Two lives we celebrate: W.A. Amerson and Edgar Nelson

By James V. Heidinger II

This spring at our annual conference sessions, pastors and lay delegates will open with a Memorial Service honoring members and spouses who have died during the past year. At this always-touching service, we will lift our voices, singing triumphantly, “For all the saints, who from their labors rest, who thee by faith before the world confessed…” (Hymnal, No. 711).

Two of those to be remembered this spring will be pastors who have been especially important to Good News’ ministry, to the evangelical witness of the United Methodist Church, and to countless numbers of young clergy they inspired toward ministry.

Just how does one get a handle on the scope of the ministries of the Rev. W. A. Amerson, who died last September at 92 years of age, and the Rev. Mr. Edgar Nelson, who died in January 2010, at the age of 95? I knew both of these pastors and was touched by their friendship and their ministries. They both incarnated what Eugene Peterson wrote about in his book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. They were, indeed, “faithful unto death.”

What strikes me about these two statesmen are the similarities of their ministries. Both W.A. and Edgar were graduates of Asbury Theological Seminary and members of the Good News board of directors in its early, formative years. Both had lengthy pastorates at large, flagship evangelical UM Churches—W.A. seventeen years at the Dueber United Methodist Church in Canton, Ohio (East Ohio Conference) and Edgar twenty-five years at the Yuba City United Methodist Church in Yuba City, California (Cal-Nevada Conference). They both had a lifelong passion for missions and thus, both of the above churches developed strong missions programs which continue to this day. In good Wesleyan fashion, the world became part of their parish.

One other similarity fascinates me. Both pastors were passionately committed to calling on their members in their homes. It was nothing for W.A. to have 70-80 calls in a week’s time—not a long visit, obviously, but enough to learn whether there were any needs the family had; if so, he could stay to address those and offer encouragement. For Edgar, I learned recently from the Rev. Al Vom Steeg (for whom Edgar was a long-time mentor in the conference) that “he made it his goal to be in each member’s home at least twice in a year. And sometimes he would be at the home of church visitors nearly before they got home from church.”

My ministry began as W. A. Amerson’s associate pastor in 1967 at the Dueber Church in Canton. I learned so much about ministry (administration, calling, funerals, weddings, etc.) by simply being there and watching him in action. He allowed me to preach and share in the administrative load. I consider those four years (1967-1971) a time of invaluable learning.

What impressed me about W.A. was how this pastor, coming from such humble beginnings, made himself and his talents totally available to God. He knew the difficulties of the Great Depression and how to live with little. W. A. put himself through college at Texas Tech and then earned graduate degrees from Asbury Seminary and Louisville Presbyterian Seminary while working every kind of job imaginable to acquire tuition money.

The people W.A. served loved him because they knew he loved them. He visited them, cared for them, prayed for and with them, and he remembered their names. His great memory was one of his special gifts and he amazed people at his ability to remember their names. Because of the love they felt from him, countless hundreds were moved to accept the Savior he served and about whom he preached. And no one knows just how many young men and women W.A. and his wife Virginia (who died in 2004) encouraged and directed into Christian ministry. He was a father in the ministry to scores of persons, including the young and not so young.

I’m not sure it fully struck me until his death just how much this dear pastor had meant to me—how he had touched my life personally. In addition to all I learned from him about pastoral ministry, W.A. served on the Good News board and nominated me to be on that board in 1974. That introduced me to a wonderful family of renewal-oriented United Methodists. Then, as a member of the Asbury College board of trustees, he nominated me to be on that board in 1979, where I was privileged to serve for 28 years.

As best as I can determine, taken together, W.A. and Edgar’s lives account for more than 130 years of ministry and service within our denomination. W.A. lived 92 years. Edgar lived to be 95.

Edgar Nelson was a giant, both spiritually and physically. At six-foot-eight, when he entered a room, he commanded your attention immediately. And his heart was as big and loving as his physical frame. There was about him a charming warmth and contagious smile that made you love him from the start.

Edgar served the First United Methodist Church in Yuba City, California, from 1960 until his retirement in 1985. During those 25 years, the church flourished and with his passion for missions, the church developed a strong, dynamic missions program that continues yet today.

While serving as a pastor, Edgar was also one of the founders, along with the equally legendary Dr. J. C. McPheeters, of Redwood Christian Park near Santa Cruz. (Some may recall that in the 1950s, McPheeters served as senior minister of Glide Memorial Methodist Church while also serving as President of Asbury Theological Seminary, commuting cross country on a regular basis.) Edgar remained active in leadership at Redwood Christian Park as long as he was physically able.

I have been to Redwood Christian Park a number of times. Nestled in the breathtakingly beautiful setting of the Santa Cruz Mountains, it is a magnificent venue for Christian camping and conferences. With lovely, modern facilities, it has been for 60 years a wonderful evangelical center for summer camps, weekend retreats, ministerial gatherings, family camps, and other professional group meetings. And in many respects, it is an abiding testament to Edgar Nelson’s (and McPheeters’) passion for both evangelism and missions.

Edgar remained concerned about denominational renewal right up until the end of his life. It was not unusual for this dear friend to call me just to chat and catch up with what hopeful signs might be seen across his church. He was faithful and regular in his support of Good News.

Edgar Nelson’s lovely wife and lifetime partner in ministry, Marian Barber Nelson, still lives at the home they enjoyed for 51 years. The two would have celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary this coming August.

By every measure, the lives and ministries of W.A. Amerson and Edgar Nelson are worth celebrating, perhaps on our knees before God. And as you sing that great memorial hymn the next time, maybe this spring at annual conference, note carefully verse 3: “O may thy soldiers, faithful, true, and bold,/ fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,/ and win with them the victor’s crown of gold./ Alleluia, Alleluia.”

W.A. and Edgar fought nobly and boldly—and they did so for several decades before any organized renewal efforts emerged in the church to give encouragement. They were faithful unto death. They have surely won the “victor’s crown of gold.”

Lord, for the lives and faithful witness of these two saints, we thank you. May those of us who follow after be found faithful. And Lord, as we are moved by their memory, help us “run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2 NRSV). Amen.

James V. Heidinger II is the president and publisher emeritus of Good News.

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