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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Fellows, Stephen Norris
(May 30, 1830–June 2, 1908)

—educator, Methodist minister, Indian rights activist, and temperance worker—was born in Sandwich, New Hampshire, the 14th child of Stephen Fellows Jr. and his second wife, Rachel (McGaffey) Fellows.

    Fellows's education began at an early age. By the time he was three years old, he was already reading from the New Testament. At the age of four he attended grammar school in New Hampshire, informing his teacher that reading was something he hadn't learned but had "always known how" to do.

    In August 1834 the Fellows family moved to Illinois. They were among the first to settle in Palmyra Township in Lee County. Fellows's childhood home was a log cabin that served not only as a living space for 14 people but also as a schoolhouse and Methodist meeting place. The home, situated as it was along a main public road, hosted many visitors, among them a number of the local Indians, who were warmly welcomed by the family.

    At the age of 18, Fellows enrolled in the Rock River Seminary at Mount Morris, Illinois, but financial concerns forced him to withdraw in his fourth term. In 1851 he enrolled at Asbury College (now DePauw University) in Greencastle, Indiana, where he earned his A.B. in 1854. Even before receiving his degree, he was offered a position teaching mathematics at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, which he accepted. At Cornell, he taught the first coeducational class in physics offered by the school.

    In 1856 Fellows joined the Upper Iowa Conference of the Methodist Episcopal church. That same year he married Sarah Leffingwell Matson, assistant to the dean of women at Cornell. Over the following 10 years they had six children, two of whom died in childhood.

    In 1860 Fellows resigned from Cornell and entered the ministry. Over the next few years he served congregations in several Iowa towns. In 1871 Cornell granted him an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree.

    Widely recognized for his temperance work in Iowa, Fellows wrote and lectured against the licensing of public houses, and served as president of the Johnson County Temperance Alliance and Anti-Saloon League. In a speech to the Temperance Alliance, Fellows expressed his support for the prohibitory law, "First, because it is right. Secondly, it is expedient. Thirdly, it strengthens moral reform. Fourthly, it will succeed."

    In 1867 Fellows was named principal of the State University of Iowa's normal department. In 1923 State University of Iowa Professor of Education Forest Ensign wrote that in 1873 under Fellows's direction, the elementary training was "completely merged in what was known as the collegiate department and a chair of didactics established, the first definitely recognized collegiate work of a permanent nature in the training of teachers in the United States."Fellows held the position of Professor of Didactics and Political and Moral Science until his title was changed in 1878 to Professor of Mental and Moral Science and Didactics. In 1869 and 1872 he was president of the Iowa State Teachers Association.

    Fellows was such a fixture at the university that it came as some surprise when, in the spring of 1887, the State Board of Education called for his resignation and those of two other professors. In a statement to the Iowa State Press, one regent defended the decision, citing the need for the university to move forward and stop "clinging to things and methods that began to grow old when some of the students were mere children."Fellows responded in a scathing open letter to the public. "The board has discharged the professors in compliance with an agreement made with anti-prohibitionists in the legislature of 1886, in which it was bargained that their discharge should pay the price of securing the University appropriation."The board roundly denied the charge, but news reports and public opinion held mixed reactions.

    Fellows had a lifelong interest in the Indians of the Midwest. While serving a pastorate at Toledo, Iowa, he became aware of the bleak living conditions of the local Meskwaki. In 1895 Fellows, along with Indian agent Horace M. Rebok and Dr. Charles Eastman, secretary of the Indian department of the International Committee of the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), formed the Indian Rights Association, with Fellows as its first president. Shortly thereafter, the association began efforts to secure funds from Congress to create the Indian Training School to educate males and females in reading, writing, and operating a farm. In 1896, through the Indian Appropriations Act, Congress approved an endowment of $35,000 for "an industrial boarding school at or near the reservation of the Sac and Fox Indians in Tama County, Iowa."

    For the remainder of his life, Fellows remained active in the ministry. He taught Sunday school for 60 of his 78 years. His History of the Upper Iowa Conference was considered among the finest of published conference histories, and in 1906 he was invited to give the keynote address at the semicentennial celebration of the conference at Maquoketa. Fellows died in Iowa City in 1908.
Sources Writings by Fellows, as well as information about his work, can be found at the State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City, which also holds a Fellows family history by Mary Fellows Cavanaugh. See also "Professor Stephen N. Fellows, D.D.," Iowa Alumnus 2 (1904–1905), 1–4; Amos N. Currier, "Professor Stephen Norris Fellows, D.D.," Iowa Alumnus 5 (1907–1908), 241–43; and "A Pioneer Educator," Iowa Alumnus 20 (1922– 1923), 226–28.
Contributor: Laura Kittrell

Cite as: Kittrell, Laura. "Fellows, Stephen Norris" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 13 December 2017