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Thinking Out Loud

Remembering C. Ellis Nelson

by Michael Jinkins | Apr 10, 2014
President and Professor of Theology
Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary

Editor's note: for the next several weeks, as we celebrate the 160th anniversary of our founding, Thinking Out Loud readers will receive blog posts about key people and events in the life of Louisville Seminary. We'd love for you to share your memories. Email us!

C. Ellis Nelson, who was the sixth president of Louisville Seminary from 1974 to 1981, died June 9, 2011. Today’s Louisville Seminary 160-themed blog post is a reflection on Nelson’s life written by Michael Jinkins, current Louisville Seminary president who was a close friend and former colleague of Nelson at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary from 1993 to 2010. This essay was originally published shortly after Nelson’s death.

C. Ellis NelsonC. Ellis Nelson wanted to fly. His hero as a child was Charles Lindbergh. In fact, he not only wanted to fly, he wanted to be an aeronautical engineer. He came of college age, however, in the depths of the depression. The depression hit the oil fields of Southeast Texas, especially hard around Beaumont. Money was short for college, even in families that valued education. So, at the age of sixteen, Ellis entered the local junior college.

During his first years in college, and later at Texas A&M University, Ellis continued to study engineering and physics. He developed a lifelong passion for figuring things out, and a lifelong skepticism about data. As he said in an essay in 1983: "I have found that many claims of certainty about human conduct based on numbers become somewhat shaky when the method of obtaining the data is examined critically."1 It was while Ellis was a student at Texas A&M that his vocational goals changed from science to ministry.

Ellis was born into a Swedish Lutheran family. His mother was the child of immigrants; his father was an immigrant. After the young couple married, they moved to Beaumont, where the most convenient church was a Presbyterian congregation with a good Christian education program and an excellent pastor. His family was there whenever the doors were open. This congregation, during Ellis’ formative years, saw six of its young people go into ministry, all of whom remained in ministry throughout their careers. After sensing a call to ordained ministry and with the encouragement of the pastors of his home congregation in Beaumont and of the church he attended in College Station, Ellis decided to attend Austin College, a small Presbyterian liberal arts college in Sherman, Texas.

These biographical details are crucial to understanding Ellis Nelson and his life’s work. As he later observed, his scholarship attempted to account for the ways God works through human communities to shape our faith and to form us as faithful persons. Ellis’ classic study, Where Faith Begins (1967), as Ellis later said, was “a justification, from the standpoint of the Bible and of social science, of the idea that the Christian faith is lived by a congregation.” He explained:

A congregation is the normal and natural way for faith and belief to be communicated. This basic idea is simple and profound. It means that the interaction of the people in the congregation is curriculum of the most meaningful kind. … Persons who associate together because of their beliefs also provide an ‘expectation’ of each other; they support each other and in innumerable ways provide the kind of human hope and love which reinforce beliefs about God, life, death, and moral values. … So I have no argument with religious educators who want to define education in precise terms or who specialize in teaching methods. I only want to say we are to love God with the heart, soul, and strength as well as with the mind, and the elements which relate to the affections come through, and are made meaningful in, a community of believers.2

After earning his Master of Divinity degree from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, his Master of Arts degree in educational psychology and sociology from the University of Texas and a Doctorate from Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary (New York), Ellis went on to teach Christian education at Austin Seminary and at Union Seminary. At Union, he also briefly served as academic dean before becoming president of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in 1974. It was after Ellis began teaching Christian education that, he says, he acknowledged that Christian education had become his vocation.

His personal reflections on vocation are among the most enduring aspects of his legacy. "To be accountable for one's life is to go beyond one's responsibility," Ellis wrote. "It means that one is under demand to live in a certain way and to accomplish certain purposes."3 Perhaps it was this insight at the core of his theology of vocation that illuminates the rhythm Ellis found between teaching, research, writing and leadership. It was a rhythm that made him one of the most scholarly presidents in our church’s history, and that elevated him to the position of dean of Christian education and elder statesman of our church for decades after his retirement.

Baby Brains

David Stitt, the president with whom Ellis served in the 1950s at Austin Seminary, once said that whenever he needed advice as president, there were two people on his staff he always consulted: James I. McCord, the academic dean of the seminary who went on to serve as president of Princeton Seminary (whom Stitt described as “the greatest political mind in the Presbyterian Church”) and Ellis Nelson, then a junior professor on the faculty (whom Stitt simply called “a genius”). Perhaps it takes a genius to come up with a book on moral development entitled Don’t Let Your Conscience be Your Guide (1978), which was not only a refutation of Jiminy Cricket (yes, that Jiminy Cricket), but also a genuinely fresh take on a part of our moral equipment that most people take for granted.4 Perhaps it takes a genius, too, to articulate his leadership doctrine of “disjointed incrementalism,” as he did in his all-but-forgotten classic, Using Evaluation in Theological Education (1975), an approach to leadership that eschews grand sweeping gestures and utopian schemes in favor of making first one, then another, incremental change opportunistically wherever possible as situations allow, so that gradually the institution can move forward on a variety of fronts.5 The genius shines through in these, and in the books for which Ellis will be remembered for generations, Where Faith Begins, How Faith Matures (1989), Congregations: Their Power to Form and Transform (1988) and Helping Teenagers Grow Morally: A Guide for Adults (1992).

What does not necessarily shine through on the page was the thing that every friend of Ellis Nelson remembers most, the way his brilliance sparkled with an irrepressible wit and good humor. “Ellis Nelson is the youngest mind on our faculty,” I recall my old friend, the late Stanley Robertson Hall, saying. At that time, Ellis was still a relatively young 82. Those who watched Ellis (then in his late eighties) work through all (and I mean ALL) the latest research on the psychological and neurological development of infants in preparation for a series of lectures stood awestruck. For months on end, Ellis regularly climbed the stairs to his office in the seminary library to study “baby brains,” as he called his project.

Recently, I reminisced about Ellis with Johanna Bos, one of my senior colleagues on our Louisville Seminary faculty and the only faculty member called to this faculty during Ellis’ presidency. Johanna remarked on his extraordinary sense of humor. His wit was as quick as lightening, but his humor always had something of the child about it, sometimes utterly innocent, sometimes devilishly mischievous.

I witnessed that humor during a visit with Ellis and Nancy. We were sitting in the living room of his and Nancy’s little apartment in the Methodist Home in Georgetown, Texas. The conversation had been fairly somber. He was giving me an update on his latest visit to the doctors when the phone rang. It was an old friend from Dallas. The conversation, from my end, unfolded like one of those old Bob Newhart comedy routines. “So you have cancer, too. Uh huh. Your doctor gives you a year? My doctor only gives me six months. What’s the name of your doctor?”

Ellis often said that the key to his success was Nancy Gribble Nelson. On that score he was not joking. They were a team. They took care of each other. They also took care of the church, several seminaries, their family, friends and many students. My wife, Debbie, and I still remember with the deepest gratitude that it was Ellis and Nancy who invited us to dinner first when we moved to Austin in 1993. That was typical of Ellis and Nancy.

Ellis taught and mentored more generations than most of us will ever know. 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. At the end, he also taught us how to die. Maybe he didn’t become an aeronautical engineer, but he did achieve his childhood dream. Ellis soared.

1This quote and much of the biographical information contained in this essay are from Ellis’ chapter, “Toward Accountable Selfhood,” in Marlene Mayr (editor), Modern Masters of Religious Education (Birmingham: Religious Education Press, 1983), 160-173.
2Nelson, “Toward Accountable Selfhood,” 165.
3Nelson, Ibid., 172-173.
4Nelson, Don’t Let Your Conscience be Your Guide (New York: Paulist Press, 1978).
5Nelson, Using Evaluation in Theological Education (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1975), 63.

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