John Oliver Nelson, born to wealth and privilege, spent much of his life giving that wealth away. In this biography, author Rita M. Yeasted narrates the details of Nelson's life as he fulfilled the Gospel's mandate of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and sheltering the homeless.
JON: John Oliver Nelson and the Movement for Power in the Church tells the life story of this man, known as a quick-witted, intelligent, and charming visionary and dreamer, from his birth in 1909 until his death in 1990. A lover of liturgy, music, and fine arts, Nelson is best known as a national leader for the subtle re-empowering of the Church in our culture and for the founding of the nation's first Protestant retreat center, Kirkridge, in the Appalachian Mountains in Bangor, Pennsylvania, in 1942. Begun as a center for the renewal of clergy, Kirkridge soon attracted laity of all faiths.
Jack Nelson's influence extended to thousands over his years as Yale Divinity professor, director of Kirkridge, retreat leader, and spiritual director. Scion of one of Pittsburgh's most prominent Presbyterian families, Jack died in poverty, but rich in friends. With photographs included, JON and the story it tells presents his legacy to the world.
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JONJohn Oliver Nelson And the Movement for Power in the Church
By Rita M. Yeasted
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Rita M. Yeasted
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBirth to Brentwood
The biggest news in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania the second week of May, 1909, was not the birth of John Oliver Nelson. That dubious honor went to the Ohio River tragedy of Tuesday, May 11, when an overloaded gasoline launch carrying 28 workers home from the Pressed Car Company sank mid-river while crossing from McKees Rocks to Woods Run. The 23 men who drowned, most of them under 30, were among Pittsburgh's poorest: immigrants with neither insurance nor benefits, sons of widowed mothers, young husbands and fathers. By week's end relief efforts expanded throughout the city.
John Oliver Nelson, born on May 14, 1909, was only two generations away from the poverty of these ill-fated laborers. His grandfather, Ambrose Nelson, had arrived in America from Scotland in 1880, bringing with him his wife Elizabeth Forsythe, a daughter Margaret, and an infant son, John Evon.
The City Directories from 1882-85 list Ambrose Nelson's occupation as stone cutter, but from 1887-98, he is listed as a city missionary, a street preacher. In 1967 when the Nelson estate was donated to the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Donald G. Miller sent Jack a black book containing enrollment cards dating back to the 1880s and some sermon manuscripts with a note explaining that these were probably his grandfather's notes.
Shortly after the family's arrival in the United States, their son and daughter were joined by three more sisters: Elizabeth, Mary Forsythe, and Edith. In November of 1898 Elizabeth Forsythe Nelson was widowed, leaving her with four daughters at home. John Evon, Jack's father, attended Park Institute and graduated from Westminster College at New Wilmington in 1900 when he was 20.
After two years with the old Keystone National Bank, John was asked by Andrew W. Mellon if he could type. "No," he answered, "but I could learn in two weeks." He did–and within a short time he was promoted from his position of bank clerk to Andrew Mellon's secretary. John went on to become vice-president, treasurer, and board member of Gulf Oil Corporation, and the family benefited from increasing income. Three of John's sisters became school teachers. On September 6, 1905, in Michigan, John married Margaret Dodds, a Methodist minister's daughter, giving John Oliver Nelson a ministerial heritage from two grandfathers. Jack's mother attended the Pennsylvania College for Women in Pittsburgh (now Chatham University) and graduated in philosophy from the University of Michigan. An accomplished musician, Mrs. Nelson gave music lessons from her home; over time piano recitals and teas became common occurrences in the Nelson parlor (a parlor that comfortably housed three grand pianos).
Jack had an older brother, Wenley Dodds Nelson, with whom he was always close. When Jack was four, a second brother, Douglas Evon, was born, and three years later Margaret Elizabeth (Peggy) completed the family. They were the only grandchildren of Elizabeth Nelson and the darlings of four Nelson aunts: Margaret (Marnie), Elizabeth (Bess), Mary (Massa), and Edith (Edie). Like Jack, Douglas went into the ministry, and after fulfilling his first pastorate in Texas, he became pastor at a Presbyterian church in New Haven, Connecticut. Wenley followed in his father's footsteps by going into business, and Peggy married the famed composer Howard Hanson.
Each of the Nelson children played a musical instrument, and it was commonplace for the family to entertain guests and themselves. In a Post-Gazette article dated March 28, 1931, Mrs. Nelson described a musical family trio consisting of her piano, John Oliver's first violin, and Wenley's cello. Friends were encouraged to use the Nelson music room and to make use of the instruments there, "a cello, two violas, three violins, a cornet, and a real Scottish bagpipe," a recently acquired possession sent home by Jack from Scotland, where he was attending the University of Edinburgh.
Jack, his brothers, and sister enjoyed a far more comfortable life than did their father's family. Summers were spent at Chautauqua, where their mother, Margaret, had spent her own summers (a Nelson summer home still sits on the lake). Even through the Depression, the Nelsons did not feel the pinch as sharply as so many others. Family members tell stories of the Nelson men walking to church on Sunday in top hats and cutaways, and of how Jack's pet monkey once got loose and the family chauffeur had to pick Jack up at school to catch it.
The three boys were active in youth groups. Jack committed himself to the YMCA (Young Men's Christian Association) as a young man, and went on to work for the National Office as an adult. The brothers were also active in the young people's groups of their church. Wenley, graduating from Schenley High School, attended public schools his entire life, while Jack left Schenley for Shady Side Academy to complete his senior year. On every vitae John Oliver Nelson listed himself as a 1926 graduate of Shady Side Academy, a prestigious academy for young men from wealthy families. The school yearbook lists his membership in the Gargoyle Club, the glee club, the St. Andrew's Society, and the Seven Arts Club. In fact, the short biography accompanying Jack's photograph provides an interesting insight into his future career:
Aside from fiddling, drawing, acting, and studying, John, better known as "Jack", has nothing to do. If you meet him on the campus, he is either looking for somebody or going someplace. He has a rather good voice, as is evidenced by his work in the Glee Club. Probably the climax of his career at Shady Side came when he strutted his stuff in "A Full House." When it came to fiddling, Jack could give Nero a run for his money. His real ambition in this line is, however, to play in the Triangle Club. His artistic ability is the source of several of the plates in this book. His appetite is equaled only by that of his room-mate. Considering all he has done for the school, we shall be sorry to lose him; but we wish him the best of luck in Princeton. (p. 80)
As predicted, in the fall of 1926 Jack joined Wenley, already a senior, at Princeton. Jack's undergraduate years, described in family letters, were happy and rewarding. John Evon Nelson sent his sons a letter almost every day they were at school, and while few of his letters to Jack remain, Wenley's letters show a father who cared deeply for his sons, sometimes reminding Wenley to look out for his younger brother–and, if family stories are true, Jack sometimes needed looking after. His high school dream of joining the Triangle Club was realized; Jack performed with this musical group on and off campus, often for college musical productions.
Jack reveled in the social life at Princeton. A favorite family story recounts how Jack and a few of his friends stole the gong from the bell in the college bell tower, and how he kept it on the wall for years as a memento of his days at Princeton. Both known as "ladies' men," Wenley and Jack were often invited to formal teas and debutante balls in New York and at the university, and on one occasion, having missed the last train back to New Jersey, the weary brothers slept on Pennsylvania Station benches—tuxedos and all.
Mr. Nelson's letters chide Jack's request for money to procure a raccoon coat that he absolutely had to have, and it's doubtful that the elder Nelson would have approved the purchase of standing ash trays for both boys' dormitory rooms. A rather interesting letter was written on the 11thof October 1926, wherein Wenley tells his father —addressed as Dr. Mr. Nelson—that Jack wasn't "doing any smoking at all, or indulging in any of the other campus sins."
Jack's seeming conversion might be explained partially by his affiliation with the Princeton Campus Crusaders. Founded in 1912, the Crusaders consisted of upperclassmen, invited to join by the Director, dedicating themselves "to God's will for themselves and the world." Jack's affiliation with this group persisted throughout his life. Members were asked to attend an annual Service of Dedication at commencement, and in the prayer they said each year may be found the language and seeds of the Kirkridge vision, an experiment that would bloom twelve years after Jack's graduation from Princeton. In fact, it was at Princeton that the first discussions of the formation of a "dedicated order" similar to Iona took place.
In an era when the Grand Tour of Europe was expected of wealthy young men, younger brother Doug, 16, and Jack, 20, traveled to Paris and Scotland the summer before Jack's senior year. Doug's widow remembered how the two bought gifts for all the girls they met in their travels–and Doug had to carry them because he had taken fewer clothes than Jack for the journey.
Everyone assumed journalism would be Jack's chosen career path, so it's intriguing to speculate as to how he ended up in the ministry. Various theories exist. With two grandfathers in ministry, one of whom Jack would have known as a child, and having been reared in a devout Presbyterian family, his father an elder in the church, the path does not seem that unusual.
Yet Jack's family tells the story that during his years at Princeton, while working on a banana boat one summer, he fell into the water and had a "conversion experience" that changed his life. Whether this family legend is true or not, what is known is that upon graduation, Jack went to New College, University of Edinburgh. Jack's path to the ministry was sealed when he met George MacLeod, a Church of Scotland minister, with a parish in Govan, a Depression-devastated district in Glasgow.
While MacLeod would not begin the rebuilding of the Abbey on Iona until 1938, seeing the dire poverty of many of his out-of-work parishioners led him to employ them to rebuild a ruined village mill, which eventually became a community center. Encouraged by this success, MacLeod was inspired to rebuild the ruins of Iona, a tiny island among the Inner Hebrides off the southwest tip of Mull.
Iona was established in May 563 when St. Columba and twelve fellow monks arrived from the north of Ireland. Like his earlier Irish counterpart, St. Patrick, Columba brought Celtic Christianity to Scotland. From this blessed isle, sacred even in pre-Christian times, monks set sail in small boats to establish Christianity in the British Isles and as far south as Vienna.
A center for scholarship and holiness, Iona saw the beginning of the illustrated Book of Kells, Ireland's most famous medieval relic. In the thirteenth century a Benedictine abbey and small cathedral dedicated to Mary were built on the island, and although reformers dismantled the site in 1561, Iona was held in reverence by Christians for centuries.
No one knows for sure on what date in 1931 Jack Nelson first met George MacLeod, but we do know that as a young divinity student, Jack was inspired by the Scottish minister for whom the Gospel demanded more than mere lip service. With the success of the rebuilt mill, MacLeod's vision extended to Iona, where in 1938 he, like St. Francis before him, decided to rebuild a church. For MacLeod this inner call to reform and rebuild not only demanded a change of heart and a concrete commitment to act beyond mere church attendance, but also a radical vision to create a new social order.
The first twelve workers at Iona included six unemployed craftsmen from MacLeod's parish and six seminarians. Lacking funds, MacLeod petitioned Sir James Lithgos, a builder of warships at his Govan shipyard to give him £5,000. When asked if MacLeod would give up his pacifism in return, the minister responded, "Not on your life." Impressed with his integrity, Lithgos replied, "Then I will give you your £5,000."
The ties that link Iona and Kirkridge abound. We know, for instance, that Jack helped to lay slate tiles on the roof of the Abbey refectory one summer and that he participated in the early, austere years of this fledgling "summer community." Seminarians worked on the construction during summer vacation, and craftsmen would stay on the island as autumn grew into winter until the weather became too brutal. Eventually a community emerged, a new monastic life formed around the rebuilt abbey. Obligations were fourfold and included:
Common life–several months of experience working at the abbey and at least one week together each year on the island. Common discipline–daily reading of Scripture and at least a half hour of prayer at set morning and evening times. Participation at meetings–regional meetings and one annual meeting at Iona itself. Commitment to peace and non-violence–a remarkable decision since the community was founded during World War II.
The ecumenical nature of this venture is deeply rooted. The cradle of Celtic Christianity, Iona evolved into a Roman Catholic Benedictine presence. Many of the early monks were martyred, and many others left the island for safer shores. With the Protestant Reformation, all traces of Roman Catholicism were driven underground. Iona, left abandoned for four centuries, fell into ruin.
According to a 1947 brochure, in 1910 the Duke of Argyll gave the ruins back to the Church of Scotland as "Trustees for all Christendom" so that the church might be rebuilt. He expressed the hope that "any recognized denomination might seek, and be granted, the use of the restored Abbey for the full office of its worship," thus becoming "the only church in Christendom that every denomination can call 'Home.'"
MacLeod's dream was not only to rebuild an abbey, but to fulfill the prophecy made by St. Columba a thousand years before:
In Iona of my heart, Iona of my love, Instead of monks' voices shall be lowing of cattle, But, ere the world come to an end, Iona shall be as it was.
The decidedly ecumenical nature of Iona, its passion for social justice for the poor, and its concern for liturgical renewal, all would have attracted John Oliver Nelson.
Jack's year of theological studies at Edinburgh University culminated in a divinity degree from Chicago's McCormick Seminary in 1933. That same year Jack Nelson headed off to Yale Divinity School to complete his doctorate. He defended his dissertation, The Rise of the Princeton Theology: A Genetic Study of American Presbyterianism Until 1850, in the spring of 1935 and applied to the Presbyterian Board for a pastorate. Advised in his senior interview at Yale to get a church of his own, however small, Jack found himself the fourth pastor of Brentwood Presbyterian Church, a small mission church of Shadyside Presbyterian, the Nelson family's home church.
In Fishers of Men, a history of Brentwood Presbyterian published for its 40th anniversary in 1969, Fred Weaver tells of how Dr. Nelson drove his Ford daily from Brentwood to East End, where he lived with his parents. That trip in 1935 was not an easy one, nor was becoming pastor to a church of 200 members, who met in a concrete block structure that had seen little improvement since its recent construction.
The church had not yet been fully paid for, which led Pastor Nelson to depend upon financial help from Shadyside. Ordained and installed on July 19, 1935, Jack Nelson brought the passion and energy that would characterize his whole life to make Brentwood Presbyterian a church that would attract both young and old. A few members still recall his amazing achievements. In the historian's prophetic words, "under his direction the Church immediately began to move."
Brentwood, Pennsylvania, today, with the beautiful Presbyterian church still sitting on the corner of Brownsville Road and Hillman Street, is a far cry from the small town in the South Hills of Pittsburgh in which Jack first ministered. Arriving in the midst of the Depression, Jack found many in his church out of work, yet a core of dedicated men and women met his challenge to reorganize the Sunday school, begin a church bulletin, start a choir, and initiate plans for a new building.
The original sketches for the present church were made by John Oliver Nelson, and his initials can still be seen on the pen and ink drawings in the church archives. Motivated by his love for music (especially good choral music), Jack was determined to provide an organ for the church. Finding a $20 reed organ in a theater, Jack used a Hoover sweeper suction blower to reanimate the aging instrument, and soon the church boasted both organ and organist. Having no real pulpit, Jack had a five-sided podium built from five paneled kitchen doors. He organized a joint Easter sunrise service in Brentwood Park with a trumpet call across the ravine, illustrating the love of liturgy that would characterize his whole life.
Excerpted from JON by Rita M. Yeasted Copyright © 2012 by Rita M. Yeasted. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Birth to Brentwood....................1
The Dream Realized: "Seed-Bed" for New Life....................14
The Yale Years....................30
A Mountain of Possibilities....................51
Journeys Ended, Journeys Begun....................133
List of Photographs....................177