Adam McClelland, “the Beloved Blind Professor,” 1883-1904
By Joel L. Samuels
University Archivist at the University of Dubuque
Adam McClelland (1833-1916) was a professor in the German Theological School of the Presbyterian Church of the Northwest, renamed the German Theological School of the Northwest in 1891, from 1883 to 1904. This institution was begun in the autumn of 1852, when Rev. Adrian Van Vliet, a Dutch immigrant, began tutoring young men to minister to German-speaking immigrants in Dubuque, Iowa, and in areas to the north and the west. Occasioned by the continued expansion of the institution, it was renamed the University of Dubuque in 1920.
McClelland was born near Belfast, Ireland, in 1833. He became blind at the age of seven when, after an attack of measles, he “contracted a cold which settled in his eyes.” Whatever the precise medical explanation, it is clear that he was blind for the rest of his life. He entered the Glasgow School for the Blind “where he attracted the attention of the instructors because of his precocity, his wonderful memory, and his skill in disputation.” He immigrated to America at the age of 18 and, shortly thereafter, enrolled as a student in the New York Institute for the Blind in 1851.
The superintendent’s ledger maintained by Thomas C. Cooper for May 1852 described Adam McClelland as “one of our best students and a very worthy young man.” The ledger for October 1854 states, “Adam McClelland, pupil, to whom I have lately given some classes, is an excellent fellow, very earnest, and keeps the good will of his companions over whom he has been promoted.”
The annual report for 1854 lists William N. Cleveland, Grover Cleveland, and Frances J. Crosby as “Teachers in the Literary Department.” The Cleveland Brothers were sons of Rev. Richard Cleveland, a Presbyterian minister. Grover Cleveland, who was a teacher for only one year, went on to study law. He became President of the United States (1885-1889 and 1893-1897). Grover Cleveland encouraged Frances J. Crosby, otherwise known as Fanny Crosby, in her writing (See Edith L. Blumhofer, Her Heart Can See; The Life and Hymns of Fanny Crosby , pages 86-88, for the fascinating details). Fanny Crosby later became known as the writer of thousands of hymns, ranging from the lively “Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine” to the more soaring “To God Be the Glory.”
Back to Adam McClelland: The ledger for May 1855 indicates that William N. Cleveland completed his theological studies, and became a licensed clergyman in the Presbyterian denomination. Then, Superintendent Cooper wrote, “I beg leave to recommend Adam McClelland, pupil, for the situation of assistant teacher.” In discussing fiscal matters, Cooper reports that “Adam has received a partial offer from the Indiana Institute . . . .” The annual report for 1856 identifies, among others, Adam McClelland and Frances J. Crosby as “Teachers in the Literary Department.” This same report refers to Adam McClelland, “This young gentleman was allowed by the liberality of Union Theological Seminary of this City, to attend its courses of lectures, and has since passed a very credible examination before the presbytery of his own church.” He became an ordained minister in 1858.
Finally, the ledger for July 1858, Superintendent Cooper reports that “Mr. Adam McClelland has been offered the pastorship of a church in Brooklyn. He will retain his situation at the Institution, but wishes to dwell among his parishioners.” He continued to be listed as a teacher until the annual report of 1859.
We do not know the exact dates, but it appears that McClelland was also a student at what is now New York University, from which he earned the Ph. D. He became an effective and popular pastor of a Presbyterian congregation in Brooklyn for twenty-five years. Because of his outstanding reputation as a teacher, he was asked to become professor of church history at the theological school in Dubuque in 1883.
During most of McClelland’s tenure, there were only three or four members on the faculty, so he taught numerous subjects other than church history. Indeed, his title was changed to professor of biblical and ecclesiastical history. He wrote few articles, but did prepare The History of Our Lord; Specially Adapted as a Textbook for Bible Classes and Institutions of Learning (Dubuque: Presbyterian Publishing Company, 1898), a 370-page life of Jesus Christ, a remarkable achievement, dedicated to his wife with a touching tribute, “while retaining her own eyes she freely gave me their use at every stage in the preparation of this work, otherwise it could never have seen the light” (“The Author’s Preface”).
During the years, 1884-1904, there was no established office for the school’s leadership, which rotated among members of the faculty. The faculty chose McClelland as their chairman in the autumn of 1889, and he served a two-year term, then served other times before he retired in 1904. He served a total of seven years as the school’s leader, and several more as the chairman pro tem (a sort of “vice-chairman” in the absence of the current chairman), making him the most consistent, even if informal leader of the school during this period.
McClelland was the first professor other than Dutch, Swiss, or German immigrants to serve on the faculty. It is worth noting that, under the leadership of McClelland, many students desired that more courses be taught in English, and also requested that students be allowed to give sermons in English. After deliberation on the question, the faculty resolved, on November 13, 1894, that the school’s purpose was to prepare pastors specifically for the German-speaking population. Therefore, preaching in English, seen as a detriment to this goal, was not allowed, and the school refocused on ministry in the German language. Nevertheless, the German-speaking students learned much from this highly-respected Irish immigrant!
Adam McClelland married Mary Jane Armstrong—who had served on the staff of the New York Institute for the Blind—in 1858, and they were married for 55 years before she died. They had three children: Mary, who married Dr. Frederick W. Loetscher, professor of church history at Princeton Theological Seminary; Dr. Lefferts A. McClelland, who was a physician in Brooklyn; and Henry J. McClelland, who was a lawyer in Manhattan.
Upon his retirement in 1904, the school honored McClelland by naming him professor emeritus of church history, and made provision for his support during his natural life. He remained under the care of his daughter, Mary, for the years before September 1916. After a week of illness and brief battle with pneumonia, he died on September 4, 1916, in the home of his son, Dr. Lefferts A. McClelland, in Brooklyn.
The Story of Dubuque (1918) identified Dr. Adam McClelland as “Our beloved blind professor, a teacher by the grace of God” (p. 14).
Joel L. Samuels is the University Archivist at the University of Dubuque. Despite the enormous respect accorded McClelland, there is minimal information on him in the university archives, particularly since various documents provide the same information. Newspaper clippings were useful, but must be evaluated carefully as there are inconsistencies among them. The author is indebted to John Hernandez at the New York Institute for Special Education, renamed from the New York Institute for the Blind, for graciously providing photocopies of twenty-three pages of a ledger containing frequent references to McClelland as a student and teacher. There is a challenging research opportunity for an interested person to write a more detailed biographical sketch of this remarkable gentleman than is found in this brief article!
New York Times Obituary on McClelland (September 7, 1916 - PDF)