J. Robert Steel Collection.

Summary Information

Emporia State University Special Collections and Archives
Steel, J. Robert, 1890-1970.
J. Robert Steel Collection
0.75 Linear feet
One bound volume of Bible study notes and two photographs.

Preferred Citation note

Recommended citation: J. Robert Steel Collection, Emporia State University Archives, Emporia State University

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J. Robert Steel

James Robert Steel was born on February 6, 1890, to Frank Dyne Steel and Mary Jane Sparks Steel near Fort Scott, Kansas. He attended Kansas State Normal School in Emporia, where he completed his secondary education from 1908 to 1913, then began his college studies from 1913 to 1915. While a student at Kansas State Normal School Steel met Nelle Marie Norlin, who also completed her secondary education there from 1909 to 1913, and completed her life teaching certificate in 1915. Steel and Norlin married on May 28, 1915, at the Methodist Parsonage in Manhattan, Kansas, and eventually had five children: Dorothea Mae Steel Holt, Violet Jane Steel Reidle, Helen L. Steel Hardie, John Norlin Steel, and Edith Steel Dye. J. Robert Steel eventually completed his life teaching certificate at Kansas State Normal School in 1922. Besides his studies at Kansas State Normal School, Steel also earned the Bachelor of Science in Education degree at Northwestern Missouri State Teachers College in Maryville in 1931, and did graduate studies at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. From 1924 to 1930 he was County Superintendent of Schools in Taylor County, Iowa, and taught high school English and literature in rural schools for over thirty years. Steel was also active in Farm Bureau work in Bedford, Iowa. The Steel family joined the First Baptist Church in Bedford in 1928. J. Robert Steel died on July 19, 1970.

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Upper Room Bible Class (Emporia, Kan.)

Thomas Medary Iden, the head of the Department of Physics and Chemistry at the Kansas State Normal School in Emporia, Kansas, established a Bible study class as a private hobby that he offered to any young men of the college or the town. Iden had previously led an informal student group for Bible study while he was a professor at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana, from 1887 to 1897, and that class provided some of the basis for the class in Emporia. Iden’s Bible class, which was established in Emporia on November 19, 1898, eventually became known as the Upper Room Bible Class, or simply the “Upper Room,” taking its name from the Biblical account of the location of the Last Supper. Coincidentally, the class actually held its meetings in rooms on upper floors of several different buildings over the years. Students of the class affectionately called their leader “Father Iden,” and the popularity of the class was such that the vast majority of men from the college (and many other young men in Emporia) attended the weekly classes held on Saturday nights during the academic year.

During this time Iden produced weekly mimeographs of handwritten leaflets outlining the topics for the lectures and providing a schedule of Bible readings to study during the week. The leaflets also contained other notes or poetry and literary quotations relating to religious themes. Besides distributing the leaflets at the Saturday evening classes, Iden also regularly mailed leaflets to former students or those who could not attend the classes. Many students would save their weekly leaflets and have them bound at the conclusion of the academic year.

Iden also wrote a special annual Christmas and New Year letter to all of his current and former students, and insisted on personally addressing by hand the hundreds of envelopes needed for mailing the letters. He often prepared the envelopes during the summer months when he was not busy with his regular academic job. The contents of the annual letters were prepared over many months of the year, although the completion and actual mailing of the letters would be done in late December.

Iden’s work on the Upper Room Bible Class was supported by William Allen White, the famous editor of the Emporia Gazette. The class met in a room on the upper floor of the  Emporia Gazette building for several years, and White made substantial contributions to a fundraising campaign with the purpose of building a permanent home for the class.

The meetings of the Upper Room Bible Class in Emporia ceased in 1913 when Iden left to accept the position of Ann Arbor Bible Chair, a full-time religious instruction ministry serving the students of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Iden also established an Upper Room Bible Class in Ann Arbor.

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Scope and Contents note

The collection contains one bound volume of Upper Room Bible Class weekly leaflets dated 1912-1913. The cover is marked “Upper Room Letters, 1912-1913, J. Robert Steel.” The first five originally blank pages have a handwritten list of the topics of each leaflet, with a note reading “Please read the last lesson in this book,” and signed “J. R. S.” Before the leaflets there is a personal handwritten letter from Iden to Steel dated February 27, 1908.

There is also a small photographic portrait of Steel with his handwritten notes on the back dating it in 1908 and explaining the context of the picture. There is a photograph of Steel with his wife and five children. Steel’s handwritten notes on the back date the picture to 1925, and identify and describe each person in the picture. Descriptive information in the notes indicates that they were written after 1965. The notes mention the children’s occupations, their marriages, and the number of their children.

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Arrangement note

Arranged by material format, either photographs or bound leaflets.

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Administrative Information

Publication Information

Emporia State University Special Collections and Archives October 2008

1200 Commercial St
Campus Box 4051
Emporia, KS, 66801
(620) 341-6431

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Related Materials

Related Archival Materials note

The Iden Meditation Upper Room Collection (NA1996.0001) contains extensive information on Iden and the Upper Room Bible Class, plus the scholarships and reunion activities associated with them.

The yearbooks (with various titles) for the years 1898, 1901, 1904, and 1906 to 1913 contain photographs and some descriptions of Iden and the Upper Room Bible Class. The Bulletin Index for T. M. Iden lists seven articles about him, and ten articles about the Upper Room Bible Class. The  Emporia Gazette issue of January 1, 1934 has an article about Iden’s death in 1933 and discusses his annual letters and his lasting influence in the Emporia area.  Qualities of Greatness, volume 1, describes Iden and his influence at the Kansas State Normal School.

The Rose A. Grubbs Papers (NA1969.0001) include eight of Iden’s annual letters.

Separated Materials note


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Controlled Access Headings

Corporate Name(s)

  • Kansas State Normal School -- Religion. .
  • Kansas State Normal School -- Societies, etc. .
  • Kansas State Normal School -- Student activities and organizations..
  • Upper Room Bible Class (Emporia, Kan.) .

Family Name(s)

  • J. Robert Steel family.

Personal Name(s)

  • Dye, Edith Steel.
  • Hardie, Helen L. Steel.
  • Holt, Dorothea Mae Steel
  • Iden, Thomas Medary, 1856-1933 -- Correspondence.
  • Iden, Thomas Medary, 1856-1933.
  • Reidle, Violet Jane Steel
  • Steel, J. Robert, 1890-1970.
  • Steel, John Norlin, 1922- .
  • Steel, Nelle Marie Norlin, 1888-1966.


  • Bible -- Study and teaching -- Kansas -- Emporia.
  • Bible -- Study and teaching.
  • Christian education -- Kansas -- Emporia -- Periodicals.
  • Church and college.
  • College students -- Kansas -- Emporia -- Societies and clubs.
  • College students -- Religious life.
  • Devotional calendars.
  • Students -- Kansas -- Emporia -- Societies and clubs.
  • Students -- Religious life.
  • Universities and colleges -- Religion.

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Collection Inventory

Box Folder


1 1

Bound leaflets 

2 2