Distinguished Christian Educator Ellis Nelson Dies at 95
Austin, TX—C. Ellis Nelson, Research Professor of Christian education at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, died on June 9, 2011. Ellis Nelson’s pioneering research and writing about forming Christian disciples through the life of a congregation, coupled with his deep wisdom, gentle wit, and genuine humility, endeared him to several generations and secured his place in the Presbyterian story.
“Ellis Nelson was quite simply an icon of North American theological thought and education across a span of time that profoundly touched two centuries,” says Austin Seminary President Theodore J. Wardlaw. “He was a contributor to the life and health of a handful of seminaries, and was a complete original. His impact has been significant and he will be greatly appreciated and greatly missed.”
The only son of Carl and Elizabeth Nelson of Beaumont, Texas, Nelson married Nancy Gribble, daughter of Austin Seminary Professor Robert Gribble, in 1941. He earned degrees from Austin College, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, The University of Texas, and Columbia University, and was a research fellow at Oxford University in 1964 and 1972. Nelson was ordained by the Presbyterian Church in 1940 and served as associate minister for University Presbyterian Church, Austin, and as chaplain to the State School for the Blind.
Ellis Nelson’s contributions to church life in the twentieth century are noteworthy. In a career that spanned seventy years, he was a minister, researcher, author, consultant, as well as seminary professor, dean, and president. He served the denomination as Director of Youth Work for the Board of Christian Education, but his primary influence was on theological education, and he lectured or taught at most U.S. Presbyterian seminaries as well as seminaries in Canada, Australia, and Scotland. He began his teaching career at Austin Seminary shortly after graduating in 1940. He left in 1957 to join the faculty of New York’s Union Theological Seminary where he was eventually named to the The Skinner and McAlpin Chair of Practical Theology. In 1974 Nelson was called to be president of Louisville Presbyterian Seminary (1974-1981), where he served until he retired. After three years as visiting professor at San Francisco Theological Seminary, he was called by Austin Seminary to become interim president (1984-1985) at a challenging time in the life of the institution; he remained on the faculty until his death. He served in the public sector as Director of Research for the Texas Legislative Council's Study of Higher Education; as a member of the Fair-Housing Committee in Tenafly, New Jersey; and as a founder of the National Council on Religion and Public Education in New York.
According to scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann, “Ellis Nelson has thought longer and better about Christian education than anyone else on the planet.” With a dozen books and monographs (including How Faith Matures, Don’t Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide, and Helping Teenagers Grow Morally) and almost ninety articles, chapters, and reviews, Nelson’s work explored themes of conscience, socialization, and the crisis of the church in an increasingly secular culture. He was instrumental in developing the “Covenant Life” church school curriculum, considered by many to be the denomination’s finest. His counsel was frequently sought in the area of religious education and his influence can be seen in several contemporary initiatives such as the PC(USA)’s Theological Education (1%) Fund and the “Entry into Ministry” program of the Lilly Endowment Inc.
In appreciation, a grateful church bestowed numerous honors upon him, including: honorary degrees from Austin College and Centre College; Austin College’s Distinguished Alumnus Award (1983), Austin Seminary’s Distinguished Service Award (1985), The E.T. Thompson Distinguished Service Award from the Presbyterian Outlook Foundation (1987); Educator of the Year by the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators (1992); The COTE Award for Excellence in Theological Education (1998); and the Austin College James I. McCord Award (1999). The administration building at Louisville Seminary and the education wing at First Presbyterian Church, Austin, where Ellis and Nancy were active participants for 25 years, were both named for them. The Nancy Gribble and C. Ellis Nelson Chair in Christian Education was established at Austin Seminary in 2002. Ellis Nelson’s entry in the online resource “Christian Educators of the 20th Century” says, “Some writers refer to Nelson and his perspectives along with those of the most significant religious educators of the past two centuries … Nelson is appreciated, studied, cited, and utilized across the theological, philosophical, and denominational spectra of Christian education.”
The threads of Ellis Nelson’s life and work are woven into the very fabric of Austin Seminary. He began and ended his vocation on these twelve acres. He was its second oldest graduate (MDiv’40) and his marriage (in the Seminary chapel) to the daughter of Old Testament Professor Robert Gribble extended those ties all the way back to 1920. He began the field-work program which developed into the Seminary’s Supervised Practice of Ministry. He delivered the Jones Lectures at MidWinters a record three times. Most notably, his timely appearance at a critical juncture in the Seminary’s history seemed providential as he assumed the interim presidency (1984-85) and contributed to the process of healing the divisions between the Seminary and all of its constituencies.
He taught, researched, and wrote well into his tenth decade (he published his last book, Growing up Christian, at age 92). To the very end, Ellis Nelson’s meticulous scholarship, reliable presence, and ever-present humor made him a trusted advisor and valued friend. In addition to Nancy, his beloved wife of nearly seventy years, survivors include his son, Ellis Stark, wife, Veronica, and son, Brian; daughter, Karin, husband, John McAnlis, and children, Nancy, Ian, and Carolyn; and sister, Selma. Ellis and Nancy’s daughter, Joy Elizabeth, preceded him in death.
A memorial service is planned for June 17, at 1:00 p.m., in Shelton Chapel at Austin Seminary, 100 East 27th Street; Seminary President Theodore J. Wardlaw will preside. At the request of the family, memorial contributions may be made to the Nelson Chair in Christian Education at Austin Seminary.