Dr. C. Ellis Nelson, who served as the sixth president of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary from 1974 to 1981, has died.
Dr. Nelson, noted Presbyterian professor of Christian education and prominent leader in theological education, died Thursday, June 9, 2011, in Austin, Texas, where he resided with his spouse of seventy years, Nancy Gribble Nelson. He was 95 years old.
Michael Jinkins, President of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and former faculty colleague of Ellis Nelson at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary from 1993 to 2010, says of his mentor, colleague, and friend, “He taught us how to believe more generously and to live more faithfully. He taught us how to learn and how to teach and how to lead.”
In his personal reflection on the life, career, and leadership of C. Ellis Nelson, President Jinkins describes Dr. Nelson as “one of the most scholarly presidents in our church’s history,” with a career “that elevated him to the position of dean of Christian education and elder statesman of our church for decades after his retirement.”
Since the 1940s, the emphasis of Dr. Nelson’s ministry has been theological education and the life and work of seminaries. Nelson taught generations of Presbyterian Church pastors and Christian educators, beginning his own vocation in campus ministry and serving as Director of Youth Work for the Presbyterian Church. As one who has helped shape the entire field of Christian education, he was a chief architect of the Theological Education Fund, commonly known as the 1% Plan, and he designed and monitored the Lilly Endowment-funded “Entry Into Ministry” program. Along with these achievements and more, Dr. Nelson received numerous honors, including the E.T. Thompson Distinguished Service Award from The Presbyterian Outlook Foundation; honorary degrees from both Austin College and Centre College (Danville, Kentucky); the Educator of the Year by the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators; and The Award for Excellence in Theological Education, presented by the Committee on Theological Education at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). In 2002, Austin Seminary established the Nancy Gribble and C. Ellis Nelson Professorship in Christian Education.
During his tenure at Louisville Seminary, Dr. Nelson helped change the course of the Seminary’s financial platform through secured foundation grants and enhanced investment practices. He established several professorial chairs and fellowships for international students, and is recognized for his emphasis on connecting Louisville Seminary to Presbyterians nationwide, especially through the building of congregational relationships.
In his 2003 history of Louisville Seminary, Many Lamps, One Light, Seminary alum and Muskingum University Professor Rick Nutt (MDiv ’80) wrote that President Nelson believed that tying congregations and individual Presbyterians more closely to the Seminary was important for the school’s future. His spouse, Nancy, worked on that challenge by inviting women from Presbyterian congregations to meet on campus, entertaining them in the President’s home, and arranging for students to give tours of the campus. The project was so successful that it received a Lilly Endowment grant to set up a more formal structure. Together, the Nelsons helped place Louisville Seminary in a position of national recognition.
In honor and appreciation of their years of distinguished service, Louisville Seminary named its administrative and academic building in their honor. Today, Nelson Hall is the hub of Seminary operations and classroom study and the preparation of scores of men and women preparing for leadership in the church.
In addition to his wife, Dr. Ellis Nelson is survived by 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 will be held Friday, June 17, at 1:00 p.m. (CST Central) on the campus of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, where Dr. Nelson served as Research Professor of Christian Education, a position to which he had been reappointed in 2010. Upon Dr. Nelson’s request to have his ashes interred at Louisville Seminary, he also will be memorialized at a later date in Louisville, Ky., in the Louisville Seminary Memorial Garden, located on the Seminary’s campus.
C. Ellis Nelson: A Tribute by Michael Jinkins