Frank H. Nelson of Cincinnati
by Warren C. Herrick
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Writing is the offspring of thought, the lamp of remembrance, the tongue of him that is far-off, and the life of him whose age has been blotted out.


Frank H Nelson of CINCINNATI


WARREN C. HERRICK a sometime Assistant

With A Foreword by Charles P. Taft



The Cloister Press

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without the written permission of The Cloister Press.


To My Wife


1. "Arise, and go into the city" 2

2. Reclaiming A Church to Meet A New Age 14

3. The Shepherd Among His Flock 30

4. The Spokesman of The City's Conscience 42

5. They Came to Be in His Presence 62

6. Beyond Cincinnati 76

7. The Mystery of Personality 88

8. Last Years 102

9. The Afterglow 110


This book is made possible only through the interest and contributions of the many friends of Frank H. Nelson. Space does not permit my mentioning by name all who have furnished me with material, but I do wish to record my gratitude to them. In addition to the years 1925-1928 as Mr. Nelson's assistant I spent two weeks in the autumn of 1943 interviewing a cross-section of Cincinnati and Christ Church. Many business men gladly gave of their time because they enjoyed recounting memories of one whom they loved, and often detained me when I felt I had imposed myself long enough. I noticed also that Mr. Nelson's photograph occupied a place of honor in more than one office as well as in many homes.

There are others far better qualified than I to write this story, and I accepted the task, though with a keen sense of my inadequacy, first, because Mrs. Nelson honored me with the request, and second because I have the strong conviction that it should be done for the sake of those who knew Mr. Nelson, and also for those of a succeeding generation who ought to know how one minister more than met the requirements of an exacting profession. Furthermore, I have written as one who owes an incalculable debt, and, therefore, cannot be wholly objective. While I have endeavored not to make this biography a eulogy, it is frankly his life as I saw it, and depicts one whom I loved, admired, and have tried to follow.

For innumerable suggestions and for valuable material I am particularly grateful to Mrs. Frank H. Nelson, to Mr. Nelson's sisters, Miss Margaret[1] and Miss Dorothea Nelson, and to Mr. Howard N. Bacon, who have helped me more than perhaps they know. Then there is the pleasant duty of expressing my thanks to Mr. Charles P. Taft, the Junior Warden of Christ Church, Cincinnati, for writing the foreword; to the Vestry of Trinity Church, Melrose, Massachusetts for gladly granting me a leave of absence in 1943, and to Mrs. E. Howard Favor, my secretary, for the typing cheerfully undertaken. In the labor of preparing the final draft for the publishers I shall ever remember with gratitude the careful thought and skillful phrasing of Miss Mary Putnam of the English Department of the Melrose High School whose corrections and amendments were nothing less than creative. Finally, I wish to let stand my heartfelt thanks to the Right Reverend Henry Knox Sherrill, Bishop of Massachusetts, without whose encouragement and advice this little book could not have been written.


Trinity Church, Melrose, Massachusetts; 1945.


[1] Deceased, July 6, 1945.


How does one life affect another?

I have tried to remember what Frank Nelson directly asked me to do. He asked me to teach in the Sunday School, and I did it. Gradually I found myself studying out an intellectual foundation for faith in God. He never said anything to me about that, except from the pulpit. He wrote me asking that I act as captain in the Nation-wide Campaign, and I answered that I could not. But the next thing I remember was being a visitor in the Nation-wide Campaign, and I was always in it after that. He asked me to serve on the Vestry, and somehow made me feel that nothing except being really sick was an excuse for not being there.

Certainly he never exhorted people to be civic patriots or reformers, and save the city. He just gave you such a human picture of the teeming life of a great city that it made a tear come to your eye to think of what the city could be at its best, and it made you love it and the people in it. Your own actions in civic affairs just naturally followed.

He wasn't an exhorter of virtue, but he made of clean living and noble service such a fascinating objective that people went to work on their own problems with fresh faith.

The only time I recall he was really annoyed with me was when I had an emergency operation for appendicitis in the middle of the night, and didn't let him know until the next day. He was my minister, and that meant minister. After that, when I had a major choice to make, I felt I was risking his disappointment unless I went down to talk to him about it.

He didn't want me to go to a great school as headmaster. "The city is the place that needs service and talents," said he. To that he had given his life, in the personal contact with his parish. His life stands as a symbol of the way a true love of home and community is tied to a love of all God's children everywhere.


Arise, And Go Into The City

"Arise, And Go Into The City"

Acts 9:6


"Tell the rector of Christ Church that if he doesn't call off the Woman's Club, I'll bring the women of the streets to the polls." And he added, "He knows I can do it." The boss of old Ward Eight, in which Christ Episcopal Church in downtown Cincinnati is located, had become alarmed by a serious threat to his power. Although this incident took place long before the coming of universal suffrage, Reverend Frank H. Nelson, the young rector, had discovered that women had a legal right to vote in public school matters. Following his leadership, the Woman's Club of Christ Church was actively supporting as a candidate for the Board of Education John R. Schindel, a fearless young lawyer in the Ward. This independent action was an open challenge to the dominance of the boss of Ward Eight, Mike Mullen. Though the courageous lawyer was defeated, and without the aid of the women of the streets, the affair was one of many which presaged the uprising that eventually wrenched the control of Cincinnati from the hands of one of the most notorious political gangs in American democracy.

A second "passage of arms" between the rector and Boss Mullen had its origin in the work of Christ Church among boys, and ultimately involved the boss of the entire city and his powerful machine. The privilege of running gambling games throughout Cincinnati had been alloted to one of the higher-ups in the organization. Within a block of the Parish House of Christ Church was a flourishing candy store, so-called, but the chief "confection" was a crap game run for the boys of the neighborhood under the direction of a member of the City Council, and with the knowledge and acquiescence of the police department. It was inevitable that some members of Christ Church Boys' Clubs should lose their earnings, and whatever of character the church was building up was thus broken down. To meet this danger, Mr. Nelson organized a good citizenship club among his parishioners. The members made a survey of the gambling places which were catering especially to boys, and found nearly one hundred throughout the city. The publication of their findings was one of many "shots heard 'round the ward."[2] When in later years Frank Nelson spoke for the City Charter or Reform Party, he knew from first-hand experience the moral and spiritual influence of good government in the lives of boys and young men. Behind the youthful clergyman's deep concern for decent government was a vital religious faith, without which he was convinced social service and reform work can never attain the best results.

Frank H. Nelson was Rector of Christ Church, Cincinnati, Ohio, from 1900 to 1939, having been the assistant minister in the year 1899. These forty years in the one parish constitute a career seldom paralleled for breadth of vision and devoted service. He became one of the first citizens of a great city, a crusader for honest municipal government, and the foremost Protestant clergyman. For the understanding of his ministry and of his religious convictions, one must know something of his early life and family, and the preparatory years.

Frank Howard Nelson was born in Hartford, Connecticut on September 6, 1869. His father, Henry Wells Nelson, the nephew of the Reverend E. M. P. Wells, a pioneer in early Christian social service in Boston, was the Rector of the Church of The Good Shepherd in Hartford. Before Frank was ten years old, his father accepted a call to Trinity Church, Geneva, New York, and there exercised a distinguished ministry for twenty-five years. Geneva, an attractive college town situated on lovely Seneca Lake, was an ideal place in which to bring up a family. There were five children: Margaret, George, Frank, Mary, and Dorothea. George now lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, and Mary, who married Edward L. Pierce, lives in Princeton, New Jersey. After the father's retirement, Margaret and Dorothea lived with their parents in the family home at North Marshfield, Massachusetts where they still reside. Frank was not a strong child, but in the freedom and simplicity of the life which a small town affords, he gained strength rapidly. A sister relates that he was unusually venturesome, and sometimes horrified timid ladies in the parish by walking on stilts on open rafters, and by frequenting the canal, where once he fell in and was pulled out by a bargee. As all boys do, he roamed the environs of his home with his chums, occasionally pilfering fruit and getting into all kinds of mischief; but though other boys might go unpunished because of doting parents, he was always firmly chastised for his pranks.

The influence of both father and mother upon these strong-minded children was vital and enduring. The father possessed that happy combination of gaiety and goodness that commends religion. As he was deeply and naturally spiritual himself, the expression of religion in his home and parish was unusually beautiful and appealing. The last twenty-five years of his life were spent in blindness, but his courage and his deepened understanding of the ways of God because of this affliction led him to a thankful acceptance of his limitation; and his continuing interest in people "made the latter years of his ministry," to quote Bishop Lawrence, "as fruitful as the more active ones." His devoted wife, who was Hortense Chew Lewis of New London, Connecticut, guided the children through their formative years with skill and understanding. She was an intelligent mother, discriminating in taste and judgment. Because of her abounding love of good literature, the family passed many delightful evenings in listening to her readings from Scott, Milton, Shakespeare and many other great writers. Her fine gifts of interpretation made the masterpieces of English prose and poetry come alive. In later years, Christ Church people were to love Frank Nelson's readings at Christmas parties in the parish house and in his own home. The older he grew the deeper became his appreciation of the character of his parents. An intimate friend once said to him, "You are a fortunate and a blessed man to have had such a father and mother."

The family was privileged in possessing means beyond a minister's salary, and Frank, at the age of thirteen, was sent to aristocratic St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire. The headmaster, Dr. Henry A. Coit, an austere and exacting teacher of the old New England type, stimulated the natural student, and under his influence Nelson achieved a scholastic standing among the first five in his class. He was not particularly skillful in athletics, and had even then a cough which persisted throughout his life. The lad was not noticeably popular, and had more than the average measure of shyness peculiar to adolescence. He was extremely sensitive, somewhat unhappy, and in many accomplishments and activities was overshadowed by his older brother who was in the same school.

In the fall of 1886, upon graduation from St. Paul's School, Frank returned to Geneva and entered Hobart College, a small church college of considerable standing. There he began to find himself, and became one of the popular men in his class and in the Sigma Phi Fraternity. Although in college he took more active interest in athletics and participated in rowing, tennis, and track, he never excelled in sports. At his graduation in 1890 he received the degree of Bachelor of Arts, Magna Cum Laude, being valedictorian and a member of Phi Beta Kappa. Throughout his life he maintained relationships with his Alma Mater, coming to know the successive presidents, and in 1907 was instrumental in securing a large gift for a new gymnasium. Still later he refused the presidency of the college. In 1906 Hobart bestowed upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Sacred Theology.

In the course of his undergraduate days at Hobart, Frank Nelson had seriously considered the profession of the ministry, but graduation found him still undecided. As it turned out, the summer following the close of his college years was one of critical importance to his entire life. He accompanied a surveying expedition to the state of Washington. The party put up for a while in Merrysville, a rough-mannered, tough-living town of the old West. Into this place there came one day a circuit rider who fearlessly preached the Gospel in the face of opposition and outright hostility. This Methodist minister was utterly sincere, and Nelson saw what could be done by the sheer power of the spirit against the forces of evil. It surged over him that a man can hold the mastery over wrong, an inner conviction which at the same time was set aflame by a Communion Service held for the surveyors in the out-of-doors. The circumstances and surroundings were strikingly different from those associated in his mind with such a service. Possibly for the first time in his life he was intensely conscious of the presence of God. As in all such experiences the vision illumined and deepened his thinking and living. It has been said that in all great Christian leaders and reformers are found two elements: "The imperious commission from above, and the tumultuous experience within." Both these elements were present in the experiences of that eventful summer, and all Frank Nelson's doubts and waverings concerning the ministry were resolved. He returned East aware of being called to preach the Gospel. In the light of this happening one is not surprised that later when a professor dogmatically stated that there could be no true Sacrament without the Apostolic Succession, Nelson walked out of the classroom saying to himself, "It is a lie." To those who knew him through his forty years' ministry in Christ Church, this experience in the far West sheds light upon his burning sense of mission, for in those hours of inward tumult he had come close to God in the breaking of bread and in the society of his fellows, conditions which he preached throughout his life as being always the essence of fellowship with God.

On September 18, 1890, he matriculated at the General Theological Seminary in New York City. The General Seminary is directly under the government of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, and while it has always been characterized by a conservative type of churchmanship, all shades of opinion were and are to be found within its faculty and student body. At this time the respectability of the Episcopal Church was considered an asset and not a liability, and the Seminary community was in the social forefront. When an upstanding man like Frank Nelson, whose background was well-known and whose intellectual gifts and social graces were obvious, entered this environment, it was inevitable that he should immediately take a leading place in the undergraduate body. His tall, commanding figure naturally attracted notice, and within a few days he was elected president of his class. There was magnetism in his personality, and he was soon welcomed among the socially distinguished in both seminary and city. His fellow-students at General, when speculating about the future, as students do, always considered him destined for the highest office of the church; throughout those now remote years he clearly revealed the qualities of the born leader. His class was a notable one, and through the passing years gave a good account of itself, listing four bishops and ten honorary degrees, Frank Nelson himself receiving the degree of Doctor of Sacred Theology from the General Seminary in 1934.

As a student he excelled in Pastoral Theology, Biblical Learning and Evidences, subjects which in their nature give some indication of his intensely human interest in all aspects of life. Like many theological students, he was groping and feeling his way through the multiple problems that center upon man in the light of God. One of his classmates says that the curriculum and the methods of instruction in that day bear poor comparison to modern standards, but Nelson, unlike many students, was never in a state of open or even tacit rebellion. He did his work faithfully and well. He was graduated in 1894, but for some reason was not present at Commencement to receive the degree of Bachelor of Sacred Theology, which is the mark of scholastic distinction at General. On May 19, 1894, he was made a deacon in his father's church in Geneva, New York by the Right Reverend Arthur Cleveland Coxe, the Bishop of Western New York. During his senior year he had assumed work on the staff of St. George's Church, New York City, and after his ordination was quickly absorbed into the work of that great parish. Because he did not feel ready, Frank Nelson, at his own request, was not advanced to the priesthood until November 14, 1897, when he was so ordered in St. George's Church by Bishop Henry Codman Potter of the Diocese of New York.

Another important element in Mr. Nelson's preparation for his unique ministry in Cincinnati was this experience on the staff of St. George's Church from 1894 to 1899 under the prophetic leadership of the Reverend William S. Rainsford. This notable rector possessed unusual gifts and exerted an incalculable influence upon the Episcopal Church. He gathered about him a group of young men the like of whom has never been found elsewhere. St. George's stands as the pioneer of what was known as the "institutional church," and in the midst of the teeming activities of the parish house and a heterogeneous congregation, Dr. Rainsford set loose his young and enthusiastic assistants. They experienced a training comparable to the clinical instruction gained by an intern in a modern hospital. Under his tutelage these men received a course in applied religion, and their rector set a standard of preaching, parish administration, and pastoral care that not one of his "boys," as he called them, failed to practice in an unusual manner. Dr. Rainsford's impassioned preaching of the essentials of Christianity as opposed to those aspects which are merely traditional, and his forceful efforts, radical for those times, to democratize a conventional Episcopal parish were significant contributions to church life throughout America.

Although Dr. Rainsford exerted a lasting influence upon all his young assistants, he set his stamp to a marked degree upon Frank Nelson. For the first time in his life this young man, the choicest flowering of a cultured home, lived among the underprivileged, spending his afternoons climbing interminable tenement stairs, and his evenings in the parish house. He came to know poverty and squalor and the honest worth of struggling humanity. If "The Rector," as Dr. Rainsford's "boys" called him, bade them preach on the street corners, he himself had done the same. His example and his personal religious faith were those of a living St. George touched with the heart-stirring Gospel of Love. Under him young Nelson found the services and work of the church taking on a meaning that was like a cool, refreshing breeze. Things concerning the Church, doctrine, and ritual, which had formerly perplexed his youthful mind, now seemed subordinate.

Dr. Rainsford evoked a loyalty which held his young men long after they had "graduated," and when he died in 1933 at the age of eighty-three, many of his former assistants were in the chancel of old St. George's for the burial service. One who was present said, "We shall not see a service like that again, for we shall never see and know another Rainsford." Eulogies are not customary at funerals in Episcopal Churches, but on this occasion the tradition was fittingly broken, and Mr. Nelson delivered a brief address from the pulpit in a breaking voice, barely audible at times. In this very moving tribute, the speaker reveals much of himself:

I am not here to presume to speak of the man we loved in any formal way; to try to weigh the imponderable, to measure the immeasurable—but only to say a word out of our hearts of thanksgiving to God that the rector was our rector in the days that are passed, was The Rector always and will be always, for those who knew him, who loved him, to whom he gave that tremendous love of his.

A book was written by a friend of his some years ago, and the dedication of that book was this: "To William Stephen Rainsford, who has seen the Christ and has shown Him to men."

I know of no more perfect description of the rector than that. For twenty years and more of his rectorship in this great parish he showed Christ to men; showed Him in the incomparable words that he poured forth Sunday after Sunday and year after year from this pulpit—in his great concern for the men and women and little children; for the strong and for the weak; for the wise and the foolish; for the saints and the sinners; for those who labor and were hungry and perplexed, and were strained by the tasks of life. They came here week by week; they heard from him the words that refreshed them and sent them back with courage and with faith in God and in man, to the tasks that were breaking them, to the problems that were perplexing them.

I suppose that to every one of us who knew him in his great days here and have known him in the years since, the one supreme thing that poured out of his life was his love of God. Not the love of God that theologians speak of, that men reason about, but that pure love that a man gives to his friend, to his loved ones—personal, intense, vital, real.

We came here church people, professing the Christian faith, thinking we believed in God and in His son, Jesus Christ, and as we sat under the rector here Sunday after Sunday, we came to know that our profession was a form of sound words, that in him was the form of unsound words, but that he poured forth reality for the thing that we professed to believe in, and he helped us to see the real work of God, the real passionate love of God for men—not for the chosen few, but the weak, the broken, the struggling—those in sorrow and the hungry—the love of God that drove him to lay down his life as few men had laid down their lives before. He gave of himself without stint, rejoicing in the chance to serve his God and his fellowmen with his whole heart and soul, with such passionate devotion that at last broke through his own conventional beliefs and tore them to shreds, and made him the voice of the living God, to us in St. George's, to New York and to America.

In the great days of his preaching, he took us who were his clergy—young, inexperienced and conceited—and made us over. He took us, to whom religion was a profession, and made of it a passion. He was ever patient with us, giving us his best; day after day walking with us around Stuyvesant Square in the morning, sometimes for hours, and then pouring out to us as we walked the best religious thought of his time, his judgment on the questions of the day, his interpretations of religion and the tremendous work of the church as a gift that God had put into the souls of men for service to their fellowmen.

He told us of his thought for men and women, of the problems of the time, of the problems of the church—not conventional, but vital, not formal, but distinctly real—and then he would take us into his study and we would kneel there. And never have I heard a man pray as the rector prayed—without any of the ecclesiastical technique and form of prayer, without any formal discussions of the value of prayer, but pouring out the things that we had been talking of; as real to God as they were real to us, bringing into them God; God's companionship, God's sympathy, God's understanding and patience; God's ruthless will that we should love our fellowmen and serve our fellowmen—without name, without a distinction.

That is the vivid life, a little of it, that we lived with, which made God real to New York and to us here at St. George's, and to his clergy. God has taken him home, and we meet here, every one of us, because the rector—broken though he was in these later years—because the rector, whose great and lovely smile we had loved to see, as we had loved just to touch his hand to gain strength, courage, faith and joy—because we cannot do that any more. His work is done and God gives him a safe lodging and he shall rest in peace to the last. Thank God who gave him to us, to know and to love, that we might be lifted by him to find God and Jesus through him.

He wrote a little prayer, and in closing I am going to read it and ask you to join with me in making it our own. Let us pray:

Heavenly Father, I am trying to do right and be right and help others to be right. Give me my daily bread. I am Thy child; Thy little, weak child. Give me Thy strength; Thy patience; Thy wisdom; Thy love—that with confidence and with joy I may do the work Thou hast given me to do in my home and among men. Amen.[3]

The charter of Frank Nelson's future is set forth in the impression he made at the General Theological Seminary, and in the zest and enlargement of vision which characterized his five years under Dr. Rainsford at St. George's. When the opportunity presented itself to create in Christ Church, Cincinnati, Ohio a work similar to that of St. George's, he displayed a characteristically wise judgment in making his decision. Henceforth he was to live "in the upper story" of that decision, conceiving of his work as a mission to the city, and pursuing it with a fidelity and a diligence that ranked him as an unusual servant of God.


[2] For these stories I am indebted to the Rev. J. Howard Melish, D.D. whose forthright denunciations of political corruption in Cincinnati were further "shots heard 'round" the city.

[3] The Churchman, January 1st, 1934.

Reclaiming A Church To Meet A New Age

"By the grace of God, and the loyalty of the members of Christ Church I was enabled to carry on the work when Alexis Stein had to give it up."

Frank H. Nelson


The surging currents of city life had left old Christ Church in a back eddy, and certain leaders including the senior warden advocated selling the property or turning it over to the Diocese for a mission. The population, as in many another American city, was shifting from the downtown district, and many believed that the parish had seen its best days. In those late nineties, parishioners of wealth and prominence were moving to the suburbs; the older, conservative members still attended the morning service, but the young people either attached themselves to churches nearer their residences or were drifting away from church affiliations altogether.

Christ Church was established in 1817 when Cincinnati was a small river town of nine thousand inhabitants; looking at the present church building which seats over one thousand people and is flanked by an enormous and ever busy parish house, one finds it difficult to picture Bishop Philander Chase meeting in that year with a group of men in the home of Dr. Daniel Drake to lay the foundations of what was to become one of the largest parishes in the Middle West. The first services were held in a cotton factory, and the church slowly developed into a strong parish, small in numbers but served by several very able rectors, one of whom later became the Bishop of Virginia. As the first Episcopal Church to be founded in Cincinnati, it was the parent of a number of other parishes; but at the close of the nineteenth century it appeared that the "mother-church" was about finished. Churches of other communions located in the downtown district were going through the same transition. The slump in finances by reason of removals created something akin to panic in the fearful and timid vestrymen, but because of some loyal and far-sighted women Christ Church was not disbanded. They wanted it to mean to their children what it meant to them, and they gave assurance of support in substantial ways.

These ardent supporters had a definite vision and plan. In 1897 Dr. William S. Rainsford had come on from New York City and had packed old Pike's Opera House for a week in Lent, and thrilled his hearers with the recital of his efforts to anchor St. George's Church in the heart of that great metropolis, and make it free to serve the community. When Bishop Vincent of Southern Ohio wrote him about the difficulties of Christ Church, he replied with this momentous letter:

I am going to give you the greatest proof I can of my love and deep interest in Cincinnati. I have a plan for Christ Church. Here it is. Take two of my men—let them work and live together; they could take a mighty strong hold, and do a really good work. I feel sure that in the future many a position of great difficulty can be much better occupied by two men, pulling together, than by one alone. There are two magnificent fellows—dear, dear boys after my own heart—who have been here with me for years; and I shall be lost without them, if you call them. Stein (Alexis) is the ablest preacher of his age (28) in our Church in these United States today. Nelson (Frank) is a strong, capable man, full of energy and charm and a first-class organizer. This is a big idea, my friend; but I believe God may be in it. It is like offering to cut off both my hands for you.

Thus the Reverend Alexis Stein became Rector of Christ Church in December, 1898, and within a few weeks of his arrival the people of Cincinnati awoke to the mighty fact that a prophet was in their midst; the doors of all churches were flung open to him, and everywhere he spoke, new interest and hope in the Church were born. Stein has been called a modern Savonarola, but, unlike the great reformer, he was burned within by the fire of his own consuming message. "He was a preacher of most unusual power with a message he burned to give; and a vision of truth that made him a leader of men. He loved God and showed Him to men; he loved men and led them to God."[4] Before Stein left New York, he had asked his friend, Frank Nelson, to join him in the new venture, but it was not until May 21, 1899 that he was free to come.

We came out to Cincinnati because Dr. Rainsford sent us; he told us that we ought to come—not that we wanted to come. Stein and I both had always lived in the East. It was the America that we knew, and it seemed a desirable place to live, just as those of you who have been born here think that Cincinnati is the most desirable place to live, because it is your home. But he, with a larger vision of America, and a larger vision of the calling of God to a man in the ministry, sent us here to do what we could.[5]

In February, 1900, the doctor ordered Alexis Stein out West, a victim of tuberculosis. He lived a short twelve years, but was never well enough to do more than a little incidental work. This tragedy was a deep, personal loss to his young associate, for all through their St. George's days they had been the closest of friends. They complemented one another and made an ideal team.

Invariably on Good Friday in the course of his address on the Sixth Word from The Cross, Frank Nelson spoke of Stein's influence upon him and upon Christ Church: "The work he began is witnessed to by you who are here. You wouldn't have been here forty years ago or the likes of you would not have been here, but he opened the door of life and the spirit to the people of this city, as to the members of this church. His work goes on. The thing that God wanted him to do he did, and it was finished." He expressed himself in more intimate fashion to his friend Bishop Touret: "The heart of all its worth (Nelson's own forty years' ministry) has been that I was carrying on for Alexis. I've first been his assistant in my own mind always, and that has made it possible for me to dare to undertake it." If Stein's work was finished, and a prophet needs no great length of time, then it was brought to fruition through the resolute efforts of this devoted servant who with great humility and genuine searchings of heart took up the reins so tragically relinquished.

Frank H. Nelson was elected Rector of Christ Church on May 5, 1900. In the light of subsequent events his letter of acceptance is of interest:

May 16, 1900


In a letter from your Secretary, I have been informed of your action of last Saturday, in electing me to succeed the Rev. Alexis Stein, as Rector of Christ Church. That I appreciate very deeply the honor that you have conferred upon me, I do not need to say. I have considered the subject very carefully, and painful to us all though the circumstances are that have led to this, I feel strangely that it is God's work we have undertaken, and that He has led us in it all. I therefore accept the call you have given me, and I believe that working together we can, with God's help, do a real work for Him in this city. For the success of the work I regard two things as essential: the first that the Church shall remain absolutely free, and the second that the lines of work represented by the Parish House shall be continued. I ask your cooperation and support in them both. I am writing the Rev. J. H. Melish to ask him to be my associate. I hope to have him begin his work with us in June. I feel deeply the burden of responsibility, and the great opportunity that your call involves. I can but say that I shall do all in my power to be faithful to both.

Frank Nelson distrusted his own ability. Stein's preaching had packed the church, and the numbers drastically declined when his eloquent voice was stilled. The Bishop, conscious of the difficult problem confronting a downtown church, advised Rev. Mr. Melish not to become associated, saying "Stein could have solved it, but Frank Nelson never will." The Bishop, however, had not sufficient evidence to gauge the young rector's talents, nor could he foresee the capacity of the parish to respond to the man's magnetic appeal.

There was at this time not only a break in the center of population in the city, but also a shifting of the center of gravity in religion. There was dawning a unity of the spirit which led men to break away from the orthodox emphasis on creeds, and which strove to express itself in many forms; such as parish houses, Christian associations, reforms, and educational and missionary movements. Mr. Nelson's mind, being busy with the stars, was concerned with the moral and spiritual movement which outlasts the stars. He said, "To some of us it seems that Jesus was not so much interested in establishing an institution as in revealing a new quality of life." Likewise, Frank Nelson was not so much interested in being the rector of a large, prosperous parish as in making the church an agency for leavening the city's life with the spirit of Jesus Christ. He caught the imagination of his people when he pointed to the possibility of a church becoming the community center for multitudes in the downtown district. In the near neighborhood of Christ Church were new offices, factories, and boarding houses, and at the distance of one block began the tenement houses where lived the poor and underprivileged. He said:

We owe to them the gift of Christian friendship, of spiritual influence irrespective of religious affiliations. The church should provide not only a place to pray, but to play; a place not only for worship, but for friendship. There are no places for leisure except the streets, saloons, burlesque houses, pool-rooms, public dance halls, or other commercial places of entertainment. The Church is not here for its own sake. It is here to bear witness, and to spread a spirit. It should be the center from which radiate the forces of righteousness and the spirit of brotherhood and every human activity and interest in the community. Therefore, it must speak not to the individual only, but to the business, social, and political problems, dealing with them not from the viewpoint of the economist or political theorist, but from that of the preacher of righteousness. If Christ Church can be a force for righteousness in the city, it matters but little whether it gain in numbers.[6]

"Distinction," it has been said, "is the emphasis put upon qualities by circumstances." There were two circumstances which enabled this young rector to create in Christ Church, Cincinnati a far-famed chapter in the history of American churches and cities. One was his conception of the place and function of the modern church in the new age, as just outlined. It has been the reproach of the Protestant Churches that they have too largely attracted only the well-to-do and middle classes. Frank Nelson made Christ Church a place where rich and poor met on equal footing. Drawn by his personality, both responded to his vision. There was something about working in his parish that gave people a peculiar zest and joy in living. There was, for instance, a Jewish lad in the Sunday School, (Mr. Nelson never liked the term Church School) who after his marriage came every Christmas to Christ Church with his wife and two children. He proudly introduced them to Mr. Nelson, saying, "Though I am a Jew, this is my church!"

On the other hand, Mr. Nelson's special gifts as a rector were developed and brought into full flower in Christ Church because of the many remarkable people who formed the backbone of his parish. In point of numbers and in ability, they were an unusual group, a group characterized by breadth of vision, and by a faith sufficient for them to carry through the bold projects outlined by their leader. Many were blessed with abundant means, and, above all, were filled with a consummate loyalty and affection for their church. In this happy partnership of pastor and parish, each inspired the other to great accomplishment. The older members who were in the parish at the beginning of Mr. Nelson's rectorship were vigorous, strong-minded people accustomed to having their own way. They hewed to the old lines, suspicious of change. With his deep sense of loyalty, Mr. Nelson felt bound to maintain the sort of practices and low-church ceremony which prevailed when he took over, but such was his adroitness, skill and tact in leading them that he won their complete confidence and trust, and they gave him an unreserved support as well as a free hand in many things. This unbounded support of his early work he never forgot; nor did he let his appreciation diminish with the success of later years. In the course of the observances that marked his forty years as rector, he said of them:

We found here, as the days went on, a group of people that I think have never been equaled. Not a very large group of people, but a group of people who gave us freedom—freedom to speak the thing that was in our minds: to do the things that we believed the Church ought to do and to stand for in the heart of a great city.

A new parish house had been erected as Alexis Stein's rectorship closed, and Mr. Nelson's organizing abilities made it hum. With the assistance of the Rev. J. Howard Melish, the most competent of all his clerical assistants, a Men's Club was organized, and became a mecca for the young men of the city. For those of small means, it was the only sort of club available, and was thrown open to every race and creed. In 1901 the yearly attendance was 7,000, and by 1903 it had grown to 16,973. In line with the policy of a community center, the Club included members of all faiths, Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic. The Roman priest was always notified of Catholics joining the club and informed that no proselyting was intended, but rather that it was hoped these young men would become better members of their own church. Athletic grounds were secured together with a field-house, and Christ Church teams won an enviable reputation for high standards of sportsmanship. Their spirit may be judged by the story of a football player who waxed into colorful profanity in the heat of a game and was bawled out by a Roman Catholic teammate in terse words: "Don't you know who you represent?" During an interim when another parish house was being built, Christ Church basketball teams used the Holy Cross Monastery Hall for an entire year, with the full approval of the Roman authorities and the gratitude of Mr. Nelson. At that time, the captain of the Christ Church team, John M. Cronin, was a prefect of the St. Xavier Sodality and also the secretary of the Christ Church Men's Club. By 1911 it was necessary to limit the Club's membership to six hundred, and there was always a long waiting list. The social atmosphere, the entertainments, the athletic record, the camp established by the church on the Miami River made this club one of the most popular in the city. Mr. Nelson and Mr. Melish spent untold hours in the work and gained an intimate knowledge of the individual members and their views, particularly on labor questions. The men expressed themselves freely, and at the close of an evening's discussion Mr. Nelson would gather up the points of argument into a clear and effective summary easily understood and remembered. It was in this club that a small group once earnestly discussed how they might best help a member when he should be released from a prison term which he was serving. Nothing gratified the rector more than this sort of human comradeship because it is the very essence of the Christian fellowship which he was striving to implant.

As time went on, an increasing number of girls and young women entering the business world created a social problem which weighed heavily on the rector's mind and heart. Knowing the special conditions which these young women must meet in a large city, he applied grave thought and much energy to the study of their needs and to the opportunity which Christ Church had in meeting them. Finding nothing for them socially in the city except the Y.W.C.A., some distance away, he sent invitations to department stores for a meeting at the parish house. At this meeting he proposed to establish a branch of the Girls' Friendly Society which is found throughout the Episcopal Church and which exists for social and educational purposes. Mr. Nelson gave himself particularly to this organization. He gathered a set of workers in the parish, women of character and cultural background, who became the leaders and friends of the various groups. He was a frequent visitor at meetings and often conducted a question box. He encouraged the members to make it one of their prime objectives to work for the city's interest. The rapid growth of the Society enabled it to support a bed in the Children's Hospital, to finance the Vacation House on the Ohio River, and to promote other civic projects. The Christ Church organization became one of the largest and most active branches in the national society, and had a succession of remarkable directors, such as Deaconess Lloyd and Miss Alice Simrall. Mr. Nelson's faith and incomparable friendship as well as his careful planning made the Girls' Friendly a strong and useful force in Cincinnati and an influence in the national body.

In those days the public schools provided nothing in the way of training in the practical arts, and a large work along these lines was carried on among the boys and girls who lived in the districts adjacent to Christ Church. The Sewing School, for instance, grew in membership in three years from twenty-four to over two hundred under unfavorable conditions in the already cramped parish house. When the College Settlement on Third Street closed, the church took over its kindergarten equipment and its list of members, and every morning gathered in the children of pre-school age.

When some people said it was a mistake to make a parish house a community center, because in their minds it was being used only for social purposes, Mr. Nelson's scorn was beautiful to hear. He asserted, "The Church claims to be the Body of Christ, doesn't it? How did our Lord regard His body? He used it freely with no thought of preserving it, even to the final extent of hanging it upon a Cross. This is the only way, His Way, that the Church will have eternal life."

Not many years passed before it became apparent that the parish house, though not an old building, was literally worn out and was entirely inadequate for such an extensive work. In 1907 Mr. Nelson announced the gift of a new parish house from Mrs. Thomas J. Emery, a devoted member of the church. So munificent a gift had rarely been equaled anywhere. The six-story building, complete in every detail, was not finished until 1909. In it are club rooms, a large auditorium, a gymnasium, locker rooms, and bowling alleys. At the corner next to the church rises a beautiful clock tower which before the day of skyscrapers could be seen from distant parts of the city, and which has been sketched by many artists. Under the impetus of this gift the parish took on increased vigor and extended the work into new fields. A Baby Clinic set up by the Visiting Nurses' Association provided one more opportunity for service; in 1910 the problem of crowded conditions in the nearby Guilford School was solved by the use of Christ Church parish house for Kindergarten and Domestic Science classes. It was a long list of services which gave Christ Church and Mr. Nelson a far reaching reputation for efficient and intelligent social service.

In the Parish House we meet each other, not as having the same point of view, the same opportunities, but as having a common humanity infinitely various in thought, in faith, in desire. Each may learn from each, and grow in breadth and depth, and the knowledge of God through his brother. It is in recognition of this that we have a free church and free parish house. No distinction of wealth may mar the worship in the one; no distinction of faith may hinder the service in the other.[7]

The passing years brought fresh opportunities which were seized upon with tireless energy by this far-seeing rector. In August, 1917 came the opportunity to establish a Red Cross unit which through day and evening groups enlisted the woman power of the parish. At the close of the war, Mr. Nelson envisioned the continuance of this work on a scale far exceeding the conventional idea of church missionary work. Tactfully overcoming certain prejudices and narrow points of view, he again secured the enthusiastic support of the same group of women. This unit became one of the largest and most diligent organizations in the parish, continuing the indispensable Red Cross work, and enlisting larger numbers in the special program of the Woman's Auxiliary as it is conducted in Episcopal parishes throughout the country.

In 1913 and again in 1937, floods devastated the Ohio River valley. Mr. Nelson quickly organized his parish to do its share in caring for the refugees. Committees fed, clothed, and entertained one hundred and fifty people on the first occasion, and two hundred on the second. Experienced dieticians planned and supervised the meals, a trained nurse was kept on constant duty, and doctors gave medical service and examinations. But Christ Church did more than provide physical care; it knew the moral and spiritual needs of the homeless, and each day, through the cooperation of the government agencies (especially in 1937), city organizations, and individuals, it provided two hours of entertainment for them. Every night Mr. Nelson conducted family prayers, and won the undying gratitude of the refugees by his friendliness and personal interest in their present comfort and future needs. His reputation travelled from New England to California, and checks poured in from all over the country for this work. The atmosphere of helpfulness in Christ Church was his creation, and many volunteers in this emergency were not of the parish at all. One mother and daughter engaged in this relief work found the associations so delightful that the mother remarked to Howard Bacon, the superintendent of the parish house, "My daughter wants to join this place; it is the swellest club in the city!" Another instance revealing the sort of spirit which pervaded the parish house and filled the people of Christ Church was the serving of dinners to the American Legion during their convention because colored Legionnaires at that time were not allowed in Cincinnati hotels.

The fact that the people in the immediate vicinity were coming to Christ Church and using its privileges in such great measure, calling upon the clergy for their services, and joining in the work was immensely satisfying to Mr. Nelson, for this kind of thing was the fruitage of many years of earnest labor, and amply justified his conception of the function of the church and parish house as a community center. The rector always held that the work of the parish organizations should be a result of inspiration from worship and sermons, something first-hand and immediate, so that the impetus of the services would not be lost. In 1912, to mention only one year, there were more than two hundred volunteer workers. In addition, his people were serving in numerous organizations throughout the community, such as the Juvenile Protective Association, the Bureau of Municipal Research, the Hospital Services, the Consumers' League, the Anti-Tuberculosis Society, the Playgrounds, Fresh Air Society, and Tenement House Reform. Moreover, there was the inspiring fact that the parish house had become a civic center, and by channeling the idealism and energy of a group of young men, of whom Henry Bentley of City Charter Committee fame was one, the Church created comradeship and generated faith in Christian principles which led later to far-reaching usefulness throughout the city.

No account of Mr. Nelson's work could possibly be complete without recording the place in it of his chief assistant, Howard N. Bacon, who has been superintendent of the parish house for thirty-eight years. Howard Bacon came to Cincinnati at the age of twenty-two with the purpose of pursuing a business career. Through Dr. McKinnon of Kansas City, Mr. Nelson learned of Bacon's marked abilities in church and social service lines. They had dinner together, and Mr. Nelson outlined the plans for the new parish house. Though a relative had advised Bacon "to cut-out the soul-saving business," the avenues of service under Frank Nelson's leadership impelled him to abandon his planned career. No agreement was made about salary until much later when Mr. Nelson said, "We cannot give you much. Will you come for a hundred dollars a month and live in the parish house?" At the annual meeting of the church on Easter Monday, 1908, the rector made the announcement: "I am very glad to be able to tell you that Mr. Howard N. Bacon has joined the staff, giving up a very promising business future to devote his life to work among boys and young men. He will have charge of the camp, and manage the parish house as well as working in the Sunday School." It is not the slightest exaggeration to say that no appointment to the staff of Christ Church was ever more momentous and fruitful. He served Mr. Nelson thirty-one years, though many other attractive positions were offered him. Upon him Mr. Nelson leaned as on no other. Through the years he has performed the larger part of a clergyman's office, and though not ordained is often called "Reverend." He took over the multitudinous details of a highly organized parish as did or could no other assistant or paid parish worker; consequently, Mr. Nelson was able to devote his time to many civic enterprises, and to play a vital role in the national life of the Episcopal Church. To have rendered such a service means that he is completely self-effacing and richly merited Mr. Nelson's tribute: "I would not know how to get on without him."

The phenomenal development of the parish house as a community center kept pace with the striking growth of the church. During Mr. Nelson's rectorship the communicant list of the parish expanded from 599 in 1900 to 2089 in 1939; the number of contributors to the budget from 200 to 1002; the parish and missionary budgets from $15,103.00 in 1900 to $77,493.00 in 1927, to cite a high year; the Endowment Fund from $11,770.00 in 1900 to $531,384.00 in 1939. In a way it seemed as if Mr. Nelson had only to walk down Fourth Street and the money met him! In any case, in the prosperous years it flowed in steadily from a people given to generosity. One morning he met a parishioner who had been abroad during the past year, and the man asked Mr. Nelson to accompany him to his bank. Taking the rector to his safety deposit box, he handed over a thousand dollar bond saying, "I haven't done anything for Christ Church in a long time." One Sunday morning in the course of the notices (with him, announcements were really an art) Mr. Nelson spoke of his friend, Dr. Paul Wakefield, who had been left stranded in China during the Communist uprising of 1927, and from whom he had just received a letter. The special offering that morning, together with contributions sent in over the week, amounted to five hundred dollars.

In the course of the great forty years of Mr. Nelson's ministry, a long series of extraordinary gifts was made, including the parish house already mentioned, memorial windows, an altar, an organ, and numberless others, all indicative of the liberality of the people. These gifts were grandly climaxed by the erection of a chapel to commemorate the Centennial of Christ Church. It was designed to express the beauty, mystery, and nobility of the Christian faith, and to provide for the many services for which the large church was unsuited. The Chapel was largely a thank-offering on the part of parishioners and many others who had found in Christ Church a spiritual home for which they were profoundly grateful. Another remarkable aspect of this gift was its conception in the uncertain days of 1917.

As the years brought the ever-changing conditions of city life, and as civic institutions, social agencies, and the public schools afforded gymnasiums, swimming pools, playgrounds, and social centers such as were scarcely known in the first decades of Mr. Nelson's ministry, he continued to believe in the religious motive which Christ Church gave to all these recreational and social activities. To the end of his days he held that religious faith gives to social work an enthusiasm, a personal fervor, and a genuineness without which the one thing needful is lacking. He led his people to see in the drinking fountain outside the parish house a symbol of the Church's undying service to the world of men. The fact that passers-by, whether on foot or in pleasure car or truck, stopped to quaff of its ice-cold water was to him an expression of man's eternal need for the water of life, a need which, please God, would always be met by a church whose gospel resides in the nether springs of God's loving purpose for the children of men.


[4] Frank H. Nelson.

[5] Frank H. Nelson, Centennial Address, May 17, 1917.

[6] Frank H. Nelson, Year Books, 1902 and 1903.

[7] Mr. Nelson's report, Year Book, 1908.

The Shepherd Among His Flock

"And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God: and they shall abide ... and this man shall be our peace."

Micah 5:4


A Cincinnati taxi-cab driver said to me, "Frank Nelson was sure a real man. If you had a million dollars, you got a fifteen minute funeral service; if you had twenty-five cents, you got a fifteen minute service. He was just as concerned over the family with two rooms as the one with twenty." This man had lived all his life in the Queen City, and had driven Mr. Nelson to innumerable services as far back as the days of horse-cabs, and though he was not aware of the restraint and brevity of the Prayer Book Service, he unwittingly put his finger on the very pulse of Mr. Nelson's ministry.

In all relationships with people, Frank Nelson possessed the true instinct of the pastor because he was moved by the zest and pity of human life as well as by an eager willingness to spend himself. He invariably had the right word for the occasion, and responded with a finely balanced emotion to each individual situation. His discerning sense of the human element in life's experiences was matchless. He spoke humorously when lightness and gaiety were in order, and seriously when the word of faith was needed. There is much to be learned from his approach. Called one day to a humble dwelling on Mt. Adams where a mother was hysterical because her boy had just undergone an emergency operation, Mr. Nelson tore a button from his coat before entering the room, and said in an off-hand manner, "Oh! this has just come off! Will you sew it on?"

In a surpassingly unselfish fashion he thought of himself as the head of the Christ Church family, and it mattered not at all to him whether people who needed him were on the church register or were connected only through a parish house organization. When told of someone's illness, though the patient had membership in another church yet belonged to the Men's Club for instance, he would say, "Oh! I must go to see him." The agent for an Industrial Insurance Company tells of calling in a home where the policy was about to lapse. The woman said, "I will see Mr. Nelson. Will you come back at five o'clock?" When he returned, she had the money.

In these tragic years of World War II we have learned that time is of the essence, and Frank Nelson exemplified this principle in an extraordinary manner. Through all his years of service he seemed to have a special sense of timeliness. He acted when one should act but does not always do so. He was what a minister should be yet is not always. He was there when needed, not when it suited his convenience. Immediacy again and again opened an opportunity that otherwise would have been lost and with it the possibilities for widening his circle of usefulness. An out-of-town friend telegraphed requesting Mr. Nelson to call on a certain man in a hospital, a stranger to Mr. Nelson, and he went at once. On another occasion a new member of the choir who had been in Cincinnati only a few weeks was suddenly taken ill. The doctors at the hospital were some time in deciding to operate, and called the girl's roommate. Although not knowing Mr. Nelson, she phoned him of her friend's serious condition, and he went immediately to her bedside. Though the operation was not until midnight, he stayed with her through the hours of waiting, joked to keep up her courage, and saw her through the ordeal and was there when she came out of the anesthetic. It turned out that the young lady was the daughter of a Methodist Bishop, and one can imagine her parents' gratitude when they learned over the phone that Mr. Nelson was with her. It was the sort of thing he loved to do, and people could not say enough of his help during such times of stress. There was a peculiar radiancy to his ministry which issued from this alacrity, the special glow that surrounds all lives that are nobly unselfish. He never spared himself, not even in his later years when illness had laid its relentless hand upon him who had always been robust and free of physical infirmities.

In a parish as diverse as that of Christ Church, there were unnumbered happenings of a tragic-comic nature, and they all bespoke his special place in the hearts of his people. Howard Bacon was once closeted in the parish house office on a certain winter's night with a man who became definitely and increasingly insane. Greatly alarmed, he succeeded in locating Mr. Nelson, who arrived in evening clothes; together they got the man into a car and drove him out to the distant suburb of College Hill. On the way they were stalled by a flat tire, and Mr. Nelson insisted on Mr. Bacon's staying in the car while he himself put on the spare. In the midst of all this, the poor man's mind apparently cleared briefly for he asked, "Do all great men come way out here to do things like this?" In another instance a choir soloist developed melancholia and refused to eat, and Mr. Nelson often fed her because she would eat for him. Nothing was too trivial to be encompassed by his great heart. Everyone, and sometimes it appeared as if everything, that was clothed with any need was his responsibility and called out his limitless sympathy. A friend jested that even the dog fights required his presence and the remark seemed to carry a kernel of truth! Once he prayed with a poor, broken-hearted woman who had lost her dearest possession, a pet canary bird, and again he sat down and talked as one sportsman to another with a friend who had lost a polo game. To this clergyman these were the peculiar privileges of his position, and never duties. Parents, with a true instinct for loving a man who was really good, wanted him to baptize their children, for in laying his hand upon the infant he was also laying his hand upon their hearts, and this act was the genuine blessing of a father-in-God, the shepherd calling his own by name.

There came to me the following letter from a parishioner whose first child lived only a few hours:

The one thing I wanted to do was to receive the Holy Communion. My husband called the Parish House and left word. We expected his assistant or possibly the deaconess, and you can imagine how honored and comforted we felt when Mr. Nelson came himself. It was indeed comforting to know that such a busy person could take time for one of the most humble of his church. We shall never forget the talk we had with him in the hospital before receiving the Holy Communion. He asked all about our little boy, and told us always to speak of him by name and think of him alive with the Father. Mr. Nelson told us of a baby sister of his who died, and how he felt about her. He said he always visited that tiny grave when he went home. He really stands in our hearts.

The strength of the Lord dwelt in his heart else he never could have given himself so indefatigably to the demands of a great city parish. There were no barriers of access to him. Until 1919 he did not have a private secretary, preferring to answer personally all his mail in long hand, and the only times he allowed himself to be out of reach of the telephone were during Holy Week and possibly on Saturdays. Everyone who came to the office was able to see him without any formality. I remember showing him an article in a church paper on the misuse of the title "Reverend," and suggesting that it might be well to print it in the Sunday leaflet. He was amused and only said, "What does it matter what we are called as long as they call us." This intense desire to give of himself lay back of his disappointment when friends and parishioners failed to communicate with him because they hesitated to trouble so busy a man. Former Mayor Russell Wilson remarked that "Frank Nelson was the spiritual advisor to many men whom you would not think of as having spiritual advisors." The downright sincerity of the man and his "at-homeness" with human beings of all kinds made it natural for men to talk with him.

There was, however, more in his personality than mere sociability and a genial manner, because an indefinable power or strength went forth from him. It was in his ministry to the sick that people felt especially a certain grace in his faith. He carried about with him "the medicine of a merry heart," and patients wanted to see him. He was a door through which a person passed to a deeper consciousness of the mystery and greatness of life and the infinities which brood over it. Therefore, his ministry to the sick commended itself to an unusual degree. One of the leading surgeons of Cincinnati, Dr. J. Louis Ransohoff, declared it his firm conviction that Frank Nelson gave a patient a double chance. Few ministers are welcomed by the medical profession in as intimate a role as this pastor took upon himself. Well known in Cincinnati is the story of his entering a Roman Catholic Hospital to be greeted by the Mother Superior with a hearty "Good-morning, Father Nelson," and the Jewish surgeon, "Good-morning, Rabbi Nelson," while the parishioner-patient said, "Good-morning, Mr. Nelson." His presence calmed panic-stricken patients, and if he had sought to carry further along this line, there are those who felt that he could easily have established a clinic or healing class. Of no end are those who maintained that they could not have undergone an operation without his standing beside them. Because he cared he often came out haggard and worn. Such incidents are revealing examples of the acceptance on the part of a large portion of the entire city of the ministry of one who was utterly sincere, utterly genuine. Those who follow the same calling must with pride point to him as superbly a man of God.

Frank Nelson was held in the highest respect by the medical profession because physicians generally felt, in the words of Dr. Ransohoff, that "his life had a spiritual significance; there was no cant, only humility." Sometimes he walked to the operating room beside a fearful patient, and one man later said, "Something came through him to me. The fear was gone." He often went with parishioners to a doctor's office, and sent hundreds of others giving them an infinite amount of time and thought. Because of Frank Nelson the name "Christ Church" was an open sesame for all the little-known workers and assistants on the staff of the church. For these countless favors he frequently expressed publicly his gratitude saying, "We very often have need of the help of lawyers, doctors and nurses. And we never appeal in vain. Without thought of any return the doctors and lawyers of the city, the hospitals, and the Visiting Nurses' Association give us quick response of their very best."

Those who worked with him have unforgettable memories of the way in which he visited the poorest tenements, always with the same courtesy and unconsciousness of environment that he showed to wealthy parishioners. Whether East Hill or Mt. Adams they were his people, and each received the kind of attention, the friendship, the grave dignity and consideration that each most wanted. When it was a Communion Service for the sick in a poor section of the city, he had a deeply sympathetic approach. Usually he himself would clear a little table in the dingy room, and when he had placed the fair linen and the silver vessels where the sick person could watch him and had donned his vestments, the place was transformed. As he commenced the beautiful liturgy, read only as the Rector could read it, there was in the humble room a Presence for which he was the channel.

In his reading of the Burial Office, there was a play of light and shade upon this man of God who, like Moses, "wist not that his face shone." The majestic notes of faith and assurance which reverberate in the words of this service were, on his lips and in his sympathetic and superb reading, like the overtones and rich harmonies of an organ. There was no formalism nor coldness, no hesitancy to plumb the stark reality of the occasion, but only the vibrant convictions of his own great faith in the goodness of God. Few can fail to recall the clarity and feeling with which he read St. Paul's immortal passage in 1st Corinthians, nor ever forget the prayer he invariably used in this service, "We seem to give him back to Thee, dear God."

Frank Nelson made Christ Church known throughout the city, and on occasions of trouble and stress, as just mentioned, people other than those in his flock turned to him naturally and wistfully. Their desires were not always consistent with the customs of the Episcopal Church. In one such instance a widow requested a eulogy, but Mr. Nelson told her that it was not the procedure of his church and, furthermore, he would not know what to say. Not abashed in the slightest, she replied, "Oh, that doesn't matter. Just give the address you made at the Mabley-Carew Department Store dinner!" However, he did read a poem, and in trying to express her sincere appreciation the widow somewhat astounded him by saying, "Why, that was enough to make Bob stand up in his coffin."

He knew what was in the human heart, and realized the craving for understanding in times of despair and sorrow. Somehow he managed to do and say the right thing. At one time the mother of a parishioner had died in a distant state, and when the family arrived in Cincinnati, he was at the railroad station at seven o'clock in the morning to meet them and accompanied the coffin from the baggage car to the hearse. So simple an act bespeaks the innate dignity and simplicity of the man. It was his custom at the cemetery to walk with the chief mourner, and by such little kindnesses and numberless other courtesies he endeared himself to each generation in his long ministry. A parishioner whose mother died late one Good Friday evening remembers that despite the heavy tax of the day Mr. Nelson came to her house shortly before ten o'clock, and, though no lights were on, rang the bell, calling, "I want to talk with you." By his coming, a sleepless night was shorn of its dread and vastness, and confidence and serenity took their place. At another time when a family received the fearful word from Washington that a son had been killed in the Argonne, Mr. Nelson though confined to his bed with illness went at once to call in the home. On the day of the funeral, before going to the church, he read the identical service in that suburban home for the invalid mother. As many people in Boston have said that until Phillips Brooks came to them in their sorrow they never knew what Isaiah meant in his words, "And there shall be a tabernacle for a shadow in the daytime from the heat, and for a place of refuge, and for a covert from rain," so Christ Church people found in Frank Nelson a stronghold in time of trouble.

There are many incidents that illustrate the ideals of this incomparable pastor. For instance, the Council of Churches had two social workers in the Juvenile Court, one of whom was a parishioner, young and beautiful. Mr. Nelson did not really want her to do such work, but her parents thought her trained and equipped for it. In his solicitude he went to the Executive Secretary and asked, "Do you have staff meetings? I want you to have her there in your office. Give her the knowledge that she is dealing with the abnormal, and that not all life is perversion." The welfare of each individual in his church was his personal concern.

He exercised this same solicitude for us young clergymen, some fourteen in number, who were his assistants and to whom he gave a tutelage and friendship that continued long after our apprenticeship was ended. He was an exacting teacher and beyond us, but like all others who labored in his parish, we felt a special joy and pride in working under him. It was a tremendous strain to keep up with him, and his own daily stint of work often put us to shame; in the fullness of his powers he made as many as thirty calls a week. One was never through, one could never do enough, and when tempted to let down, there was felt, even when not heard, that imperious voice, "Go on! Don't be easy on yourself." His own shepherding exemplified his belief that in the ministry honor for one's self is nothing, humanity everything. No task, even scrubbing floors, was too menial or too hard to be beneath the position of him who is God's servant. When the problems and the pressure of work in such a large institution weighed upon us, and their full scope inevitably was revealed at staff meetings, it was then as we were on our knees that his informal, absolutely real prayers lifted and strengthened us. Yes, on some rare occasions in his tower study we were on the Mount and gained fleeting glimpses of the City of God.

It was difficult at times for those of lesser faith not to be appalled by the awful waste and stupidity of human life such as any great city unbares. But the Rector used the many instances to illustrate the requirements of wide sympathy, and to teach us to reverence the qualities of personality even when we could not fathom the reasons for apparent foolishness. He would say things like this: "Never forget that the development of our free will is what God wants. Love may make mistakes, but they are not failures. There are times when one's own life is of very little importance compared with the need for sacrifice." The assistants, the deaconesses, and parish visitors had, in addition to a training in modern social methods, the supreme advantage of religious direction. His guidance issued from his own example and experience.

Deaconess Margaret Lloyd writes:

It seemed in those early years as though all our parish poor lived on the top floors of tenements, and I often thought that climbing the famous penitents' stairway in Rome would have been an easy climb compared with the ascent of Mt. Adams! It was climbed almost daily by some member of the staff, and very frequently by the Rector. It was not only the climb, but the drab, dreary houses of the period. For those were the days of heavy, soft coal smoke, of a yellow, unpurified water supply, and a lack of adequate housing or health laws. The consequences were that a large parish like ours always had typhoid or T. B. folk needing material help as well as sympathy and compassion. The annals of such a parish always contain numberless "human interest stories." There was a very large family which never was able to provide shoes or to have quite enough clothing for six children. We suspected that, despite all efforts, sufficient food was lacking, and especially at those times when the head of the family was on one of his happy-go-lucky sprees. Everyone on the staff felt a sense of relief when this bibulous father died for there was enough insurance money not only to bury him, but to leave funds to tide the family over the next few months, and until the mother and her two eldest children had found jobs. Imagine our feelings when, in less than two weeks after the funeral, the widow appeared at the parish house! She had come to ask Christ Church for a little help until she had work. "But what has become of your insurance money, surely you have not used it all up so soon?" "Oh! yes we have, deaconess! You see we always craved gold band rings for the children, and I always doted on having a pink enamel bed." It was really true! The bed that they had longed for stood in their shabby front room, pink enamel, gold curlicue trimmings and all! Its enormous expanse was covered with tawdry silk pillows and silk spread, and it stood out, the one glorious object in the whole tenement. Also the children with the utmost pride showed their gold band rings which according to the custom of those days each wore on the "wedding finger"; even the five year old displayed his golden trophy. Mr. Nelson did his best to modify the protests of his outraged staff. Finally we did see at least something of his point of view, that to the family these symbols of respectability meant what a Persian rug would have meant in a more sophisticated family. For these friends of ours had "arrived," socially speaking, via the pink enamel bed, and their admiring neighbors could never again refer to them as "poor white trash." It takes a long, long time to change ideas, but the Rector's respect for human personality (foolishness and stupidity notwithstanding) and his method of patience, tact, and a sense of humor did change many of us. And a controlled sense of humor has a marvelous effect at times. There was the instance when the Rector went to conduct a funeral service on Mt. Adams. It was a very hot day, the little rooms were crowded, and family and neighbors were close to the coffin. Mr. Nelson put on his vestments in the stuffy kitchen. He had begun the majestic words of the service when there strolled into the room the small boy of the family nonchalantly carrying a very large slice of watermelon! He found a spot on the floor at the foot of the coffin, and proceeded to eat the juicy treat. The Rector continued with the service, and the mourners gave him absorbed attention until the last prayer. No incongruity could possibly change the beauty and dignity of that service as conducted by our Rector.

Frank Nelson was shepherd to all. To be sure, there were complaints that he did not call in every home, and to some who did not have the opportunity to experience at first-hand his sympathy and concern, he seemed aloof. But when a need arose he met it; and as years were added to years he won the confidence of all types of people. To the rich he said, "Your money is the smallest gift you can offer. Yes, Christ Church needs money, but it needs you yourself far more." He said to the poor, "You are splendid in the way you are helping us. The parish could not get along without such workers as you. Keep it up!" In the warm climate of his enthusiasm and appreciation, young and old, rich and poor discovered within themselves an undreamed-of capacity to respond to his faith and to his demands for service. In turn he was generous in gratitude. At the time of his twenty-fifth anniversary he wrote the following acknowledgment to a parishioner who had written to him of all that Christ Church and his ministry meant:

Thank you indeed, and thank you still more for these seventeen years of most extraordinary service, and personal loyalty and friendship. I can never tell you how much I have appreciated them, and do appreciate them. I know I have made life harder for you—both in the work I have put on you—and by the way I have often left you to carry the burden unaided. But I know too that the Spirit has carried you on and filled you with new visions and powers of life. And that makes all the rest worth while. I am so glad that you are coming up to us at Cranberry. I know you will love its loveliness, and in its quiet and the sweep of sea and sky, you will find refreshment and renewed strength. And then we can talk not of plans and work, but what lies beneath them, faith and God and the abundant life.

As his forty years' ministry came to a close, there was throughout the entire city a growing crescendo of acclaim, which found fervent expression in words like these: "He was our best friend for years." Deeper than the affection which drew forth such recognition was his profound faith in the Father-God of all mankind. It was Frank Nelson's limitless trust in his Heavenly Father that gave him his strength and influence. Many an evening on his way home he went into his church or chapel to pray, and lay before God the problems and griefs of his people which he carried in his great heart.

"Therefore to thee it was given Many to save with thyself; And, at the end of the day, O faithful shepherd! to come, Bringing thy sheep in thy hand."[8]


[8] Rugby Chapel by Matthew Arnold. Macmillan Co. Used by permission.

The Spokesman of the City's Conscience

"He so stirred the very soul of our responsibility for social living that we felt he had come to break the old city's sleep of habit or despair."

Miss Edith Campbell


Frank Nelson loved the city, and was moved by its swift, tumultuous life; hence, he was able to stir it. No mere reformer or "up-lifter" who sees only ugliness and sordidness can effect very far-reaching changes, and retain his faith. Mr. Nelson succeeded in both. He came to Cincinnati under the high compulsion of a mission, and relinquished his work on the same high plane of faith and vision. To have retained such conviction over a period of forty years in the sort of work which was his testifies to a quality of realism that is at once impressive and authoritative. He knew the vice and corruption that lurked the streets, and yet he reiterated to the end that "there is a glory in the city seen in the faces of men and women, boys and girls, which is the immortal soul growing clean, and entering into paradise." Something of that glory he created. Christ Church is located in Ward Six, formerly Ward Eight, and there also Mr. Nelson had his residence at 311 Pike Street. One of the boys who grew up in the district and is now a successful business man declares that this ward would be entirely different today if it had not been for Frank Nelson and the work carried on in Christ Church. But this clergyman's work and influence spread far outside his parish and beyond his ward.

By many Catholics, Jews, and Protestants Frank Nelson was acknowledged as "the flaming sword of the Charter Movement"; the man who so interpreted the Community Chest that "he made it a platform upon which every man could stand"; and in the minds of some of them he so o'er-leaped sectarian differences that they considered him their minister. His was a position as unique as it was remarkable considering the fact that he held no title or high-ranking office such as Bishop. This minister quickened the conscience of Cincinnati, and brought into full bloom vague, half-formed ideals. Many looked upon him as the spokesman of the city's conscience.

Mr. Nelson did not grow up in an age of radical and revolutionary economic and social programs. He was not a student of such philosophies, yet he had in his heart that particular treasure, namely an affection for people, for the fortunate and no less for the poor and the dispossessed. Without this love for the common man, these philosophies are never translated into the natural order of things nor ever become more than intellectual pronouncements. He was neither a mystic nor a reformer, but a citizen who was deeply cognizant of religious faith as laying upon him and upon everyone a compulsive service. This mighty conviction he expressed in varying ways as we shall see, but never in more arresting words than in a sermon which he preached on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Presbyterian Church of The Covenant from the text, "Ye shall not see my face except your brother be with you." Though delivered in 1916, this sermon was recalled twenty-three years later on the occasion of Mr. Nelson's retirement as a consummate expression of his faith and convictions, namely that we are not isolated individuals each to be saved by means of self-centered piety, but only through practicing religion in fellowship with one another.

A study of his annual reports indicates that from his St. George's days he was dominated by the vision of the Church as having a mission to the city. As early as 1903 he outlined the conditions that confront Christian people, and the relation of the Church to them:

The city of today is the point of concentration of the forces that are making the character, and determining the standards of our time. So complex is our modern civilization that it is not possible to separate the individual in our estimation of his standards and character from the conditions by which he is surrounded, and in which he lives. For they vitally influence his point of view, his ideals, his efforts to attain them. A boy who grows up in an atmosphere of openly accepted corruption will inevitably lack sensitiveness of moral perception. Our young men and women, our boys and girls are subjected to a moral pressure that is extremely difficult to resist. What is the duty of the Church? The moral welfare of these young people is its intimate concern. It may, and it must, bring to bear a counter pressure of high individual moral standards and ideals. It may, and it must, hold up before them faith in purity and honesty, and persuade them to receive it. But that is not enough. It must utter its word of protest against the rule of the Boss, not because it wishes to enter the arena of politics, not because it differs from him on political questions, not even because he is the denial of democracy, but because he maintains his power of corrupting manhood and womanhood by protecting and fostering vice in order that they may be his allies. It must utter its protest against the dictum, "Whatever pays is right," not because it wishes to dictate business methods, or to set itself up as an authority on economics, but because it finds this corruption in business demoralizing to standards and character. It must utter its protest against overcrowded and unsanitary tenement houses, not because it considers its function to be the censorship of buildings, but because such conditions breed immorality among the boys and girls. The individual message alone is made ineffective by the constant pressure of these conditions. To make that message effective, the conditions must be changed. And it is peculiarly the work of a church, situated as is Christ Church, to say and do what it can to make them intolerable to the conscience of a Christian city. I have said all this because I want you to see clearly the place in the pulpit and church of such preaching and work as we have tried to give and do. We must go forward with increasing energy and purpose, and that whether the results seem great or small. We may, and must, at least sow the seed in the faith that God will inevitably bring it to the harvest.

Again and again he thundered, "The conditions must be made intolerable to the conscience of a Christian city," and the spirit of the times rolled back the sterile answer, "It can't be done in Cincinnati." But he shook himself like a lion and took up the battle.

The fight for honest municipal government in Cincinnati was a mighty one and the story of it is fairly well known, but a few pertinent facts are essential as a background to Mr. Nelson's part in it. For more than thirty years George B. Cox controlled the city by all the devices known to the wily, astute politician. Few presumed to run for any office on the Republican ticket without his approval. Unburdened by shame, he declared, "I am the Boss of Cincinnati ... I've got the best system of government in this country. If I didn't think my system was the best, I would consider that I was a failure in life." He openly derided reformers. Lincoln Steffens had surveyed and written up the city as he had many others and declared it under the dominance of "the most vicious political gang in any city." Few inroads were made on Cox's preserves until after his death in 1916. At the close of World War I, the city began to reap the bitterest and most evil results of its contentment with benevolent despotism, and in 1922 found itself verging on bankruptcy. Aroused citizens were determined not only that Cincinnati should have an efficient, economical government but also that its reputation as a sink of iniquity should be erased.

When the Republican organization perceived that an investigation was inescapable, it determined to name the investigators! The Republican Executive and Advisory Committee appointed a survey committee to devise a plan to solve the city's and county's most pressing administrative and financial problems. A distinguished group was selected; among the members were Frank H. Nelson, George H. Warrington, Charles P. Taft, and other eminent citizens some twenty-one in number. This committee engaged Dr. Lent D. Upson of the Detroit Bureau of Governmental Research, who with a large staff of specialists proceeded to turn the city and county governments inside out. The Upson Report furnished the ammunition for what turned out to be nothing short of a revolution.

A City Charter Committee had been organized which, after the Upson Committee reported, proposed an amendment to the city's home rule charter embodying the city manager plan of municipal government and a small council of nine elected at large by proportional representation. In the fall of 1924 the critical issue was submitted to the electorate, and a significant victory won. "This new movement, its representatives youthful, clear-eyed, energetic and determined, took its place in the books of our history as the first reform enterprise of any permanence in a great city of the United States."[9] In this crusade of civic warriors Frank Nelson ranked as "a flaming sword," to use the colorful phrase of his friend Mr. Ralph Holterhoff. He was a constant worker in planting the first seeds of the moral rightness of the cause, the crusader whose faith clarified the fundamental religious background inherent in good government. During the initial campaign of 1924, Mr. Nelson, preaching this gospel from his pulpit, carried his parish with him into the righteous cause, and he literally toured the city wards as well. When the City Charter Committee was given permanent form, following the sweeping victory of November 1924, it is significant that the organization meeting was held in the Parish House of Christ Church. Among the speakers were Mr. Nelson, Charles P. Taft, John R. Schindel, and Henry Bentley, who was known as "the Commander of the legions that gave a city a new body and a new soul," all of them leaders in the campaign, and members and vestrymen of Christ Church. Another parishioner, Ralph Holterhoff, was, almost single-handed, responsible for financing the Committee's work for its next fifteen years.

Repeatedly throughout successive years Mr. Nelson spoke at Charter rallies, giving a series of remarkably effective addresses which assisted immeasurably in sustaining the zest and interest of citizens in the reform ideal. As Mr. Murray Seasongood has said, "The technique of good local government has been developed by study, but the will to bring about good local government has not been infused into the residents of our cities." Toward that will and fusion in the city of Cincinnati, men are agreed that Frank Nelson's moral and spiritual contribution was enormous. Leaders declare that in routing the forces of corrupt government from their strongholds, his was the most powerful voice raised in the city. His trenchant words, his statesmanlike ability spurred the lagging energies and fired men's spirits to greater effort; he gave the necessary courage and drive and inspiration to carry through and maintain the reform movement. "It is the man of ideals and faith," Frank Nelson reiterated, "who has more courage than any politician. We shall set our faces steadfastly to the victory not only for good government and efficiency, but for the morality and the righteousness and the power of faith in this community." In the opinion of Mr. Ralph Holterhoff, the treasurer of the City Charter organization, Mr. Nelson, by his extensive contacts with all classes of citizens, radiating not only through his parish but throughout the entire fabric of Cincinnati's economic and social life, aroused the people with more success than any other individual. He literally mustered thousands of recruits who became zealous apostles and voters for the cause, although many had not voted for years because they felt nothing could be done about the existing evils. During the recurring campaigns for councilmen, Mr. Nelson was at the beck and call of the organization, giving extravagantly of his time and vitality at many rallies, particularly at the opening meeting of campaigns, where he either was the keynote speaker or took such part as expressed the religious convictions that lay behind the movement. "Hearing him," wrote Alfred Segal, a newspaper columnist, "people felt that good government was more than a matter of efficiency and economy. It had to do with civic self-respect and social morale and bright ideals."

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