African American Leaders: Warren Julius Nelson, Sr.
Each month, the Presbyterian Historical Society 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.
Additionally, a free bulletin insert about each figure is available for download at the end of each blog.
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: Inspiring the youth to become Christians and make good citizens.
Through his role as a father and an illustrious career as a pastor, Warren Julius Nelson 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, who was grateful for this access to an education, continued it at Biddle University where he earned high school and college degrees. In 1909, he graduated from Biddle’s Theological Seminary and emerged as a young pastor eager to pass on his teachings to the wider community.
Nelson loved his home state of South Carolina and served there his entire pastoral career. He answered 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 acted as pastor. During their marriage, Warren and Maggie gave birth to five sons: Warren Julius, Jr., William Tycer, Otis Jerome, James Herbert, and Grover Dwight. They remained together until Maggie’s death. Then after, Warren remarried to 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. Under his leadership, a new church building and manse were constructed. In addition, his congregants took his gospel into the world and embarked on a mission to minister to disadvantaged families in the more rural areas of the county. Leaving his church in a sturdier position than when he arrived a decade earlier, Nelson accepted another call in Mayesville at Goodwill Presbyterian Church.
Nelson arrived at Goodwill Presbyterian Church in 1925. This 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 when Nelson inherited it. The vast majority of Sumter County’s Black population were working as sharecroppers. Few owned land or were formally educated. Nelson, having been educated at a Board of Missions for Freedmen school in his youth, was passionate about sharing his education with other Black Presbyterians. During his time at Goodwill Presbyterian Church, he simultaneously served as principal of the Goodwill Day School.
In his 36 years of service at Goodwill, the county’s social and economic standings were 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 3000 shared congregants and their 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. However, 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 an inordinate number of Black ministers compared to the rest of the denomination.
In his Board of National Missions personnel file, he 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 Warren Julius Nelson’s greatest legacies is the generations of service his family has given to the Presbyterian Church. Four of Nelson’s sons went on to become ministers and prominent leaders in the Presbyterian Church. 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. 132 years after Warren Julius Nelson was born in the Reconstruction Era South, his grandson, James Herbert Nelson, II was elected the first African American Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church in the USA in 2016.
Want to share this biography with your congregation? Click below to read and download a free bulletin insert about Warren Julius Nelson, Sr.