Groundbreaking scholar who shaped theological and ethical reflection on sexuality dies at 85
United Church of Christ scholar, teacher, lecturer, and activist the Rev. James B. Nelson passed away Oct. 15 in Tucson, Ariz., surrounded by friends and what his wife had described before her death as a “cloud of witnesses.” He was 85.
“While serving the UCC in the Southwest, I got to know James Nelson,” said the Rev. John C. Dorhauer, UCC general minister and president. “His groundbreaking work on human sexuality and ethics help set the stage for a United Church ready to become Open and Affirming. He knew that human sexuality had to do with more than just genital sex. He helped us understand that sexual expression and intimacy were gifts of the sacred. He was ahead of his time, and endured much abuse and vitriol from those whose sexual ethics were more Victorian. I came to deeply appreciate his courage in the struggle, and his friendship on the journey.”
Nelson, who was born May 28, 1930, in Windom, Minn., was an Eagle Scout and three-sport athlete in high school. In 1952, he graduated from Macalester College in St. Paul with a degree in political science. He co-chaired Religious Emphasis Week at Macalester with a fellow student from South Dakota, Wilys Claire Coulter, whom he married after he joined the Army. Following his stint in the service, the Nelsons moved to New Haven, Conn., and Jim completed his Bachelor of Divinity degree with a Master of Arts and a Ph.D. from Yale.
Nelson was ordained in the UCC, and served churches in Connecticut and South Dakota before returning to Minnesota to join the faculty of United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities (UTS) in 1963, where he taught seminary students for 35 years.
“Jim Nelson was a stellar teacher, and a stellar scholar for the academy and the church,” said Sue Ebbers, director of the Spencer Library at United. “From 1963 until his retirement in 1995, Jim Nelson taught generations of United students, I among them, about Christian ethics, bio-medical ethics, and sexual theology and ethics. He was also a pivotal figure in challenging the larger church to review its theological assumptions about sexual minorities. He and his beloved wife, Wilys Claire, opened their hearts to many seminarians who needed safe space, I among them.”
In the summer of 1964, he and several other seminarians went to Mississippi to register Black Americans to vote, returning the next summer to continue that work. During the Vietnam War, the anti-war movement spurred the former Army Staff Sergeant into taking his family to protest rallies.
Beginning in the early 1970s, Nelson became a champion for the rights of LGBT persons. His special interests were the fields of sexuality and theology, medical ethics, and addiction and theology. He was an advocate for the right to die with dignity, and as a recovering alcoholic, he helped many people struggling with this disease and other issues.
Colleague and friend, the Rev. Wilson Yates, a former UTS Dean and President Emeritus, remembers Nelson as a trailblazer.
“He was a leader within the faculty who helped shape the curriculum and contribute to the rise of United Theological Seminary as a major Theological School in theological education. One of the most popular and highly respected teachers at the school his scholarship was both nationally and internationally recognized in the field of Christian Ethics. He wrote extensively in the field of medical ethics, body theology, the issue of addiction, and his pioneer work in sexual ethics helped shape theological and ethical reflection on sexuality that influenced both the church and secular thought.”
Nelson was an accomplished author, writing 12 books, and had a final book in progress at the time of his death. He was a Visiting Scholar at Oxford and Cambridge Universities and had lectured in Canada, French Martinique, Germany, Israel, Japan, The Netherlands, the Republic of the Philippines, and Sweden.
James Nelson is survived by his son, Stephen Nelson, and Stephen’s wife Denise Nelson of Maine; his grandchildren, Kristin and Bryan Nelson, also of Maine; his daughter, Mary Nelson, and her partner Jeffery Chinn of California; sister-in-law Dorothea Nelson of New York; brother-in-law and sister-in-law George and Beverly Coulter of Wisconsin; brother-in-law Richard Coulter and his wife, Mae Benjamin, of Minnesota; along with cousins, nieces, and nephews. Jim is predeceased by his beloved wife of 56 years, Wilys Claire Nelson.
Always the teacher, even in death, Nelson donated his body to the University of Arizona College of Medicine for anatomical and scientific purposes. At a later point, he will be cremated and his ashes interred in the columbarium of the First Congregational Church of Minnesota beside the ashes of his late wife.
“He will be mourned by hundreds of students and faculty, by theological education, and the field of Christian Ethics, and by United Church of Christ and the church more broadly,” said Yates.
Memorial services will be held at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Ariz., on Tuesday, October 20, and at the First Congregational Church of Minnesota in Minneapolis on Saturday, Nov. 7.
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