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Frank H Nelson Of Cincinnati by Warren C. Herrick

Beyond Cincinnati

|He was easily the prince of us all in diocese
and national church.|

-- ZeBarney Phillips

6

The diocese of southern Ohio, of which Christ Church is a part, was vastly strengthened by the leadership of Frank Nelson. In the earlier years of his rectorship he had had little time for diocesan affairs, not that he was indifferent, but he was essentially the kind of person who did one thing at a time, and never allowed himself to be diverted from the immediate task. Moreover, because he was impelled by burning convictions to express freely his pronounced views, he was considered radical, and was misunderstood and disliked by many churchmen. The diocese of those earlier years was conservative and static, and politics then played a more weighty part than now. A clerical friend in speaking of Mr. Nelson candidly stated, |I had to grow into friendship with him. In those early days I had a sort of prejudice against him as a militant opponent of things, but I soon saw my mistake and recognized that he was of nobler cast.| He never sought position, and never until 1916, with one exception, was he elected a deputy to the General Convention, which is the highest body of authority in the Episcopal Church. Even when the Convention met in Cincinnati in 1910 and Christ Church was the host to numerous services and meetings, he had no vote. Until 1916 he had represented his diocese at the General Convention only in 1904; he was defeated for re-election in 1907 because he had defended Dr. Algernon Crapsey in a once famous heresy trial.

His larger interest in the diocese probably had its beginning when in 1908 as a member of the Social Service Commission he visited the Hocking Valley, and was shocked by the abominable living conditions of the miners and the almost intolerable injustice of their economic circumstances. His interest, thus fired, increased with the years until he came to be depended upon in every sphere of diocesan life, serving on the Standing Committee, the Bishop and Chapter, the Board of Strategy and Finance, and in practically every other committee and department of importance. He was most insistent on maintaining the missionary program, which he held to be the very heart-beat of the life of the Church. Even during depressions, Christ Church never lowered its missionary giving of [USD]24,000, and one year voted [USD]3000.00 from its parish budget to make up a deficit in the missionary budget because as he said |We have failed to educate the people.| His thorough knowledge and good judgment were of infinite value to a succession of bishops. On the occasion of Mr. Nelson's Fortieth Anniversary, the present Bishop, Henry Wise Hobson said, |In all parts of the Diocese I have heard clergy and lay people say such words as these: 'The spirit of honesty, courage, fellowship, and service which has grown up in the life of our Diocese is primarily the result of the influence of Frank Nelson, whose own spirit has been a contagious force in our midst.'| Others who have observed the remarkable growth and increasing strength of this Diocese say that its present vitality has been generated, not by numbers, nor by wealth, but by the passionate spirit of certain recognizable characters of whom Frank Nelson was easily the leader. During Bishop Reese's long illness, Mr. Nelson largely conducted the business of the Diocese, and for a man with such positive convictions, he was extremely fair in presiding at the Convention. He leaned over backward to be just, and did not silence even those who brought up petty reasons for disagreement on the subjects under debate.

When in 1929 the illness of Bishop Reese necessitated his resignation, the Diocese spontaneously turned to Frank Nelson as his successor. There is a certain piquancy in the contemplation of the change that by this time had come over the Diocese. A man who at one time had been distrusted, and branded as radical if not reckless, had so won the respect and affection of his associates that they desired to express their trust and belief in him by electing him to the highest office of his Church. Reverend Sidney E. Sweet, now Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, St. Louis, nominated Mr. Nelson at the Convention saying, |He is a man whose intellectual and spiritual gifts rank him with the finest in the Church throughout the United States. It will make the Diocese of Southern Ohio proud to present the name of Dr. Nelson to the House of Bishops as the representative of this Diocese.| Another discerning friend, Alfred Segal of The Cincinnati Post, put the case dramatically when he wrote in his column: |The other day Rev. Frank Nelson stood on the threshold of ecclesiastical glory. He needed but to take one step and he would have been on his way to the eminence of Bishop. But he turned away, though many welcoming hands beckoned him.|

In declining the nomination, Mr. Nelson said that his decision came as a result of consultation with friends whose opinions he valued, and from his own best judgment which counselled against his acceptance. He felt that it was desirable to elect a man with no local associations, and his own long ties with the diocese made him an unsuitable candidate. He had confided in friends his lack of diocesan consciousness, and confessed a reluctance to assume at his age another kind of work. Furthermore, the parish of Christ Church and the city were by now so deeply embedded in his very soul that even a change, if not a severance, of such ties was unthinkable. He put forward the name of Dr. Howard Chandler Robbins, who later refused the election. The selection of Dr. Robbins, important as it was, nonetheless seemed secondary to the insistent attempts of leaders to place this humble servant in the office of Bishop. Upon Mr. Nelson's entry into the luncheon hall after the convention, he was greeted by a tremendous ovation. He was a strong man among strong men. The following letter from the late Right Reverend William Lawrence of Massachusetts did not dissuade him from his firm decision:

November 22, 1929

My dear Frank:

You well know that it is my rule not to |butt in,| but as a Pullman conductor once told me, |there ain't no use in having rules that you can't break when you have to.|

I believe that you respect my judgment; my judgment is that you are the one man who has the qualifications to be Bishop of Southern Ohio. I know your loyalty to your parish and your humble estimate of yourself. But the Diocese and the opportunity which the Church will give you as Bishop are greater than your parish. Think of Trinity, Boston, at Brooks' election and its result today. Spaulding of Utah brought into the House of Bishops a breeze of fresh air, a new life and courage which abide there still -- You will do the same.

Think of the cheer that your election will bring to Vincent, Reese, and the whole Diocese.

Let them have your name and your life. I never wrote such a letter before and no one knows that I am doing it now.

Yours affectionately,

William Lawrence.

At the succeeding convention another concerted effort was made to induce Mr. Nelson to become Bishop. It was refreshing to find the office seeking the man, especially a man who had never sought for himself positions of prestige, a man never found in the society of office seekers. Although he was gratefully aware of the well-meaning intentions of his friends, and felt in the proposed honor the warmth of their personal affection, he did not want it said that he had permitted the election and then declined it. In as tactful a manner as possible he labored to prevent the Committee on Nominations from presenting his name. During a stormy session of the Committee a movement was under way to over-ride Mr. Nelson's wishes and present his name as the nominee of the Committee anyway. At this juncture Dr. Hicks, his close friend and a Vestryman of Christ Church, rose and protested with considerable indignation, |Gentlemen, this means you simply do not know Frank Nelson.| The debate went on, but Mr. Nelson remained firm, saying on the Convention floor, |I may not be Bishop of Southern Ohio,| and he used the word may in the ancient sense of having |power to prevent.| |I cherish the tribute, but I tell you without recourse to thought or prayer that I cannot do it.| Finally, the Convention proceeded to the happy election of Henry Wise Hobson, and the Diocese of Southern Ohio remembers with gratitude that it owes Bishop Hobson to Frank Nelson.

From 1916 until his death, Mr. Nelson was a deputy to the triennial meetings of every General Convention, and became the principal spokesman in the House of Deputies. This body is not always as decorous and staid in its deliberations as the House of Bishops, but Mr. Nelson at all times commanded a respectful hearing among the deputies. He came to be one of the leaders who, as a veteran church-paper correspondent put it, |could read the signs of the times.| His opinions carried enormous weight though not habitually swaying votes.

In Diocesan circles as well as in Christ Church, he was absolutely fearless in utterance, and was among those who were eager for the Episcopal Church to make large ventures of faith. Like Bishop Brent, he commanded a vision and a breadth of spirit which were incomprehensible to those who could not conceive of a universal Christianity free of sectarian doctrines and dogmas. In this respect he reflected and perpetuated the greatness of Phillips Brooks who thus stated his position: |I cannot live truly with the men of my own church unless I also have a consciousness of common life with all Christian believers, with all religious men, with all mankind.| As a natural consequence of such conviction, Mr. Nelson was insistent that the Episcopal Church become a constituent member of the Federal Council of Churches, and lived to see accomplished that small but significant step towards cooperation among the churches.

In the debates that occurred in various years on such subjects as the proposal to eliminate the word |Protestant| from the official name of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, and on the status of the Presiding Bishop, he was very firm but kindly and tactful in setting forth the Protestant emphasis in the Catholic-Protestant fabric of his church. He argued that the word |Protestant| in the title is there to protect the right of every sort of churchman. His candor was disarming, and he could get away with such unvarnished statements as this: |As you know I am a Protestant of the Protestants. I do not belong to the Catholic party in the Episcopal Church. I belong to the Protestant party. I believe in Protestantism; I do not believe in Catholicism, I never have, and please God, I never will. I believe in Protestantism; but I believe more, and deeper, and further and broader, and higher in manhood and womanhood. I can see a vision of God in the man and in the woman, in the Catholic as well as in the Protestant, in the Jew, in the atheist, as well as in the Episcopalian.| He was alert to any move that threatened the democratic basis of the Episcopal Church and diminished the power of the clergy and the laity, holding in the instance of the Presiding Bishop's status that the proposal for something similar to an archbishopric would introduce a monarchical form of government into a church whose government closely resembles that of the United States.

At those conventions when the Prayer Book was under revision, Mr. Nelson's spiritual discernment, large-heartedness, and wise judgment were an important supplement to the work of the liturgical authorities. One of the really notable speeches of any General Convention was his plea for the church to place the emphasis in the Baptismal Service where the Apostles did, namely, on discipleship rather than on Creed. |The Creed ought to be on the Altar, not at the door of the Church,| he said. |I want the Creed in the service, and I believe it will receive more emphasis than before if it is inserted where I have proposed to place it. The important thing required of Christians is to follow Christ. It is harder to follow Christ than to accept a creed, and God forbid that I should make membership in the Church easier than Christ made it.| His earnestness and deep religious feeling made a profound impression, but there were those who saw in the proposal an opening wedge for the subordination of the creeds, and timidity and caution overcame the surge of approbation which followed immediately on his speech.

Commencing in 1925 and continuing until his death, Mr. Nelson served on the Joint Commission on Holy Matrimony, which dealt with the highly controversial issue of divorce. In upholding the high standards embraced in the canons of the Church, he supported that section of the Commission which sought to take into account the far-reaching human factors involved in marriage and divorce. He was absolutely convinced that the Church was not approaching the problem in the right way. To him it was not an ecclesiastical problem but a definitely human affair. He said he preferred to submit a delicate, ethical problem to a human bishop rather than to the arbitrary operation of a rule. He maintained, |Divorce is now on a legalistic basis. That was not the way of our Lord, and the Commission desires to lift it out of the legal atmosphere into the sphere of the fellowship of the Gospel.| Towards this end the Commission had (in 1931) drawn up a proposed canon which was the result of six years' study on the part of an extremely able group of clergymen and laymen. Among the latter were some of the great lawyers of America, such as George W. Wickersham, Roland Morris, and Professor Joseph Beale of the Harvard Law School. This Commission proposed that |any person to whom a divorce from a former marriage has been granted for any cause by a civil court may apply to his Bishop to marry another person.| In other words the Commission was endeavoring to have the matter decided not by some hard and fast rule which was bound to do many injustices to individuals, but by a more general principle to be interpreted by the Bishop or Marital Court. The proposal was defeated, but in the battle which ensued and has not ceased |Frank Nelson,| says Bishop William Scarlett of Missouri, |was a leading figure. He was trying to see this whole matter through what he believed to be the mind of Christ, and to act and legislate accordingly.|

At the Church Congress in Richmond, Virginia, in 1926 in a paper on What Is Loyal Churchmanship? he boldly stated:

Even when it comes to the canon in regard to remarriage of divorced persons, when I find in my conscience, standing before God in the presence of Christ, as I try to do, that a man and a woman have a right to be remarried, I will remarry them and take the consequences. I do not mean that I would go about seeking ways of disobeying the Church. I am putting extreme cases. Of course I do not mean that.... My first loyalty, my highest loyalty is to the Spirit and to the mind of the Lord Jesus Christ as God gives me grace to see it.... The human soul is more sacred than constitution or canons. Canons and forms of worship are used to illuminate and guide men's minds and souls to Christ, not to dominate them or compel them to conform to this or that.

In a few exceptional instances he remarried divorced persons. He held the present canon of the church to be utterly ridiculous in permitting reinstatement to communicant status following remarriage after divorce: |If one commits so grave a sin as to demand excommunication, how can one be reinstated while continuing to live in that sin? It is absurd on the face of it.|

There were those who sneered at his position, saying it was individualistic and amounted to the setting up of oneself against the law of the church, yet he of all people was most conscious of the sin of pride and excessive individualism. At his last Convention in 1937, he reemphasized the point that the object of rewriting the marriage canon was not to liberalize divorce and remarriage: |We have been trying to interpret the mind of our Lord. We have presumed to separate men from the love of God by excommunication. This Commission is trying to set free to a higher plane this tremendous question which is facing us, to lift this tremendous relationship from regulation to the life of the spirit. We want this church to face reality.| Nevertheless, the Commission marched from one defeat to another, but it still marches! There was passed in 1931 one constructive piece of legislation bearing on instruction in Christian marriage which was enacted largely through the extremely forceful defense of Frank Nelson.

The same human touch which guided all his thought and effort was apparent in his work on another Commission, namely, the Budget and Program. He usually was chosen to present the report in the House of Deputies, and it was always a masterly presentation. Like Gladstone, he had the faculty of making people like figures, because he set them forth in terms of human values or in what the newspaper writer calls |human-interest| stories. This same humanness was delightfully manifest on occasions when friends endeavoured to make him the presiding officer or President of the House of Deputies. He would never consent, and humorously said that if he became an official, he would have to attend all the extra meetings and couldn't play golf!

In 1937 the General Convention met in Cincinnati. Though far from well and worn out after the usual strenuous year in his parish, Mr. Nelson gave up a large part of his vacation to assist in the arduous preparations always entailed by such affairs. At the opening service in the University Stadium he was selected by the Presiding Bishop to read one of the Lessons, the deserved recognition of his place in diocese and national church.

In the extensive work of forwarding the policies set up by the General Conventions he was called upon, as one of the representative rectors, to speak in many parts of the country. He was foremost in commending the Nation-Wide-Campaign or budget plan of operation instituted in 1919, as a means of re-awakening the church to a sense of national responsibility. Despite heavy work in parish and city he never spared himself, and willingly put his services at the command of the Presiding Bishop. Only eight months before his death, he spent an entire week in the Diocese of Massachusetts speaking two and three times a day to groups of vestrymen on the forward work of the church.

When General Convention met in Kansas City in 1940, the first meeting after Mr. Nelson's death, the President of the House of Deputies, the late ZeBarney Phillips, said at the opening session:

Later on we shall have the regular memorial to all members of the Convention who have died during the triennium, but as the Convention opens without them I cannot refrain from paying tribute to some of those whom we loved best and best remember. First you will all agree is Frank Nelson who was the outstanding member of this House at Cincinnati. His genuine Christian devotion, his courtesy, his fairness and his gentleness can never be forgotten. Let me tell you one little thing that shows his character. You all know his type of churchmanship, and yet, for the sake of others he placed candles on his altar for the corporate communion. It was a little thing but it was so like Frank Nelson.

Whether in parish, city, or the whole Episcopal Church, his work was affected by a mighty vision of the Kingdom of God on earth which set him apart as an unusual servant who humbly read the scroll of life as it is unrolled to the children of men. He passed on to others the torch of faith which lights the path to the City of God.

FOOTNOTES:

Address at the Centennial of Christ Church, 1917. He spoke in this vein at Conventions though I cannot locate exact statements in official records.

Mr. Nelson's proposal placed the Creed immediately after the Lesson.

The Church and Truth, p.138, Macmillan Co.1924. Used by permission.

Letter to the author, September 12, 1932.

Letter to Mrs. Nelson from Mr. Richard Inglis of Cleveland.

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