This Week in History


The Pictou Pastor: Educating with Humour

For the week of Monday December 18, 2006

On December 22, 1821, the first of 22 satirical letters from Mephibosheth Stepsure appeared in the Acadian Register, a Halifax newspaper. Mephibosheth – exterminator of shame – was a pseudonym for the Reverend Thomas McCulloch of Pictou, Nova Scotia, a Presbyterian minister, educator, administrator, naturalist, and author.

Thomas McCulloch by Sir Daniel Macnee, 1845
© Province of Nova Scotia

Scottish by birth, McCulloch studied logic, languages, medicine, history, and politics at Glasgow University before deciding on the Presbyterian ministry as his life’s work. After graduating from Divinity Hall, Whitburn, in 1803, he immigrated to Canada with his family to commence missionary work on Prince Edward Island. Waylaid by winter storms, he was convinced by the inhabitants of Pictou, Nova Scotia, to remain there and he became the first minister of Harbour Church in June 1804.

Pictou Academy, 1817 (PCA #G-1357-FC)
© The Presbyterian Church in Canada (2003)

McCulloch was a leading advocate of liberalism in Nova Scotia, battling with the colonial authorities for school funding and for political change. He opened the province’s first non-sectarian grammar school in 1806 and co-founded Pictou Academy in 1816. There, he served as principal and instructor until 1838 when he was appointed first president of Dalhousie College and professor of logic, rhetoric, and philosophy. For McCulloch, a proper education included training in the traditional classics as well as in mathematics and the physical sciences. He attempted to develop a desire in his students to seek knowledge. McCulloch argued that all Protestant communities could reap the benefits of a Christian education for their children by co-operating in a single interdenominational system.

McCulloch's best-known literary works, The Letters of Mephibosheth Stepsure were his humorous attempts to cajole his neighbours into improving their attitudes towards life. Stepsure preached the virtues of living frugally, of a liberal education, of community service, and of the importance of family life.

Pictou Academy (third structure 1895-1938)
© Courtesy Pictou County GenWeb
Pictou Academy students were rewarded solely on academic merit and not social status, a first for British North America. The exhaustive curriculum ensured that the graduates were well prepared for the competitive world they were entering. When several graduates were given oral entrance exams at Glasgow University, they were immediately granted Masters of Arts degrees.

For his contribution to education in Nova Scotia, for his influence upon the perceptions and intellectual lives of his students – lawyers, businessmen, scholars, clergymen, educators, and scientists – and for his contribution to literature as “the founder of genuine Canadian humour,” Thomas McCulloch was designated a National Historic Person in 1959. His Pictou Academy was made a National Historic Site in 1937.

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