The Mystery of Personality
"There is not one of us but in some measure
is in his debt."

-- The Cincinnati Enquirer


"All the hold those people have on God is me. It is terrible. It bothers me. They love me but they don't come to church." Mr. Nelson confided in this vein one night to his intimate friend, Jesse Halsey, into whose study he had stopped on his way home from a call in a distant suburb. While it was inevitable that some people should use him as a crutch or should let him do their climbing for them, the truth of the matter is that he was a chosen channel for the communication of the Divine Spirit to earth-bound men. Because he was genuinely humble, he was troubled about those people who could approach God only through him. If they little sensed that what they loved in him was God, they nevertheless were compelled by their limitations to think of God in terms of Frank Nelson.

He was only a voice in the successive generations of men whom God has sent to minister unto this world, but men loved the voice and though it is now no longer heard, the mystery and wonder of his personality still remain. The happy blend of the spiritual and the human in his nature had a profound influence upon those who knew him. Though poor, faltering words may suggest the salient outlines of his character, the richness and singularity of it defy complete expression.

Mr. Nelson's rare gifts of mind and spirit were enhanced by a robust physique. He was tall, well-proportioned, and in his last twenty years took on an almost majestic bearing which gave him a distinguished appearance in any company. In his manner there was that graciousness which men call charm or presence. Those who associated with him, whether rich or poor, talented or commonplace, felt his friendliness. He was at home with all kinds of people, and though born on the sunny side of the street, and by birth and breeding an aristocrat, he became one of the most democratic of men. Because of his greatness some approached him hesitatingly, but they went away remembering only his kindness of heart. He never stood on his dignity in that sense which conveys condescension. His gay, infectious laughter which so often filled a room put people immediately at ease, and yet he never belittled his calling nor lowered himself to meet men.

There was a look of keenness in his eyes that sometimes pierced one through and through, but always there shone forth faith and sympathy and understanding. It was the warmth of his humanity that drew people, and consciously or unconsciously gave them confidence and a stronger readiness to meet life. Bishop Edward L. Parsons of California writes, "When with him you felt as if you were entirely safe. You knew that his judgment would be sound. You knew that he was too big to be dominated by personal considerations."

The same warmth expressed itself in his appreciation of other men's opinions, and because he was decisive in outlook and views, he found pleasure and stimulus in the spirited exchange of ideas and in sprightly repartee. In the Episcopal Church there is an amazing diversity of thought on ecclesiastical matters. Frank Nelson, for instance, represented one conviction, and the Right Reverend Spence Burton, now Lord Bishop of Nassau, quite another. "We were the best of friends," writes Bishop Burton, who is a Cincinnatian by birth, "and we often disagreed but got on happily together because I think that temperamentally we were somewhat alike -- what might vulgarly be known as whole-hoggers. In that way we understood each other and did not annoy each other nearly so much as if we had had the idea that we could have only as much affection for each other as we had agreement with one another." The admiration and affection which Mr. Nelson elicited was pointedly demonstrated at his funeral. Bishop Burton sat in the chancel alongside the Reverend Jesse Halsey, the Presbyterian minister. Dr. Halsey said: "Bishop Burton, perfect gentleman that he is, not once crossed himself in deference to Frank's (to him, atrocious) low church prejudices!" Frank Nelson was like that. Respect for him sometimes came grudgingly, but it came because there was no personal animosity in the man. He was honored because he was a moral and a spiritual force with which to be reckoned.

His election to the Commercial Club of Cincinnati in 1923 is another indication of his democratic and appealing character. This club is one of the city's most exclusive, its membership being comprised entirely of business executives, captains of industry, and a small sprinkling of professional men. The constitution of the club allows for three honorary members, and at the time of Mr. Nelson's election, the only honorary member was William Howard Taft. An extract from the Club's minutes reads:

Believing that it would be a merited recognition of one of our most worthy citizens, won by his unselfish zeal for the cause of humanity, and as a leader for higher ideals in our civic life, your Executive Committee unanimously recommend the election of Rev. Frank H. Nelson to be an honorary member of the Commercial Club.

Each year at the Club's Christmas dinner, Mr. Nelson invariably gave an address on some contemporary significance of Christmas. His message was deeply impressive to this inner circle of representative citizens, for he was one with them in spirit, even as he was one with the humblest of his parish. In turn, such associations gave him courage and reenforced his will to persist in a difficult calling, as the following lines penned to a club member reveal:

I wonder if you and a few men who are like you in real understanding and real goodness, realize what your confidence and friendship do for a minister? It isn't easy for us to keep our faith in what is right and just and true, when successful men tell us we don't know what we are talking about -- that our faith is plain foolishness in the face of realities.

He entered into the Club's frolics with huge enjoyment, and on one occasion took part in a pageant, dressed in the vestments of a mediaeval bishop. During an outing in the South, the Club attended a religious service, and while in the church Mr. Walter Draper had his pocket picked. After the service, in some excitement he freely expressed his indignation, continuing at great length until Mr. Nelson gleefully returned the filched article!

Out of his warmth of human feeling there came a real capacity for enjoying simple, ordinary things. If he was stirred by the tragedy and the immemorial pain of humanity, he was also moved by the elemental ties of family and friendship, and by all the simplicity that lends them zest and joy. He loved anniversaries, and was deeply appreciative of the innumerable remembrances he received on those occasions. Christmas parties in his home were a particular delight to friends and to those members of the staff fortunate enough to enjoy the hospitality of Mr. and Mrs. Nelson. He was child-like at heart, and those close to him were warmed by his gaiety and thoughtfulness. He had a feeling for music and when he led the carol rehearsals in the parish house hall before Christmas and Easter, the boys and girls responded whole-heartedly. He took charge in a firm manner; in fact no bronco was ever more competently restrained than his youngsters. The chorus of boys and girls sang softly or loudly at his will, and enjoyed it, and when he left the platform, they did not growl an adieu, they applauded!

Mr. Nelson's interest in people, and the work he accomplished had for a background the sort of home environment which enhanced his capacity. In 1907 he was married to Miss Mary Eaton, the daughter of William Oriel Eaton, a Cincinnati artist of distinction. Their adopted daughter, Ruth, was an unending delight to him, and he lived to officiate at her marriage, and to become a happy grandfather. Mrs. Nelson's admirable arrangements of the household left him free of the many details that might hamper a man in public office. He did not have to worry about bringing home unexpected guests, and when he was not at home Mrs. Nelson carried on in a loyal manner expressive of his interest in people. At one time before the Travelers' Aid Society was organized, a mother and two children arrived at the railroad station in some sort of pressing difficulty. Not knowing where to go, the mother inquired of the telephone operator, who suggested "Rev. Nelson." The woman in her distress went to the rector's home on Pike Street. Mr. Nelson was out of the city, but in characteristic fashion, his wife took them in and kept them overnight. Mrs. Nelson's interest and work in the parish, particularly with the young candidates for the Girls' Friendly Society, was of a notable quality, and her fine understanding of their problems was not only an important factor in the effectiveness of that organization, but also happily supplemented her husband's unceasing labors.

Frank Nelson was continually sensitive to his good fortune in possessing adequate means, in contrast to the deprivation and financial difficulties of many others. He was incapable of concealment and there was a refreshing frankness to his acknowledgment one Sunday morning when, speaking on the parish budget, he facetiously told his congregation that his salary was too large but he did not have the moral courage to refuse it! He was also fortunate in many other ways, such as being free from illness the larger part of his life, and from personal bereavements, for his parents lived to a ripe age. His gift of imagination in dealing with many problems not experienced by him personally was, therefore, the more unusual. "Genius is the power of getting knowledge with the least possible experience, and one of the greatest differences between men is in the amount of experience they need of anything in order to understand it."[21]

The even tenor of his lot in life did not produce in him self-satisfaction and complacency, but often did make him uneasy. He had inherited his father's sternness of conscience and moral fibre. At one time when a parishioner sold a piece of property and asked Mr. Nelson to use the money to buy his first car, he was sorely perplexed as to the appropriateness of accepting such a gift and allowing himself the luxury of an automobile. He wondered what some of the people in his parish would think. When calling in the "Bottoms," he often wore an old, blue serge suit. He was acutely aware that his salary came in part from many who had little, and to the end of his days his conscience troubled him about this, wanting as he did to share the life of the least of his people.

Frank Nelson was a singularly modest person. In the early years of his ministry one did not hear much about what he was doing. Everywhere people talked of Stein's distinguished preaching, and not much was said about Mr. Nelson's talents. He belittled his own abilities, and imagined that things which were difficult for him came easily to other people. He not only deprecated his skill in preaching, but thought he had no capacity for meeting intellectuals on their own ground. It cannot be said that he had an inferiority complex for that implies weakness, and in Frank Nelson power and gentleness were happily and usefully joined. The honor and acclaim that came to him from church and city never impressed him unduly; in fact, he was saddened by them because they represented a seeming success which in comparison with the great ideals of the Christian ministry approximates failure. "So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants; we have done that which was our duty to do."

His exceptional sense of reality and proportion, which is the very essence of humility, made him a forceful leader and at the same time congenial company. Because he was completely sincere and unaffected, his friends felt no self-consciousness in the presence of "the cloth." They in turn could be candid with him. This fact was once amusingly demonstrated when the music at Christ Church was not at its customary high standard, and Mr. Nelson, happening to meet a parishioner who had not been in church for some time, asked her why, and enjoyed a good chuckle over her reply: "Oh! I am tired of hearing the choir bawl and you bawl!" There was always a lively give and take in his friendships. On one occasion at the close of an inter-faith meeting, he was chided by a Roman Catholic friend about his poor speech. Admitting that he had come unprepared, Mr. Nelson without the slightest sign of resentment offered to drive his friend home, and they had a good two hour talk in front of the Roman Cathedral.

The range of his friendships was extraordinary for he possessed the capacity to kindle admiration and affection. Many a man found him a refreshing tonic, and would say, "I felt better for contact with him." He was a frequent participant at the Round Table discussions in the University Club, and delighted in the exchange of thought that came from all sorts. At the time of the death of his friend, Father Finn, the Pastor of St. Xavier's Church, which is in the vicinity of Christ Church, Mr. Nelson attended the Requiem Mass, and afterwards was observed standing by the hearse, head uncovered and tears in his eyes, for they had been the best of friends. A great personality is more than what he says, and many times brushes aside the trammels of the popular conception of the institution which he represents. Frank Nelson had a well-nigh perfect concept of what it means to be a Christian; and, therefore, in his wide range of friendship among all faiths and those of no faith, he carried himself without the faintest hint of disloyalty to the Episcopal Church. As he was never colorless, men knew where he stood, and though sometimes disagreeing with him, friends and critics alike recognized his genuine goodness and knew his motives to be without guile. He would say, "Always believe a person right until proved otherwise. Take people at face value. I am a fool, but that is the only way to begin." Such were the tenets of his quiet pugnacity of faith in human beings. It is no wonder that a working-man called him, "The greatest Christian in shoe-leather I ever met; a Christian capitalist worthy of anyone's emulation"; or that his faithful colored sexton, who waited on him, shined his shoes, and served him devotedly to the end of his days, should say, "We were pals. He was always tops with me."

Mr. Nelson was often the one called upon when grace of speech, dignity of manner and discriminating taste were required. At a community mass meeting in Music Hall in 1927, he was chosen to introduce the speaker of the evening, Miss Maude Royden, the noted English preacher. He accompanied Miss Royden to the center of the platform with all the courtliness of a true gentleman, and with that deference due a gentlewoman and an eminent personage. His introduction was an instance of his singular felicity of expression and his ability to state in choice language the sentiments prompted by the event of the moment. Such was Mr. Nelson's gift for being master of every occasion. Sitting in the back row of the immense hall which was crowded to the doors, I felt that the audience quickly sensed the fitness of the presence on the same platform of two such estimable representatives of the Christian Church.

To illustrate further his command of language and his absolute candor, there is an incident which also neatly tested his tact and truthfulness. One sultry evening in Holy Week, when a long-winded clergyman was preaching, it appeared to me that the rector dozed. I wondered what he could honestly say to the man. After the service when we were in the sacristy, he put his arm around the preacher's shoulders, and said, "Old man, you set me to thinking!" His tact was never failing, though often its diplomatic flavor could be more than faintly sensed!

Accompanying his humility of spirit there was in his nature and his opinions an air of authority wholly unecclesiastical, purely personal, but immensely impressive. It came in part from his particular type of intellect. He had an assimilative mind, which enabled him, for example, to acquire rapidly the gist of a book, and to state succinctly and clearly a point which he was desirous of making. His was an intuitive knowledge rather than a scientific. It was not the kind of knowledge of which the dogmatists speak and in which they alone can believe. Mr. Nelson's knowledge was the sort which sees into the life of things and of men. His intellectual powers were richly developed by his parish work and heavy responsibilities, and by his reflection upon all kinds of experiences and his understanding insight into other people's problems. A forty years' ministry combined with such a type of mind gave him, for one thing, a rather fine grasp of medical science. He knew its principles, and was able to simplify and help at times when technical terms leave the layman baffled and vague. Because of this special kind of mind and the sweep of his experience, his general effect on people was sometimes overwhelming. To illustrate a minor angle, he was not adept in leading discussions; he could not draw out a group because he had pretty thoroughly covered the subject himself, and the impact of his personality was a bit overpowering.

But above all, the authority one felt most in his personality was that which came as a result of his being Christ-fashioned. He of all men possessed the kind of nature which cannot live without God. There was within him a spontaneity that was entirely himself, impossible of duplication, totally socialized. He was not a mystic and maintained that he was puzzled by their writings. He admitted that the prayer-life was difficult for him, that he could not meditate or think about God for long periods. His was not the ascetic or contemplative nature; he did not live in reflective calm. In the whirlpool of human relations he was an explorer, a bold adventurer bringing people into the presence of God; and what does it matter whether one prays in words or acts? He exemplified in his life one definition among many, namely, "To labor is to pray." The weight of people's needs pressed down upon him so relentlessly that he was driven to do something about them. His was the temperament which animates an ancient prayer, "Lord, I am so busy this day, if I forget Thee, do not Thou forget me." We are disposed to have our tight little crystallizations of what prayer should or should not be. Frank Nelson was impatient of such, for he ventured upon a scale more broad than that envisioned by the average parson or layman. There are no theological concepts which fit him.

Mr. Nelson had a natural talent for enjoying people, which implemented all his work, but for a man in his position such a gift has its price: either one wears himself out or neglects his major task and so spreads himself thin. He chose the first course, and as we contemplate this record of vast accomplishment who are we to say that he did not choose wisely? He was a very busy man, and went about doing good, not just doing. His description of Helen Trounstine's life of activity is applicable to his own:

It was not restlessness, the hurrying on from one thing to another, just to be busy. It was the true energy of full-hearted and full-minded interest in life, and all that it holds; the passion to learn that she might teach; to enjoy that she might give joy; to rest that she might have strength to do her work; to serve because men need her service. It was energy of mind and heart so full of the vision of the greatness of life and the opportunity of living, that she could not waste time except as it ministered to the part she was to play.

Mr. Nelson did not scatter his interests indiscriminately but concentrated his efforts in the fields where he was most competent: social problems and the relation of the Church to the most concrete activities of human life. All these fitted into his prime purpose.

The vision which governed his days was strengthened every year in the long vacations that he took at his summer home in Cranberry Isles, Maine. There beside the sea he dreamed long dreams, and drank in the salty air which brought indispensable relaxation, and mental and spiritual refreshment. In his small cabin on a point of land overlooking the limitless ocean, he could be very much alone. Something of that setting and its influence is conveyed in a letter to the Reverend Theodore Sedgwick, a life-long friend, which discloses Mr. Nelson in a reflective mood:

Sept.6, 1928

Dear Ted:

Many, many thanks for your intensely interesting letter, and its review of Julian Huxley's book. Such a view of life and religion does make one stop and think -- and hesitate. It is the terribly earnest spiritual problem that we face today in the ministry. It is the sort of thing I had in mind, in suggesting the subject of "God" for the next Swansea Conference. For we have got to face the issue with eyes open, minds familiar with the biologist's point of view. The old affirmations of formal theology are not adequate to meet the issue. And yet in those affirmations I am sure lies the truth -- that God lives, God our Father -- conscious of Himself and of us -- a person in a very real sense -- from Whom we derive personality -- from Whom we came -- and to Whom we go. If mankind loses that, "his arms do clasp the air" and he drowns in the infinity of time and space and his own nothingness. We have from Christ the truth and somehow we must learn it with a new understanding -- or rather with the new understanding that modern science and modern reverent scientific thought have given us. I am sitting at my desk in my cabin at sunset. The day has been cool and grey -- a heavy curtain of cloud over the sky -- But now -- that curtain is thinning and through the break in the west -- the whole glory of the sun has colored sky and sea with a golden light beyond description for exquisite beauty. The gulls are winging their way across the sea to a distant island where they rest and go back to each night. As I sit and look, my whole spirit is moved by the beauty and the evening quiet. There is infinity here -- of space and imagination. Yet -- the gulls -- I think, are unconscious of all that -- but I am moved by it and keenly conscious of it. It is not just biology -- or I would be as the gulls -- and I am not. And men are not. They want God -- behind the glory -- God clothed with the glory -- adequate to the glory -- that their own imagination and hunger and aspiration may be justified -- That is what Christ has given us to preach and it is the truth. Now the gold has turned to a flaming red -- thrilling almost to the point of pain. One must believe -- and then face the chill grey of the coming night with the memory of it to lighten and interpret it.

We go a week from tomorrow, back to work, to the men and women who have so bravely gone on working through long, hot summer days in the streets and factories and tenements of the city. And in that bravery and drudgery, there is the same flaming glory of God. It isn't just biology -- it is the spirit of God, making the physical the dwelling place of God and glorifying it with His presence.

Frank Nelson had an almost Elizabethan zest for thought and action, and even at Cranberry he entered enthusiastically into the local life. He preached at least once every summer in the Congregational Church, and in that church today are numerous memorials to him: a silver alms bason, the Service Book of the Congregational Church beautifully bound in red morocco, a United States flag, and several pictures. Each year at Easter there is a large cross of geraniums in the church, and after the service the flowers are distributed among the families on the island with a card saying, "Given in memory of Frank Howard Nelson with the Easter message of Christ's Resurrection." When he left Cranberry the last time, all the public school children were dismissed to wave their goodbyes. His unaffected interest in the affairs of the community expressed itself in practical ways, and his unassuming and simple manner gave little inkling that he was a foremost citizen of Cincinnati.

"There is nothing comparable," says Coventry Patmore, "for moral force to the charm of truly noble manners." Frank Nelson's manner was not only the result of a choice family inheritance, but also the rich fruitage of a lifetime of faithful obedience to a consuming passion and vision. He was a life-giving river flowing in a parched land. In him the ancient prophet's words found a fresh fulfillment: "Everything shall live whithersoever the river cometh."


[21] R. L. Nettleship Lectures on the Republic of Plato, p.129, published by Macmillan Co. Used with permission.

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