December 14, 2017

Dr. Ed Nelson On The Ministry In His Own Words

Dr. Ed Nelson is a man with a long and varied career in the ministry. He has been at the forefront of many aspects of fundamentalism since entering the ministry full time in 1949. He currently sits on the Emeritus Board of the FBFI, has been a well-respected participant in many of the events that shaped the FBFI and other fundamentalist institutions through the years. Recently, he had the opportunity to preach at the church he formerly pastored, now known as Red Rocks Baptist Church, on the occasion of his 90th birthday. On watching highlights of that message (available here), we got the idea of doing an extended interview with him. We thought that we should capture some of his experience for our readers with the idea of preserving some of the wisdom the Lord taught him in the ministry.

We plan to share the result in a series of articles beginning today with basically a testimony of what ministry and ministerial training was like in the middle of the twentieth century. Our times today are not exactly like those times, but Dr. Nelson’s zeal for the Lord and commitment to an active ministry of soul-winning and church planting ought to be something men in the ministry emulate today. We hope that you will find Dr. Nelson’s testimony about the ministry a blessing.

Dr. Ed Nelson On The Ministry In His Own Words

P&D: Dr. Nelson, what I wanted to talk about was your perspective of the ministry, especially after your many years of experience with an emphasis on the area of church planting. From there I’d like to talk about challenges you think are facing pastors today, especially for young men coming into the ministry. I’m sure there are many areas we could touch on in just those two topics. To get started though, let me ask you for a bit of biographical information. What year did you graduate from Bob Jones?

Dr. Nelson: 1949

P&D: I recall hearing about some of your experiences from various messages over the years, did you go directly into evangelism? I know at one point you were trying to go to the mission field, which came first?

Dr. N: We were accepted to go to Japan under T.E.A.M., The Evangelical Alliance Mission, while I was still a senior in college. So I went on deputation during the college year, and the amazing thing is at that time I raised my whole support in one semester, just going out on Wednesdays and Sundays talking about missions. I had my whole support, all my outfit expense, and everything in that semester, so I was fully funded and was scheduled to leave on the USS California Bear on October 15, 1949. [But] to make this story sensible, I have to go back to before I went to college.

The thing that brought me to Christ, literally, was that in 1941 I was in an accident working on the farm. I had a runaway with a team of horses. I was taken to the hospital and my parents were told that they thought I wouldn’t live till the morning. (By the way, I did live!) The thing that saved my life was a doctor came in to see me at the hospital from Denver (we were in Greeley, Colorado, about sixty miles away). He came because my dad had known him. He recommended that they give me a dose of sulfathiazole which was a new sulfa drug at that time. The normal dosage was four tablets a day, but they began to give me a tablet an hour. They didn’t know how to handle it, didn’t give me any liquid, and later I developed Bright’s disease. However, I was in the hospital for a number of weeks and then I went home and I began to recover.

I was sick with Bright’s disease some while in school [at BJU], but I got along, ate at the diet table every day, and got out [of school] and I was feeling good. So after graduating from college we were out in some meetings [while waiting to go to Japan. But I] got so that I just couldn’t go any farther, so we came back to Colorado and went to see a doctor. He said that I had Bright’s disease again, something that many fellows had then because they did the same thing on the battlefield in World War II, they gave them the sulfathiazole and didn’t know how to handle it. They said that it was almost a one hundred percent death rate, and the doctor said, “You’ve got six months to live.” So I notified the mission board and they cancelled me from being a missionary.

Well, I didn’t know anything to do but do evangelistic work, so I went out into evangelistic work but I was a sick man. I went out into evangelistic work anyway and was holding meetings around the country and the mission board heard about it and they said, “If you can do that in America, we believe you can go to the mission field.” So they reappointed me but I had given all my support away. So I went out and raised support a second time, but again I got down [with illness] and couldn’t go. The doctor said, “This time, for sure, you only have six months to live. Don’t try to do anything, but if you have to preach find a small church somewhere and preach once a week until you die and that will give you a little fulfillment.” But I couldn’t find anybody that wanted me to pastor a church like that, so I went back into evangelistic work and the mission board came to me a third time, and said, “Let’s try it again.” I ended up in the hospital again and I said, “I’m not going to argue with God anymore,” so I didn’t go to the mission field.

So I was going out as a missionary but I ended up in evangelistic work across America. God did some unusual things, it wasn’t long before I was booked for years in advance and had good meetings and traveled over the country. After a while, I got to thinking that I needed to learn what a pastor goes through in the ministry because, although being in evangelistic work and being with pastors all the time, I thought I needed to understand it more. I remember talking to a preacher about it, and saying to him, “What do you think about me taking a pastorate and working that side so that I can understand how to help pastors?” He said, “Well, as an evangelist you get to observe all the problems pastors have but you don’t have to go through them, so you kind of get pastoral experience by osmosis.” But I thought that didn’t work, so I came to the Aurora, Colorado, area and started a church. I did that with no support, no background or anything. I started a church, the Hoffman Heights Baptist Church, and it went well. In three years, we were running about three hundred.

In those days (shame on me) I have to admit it, I was a member of the Conservative Baptist Association and so I made that church a Conservative Baptist church. After I left, they brought in a Conservative Baptist pastor and the thing went downhill and it is no more. So that’s my background of getting into the ministry.

I went back out into revival work, but I still thought I really needed to be a pastor so one day I was in California, I thought Southern California would be the place to start a church. I was with the Conservative Baptists and a representative of the Conservative Baptists took me over and showed me various places. He showed me Thousand Oaks. Thousand Oaks is a big area now, but it wasn’t anything then, they were just getting started. There were a few houses there and a lot of oak trees. I bought one of the new houses with a plan to start a church. I bought it in my name and my wife’s name and came back to Colorado and said, “We’ve got to get ready and sell our house because we’re going to California to start a church.”

After I got back to Colorado, a church called me – it was called South Sheridan Baptist Church. It was a small work, I’d held a meeting there in the past. They said, “Our pastor has left, would you consider becoming our pastor?” I said, “No, I won’t because I’m already scheduled to go to California. I can’t do it.” A little later they called again, but I said again, “I can’t.” Well, the real estate company in California sent me papers that I had to get notarized at a bank and my wife had to be notarized as well. We went to the notary public at the bank, who asked us to write down our names. Now my wife’s name is Frances Guyla Nelson, but she always went by Guyla and I didn’t know how to spell her name, I guess [laughing]. I wrote down F-R-A-N-C-I-S instead of F-R-A-N-C-E-S on the papers out in California. (The “I-S” is a man’s name and “E-S” is a woman’s name.) The banker looked it over and noticed the mistake. I said, “Well, I’ll just change that.” He said, “Oh, but you can’t, we’ll have to send these papers back and get them to make it right out there.” So he sent them back to the company and they didn’t come and they didn’t come. In the meantime I was in various meetings and South Sheridan Baptist Church called me again. Finally I decided I couldn’t keep waiting and found out the [real estate company] couldn’t seem to find my papers. So South Sheridan called, and I went over to preach for them, but had to fly to Auburn, California, for a meeting that night. I preached that morning, I had met with the deacons the week before, and that night in Auburn, CA, they called and said we’ve given you a 98% call if you will come. I said, “I believe it’s of God and I’m going to come.” So the next day I went over to Thousand Oaks to the real estate company and said, “Look, I haven’t heard from you folks, so I’ve accepted a church in Colorado, so I’d like to get my earnest money back.” They said, “Well, we’ve lost your papers, we’ve never found them, so we’ll give you your money back even though we don’t usually do that.” So that’s how I went into the pastorate at South Sheridan. I went in as pastor there and stayed thirty years.

P&D: What year did you start at South Sheridan?

Dr. N: Uh, 1950, pardon me, it was 1960 and I retired from there in 1990.

P&D: Well, that’s quite a history. I remember hearing you preach at BJU years ago, and I recall you talking about your experiences there as a preacher boy. I was wondering about how your experiences there and your training at BJU prepared you for the church planting and evangelistic ministry.

Dr. N: In those days, Bob Jones, Sr., was very active. His challenge to us always was to be an evangelist. I was under the impression that if you couldn’t be an evangelist, you could pick second best and go on and be a pastor. Well, that’s how I felt, anyway, but the emphasis was on evangelism. There was a day when John R. Rice came to the school. He came around noon time. During lunch in the Dining Room, Dr. Bob stood up to make an announcement and said, “You know, Dr. John R. Rice has dropped by. I think we ought to hear him even though we’ve already had Chapel. We’re going to have a second chapel today. We’ll meet in the chapel at 2:30 and John R. Rice is going to preach to us.”

We went in for the special chapel, no assigned seats for this session, so I went down and sat pretty close to the front and heard John R. Rice for the first time. He preached a message on “Putting Bread Before Your Family,” a great message from Luke chapter 11. He challenged us on the idea of trying to win our families to the Lord. He said, “Have you ever put ‘bread’ before your family, tried to win your family to Christ.” Well, I hadn’t.

I had gotten saved in October of 1944 under the ministry of Dr. Bob Jones, Sr. He came to preach at First Baptist Church of Fort Collins, Colorado. Our mailman stopped me one day while I was out on the sugar beet puller in our sugar beet field. He climbed the fence and came out in the field and said to me, “I want to invite you to a revival meeting.” Boy, I didn’t want to go, because my parents had said, “You don’t want to go to revival meetings, that’s what Holy Rollers do, and we don’t want to be Holy Rollers!” So I didn’t want to go. But I had such respect for this man, I said, “I’ll come.”

I went that night to hear Bob Jones, Sr., preach and I didn’t like it at all. He was dynamic, he walked around on the platform, and he waved his handkerchief… man, I was used to “preacherettes preaching sermonettes and smoking cigarettes” and all the rest. So I heard that message, didn’t like it, and on the way home, and I said, “I’m not going back again.” But the next day, I was out on that sugar beet puller again, and I got to thinking. “He made me mad last night, I didn’t like it, and said I wouldn’t go back, but I wonder what he’s going to say to make me mad tonight. If I’m not there, I won’t know what to be mad about.” [Laughter from P&D] Honestly, that was the way I was thinking. So I decided to go again to see what I could get mad about. I did that on Wednesday night again, and on Thursday night I went the third time and accepted the Lord that night. It was the first time I ever heard that I was a sinner and needed a Saviour.

One year later, Bob Jones, Jr., came to that same church and brought a message. I was leading the singing, though I’m not a song leader at all. All the other young men were off to the war, I hadn’t been able to go because I had this Bright’s disease and couldn’t get my heart to beat slow enough to pass the test. So they asked me to help out and I led the singing. Dr. Bob, Jr., kept saying to me, “Young man, you need to come to Bob Jones and get some training.” I didn’t know what I was doing. He asked me what I was planning to do, and I said, “Well, I’m a farmer, and I’m farming with my dad, and I’d like to farm, buy more property and expand, and then eventually I’d like to get involved in politics and run for political office.” Well, he said to me, “That’s a noble thing [to do], but have you ever stopped to realize that you’re putting props under something that’s only going to fall [eventually]?” Wow! I never got over that. I went home thinking about that. The last night of the meeting, I went forward, I was the only one who did, and accepted the call from God [to preach].”

That was in October and I decided that I would go to school the next January. I had an uncle who was a great influence on me. His name was John Peterson, he lived in Kansas City. He was my mother’s brother and had married my father’s sister, so we were a very close-knit family. They had been very poor during the Depression, but he married my aunt and they went down and lived in a little tent there in Kansas City for a while. He began working at what we called in those days the Dime Store. After a while, the owner sold the store to him, he went on and built a chain of Dime Stores and became a multi-millionaire. So I respected him.

My uncle was a Lutheran, and the Lutheran pastor came to him and asked him if he would teach Sunday school. He agreed, but he went home and told his wife, “I guess we better buy a Bible, that man asked me to teach Sunday school, I better find out what the Bible says.” So he got a Bible and started reading it. He began to realize he was a sinner and got saved. Then he wanted me to be saved and prayed for me, then [after I got saved] he wanted me to be a preacher and he prayed for that. I wrote to him about what happened to me, how I had been saved under Bob Jones, Sr., and accepted the call to the ministry under Bob Jones, Jr. He wrote back and said, “I’m so glad for the impact they’ve had on your life, but the one thing I don’t want you to do is go to Bob Jones. I’ve got a vision for you going to Wheaton and getting good training.”

As a result of that, I didn’t apply to Bob Jones, I applied to Wheaton but I never got an answer back. Our church was a Conservative Baptist church, not real strong in some ways, but it preached the gospel. They promoted Taylor College and Houghton College, not Baptist schools, but suggested I apply there. I applied to both of those places and neither of them answered either. I wanted to go to school so I wrote to Bob Jones. Well, Bob Jones had a policy where they answered every letter within twenty-four hours. My wife was working in the offices at the time and she was one of those who answered the letters. I don’t know if she was the one that answered mine, but they answered their letters right away. And they sent their answers by Air Mail! These other schools never answered, but in less than a week from sending that letter, I had an answer from Bob Jones and on it was a six cent Air Mail stamp! That said something, to spend six cents when you could mail a letter for three cents. Air Mail letters were important. In this one, they said they would make a place for me so I went to Bob Jones.

On the way to school, I took a train through the Chicago area to reach Cleveland, Tennessee (there were no planes flying in those days). I had a layover for a day, so I decided to go over and see Wheaton. I went over there and visited and talked to the Registrar. I explained about my letter and he explained, “Well, the reason we didn’t answer was we didn’t have any room for you so we just didn’t answer.” I explained to him that I was on my way to Bob Jones and he said, “Oh, well, go on there for a semester and then come here next semester and I’ll make room for you.” I reserved a place and got on the train and went on to Bob Jones. I’d been there three weeks and I realized, “I like this place.” So I wrote to the registrar and said, “Cancel my reservation, I’m staying put.”

I’m not answering your question very well, the question was how did I get into evangelism? Well, after hearing Dr. Rice, I went to my room and got down on my knees and said, “Lord, I don’t know if I’ll ever make much of a preacher, but I’d sure like to be a soul-winner.” He had preached on soul-winning and I decided I’d go out soul-winning every chance I get. Now, I’d never learned how to win souls and hadn’t won a soul to Christ yet. I’d never tried.

The next week I went over to the school office and picked up a bunch of their tracts. In those days there was a tract titled “This is Important.” It had as an outline, “You are a sinner, you deserve death for your sins, Christ died to pay for your sins, and you must accept the Lord as your saviour from sin.” There are lots of tracts along that line. This was a small one, but it presented the message. I got 2500 copies and went out on the next Saturday. I was going to give out tracts. I went on down to Chattanooga from Cleveland, about thirty miles. I started handing out tracts all over downtown and came to the Chattanooga railroad station. In those days, that railroad station was a hub going in many directions, a very busy place.

I was handing out tracts in the station and a fellow came up dressed in a black suit, white shirt and a black bow tie. He was holding an instrument case. I handed him a tract and he took it. As he took along came another one, dressed just like him, black suit, white shirt, black bow tie, carrying an instrument case. I gave him a tract, and a few others just like them. I had about six of them, and they were all standing there reading them. I thought, “Well, I’ve got a congregation, I ought to preach to them.” So I stood up on a bench there in the station and said, “You fellows reading those tracts, look up this way.” I was preparing for the ministry and I preached my first sermon. It wasn’t very long, but I’d heard Romans 6.23 made a good sermon so I preached to them that everyone has to pay for their sins but you don’t have to because Jesus has already paid the price. I suppose I spoke for about five or six minutes but by then, the congregation was now over twenty, black suits, white shirts, black bow ties and black instrument cases. I asked anyone who wanted to respond to raise their hand but none of them did.

After I got down off the bench, I asked them, “By the way, who are you fellows?” A man stepped out and introduced himself (I can’t think of his name now, but I knew it). He had one of the leading bands in that day, they had been playing a concert in Chattanooga and were headed to New York to play at the Metropolitan Opera. They thanked me for my message and I gave every one of them a tract. That was my introduction to soul winning. I went all day and spoke to a lot of people but didn’t win anybody to the Lord.

The next Saturday I went back to Chattanooga but decided I didn’t have to go downtown, I went into the neighborhoods and started knocking on doors. I spent the whole day doing that and nobody got saved. The next Saturday after that, I decided to go to Knoxville. I didn’t think anybody in Chattanooga wanted to be saved. (I didn’t know about Lee Roberson winning them by the dozens in those days.) So I went on up to Knoxville. I went downtown and nobody got saved. I went into the housing area and knocked on doors and found nobody willing to listen. I finally came to a door and the fellow said, “Well, I am not interested in this, but I know where there is a fellow who does.” I said, “Where does he live?” He said, “He lives in Cleveland, Tennessee.” That was the town I was hitchhiking out of every Saturday! He gave me the address, and explained that his father-in-law had suffered a heart attack and he was living in a little shack in Cleveland and said that he was calling for a Baptist preacher.

I told him, “Well, I’m a Baptist and I’m a preacher, so I’ll go.” He gave me the address and I caught a bus back to Cleveland. When I got to the station, I stepped up and yelled, “Taxi!” and one pulled up. (I had never caught a taxi before in my life – I was still a farm boy!) I got in the taxi and gave him the address. He said, “I believe I’m the only man in this town who knows where this address is.” He took me out to the edge of town and then off onto a dirt road, went a little ways, turned down onto a lane, and then drove off that lane into a field. We drove through the field a ways and there was a shack right out there in the middle of the field. He said, “There’s the house.” So I paid him and went up to the door, which was kind of ajar. I knocked on the door, but the door opened a little bit. I pushed it further and saw a little light down the hallway. I called out, “Hello, hello?” Somebody was calling back, so went on into the house, down that hall, into a dimly lit bedroom. And there lay that man. He was in a bad way. He was a tobacco chewer. Somebody had made a little trough out of paper and put it from the edge of his lips down to the side of a bed into a coffee can below. The juice was running down that paper a little bit at a time. I knelt down by that coffee can (it stunk to high heaven) and told him, “Your son-in-law told me that you’ve been calling for a Baptist preacher.” He said, “Yes, I want to get saved, I haven’t been saved, could you tell me how?” So I told him what the tract said about salvation. He said, “I’ll do it, I’ll do it,” and he accepted the Lord right then.

After dealing with this man, I decided I’d just walk back to the school. I got back just about ten o’clock that night just as they were starting our hall prayer meeting. When I came in, they were singing, so I just joined the group. After the song, they called for testimonies, and I spoke up. “I’ve seen the first person saved in my ministry tonight.” Man, that got the group all excited and they wanted to know all about it. I was just a freshman.

I decided to just keep on doing what I had been doing, going out every week. We did various things, we’d do door-to-door and other things. I was leading some souls to Christ nearly every week. Pretty soon preachers began inviting me to preach in their pulpits and work in their churches and I began to experience various things of the ministry through this. The next semester I brought my car to school and I would go out all over on the weekends.

I remember one week they asked me to come up to Kannapolis, North Carolina for a youth rally and bring a quartet. The school had a good quartet, Gail Gingery was one of them, and Warren Mack, both of them became professors at the school. They went with me. It was a city wide youth meeting, it was held at the Presbyterian church which would seat about 800 I think. It was packed. I had the privilege of preaching to them. I preached about Dedicating Your Life to be in the Will of God. I gave an invitation and ninety people came forward. The local paper had a front page article the next week, “Almost a Billy Sunday Revival.” They wrote a two-column article about it and the “kid preacher.” It was a great meeting. Things like that happened all through my years at BJU.


We will continue with some of Dr. Nelson’s comments on church planting and fundamentalist philosophy in a future article.


Although Proclaim & Defend is the blog of the FBFI, the articles we post are not an expression of the views of the FBFI as a whole, they are the views of the author under whose name they are published. The FBFI speaks either through position statements by its board or through its president. Here at Proclaim & Defend, we publish articles as matters of interest or edification to the wider world of fundamentalist Baptists and any others who might be interested.

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