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Titus Coan: A Short Biography

H. M. F.

The writer of the following narrative is one of the most venerable of living missionaries, and a noble type of the "high caste" to which he belongs. With the strong religious conviction which comes from Puritan birth and training, with a faith that never doubts, and a zeal that inspires courage and devotion, he unites a practical turn of mind, a natural sagacity, and a quickness of adaptation to all vicissitudes of experience which may come to him in strange lands and among strange peoples—qualities which, combined, have made the American missionary a marked character in many parts of the world, and given him great success.

The Rev. Titus Coan is a native of New England, born in Killingworth, Conn., where his life began with the century, February 1st, 1801. He was the son of a farmer, and had no advantages but such as were afforded by the common schools. He developed a stalwart and rugged frame, and became noted for his physical strength. In manly sports he was an athlete, performing with ease the feat of lifting a barrel of flour to his shoulders. He joined a military company, in which his strength and courage gave him precedence, and he soon rose to be a captain. This military training was not lost upon him, and the endurance thus developed did him good service in the privations, hardships, and exposures of his after-life.

One could not live in Connecticut in those days without having his religious impressions and experiences. The famous evangelist, Asahel Nettleton, a native of Killingworth, was then setting New England aflame by his fervid eloquence. Whereever he went he was followed by crowds, to whom he preached with an earnestness and solemnity that filled them with awe. Young Coan was a cousin of Nettleton, and could not but be moved by the tide of religious feeling that swept over the country, though it was not till he had grown to manhood that he took the decided stand implied in making a "profession" of his faith. When religion takes hold of a strong character, it takes the stamp of the man, and stands out pronounced and positive. One who had been the athlete of his native town, foremost among his comrades, was not likely to be afraid of letting them see the new stand that he had taken. Prompt and bold in everything he did, no sooner had he come out on the Lord's side, than he "wheeled into line" with the precision of a soldier, and taking Christ for his Captain, marched in the van under his great Leader.

Hardly had he taken this stand, before his thoughts turned to the profession of the ministry. He was then living in Western New York, near Rochester, and the nearness of Auburn Seminary offered him a place for theological study. Preparing himself with such opportunities as he had (without the delay of going through college), he entered the Seminary in the fall of 1831. Looking forward to his future career, he had already decided to devote himself to the work of foreign missions, when the American Board (being assured by a sea captain lately returned from South America that a hopeful field might be found among the tribes of Patagonia) was looking around for a couple of intrepid soldiers of the Cross, to undertake an exploring expedition', and fixed upon young Coan, who had at once the physical strength and the fervent spirit. Reports were conflicting about the country and its people, and the expedition promised to be one of a good deal of adventure, if not of personal danger. It might be too much to say that the adventure and the danger were an attraction to the late captain of the militia but they certainly did not intimidate him. After due deliberation, taking counsel with his teachers, and with one whose voice might be more potent still, since she was to share his life and his fortunes in any quarter of the globe, he accepted the appointment, and with a fellow student set out for the extreme point of the continent.

A few months' experience of the wild country and its untamable inhabitants showed him that the field was not so promising as he had been told, and he returned to the United States for further orders He then married, and accompanied by his bride, set sail for the Hawaiian Islands, which through the voyages of whaling ships had become somewhat known to the American public. There was then no overland route, nor short cut across the Isthmus of Panama. They took the long course around Cape Horn, and were just six months on the voyage, when they came in sight of the beautiful islands which were to be their home for the rest of their days.

Then began that long course of service which has few parallels in the annals of missionary life— few in the display of fidelity and devotion, "enduring hardship as a good soldier," and fewer still in its marvelous successes. Cast almost like a shipwrecked voyager on a distant shore, among a strange people, with whom at first he could only communicate through signs or by an interpreter, he set himself at once to master the language, and so quickly did he catch the words and inflections, that in three months he preached his first sermon to the natives in their own tongue. In his intercourse with this simple people, of whom he sought to gain the affection and confidence, he showed a tact which was his birthright as a son of New England. He had a great deal of mother wit and natural shrewdness and pleasant humor, which gave a charm to his conversation even with these untutored children of nature, while his overflowing kindness soon opened to him the door of every native's hut and heart. Desiring only to do them good, he tried to aid them in every way. He was a little of a doctor, knowing the remedies for the more common diseases, and, having a chest of medicines, prescribed for the poor people who were suffering. Often the natives stood in great numbers on the porch of his dwelling, with dusky arms outstretched, waiting for vaccination, or for his lancet to open a vein, that by bleeding they might be relieved of a burning fever. He even performed graver surgical operations. Those who had domestics troubles of any kind—wives who had shiftless husbands, or husbands who had termagant wives—alike sought the counsel of Father Coan, who was the general peacemaker. Thus he seemed to unite in himself the duties of preacher, pastor, and magistrate, and to be at once the teacher, guide, and friend of the whole population.

Nor were his labors confined to the spot where he lived. He made missionary tours to other parts of the island, now sailing in a canoe along the coast, and landing at the different places where he had made appointments to preach, and now climbing the slopes, which ascend in a series of ridges towards the mountains which make the centre of the island. In these journeys he encountered every sort of hardship. The tropical rains often came down in floods, converting in a few hours a rocky gorge into a foaming torrent, which no boat could cross and no swimmer could stem. But here his ready contrivance did not desert him. Calling to the natives on the other bank to throw him a rope, such as they make of the bark of the hibiscus, he seized it with his strong hands, and tying it around his body, was dragged across.

Thus the fame of this man of God spread abroad, and wherever he went the people "thronged him." When he could not go to them they came to him. From all parts of the island they flocked to Hilo. "Whole villages gathered from many miles away, and made their homes near the mission house. Within the radius of a mile the little cabins clustered thick as they could stand. Hilo, the village of ten hundred, saw its population suddenly swelled to ten thousand, and here was held, literally, a camp meeting of two years. At any hour of the day or night a tap of the bell would bring together a congregation of from three to six thousand. Meetings for prayer and preaching were held daily."

Congregations so vast and so long continued have not often been assembled since Apostolic times, and the Spirit came down upon them as on the day of Pentecost. The preacher himself was thrilled by the scene, and catching an inspiration from the thousands of eager eyes and listening ears, felt lifted up with a strange power. "There was a fire in his bones." Were the congregation ever so large and tumultuous, it hushed at the sound of his voice. He said: "I would rise before the restless, noisy crowd and begin. It wasn't long before I felt that I had got hold of them. There seemed to be a chord of electricity binding them to me. I knew that I had them, that they would not go away. The Spirit would hush them by the truth till they would sob and cry 'What shall we do?' and the noise of the weeping would be so great that I could not go on."

As the fruit of these remarkable scenes a large part of the population abandoned heathenism, and professed to be converted to the Christian faith, insomuch, that when they came to be baptized, the good man was obliged to perform the sacred rite for them en masse. Seizing a brush like an aspersorium (a pan for holy water), and passing to and fro among the crowded rows of the candidates, he sprinkled them by scores and hundreds, pronouncing over them the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Strange as it may seem to us, the service did not thereby lose any of its solemnity, but was rather more impressive from being done in this grand, majestic way, whereas on a smaller scale it might have lost by the endless repetition. By these immense additions the church at Hilo grew till it numbered over five thousand members, making it the largest Protestant church in the world.

Mr. Coan and his wife remained on the islands thirty-five years before revisiting their native country. When they came back in 1870, they found another world than that which they had left. All things had become new. They had made their outward voyage in a small sailing vessel. They returned in a steamship. When they landed in San Francisco they had scarcely seen a railroad. Now they were whirled in fire-drawn cars up the mountains and over the plains, across the whole breadth of the continent. The fame of the missionary had gone before him, and wherever he came among the churches he was welcomed with an enthusiasm such as had not been manifested since the heroic Judson came back from Burma, years before. When they visited New York they were guests in the house of the writer, where we were charmed alike by the intelligence, sprightliness, and animation of the veteran missionary, and the sweetness of her who had been his faithful companion during his long exile. It was then that, as we sat in the library, he talked freely, though very simply and modestly, of all the way in which God had led him.

They returned the following year, and when they reached the Islands were received by the natives with great demonstrations. Here was to be their home for the rest of their days. Two years after, the wife and mother died, while the father still lives in his eightieth year—a hale and hearty old man, happy in the recollection of the past, happy in the good which he has done to the people to whom he has given his life, and happy in their tender and affectionate veneration. He cannot be expected to continue long. In a few more years he will be laid beside her whom he so much loved. Though they sleep far from their native land, it is not unmeet that they should be laid to rest in the island for which they had done so much; on those beautiful shores where the waters of the Pacific come rippling and murmuring up the beach. Nor will their memory depart. As long as the generation that knew them shall remain, the simple natives will often visit their graves, and recall their virtues with tears of love and gratitude.

—H. M. F. New York, March, 1880, taken from the preface of Titus Coan’s Adventures in Patagonia: a Missionary's Exploring Trip