N. J. W. Nelson
The Forth Pastor of Cordelia. By Larry Lass.
The forth pastor of Cordelia Lutheran Church was said to possess more factual knowledge concerning the work of the Augustana Lutheran Church Synod than any other person, and enjoyed expressing his controversial views in the church press. Nels John Wilhem Nelson was known as N. J. W. Nelson in his signature and writings. He was born to Mons and Hana (Roos) Nilson on April 6, 1867 in Finja socken, Skane, Sweden, and was baptized in infancy. He had one sister who passed away in 1923. Life in Sweden was hard for the Nilson family. During emigration to the United States in 1868, their name was changed to Nelson. Relatives in Utah, “Land of Mormons”, promised them a fresh start, but it proved difficult as non-Mormons, and their early restart was marked by poverty and “hard knocks”. In 1882, they moved to Minnesota. His schooling was very intermittent and fragmentary. He was confirmed at age 16 in Anoka, Minnesota by Rev. J. D. Nelsenius. In his 1942 autobiography he states that “confirmation instruction made little or no impression on me. My intellect was slow in developing!” He worked at farming in his early years before attending college.
Rev. N. J. W. (Nels John Wilhem) Nelson
In the fall of 1887, N. J. W. Nelson entered the Academy at Gustavus Adolphus College located in St. Peter, Minnesota. He said in his 1949 Biographical Data, provided for the Augustana Book of Concern, “I wasn’t much of a student in my early youth (don’t know if I am yet!).” He graduated from College in the Spring of 1893, in a class numbering seven.
He entered the Augustana Seminary, then located in Chicago, Illinois in the Fall of 1893 and graduated in June 1895. In classic N. J. W. sharp wit, he stated, “ I spent the required two years there.” Later he recalled in the Augustana Book of Concern, “Looking back upon those two years I want to say, that we got next to no practical instruction on how to prepare a sermon, how to deliver it, and other matters that enter into the sphere of pastoral activity. I wonder if our seminary today is more practical than it was in ye olden times?”
After graduation, he married Ida Elizabeth Shallene on June 26, 1895 in Davenport, Iowa. They had five girls and two boys. To N. J. W.’s great joy later in life he claimed, “All are married,” and “All loyal to our Church.” Pastor Nelson’s first church was at Bethsaida Lutheran near LaConner, Washington. He served from 1895 to 1900. LaConner is three miles west of Mount Vernon, Washington. The church is no longer active.
N. J. W. and Ida Nelson with family
Zion and Cordelia Lutheran Churches called him in the spring of 1900. Cordelia church financial records were not reported in 1900, but the pastor’s salary for 1898 was $80 and did not change in the 1901 report. Offerings were not always voluntary and records showed members were asked to give $6.00 per man person and $5.00 per female person to help pay the new pastor’s salary. In 1902, there were 47 adult members and 23 children attending Cordelia. Financially stable the church reported paying Pastor Nelson $84.00 in 1902 but the salary fell to $80 again in 1903 and remained there. Pastor Nelson and his family lived in Moscow and traveled to Cordelia for services. Between 1901 and 1907 records showed Loth Carlson, Lewis Larson, Peter Bohman, Peter Nelson, and Andrew Olson being thanked for two to three months of making sure the church was ready and housing the pastor when he came for services. Their farmsteads were close to the church. Andrew Olson typically took October, November and December because his farm was around the bend in the road just to the south of the church. In 1907, the total budget for the church was $131.02. They gave Augustana College $1.60, down by about half from 1906. In 1908, Cordelia’s reported budget was $118.20: for salary of the pastor ($80), organist ($16) and synod ($22.20). Cordelia appeared to have had a small stable community supporting the church.
Pastor Nelson with Confirmation Class. Date unknown but between 1900 and 1909, excluding 1908. All unknown.
Ken Bezold Collection.
N. W. J. Nelson confirmation class - 1908 Julia Schumacker and Harry Sampson with 10 unknowns.
Ken Bezold Collection.
Pastor Nelson came to Zion of Moscow, Idaho and recognized the need for a larger building to accommodate this growing congregation. Zion had over 250 members and growing pains were evident since they were still using the church built by Pastor Carlson in 1886. At the time, Zion was the largest church in the Columbia Conference. The old church measured 40 by 28 feet with a tower in the southeast corner. Members of the Building Committee were G. E. Anderson, F. M. Gustafson, C. B. Green, G. Johnson, J. T. Johnson, N. A. Nelson, P. Nelson, and Pastor N. J. W. Nelson. Work on the new church was started in 1905 and completed in 1906. The new church cost over $5000 to construct, and there were 288 members. The church dedication on March 11, 1906 during the Columbia Conference was conducted by the Conference President, Martin L. Larson, and other pastors at the conference.
The 1908 records of Zion Lutheran in Moscow show Pastor Nelson was paid $700 and the organist received $50. The electric light company received $44.30.
In the spring of 1909 Pastor Nelson resigned from Zion and Cordelia to move to Trinity Lutheran in Mc Pherson, Kansas. While at Trinity he wrote numerous articles on his view of the church in the “Linsborgs-Posten,” from 1909 to 1912.
In 1913, Pastor Nelson moved to First Lutheran in Bellingham, Washington and served there until 1915. He then served at First Lutheran in Anaconda, Montana until 1920. He moved to Zion Lutheran of Cloquet, Minnesota and served there until 1924. While at Zion, he became active in the Minnesota Conference and served as Secretary between 1921 and 1934. He was first elected to the position of Secretary of the Augustana Synod in 1923 and was elected to the position for another 22 years. He also served as Chairman of the Board of Bethany Children’s Home from 1923 to 1924. During this time, N. J. W. Nelson started to write his views of the church and Augustana Synod in the Minnesota State Tidings and regularly submitted from 1920 to about 1935. Pastor Nelson moved to Balaton, Minnesota where he served the dual parishes of Sillerud and Trinity Lutheran Churches from 1924 to 1942. In 1937, Pastor Nelson received the honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity from his alma mater, Gustavus Adolphus College. After retirement in 1942, he served as a vacancy pastor in East and West Sveadahl, Minnesota; Swea City, Iowa; Bancroft, Iowa and Carthage, South Dakota.
His writings of his views in the Minnesota State Tidings did not please many of the members of the Augustana Synod. His autobiography calls them the “elite” members but in reality they were the church leaders. During the 1930 Synod Convention, the members finally took action to “deplore” the appearance of such articles in the form of resolution to censure N. W. J. Nelson. Resolution 14 was passed and was reported in the minutes of the 1930 Convention on page 44. N. J. W. Nelson would report in his autobiography, “A prominent pastor wrote me asking the question, ‘Do you think the Lord would find as many faults with the church leaders of your day as you do?’ My reply was ‘Yes and many more.’ You know as well as I do that the maledictions of Jesus were directed especially against the Church leaders of his day.” Undaunted by the censure and with new material to focus on he continued publishing his views about the church and Synod until 1935. Despite being censured, Pastor Nelson was reelected as the Secretary of the Augustana Synod for term after term for another 14 years!
N. J. W. Nelson died on April 21, 1954 at age 87. He was living in St. Peter, Minnesota. His obituary listed the location of his children as: Mrs. Ruby Sedlund, Central City Minnesota; Mrs. Vivian Johnson, Almelund, Minnesota; Mrs. Phyllis Mansfield; Soap Lake, Washington; Mrs. Irma Borgen, Esen, Germany; Mrs. Aileen Johnson, Minneapolis, Minnesota; Austin Nelson, San Francisco, California and Merle T. Nelson, Highland Park, Michigan. He had 16 grandchildren and three great grandchildren at the time of his death.