Born in Fereneze near Paisley in 1776, Thomas McCulloch graduated from the University of Glasgow in 1792 and initially thought about pursuing medicine. Instead, however, McCulloch decided to study theology at the General Associate Synod in Whitburn, and was ordained at Stewarton in 1799. Shortly afterwards he married Isabella Walker, the daughter of the Revd. David Walker who McCulloch had met during his studies. Having finished his education, he initially worked in Stewarton, but applied to the General Associate Synod for assignment to North America a few years later; he was subsequently appointed to Prince Edward Island.
Together with his family McCulloch arrived in Pictou, Nova Scotia, in November 1803. Advised against travelling further on to Prince Edward Island due to the bad winter, the family remained in Pictou and, after spending that extra time there, decided to remain in Pictou for good. McCulloch was thus inducted into ‘Harbour’ Church, later the Prince Street Church, in June 1804. As McCulloch’s biographer notes,
Within two years of his arrival in Pictou McCulloch had initiated the activity that would become his life’s dedicated, and at times obsessive, goal. In 1803 King’s College at Windsor, the province’s sole institution of higher learning, had effectively excluded dissenters, who formed 80 per cent of the province’s population, from its facilities and honours. Educated in the Scottish universities where students of all denominations were accommodated, McCulloch abhorred this religious exclusiveness. He held, moreover, that a liberal education, which could be obtained only in universities, was essential for the training of preachers. Recognizing the great lack of Presbyterian ministers and the realism of MacGregor’s belief that Nova Scotia would never be adequately served by relying upon ministers formed in Scotland, McCulloch developed a concept for training a Nova Scotian ministry. The first practical step, taken in 1806, was the initiation of a school in his house, where boys were taught the branches of learning beyond those of the common schools; by 1807 a subscription of £1,150 had been pledged towards a college. Unable at the outset to obtain government assistance, McCulloch’s school operated by local subscription until the provincial grammar school act of 1811 gave it official aid.
It was in the spirit of these early activities that McCulloch continued his work as an educationalist. The most important legacy he left lies in his work towards the establishment of a non-sectarian college in Nova Scotia: Pictou Academy. It was set up in 1816 and officially opened its first classes in 1817. The Pictou Academy operated out of a private home until the academy building opened its doors in 1818.
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