by Jerry Van Marter, PNS
C. Ellis Nelson, a pioneer in research and writing about forming Christian disciples through the life of a congregation, died June 9. He was 95.
“Ellis Nelson was quite simply an icon of North American theological thought and education across a span of time that profoundly touched two centuries,” said Austin Presbyterian Theological 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.”
Nelson most recently served as research professor of Christian education at Austin Seminary, but over his 60-year career he taught, lectured or led at most PC(USA) theological institutions. He began his teaching career at Austin shortly after his graduation there in 1940. He then taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York (1957-1974) before serving Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary as president from 1974-1981.
After three years’ teaching at San Francisco Theological Seminary, Nelson returned to Austin Seminary as interim president in 1984-1985 and then served on the faculty until his death. He also served the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as He served the denomination as director of youth work for the Board of Christian Education and as associate pastor of University Presbyterian Church in Austin.
A native of Beaumont, Texas, Nelson earned degrees from Austin College, Austin Seminary, the University of Texas and Columbia University. He was a research fellow at Oxford University in 1964 and 1972. He was ordained in 1940.
“Ellis Nelson has thought longer and better about Christian education than anyone else on the planet,” said scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann, 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 90 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 PC(USA)’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.
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.”
In addition to Nancy, his wife of nearly 70 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 in Shelton Chapel at Austin Seminary.