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United Methodist theologian J. Robert Nelson dies

 


United Methodist theologian J. Robert Nelson dies

July 16, 2004   

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)-- The Rev. J. Robert Nelson, 83, a renowned United Methodist ecumenist, theologian and bioethicist, died of cancer July 6 in Houston.

Nelson’s began his ecumenical career in 1948 with a groundbreaking dissertation on the doctrine of the nature of the Protestant church, written after he studied theology at the University of Zurich under the personal tutelage of Emil Brunner.

That same year, he attended the First Assembly of the World Council of Churches at Amsterdam, and by 1998, was one of a few individuals who had attended all of the council’s assemblies.

In the mid-‘50s, he worked in Geneva, Switzerland, as head of the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches. His work through the council was credited with enhancing relationships between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.

After three years as dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn., Nelson tendered his resignation in 1960, rather than acquiesce to the dismissal of his black student James Lawson for participating in civil-rights demonstrations. Lawson, now a retired United Methodist clergyman living in California, told The Boston Globe that Nelson had “handled the crisis with poise, Christian strength and character.”

Nelson became professor of systematic theology at Boston University School of Theology in 1965, serving as dean in 1972-74. After his retirement from Boston in 1985, he assumed a new career as director of the Institute on Religion in the Texas Medical Center in Houston, where he taught seminars and organized international conferences on genetics, religion and ethics.

Nelson also served as adjunct professor at Baylor College of Medicine, was a member of Houston Philosophical Society, and was associate editor of Human Gene Therapy. His active service ended in 1991, when an unknown assailant shot him in the head.

He served as a consultant to the President’s Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Biomedical and Behaviorial Research in the mid-‘80s. He was the author of several books, including Human Life: Biblical Perspective on Bioethics and Science and Our Troubled Conscience.

 In addition to degrees from De Pauw University, Yale University and the University of Zurich, he received honorary degrees from Catholic, Orthodox and United Methodist universities, and was the first non-Catholic in 400 years to teach at the Pontifical Gregorian University.

Nelson is survived by his wife, Patricia Mercer Nelson; two sons, Eric, Berwyn, Pa., and William, Los Angeles, and two grandchildren.

The family is establishing a lectureship program in his honor, and asks that any memorial contributions to endow the Nelson Lectures on Interfaith and Ecumenical Solutions for Peace be made through St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, 5501 S. Main Street, Houston, Texas 77004. A July 17 memorial services was planned at the church.

News media contact Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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