The Rev. Warren Julius Nelson took great care in molding the future. In a Board of National Missions personnel file, he responded to the question “What part of your work is most interesting to you?” with the following words: “Inspiring the youth to become Christians and make good citizens.”
Through his role as a father and illustrious career as a pastor, the grandfather of the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), did just that.
On October 6, 1884, Warren Julius Nelson was born in Sumter County, South Carolina. He was afforded a Christian education during his formative years through the New Haven Parochial School and the Kendal Institute, which was operated by Second Presbyterian Church and sponsored by the Board of Missions for Freedmen. Nelson continued his education at Biddle University, where he earned high school and college degrees. In 1909, he graduated from Biddle Theological Seminary and emerged as a young pastor eager to pass on his teachings to the wider community.
Nelson loved his home state and served there his entire pastoral career, answering his first call to a small rural congregation in Marion. After five years, he accepted a call in Ridgway.
At both congregations, Nelson served alongside his wife, Maggie Grant. The couple worked steadfastly — Maggie held the roles of schoolteacher and director of music while Warren ministered as pastor. During their marriage Warren and Maggie had five sons: Warren Julius, Jr., William Tycer, Otis Jerome, James Herbert and Grover Dwight. They remained together until Maggie’s death. Later, Warren married Lillie B. Moore and had two more children, John Calvin and Ella Baynard.
Ridgeway’s church and surrounding community experienced a period of transformation and growth during Nelson’s tenure. A new church building and manse were constructed, with its congregants taking the gospel into the world and ministering to disadvantaged families in the more rural areas of the county. Leaving the church in a sturdier position than when he had arrived a decade earlier, Nelson accepted another call in Mayesville at Goodwill Presbyterian Church in 1925. The historic congregation was founded in 1867 after 100 Black members of the Salem Black River Presbyterian Church formed their own church. They had attended the Salem Black River Presbyterian Church while enslaved and no longer wanted to worship in a segregated space as free people.
Goodwill Presbyterian Church had many needs, with the vast majority of Sumter County’s Black population working as sharecroppers. Nelson was passionate about sharing his education with other Black Presbyterians. During his time at Goodwill Presbyterian Church, he also served as principal of the Goodwill Day School.
In his 36 years of service at Goodwill, the county’s social and economic standings substantially improved. One of the biggest achievements was the establishment of the Goodwill Larger Parish, a consortium of nine congregations across Sumter, Lee and Clarendon counties. The mission of the parish was to join together pastors and other Christian education leaders to support the more than 3,000 congregants in surrounding communities. The nine cooperating churches dedicated themselves to recreation, education, health, morals and economic betterment.
Warren Julius Nelson served Goodwill Presbyterian Church and Christians all around South Carolina until he retired in 1960. Two years later, he passed away.
Nelson’s legacy remains immeasurable. Goodwill Presbyterian Church and Day School raised future successful members of the community including business, civil and religious leaders. Nelson had a positive impact on Atlantic Presbytery, which during his lifetime produced a large number of Black ministers compared to the rest of the denomination.
In his Board of National Missions personnel file, Warren Julius Nelson wrote, “Through my efforts and work I have influenced many boys and girls to come into the Presbyterian Church through the school and with pride I can point to many of them teaching, preaching, and rendering service in many communities.”
One of his greatest legacies is the generations of service his family has given to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and its predecessor denominations. Four of Nelson’s sons went on to become ministers and prominent church leaders. They were also active on issues of race and civil rights, including protesting at segregated public spaces and holding positions in the NAACP.
To this day, the influence of Warren Julius Nelson’s ministry lives on. One hundred and thirty-two years after he was born in the Reconstruction-era South, his grandson, the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II was elected the first African American Stated Clerk of the General Assembly in 2016.
As J. Herbert Nelson, II ends his historic tenure as stated clerk, read about his career and legacy.
This article first appeared on the PHS blog.
The Presbyterian Historical Society (PHS) is bearing witness to the lives of African American leaders throughout the history of the denomination. Click here to learn how PHS is collecting records of the Black Presbyterian experience through the African American Leaders and Congregations Initiative.
A free bulletin insert about each featured leader is available for download at the end of each African American leader’s blog. Download a bulletin insert about Warren Julius Nelson, Sr. here: Full Page | Half-Letter | Half-Legal