a column of fusion which no engineering could turn aside. This small advance stream came within a yard or two of the wall, paused there, and fell asleep in its shadow. At a single point the viscid mass, about two feet deep, struck the wall. There it rested a little, until, being supplied with fresh lava from behind, it heaped itself up against the barrier, poured over it, and then stiffened and solidified. It now hangs there, a sheet of vitreous drapery, marking the limit of the flow in that direction. Judge Severance dug a moat around the Hilo prison, with an embankment seven or eight feet high, hoping to avert the necessity of a general jail-delivery; but any considerable body of lava of course defies every obstruction. We made no preparations, however, for quitting our house. The flood came on until all agreed that in two or three days more it would be pouring into our beautiful bay. On the 10th of August it was but one mile from the sea, and half a mile from Hilo town. On that day, nine months and five days from the outbursting of the great eruption, when hope had perished in nearly every heart, the action began to abate. The raging flood, the steam, the smoke, the noise of the flow were checked; and in a day or two the great red dragon lay stiffened and harmless upon the borders of our village. The relief was unspeakable. 

Church Building.

Late in 1840 the great meeting house in Hilo was blown down. The natives immediately determined to build another, and providing themselves with axes and ropes, went up into the forest and cut and dragged timbers for the new house. When the frame was erected, it was covered with thatch, holes being left in the walls to serve as windows. No floor “was laid. There were at this time about fifty meeting houses of this kind in the district. Their size, of course, varied according to the population. The one we have just mentioned had a capacity of about 2,000. Others held from 1,000 to 600, and so on down to 150. This large church lasted about sixteen years. It was then determined to replace it with a more durable one. The first design was to build it of stone, but so many difficulties were found in the way of the execution of this plan, that, after a year’s hard work, the idea was given up, and it was built of timber. This afterwards proved to be the best; for the violent earthquakes which occasionally visit the islands destroy stone walls, but do not damage frame buildings so much. The building of the house occupied nearly a year and a half. It was finished in the spring of 1859. When it was dedicated there was a debt of $600 on it, which which was paid by a collection taken up at the time. The total cost was about $13,000. Several thousands more were spent in painting the house, purchasing a bell, and keeping the building and grounds in order. The natives willingly undertook each duty that fell to them. They also had greatly improved religiously. Mr. Coan, when he first arrived, was greatly troubled by the coldness and formality of their prayers. The revival, however, almost completely revolutionized this state of affairs. 

Native Assistants

Mr. Coan had native assistants whom he sent out in pairs all through the district. These aided him a great deal in keeping the sick or the backsliders in view. The natives gave him much trouble at times to know where they were. They are of a fickle, unsteady disposition. Sometimes a man will spend nearly all his property in building a fine house, and then leave it and go to a remote part of the island. Most of them dislike staying long in one place. Often when removing, a man will take out a church letter at the church he is leaving and neglect to hand it in at his new home; as he often changes his name, it is very difficult to keep track of him. 

In 1841, after applying a strict discipline and cutting off 553 persons from church membership, Mr. Coan still had 6,402 members in his church at Hilo. 

In 1849 he reported under his charge twenty-five places of worship, all supplied with houses by the voluntary contributions of the people. In 1865 he wrote that some of the churches were doing nobly in contributing for new church edifices. In 1870 the Hawaiian Christians had church property valued at $250,000. The same year over $30,000 were collected for religious purposes. 

Mr. Coan continued his work in Hilo until his death, December 1st, 1882. He was then in the eighty-second year of his age. Few missionaries were more laborious than Titus Coan; few have labored with more prudence and success in the Master’s cause. 

The church in Hawaii has been for many years not only self-sustaining but has engaged actively in missionary work. In 1853 they sent missionaries to the Marquesas Islands, and it is chiefly by the Hawaiians that this group of islands has been reached.

But the native population of Hawaii is fast dying out and foreigners are beginning to control the country. Great numbers of Chinese arc there. They are warmly welcomed and it is said are making good citizens. They are far more industrious and frugal than the natives, and much superior to them in business capacity. Many Americans are emigrating to the country and the American ministers control the church, although they constitute only about one-sixth of all the preachers engaged in the work.

Mainly taken from Light in Darkness: or, Missions and Missionary Heroes. By John Emory Godbey, Allen Howard Godbey