William Colgate was born in the parish of Hollingbourn, County of Kent, England, on the 25th of January 1783. He was the son of Robert and Mary (Bowles) Colgate.
Robert Colgate was a farmer by occupation, and a man of superior intelligence. He warmly sympathized with the American colonies in their struggle with the mother-country before and during the war of the Revolution. Hating despotism in every form, he hailed the triumph of the French revolutionists in their struggles to throw off the regal yoke. Political considerations constrained him to leave England for this country in March, 1798. The family settled on a farm in Hartford Co., Md.
William Colgate came to New York City in 1804. He there obtained employment as an apprentice to a soap-boiler, and learned the business. Young as he was, he showed even then that quickness of observation, which distinguished him in after-life. He closely watched the methods practiced by his employer, noting what seemed to him to be mismanagement, and learned useful lessons for his own guidance. At the close of his apprenticeship he was enabled, by correspondence with dealers in other cities, to establish himself in the business with some assurance of success. He followed it through life, and became one of the most prosperous men in the city of New York. This circumstance, together with his great wisdom in counsel, and his readiness to aid in all useful and practicable enterprises, gave him a wide influence in the community, and especially in the denomination of which he was from early life an active and honored member.
Of the occurrence which led to his connection with that denomination he gave the following account to the writer of this sketch. For some time after coming to New York, he attended worship with the congregation of the Rev. Dr. Mason, then one of the most eminent preachers of the Presbyterian Church. Writing to his father, an Arian Baptist, of his purpose to make a public profession of his Christian faith in connection with the Presbyterian Church, he stated the chief points of his religious belief, quoting a “thus saith the Lord” for each. He received a kind reply cordially approving of that course, and asking for a “thus saith the Lord” in proof of sprinkling as Christian baptism, and of the baptism of infants as an ordinance of Christ. Happening to read the letter in an evening company of Christian friends, members of the church he attended, he remarked on leaving them that he must go home and answer his father’s questions. ‘Poor young man,” exclaimed an intelligent Christian lady when he was gone, “he little knows what he is undertaking!” He found it so. And he found it equally hard to be convinced, by Dr. Mason’s reasoning, that something else than a “thus saith the Lord” would do just as well.
The Rev. William Parkinson, pastor of the First Baptist church in New York, baptized him in February, 1808. In 1811 he transferred his membership to the church in Oliver Street. In 1838 he became a member of the church worshiping in the Tabernacle, to the erection of which he had himself largely contributed.
He annually subscribed money to assist in defraying the current expenses of Hamilton Literary and Theological Institution, afterward Madison University and Theological Seminary ; and he was among the most strenuous opposes of their removal to the city of Rochester. He was a regular contributor to the funds of the Baptist Missionary Union, and took upon himself the entire support of a foreign missionary. His other benefactions were numerous, but not such as admit of specification.
Our acquaintance with Deacon Colgate commenced in 1837, when he was about to resign his place on the Board of Managers of the American Bible Society. That board, following the example of the British and Foreign Bible Society, had refused to aid in printing translations of the Holy Scriptures by Baptist missionaries. He desired the writer to put in proper form his reasons for withdrawing from the board. In compliance with his request we prepared a full statement of the case, from the printed documents on both sides. The ground was taken that grievous injustice was done to Baptists by the refusal to aid in printing the translations of their missionaries; Baptists having freely contributed to the funds of the society, and given it their moral support as managers and life-directors, without any dictation to missionaries employed in translating by other organizations represented in the society.
The charge of denominational favoritism was fully proved against the society; and the Baptist members of the Board of Managers withdrew from it.
Baptists, finding that they could not expect fair treatment from this professedly undenominational body, retired from it, and formed the American and Foreign Bible Society, for the circulation of the Bible in our own and n foreign lands. Deacon Colgate served it as its treasurer. He was one of thirteen ministers and laymen who organized the American Bible Union in 1850, and was treasurer of that society till his death.
In 1811 he married Miss Mary Gilbert, daughter of Edward Gilbert; a happy union with a partner of congenial spirit.
In all domestic relations he was without fault. He made generous provision for his aged parents, for whom he purchased a pleasant home on a farm in a neighboring county, and ministered to their wants while they lived. His own home was made happy by his personal influence. Of a cheerful habit of mind, tempered by serious earnestness, he shared the playful just and the good-humored retort, and innocent gayety felt no restraint in his presence. He aimed to make home pleasant and the family circle the chief attraction for its members.
If he made any life-long mistake, it was in the endeavor to keep an even balance between the two elements of powers, knowledge and wealth. He resisted the permanent endowment of the Literary and Theological Institution at Hamilton, while willingly aiding in its support by annual contributions, and thus insuring mutual dependence. It was the error of his time; and his sons have since nobly retrieved it.