Thomas McCulloch

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Thomas McCulloch (1776 – September 9, 1843) was a Scottish-born Presbyterian minister, author, educator, and education reformer. He was the founder and principal of Pictou Academy (pronounced pick-toe) and the first principal of Dalhousie College (now Dalhousie University).[1] He is the author of The Stepsure Letters (1821-1823), considered to be the first major work of humour in Canada.

Early life[edit]

Thomas McCulloch was born in the village (and parish) of Neilston in Renfrewshire (now East Renfrewshire), Scotland, the second son of Elizabeth Neilson and Michael McCulloch.[2] Michael McCulloch, a master block printer, died at age forty-six, leaving six children, five sons and one daughter, Andrew (d. April 8, 1854), John, Thomas, Mary Elizabeth (1765 – 1860), William (1776 – 1813), and George.

Elizabeth Neilson emigrated along with her family in 1803 to Nova Scotia. John died while sailing from Halifax to Pictou, Nova Scotia, William taught in the school at Pictou, and George, the youngest son, a cabinet maker, also lived in Pictou.[2]

Elizabeth appears to have been a well-loved figure in the family, as Thomas McCulloch's wife, Isabella Walker, writes on Elizabeth's death,

Well was it for me that I was blessed with the example and motherly affection of our good old grandmother, in many unthought of trials in the land of strangers, and I fondly hope that the many, many, precious petitions presented at her Father’s throne on our behalf will not remain without a special, a powerful return of saving mercy to our souls as a family, and as individuals. We were all near her heart, especially our eternal interests.[3]

Thomas' son, William, writes of his grandmother,

Our annual gatherings at her house were a great treat, and nothing remains of our early recollections to dim the brightness of her character.[3]

Little is known of McCulloch's life prior to attending university.

Education and early ministry[edit]

Thomas McCulloch was educated at the University of Glasgow, graduating in 1792.[4] He studied medicine but "for reasons unknown" did not complete the course, going on to study theology at the General Associate Synod in Whitburn.[3] His studied divinity at Secession Divinity Hall at Whitburn, where he provided classes in Hebrew. At the completion of his studies, he was licensed by the Presbytery of Kilmarnock as a minister in 1799[3] and was ordained to the Secession Church at Stewarton.

McCulloch was interested in a variety of subjects and had a natural talent as a teacher. His son, William, describes him,

In stature Mr. McCulloch was about medium height, slightly built, light and active, and capable of enduring long continued physical strain. He was a clear and deep thinker, the result of combining the study of books with the study of men, and the spirit of the times. In preaching he possessed the faculty of readily grasping the main point of a subject, and connecting it with its varied lines of collateral thought and illustration, and in a style clear, terse, almost proverbial, conveying to the hearer just what he intended to say, nothing more nor less. The least intelligent could easily grasp his meaning, couched as it was in vigorous Saxon, and free from technical or high sounding words and phrases. Even when a lad, as he made some pointed statement of duty, and illustrated it, as was his wont, with a reference to the scenes of common life, the thought came, “Why did I not think of that?” But I did not think of it.[5]

During his studies and early ministry, McCulloch was supported by Rev. David Walker of the "Auld Light" Burgher congregation near Glasgow.[6] It was during this time McCulloch met Walker's daughter, Isabella (1770 – October 9, 1847),[5] and they were married on July 27, 1799. The couple had nine children, three, Michael (1800 – 1881), Helen (1801 – 1875), and Elizabeth (1802 – 1834), were born in Scotland and emigrated with their parents.[6] The other children include David (1805 – 1891), Isabella (1808 – 1883), Thomas (1808 – 1865), William (1811-1895), James (1819-1835), and Robert (1817 – 1817) who died in infancy.[6] He and Elizabeth Walker settled in Stewarton on June 13, 1799.[5] As a preacher,

He was quiet in the pulpit, using no gesture to emphasize his message. While such was the character of his ordinary ministrations it was especially at the Lord’s table that his power manifested itself, when he seemed to forget everything, but the presence of his Master. His impassioned appeals, his glowing yet chastened eloquence, made the hearer almost feel as though “a door was opened in heaven.”[5]

Life in Pictou (1803)[edit]

McCulloch stayed at Stewarton until 1803. At 28 years of age, due to "inadequate support" from the congregation and a call for ministers in the British colonies in North America, McCulloch left the congregation and was given an appointment by the Presbyterian church at Prince Edward Island. In August 1803, he and his wife and three children sailed from Clyde, Scotland for the colony. They didn't arrive until November 3 after a "long and stormy" voyage.[7] Ships sailing to the Maritimes from Scotland often first landed in Pictou, Nova Scotia, a location earlier Scottish settlers established a community.[8]

Because of the weather, having arrived in winter, McCulloch and Walker decided to wait until spring before cross over to PEI.[9][1] Seeing both a need for a local minister as well as a need for teacher, and as a result of personal petitions from the town, McCulloch and his family remained in Pictou. Several townspeople, "on seeing a pair of terrestrial and celestial globes," courted him to stay in Pictou.[9] McCulloch was inducted as "the minister of the "Harbour" congregation of the Prince Street Church, Pictou" June 6, 1804.[10][11] McCulloch also served as town physician at this time as Pictou was without a practising doctor, as well as justice of the peace.[6]

Life in the town was primitive, as was the first dwelling for McCulloch and Walker,

On landing in Pictou the family occupied what would in these days be called a shanty or hut, on the street leading down to Deacon Patterson’s wharf, but so miserable was the accommodation that it was almost a choice be¬ tween the house and the snow covered street.

After considerable difficulty a change, if not improvement, was made by removing to what was known afterward as“McIntyre’s house.” It stood on Water St., two doors east of Robert Dawson’s stone store. Though more pretentious, it was like the first, a mere shell. The house was designed for two families, but the partitions were mere unplaned boards with cracks so wide that the doings of one family were the common property of the other.

The town, so called, consisted of some fourteen houses, while the rest of the congregation were scattered through the surrounding country.[10]

Even though a Presbytery had been established in Pictou in since 1797,[12] McCulloch's stipend was not paid. As a result, was little food and McCulloch spent a great deal of time during this first winter gathering firewood. He also spent a great deal of time acting as a physician, travelling to outlying areas to provide medical assistance, often by foot and without payment.[13] The family moved to a shared house, and then building a new house, completed in 1806.[14] This house remains as a historic house.

In 1807, McCulloch visited Halifax and made a positive impression to the point he was asked to remain as a minister in local church.

McCulloch remained at Pictou for 35 years.[15]

Founding of Pictou Academy[edit]

According to McCulloch's son, William, the idea for a seminary in Nova Scotia first came in 1804, "suggested itself like an inspiration."[16] This inspiration arose for from:

  • the obvious lack of trained ministers in the area;
  • what McCulloch saw as a lack of basic understanding of Christian tenants;
  • the fact that the only degree-granting school, King's College at Windsor, was an Anglican school and seminary;
  • what McCulloch perceived as "the gross injustice of the Government toward [Presbyterian] Dissenters."[11][17]

A first attempt to raise funds in 1807 resulted in only $1156.00, not enough to start or maintain a school.[18]

Through much controversy, In 1808, McCulloch established a grammar school at Pictou in his home.[19] The school quickly outgrew the home, as it became popular with families outside of Pictou, attracting students from neighbouring PEI and Cape Breton Island, as well as from British colonies in the Caribbean Islands. This led to its expansion, and a separate log building was constructed as the school building (McCulloch, et al., 1920, p. 42). The school was granted government funding only in 1811; prior to this, its operation relied on subscriptions from local residents. In 1814, with an student body of 30-40 students, the log building was destroyed by fire. McCulloch then turned to the lieutenant governor in Halifax, who provided £100 to rebuild.[4]

In 1815, McCulloch formally established the Pictou Academy, which "on 25 March 1816 the House passed an 'Act for founding, establishing and maintaining an Academy at Pictou'" in Nova Scotia, receiving royal assent.[20] In 1831, Pictou Academy became the second degree-granting institution in the British colonies.

Development of Education in Nova Scotia[edit]

McCulloch, an important figure in English Canadian settler education, enters into the post-American rebellion British colonies as a champion of open, liberal, non-sectarian education. McCulloch sought to develop education accessible to all white settlers of any Christian religion. On arriving in Pictou, McCulloch stepped into a colony-wide religious, educational, and political quagmire.[9] Education in the colony was broke along strict sectarian lines - Anglicans, which controlled the government, colonial finances, and the only degree-granting school in the colony excluded Presbyterians and Presbyterians Dissenters, as well as of Baptists, Methodists, and other Protestant sects from the possibility of receiving a bachelor's degree in Nova Scotia. There was also a centuries-old Protestant/Catholic divide that was very deep.

While McCulloch was an ardent anti-Catholic,[21] he was also against the Anglican church's monopoly on instruction in the colonies, especially in higher education. McCulloch was persuaded by Anglican Bishop, Charles Inglis, to participate in the 1804-10 pamphlet war between Protestants and Catholics in the colonies. McCulloch published the Popery Condemned by Scripture and the fathers (1808)[22] against Edmund Burke, Roman Catholic Vicar General in Halifax.[21] At the same time, he defended the Dissenters from the Anglican Church. In September 1813, he published a letter stating that all Dissenters, who made up the vast majority of the population,[4] "were owed a 'quiet concession of those privileges which the law has sanctioned, as far as these are consistent with the rights of conscience and of civil society.'"[23] He defended their rights to an education that wasn't based in Oxfordian (Anglican) principles. To this end, the Pictou Academy is significant in white, Christian, settler education history as it introduced non-sectarian education to the British colonies (Pictou Academy, n.d.; Woods, 1987, p. 60). McCulloch wished to “to promote the means of a liberal education for persons of every religious denomination, who wish to improve their minds by literary studies,” that was free from the “pedantry” of British Oxfordian education.[24] McCulloch bluntly states, with some sardonic humour, “I believe the community will join me in affirming that…sound judgment is more valuable than a sackful of words.” (Harvey, 1994, p. 53; Woods, 1987). William McCulloch, McCulloch’s son, later wrote that McCulloch’s “plan was to make the pupil self-reliant by developing his powers, and thus fitting him to grapple with difficulties as they arose, working out for himself details” (McCulloch et al., 1920, p. 47). Thomas McCulloch writes on the later founding of Dalhousie, “If Dalhousie College acquire usefulness and eminence, it will be not by an imitation of Oxford, but as an institution of science, and practical intelligence” (McCulloch, et al., 1920, p. 173, from Letter from McCulloch to Charles D. Archibald on the re-instituting of Dalhousie College, 1838).

Unfortunately for McCulloch, any unity between the Anglican oligarchy and the Dissenters and other Protestant groups was disrupted in his attempt to unite "all Protestant Nonconformists" in an alliance to further their rights in Nova Scotia. For McCulloch, "[t]he cause of liberal education became a key instrument in this new political strategy."[21] The post-US rebellion period in Nova Scotia was difficult, as many thousands of refugees from the 13 colonies, which included hundreds of slaves, arrived in Halifax with little possessions or funds, and a severe housing shortage ensued.[25] Many were held in with suspicion, and in this, McCulloch saw the same signs in Nova Scotia's governance that lead to the rebellion in the 13 Colonies, as well as that of the French Roman Catholics that lead to the French Revolution. McCulloch writes that is was the "irrational, authoritarian culture" of Roman Catholicism in France that lead to "its inevitable denouement in the French Revolution and subsequent Reign of Terror."[21] To avoid a similar result for the province, McCulloch asserted acceptance Nonconformist ideology in a series of newspaper articles as a counter to the rigidity of the Anglican precepts. Students in Nova Scotia could only receive a degree from King's College, the only degree-granting institution, if students accepted the 39 Articles of Faith of the Anglican Church and not attend any Roman Catholic or "dissenting church" services.[24]

For his work, McCulloch was labelled as a Republican and someone who fostered rebellion.[26] This conflict continued for many years and was at the highest levels, directly involving the Archbishop of Canterbury (Patron of King’s College) and the British King.

Part of McCulloch's stand was due to financing of education in the colony. The 1811 Grammar School Act recognized the Pictou Academy, which received an annual grant of £150, but King's College received significantly more grant funding, as well as privileges of a royal charter.[24] In 1782, a grant of 400 acres was made for King's College, in 1787 a grant of £200 was provided to establish the school, and a further £400 provided by the colonial legislature for salaries.[27]

In 1824, McCulloch resigned as minister at Pictou to focus more fully on the Academy as well as on education in the colony more directly.[4]

Natural History Education[edit]

McCulloch promotion of natural history education went beyond the theoretical and pedagogical. He actively collected Nova Scotia birds, animals, and plants and established a natural history museum at Dalhousie College.[1] His bird collection attracted the attention of John James Audubon. He also undertook a series of lecture tours on scientific subjects for the general public, visiting Saint John, Charlottetown and towns in the Miramichi area.[15] In 1830, Jotham Blanchard, a British MP, argued in the House of Parliament,

...the only place of learning in the British Provinces to the best of my belief where the physical sciences are taught...[is at] The Pictou Institution... [it] is the only place where a useful and scientific Education [sic] can be had and consequently where persons of rational politics can be prepared to meet on general terms with those of contrary principles.[17]

When McCulloch became principal of Dalhousie, he was firm in his belief that the study of natural history was not usurped by the Classics,

...But that boys should in Halifax or elsewhere spend six or seven years upon Latin and Greek and then four more in college partly occupied with the same languages is a waste of human life adapted neither to the circumstances or the prosperity of Nova Scotia. In the present state of this province all that is requisite is a professor who can give his pupils specimens of just translation and instil into them ideas of accuracy and interpretation. Afterwards if they choose to devote themselves to the study of languages, their collegiate instruction will contribute to their success, but should they direct attention to the real business of life they will not have just cause to complain that they have spent their youth upon studies foreign to their success. If Dalhousie College acquire usefulness and eminence it will be not by an imitation of Oxford, but as an institution of science and practical intelligence.[28]

He was firm in establishing a chair of natural history at Dalhousie to teach "geology, mineralogy, botany, and zoology."[19]


McCulloch is the author of the Letters of Mephibosheth Stepsure, later known as The Stepsure Letters. The letters were first published in the Acadian Recorder from 1821 to 1823[29] and are considered to be the first major work of Canadian humour.[30][31]

Death and legacy[edit]

McCulloch died in Halifax at the age of 67 after a short illness.[15]

His former home in Pictou is now operated as the McCulloch House Museum.[6]


Popery Condemned by Scripture and the fathers... (1808)

The Prosperity of the Church in Troublous Times, A Sermon Preached at Pictou, Friday, Feb'y 25th, 1814 (1814)

Words of Peace: Being an Address Delivered to the Congregation of Halifax in Connection with the Presbyterian Church of Nova Scotia, in Consequence of Some Congregational Disputes which Required the Interference of Presbytery ... (1817)

The Nature and Uses of a Liberal Education Illustrated: Being a Lecture Delivered at the Opening of the Building, Erected for the Accommodation of the Classes of the Pictou Academical Instititution (1819)

Letters of Mephibosheth Stepsure (Stepsure Letters), 1821-1823 (1821-1823)


  1. ^ a b c Buggey, Susan; Davies, Gwendolyn (1988). "Thomas McCulloch". In Halpenny, Francess G (ed.). Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Vol. VII (1836–1850) (online ed.). University of Toronto Press.{{cite encyclopedia}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  2. ^ a b McCulloch, William (1920). Life of Thomas McCulloch, D.D., Pictou. p. 7. Public Domain This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  3. ^ a b c d McCulloch, William (1920). Life of Thomas McCulloch, D.D. Pictou. p. 8.
  4. ^ a b c d "Biography – McCULLOCH, THOMAS – Volume VII (1836-1850) – Dictionary of Canadian Biography". Retrieved 2021-12-31.
  5. ^ a b c d McCulloch, William (1920). Life of Thomas McCulloch, D.D. Pictou. pp. 9–10.
  6. ^ a b c d e "McCulloch House Museum & Genealogy Centre > McCulloch House > Thomas McCulloch". Retrieved 2021-12-30.
  7. ^ McCulloch, William (1920). Life of Thomas McCulloch, D.D. Pictou. pp. 17–18.
  8. ^ "History of Pictou | Town of Pictou | Birthplace of New Scotland". Retrieved 2022-01-02.
  9. ^ a b c McCulloch, Thomas (1990). Mephibosheth Stepsure Letters. Ottawa: Carelton University Press. pp. xviii.
  10. ^ a b McCulloch, William (1920). The Life of Thomas McCulloch, D.D. Pictou. p. 20.
  11. ^ a b "Biography – McCULLOCH, THOMAS – Volume VII (1836-1850) – Dictionary of Canadian Biography". Retrieved 2022-01-02.
  12. ^ MacBeth, Roderick George (1912). Our Task in Canada: Presbyterian Church in Canada. Westminster Co. p. 89.
  13. ^ McCulloch, William (1920). The Life of Thomas McCulloch, D.D. Pictou. pp. 21–22.
  14. ^ McCulloch, William (1920). The Life of Thomas McCulloch, D.D. Pictou. pp. 22–23.
  15. ^ a b c "The History of Thomas McCulloch's life". Dalhousie University. Archived from the original on 2013-04-10. Retrieved 2013-03-26.
  16. ^ McCulloch, William (1920). The Life of Thomas McCulloch, D.D. Pictou. p. 26.
  17. ^ a b Wood, B. Anne (1987). "Thomas McCulloch's use of science in promoting a liberal education". Acadiensis. 17 (1): 57. JSTOR 30302722.
  18. ^ McCulloch, William (1920). The Life of Thomas McCulloch, D.D. Pictou. pp. 27–28.
  19. ^ a b Harris, Robin S. (1976). A History of Higher Education in Canada 1663-1960. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. p. 33.
  20. ^ Wood, B. Anne (1987). "Thomas McCulloch's use of science in promoting a liberal education". Acadiensis. 17 (1): 61. ISSN 0044-5851. JSTOR 30302722.
  21. ^ a b c d Wood, B. Anne (1987). "Thomas McCulloch's use of science in promoting a liberal education". Acadiensis. 17 (1): 57–58. JSTOR 30302722.
  22. ^ McCulloch, Thomas (1808). Popery condemned by scripture and the fathers : being a refutation of the principal popish doctrines and assertions maintained in the remarks on the Rev. Mr. Stanser's examination of the Rev. Mr. Burke's letters of instruction ... Edinburgh: J. Pillans and Sons.
  23. ^ Wood, B. Anne (1987). "Thomas McCulloch's use of science in promoting a liberal education". Acadiensis. 17 (1): 58. JSTOR 30302722.
  24. ^ a b c Wood, B. Anne (1987). "Thomas McCulloch's use of science in promoting a liberal education". Acadiensis. 17 (1): 60.
  25. ^ Roper, Henry (2018). "King's College, New York, and King's College, Windsor: Their Connection in Fact and Legend". N.a.
  26. ^ Wood, B. Anne (1987). "Thomas McCulloch's use of science in promoting a liberal education". Acadiensis. 17 (1): 59.
  27. ^ McCulloch, William (1920). The Life of Thomas McCulloch, D.D. Truro. p. 38.
  28. ^ Harris, Robin S. (1976). A History of Higher Education in Canada, 1663-1960. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. p. 33.
  29. ^ "Thomas McCulloch". The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2013-03-26.
  30. ^ "Humorous Writing in English". The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2013-03-26.
  31. ^ McCulloch, Thomas (1990). Mephibosheth Stepsure Letters. Ottawa: Carelton University Press. pp. xvii.