ducted themselves with stately dignity, having little familiar
intercourse with the students. With that tact which was one of
his most marked characteristics through life, and by which with-
out seeming to do so, he carried out his purposes, he called, on
the evening of his arrival, upon all his former acquaintances in the
upper classes. This course proved a master-stroke of policy.
During the two years of his connection with the college he was
a very popular instructor.
In the fall of 1810 he returned to Worcester and continued his
theological studies in Dr. Austin's family five months. All the
instruction or intercourse with Dr. Austin on theological subjects
consisted of a few remarks on one of a set of questions furnished
by him, and a few criticisms on one sermon. "This," Dr. Nelson
said, " was my theological education."
Dr. Nelson was trained in the Hopkinsian school of theology.
This was the theology of his father. His pastor in Hopkinton
was the eccentric Nathanael Howe, and as we have seen, he came
while young under the influence of Dr. Austin, an able and promi-
nent Hopkinsian divine. That Dr. Austin believed in " infant
damnation," as has been persistendy affirmed, Dr. Nelson positively,
and from personal knowledge denied, and moreover affirmed that
he had, in his lifetime, known hardly a minister who held this
view. The Hopkinsian theology emphasized the divine sovereignty
and efficiency, and the duty of subordinating human interest to
the Divine will. Under Dr. Austin's ministry, as Dr. Nelson
said, the leading question put to candidates for church member-
ship was, "Are you willing to be damned?" Rev. Edwards
Whipple, of Charlton, was of a different mind, and to a woman,
who applied for church membership, saying she had this willing-
ness, but whose piety he distrusted, replied that if she was willing,
and the Divine will corresponded, he should not object.
At Williamstown Mr. Nelson came under the influence of another
class of preachers, such as Doctors Fitch, Hyde, Shepherd, and
Mr. Swift, of Williamstown, and was impressed with the superior
practical power of their discourses. Their preaching was "less
metaphysical and more practical, and their labors were more
blessed with revivals," and he "lost his estimate of the importance
of these distinctions." He was not a metaphysician. " I hate
metaphysics," he once said to me in his pleasant way. He early
accepted the views of the new school of New England theologians,
in distinction from hyper-Calvinism and Hopkinsianism, and
adopted the plainer and more direct mode of presenting Christian
He was examined for approbation by the local Association,
sometimes with a double significance styled the " Long and
Narrow Association." His sermon before the body was on
Justification, rejecting the view of Imputation. It was disapproved
by Mr. Gough, of Millbury, but approved by the other members.
At his ordination a layman on the council asked him, " Do you
believe in unregenerate works?" Mr. Nelson hesitated, and
asked the meaning of the question. " Do you believe it is the
duty of the unregenerate to pray? " "Yes, I do," he answered.
" Then I can't vote for you."
His first sermon was preached in Ward, now Auburn. He
afterward went to Connecticut, on a horse, with saddle-bags,
preaching in different places, and receiving as compensation what
was found in the contribution box, which in one instance amounted
to $4.70. In Pomfret he preached three months. In this
meeting-house was " a sounding board, and a sub-sounding
board." On the first Sabbath he noticed that all the congregation
remained standing in their places after the benediction until he
had passed down the aisle. He was a modest man, and requested
that the formality might thereafter be omitted. He received a
call from this church, with the cautious stipulation that he should
receive his salary " so long as he performed the duties of the min-
istry." He declined the call, and accepted an invitation from the
church in Leicester to supply the pulpit made vacant by the resig-
nation of Rev. Zephaniah Swift Moore, who had been appointed
Professor of Languages at-Dartmouth College. He commenced his
labors on the first Sunday of November, i8i i, and on the fourth day
of March, 1S12, was ordained, and installed as pastor of the church,
at a salary of four hundred and fifty dollars, which was after three
years increased to five hundred dollars.
The exercises of the ordination were as follows : Opening prayer
by Rev. Aaron Bancroft, D. D., of Worcester ; sermon by Rev.
Samuel Austin, D. D., of Worcester ; consecrating prayer by Rev.
Joseph Avery, of Holden ; right hand of fellowship, by Rev.
Edwards Whipple, of Charlton ; charge, by Rev. Joseph Pope, of
Spencer; concluding ])rayer, by Rev. Edmund Mills, of Sutton.
The ordination was on a beautiful winter-like day. The sleigh-
ing was excellent. The event was unusual. A concourse of
three thousand people assembled, only a small portion of whom
could find admittance to the church building ; and it is handed
down as a fact that there were, by actual count, on, and about
the common, twelve hundred sleighs. The council was enter-
tained on a liberal scale by Col. Thomas Denny, who also the
next day extended similar hospitalities to the congregation. The
first sermon after ordination, was from L Tim., 6 : 20, "O Tim-
othy, keep that which is committed to thy trust."
On the fourth of May following, Mr. Nelson rode on horseback
to Barre, in a severe snow-storm, and, in the evening was married
by Rev. James Thompson, D. D., to Zibiah, daughter of Abijah
Bigelow, Esq., of that town. To her he declared himself more
largely indebted for the comfort he had enjoyed, and the success
that had attended his ministry, than he knew how to express.*
* Mrs. Nelson was born in the part of Watcrtovvn now embraced in
Waltham, Oct. 15, 1787. She was a woman of superior ability, refinement,
and strength of character, of great energy and executive force, and well
fitted for leadership. She scrupulously cared for her household, and also
The town of Leicester then had about twelve hundred inhabi-
tants. In the congregation were many intelhgent and well
educated people. The pastor was young and diffident. His
predecessor, Dr. Moore, was a prominent and learned man, ranking
high in educational circles, afterward a professor in Dartmouth
college, and president, first of Williams, and then of Amherst
college. Conscious of his youth and inexperience, the new
minister hardly needed the reminder of the fact given him by an
old man, one of the eccentric members of the parish. Calling on
him the first time, Mr. Nelson was abruptly met with the question :
"How old are you?"
"You are of yesterday, and know nothing !"
The same man afterward sent him this message, " I'm sick. If
you don't come and see me I'll send for Mr. Pope."
For thirty-nine years he discharged the duties of the pastoral office
alone, preaching twice on the Sabbath, conducting evening
services, preaching in different parts of the town, sometimes hold-
ing meetings night after night for months, and performing the
arduous work of pastoral visitation and ministration to the sick
and the afflicted in families scattered over all parts of the town.
shared with her husband the work of pastoral visitation. She was especially
thoughtful of the poor, the afflicted, and the sick. .She was deeply interested
in the sabbath school, and indeed in all that related to the welfare of the
society. She was president of the Ladies' Charitable Society forty-nine
years, and directed its large benevolent work. She was an ardent patriot,
and during the civil war was busily occupied in working for the soldiers. In
the hundredth pair of stockings which she knit for them she placed a note
stating the fact, and received an answer of thanks from the fortunate
receiver. She was a natural artist, and in the leisure and fortunate surround-
ings of her old age, she revived one of the accomplishments of her girlhood.
It was after she was ninety years of age that she resumed the work of em-
broidery, designing from nature, without pattern, and producing many
specimens of handiwork which are justly admired as remarkable works of
art. Mrs. Nelson died Dec. 19, 1881, in the ninety-fifth year of her age.
She was a delightful letter-writer, and when too infirm to leave home
remembered her friends in letters of consolation, congratulation and friend-
In 1 85 1, on the 4th day of March, Rev. Andrew C. Dennison
was settled as his colleague. He was dismissed in March, 1856,
and April 21, 1857, the writer was ordained, and was associated
with him till the time of his death. He continued to preach in
the latter period of his life, with the exception of the last five
years, occupying the pulpit on Sunday morning, when health and
He was a ready writer, with a pure and pleasing style, marked
rather by clearness, simplicity and fluency, than by startling
antithesis, or sensational illustration. His sermons were short.
He usually selected before Monday night the texts and themes of
both his discourses for the following sabbath, and habitually com-
pleted his preparations before Saturday noon. When he ceased
])reaching he had a considerable number of sermons not delivered.
He had no study and but few books. His sermons were
written in the room occupied by the family and visiting friends.
He did not approve of extemporaneous preaching, and his sermons
were almost without exception fully written.
There were times, especially in periods of religious controversy,
when his preaching was of a decidedly doctrinal cast, but usually
it was of a more directly practical character.
When the writer became accpiainted with him, he was nearly
seventy years of age, and much enfeebled by disease ; but there
were times, especially during the civil war, when he spoke with
an earnestness and vigor which seemed like the flashing out of an
old fire, and which revealed the secret of his early power and his
popularity as a preacher, not only in Leicester, but in all this vicinity
in which he was widely known and revered. On funeral occasions
he was especially felicitous, entering with a true pastoral sympathy
into the feeling of those to whom he extended the consolations
The weekly prayer meeting was established in the latter part of
Dr. Moore's ministry. In 1819, May 3, the church took action
with reference to "a plan of Sabbath School." The ministers in
this vicinity were at first distrustful of the Sunday School, which
in its origin was quite different in character from the institution
as it now exists. At a conference of pastors in the vicinity of
Worcester, called sometime before this date, resolutions had been
passed disapproving of Sunday schools as liable to violate the
sanctity of the sabbath day. In Worcester the first schools were
attended only by the children of the poorer families. Mr. Abijah
Bigelow, who was much interested and saw the possibilities of
usefulness in the institution, at last placed all the children of his
large family in the Sunday school. His example was followed by
others, and the school which had before made little progress,
became in consequence popular and successful.
In Leicester five sabbath schools were organized, probably in
1 8 19, in as many different parts of the town.
In this pioneer Sunday school work, Mrs. Nelson's labors were
efficient and invaluable. She had charge of the school in the centre
village, and also had general oversight of the other schools, to
which she rode on horseback. Her earlier interest in this institu-
tion endured to the end, and she continued to attend the Sunday
school until she was over ninety years of age.
The earlier years of Dr. Nelson's ministry were years of embar-
rassment and trial. His salary of four hundred dollars was perhaps,
in 181 2, sufficient for the support of a pastor's family. But the
war with England immediately followed, and with it a very large
increase in the cost of living. It was a period of great prosperity
in the town, but of rigid economy in the parsonage. The hospi-
tality of the Nelson home was always generous and free. The
minister was expected then to entertain the clerical traveller, and
the clerical beast, generally finding in his society and conversation
an adequate remuneration for the cost and trouble. The minis-
terial tramp, however, that most unblushing of all mendicants,
presuming upon hospitality as the servant of the Lord, not
infrequently made the parsonage his home for days together,
honoring the pastor as his groom, and the pastor's wife as
his landlady ; and, at his departure, acknowledging his satisfaction
by promise of future patronage. In a few years the young pastor
found himself hopelessly involved in debt. For this reason, he,
in 1 819, asked to be dismissed. A subscription of four hundred
dollars by some of the gentlemen of the parish, and an increase
of fifty dollars to his salary, averted this result, and gave expres-
sion to the high regard of his people.
At the time of Dr. Nelson's ordination the church numbered
sixty-five members, of whom eigliteen were males ; and all of
whom were in advanced or middle life. In the first fifteen years
there were few additions. He himself states that in the first
thirteen years less than twenty made profession of faith. Between
the years 1819 and 1S27 there appear to have been very few, if
But there came at length a great and gratifying change. In
1827 fifty-three persons united with the church, and in the six
successive years one hundred and eighty-seven entered into its
fellowship, thus more than quadrupling its membership. The
years that followed were also fruitful in similar results. There
were repeated periods of special religious interest, in some in-
stances continuing for several years. During his ministry of fifty-
nine years and nine months, six hundred and seventy-eight persons
united with the church.
Dr. Nelson entered heartily into the spirit of these revivals, and
the earnestness and effectiveness of his labors at such times, are
still remembered. Still he was by nature cautious, and was not
in fiill sympathy with what were termed " new measures." While
he acknowledged the indebtedness of the church to these revivals,
he preferred the calmer modes of administration, and had more
confidence in ordinary and progressive, than in convulsive move-
The congregation at the time of Dr. Nelson's ordination was
composed of people from all parts of the town. On the sabbath
day processions of carriages might be seen coming up the "Hill"
from Cherry Valley, and along the "County Road" from the
southerly parts of the town, as well as from the north and west.
The increase of population, the growth of the villages, changes
in the condition of the people, and the organization of other
churches, in time wrought great changes in the personnel of the
At that time there was a Baptist church in what is now Green-
ville. There was also in the northeast part of the town a society
All persons not connected with these societies were regarded as
members of the original congregation, and were held responsible
for its support. The parish, like those in other places, was identical
with the town. Its business was transacted in regular town meet-
ing until 1 794. After this time those voters who had not formerly
withdrawn from the support of the original church, met after the
regular town meeting, on the same day, to act upon church affairs.
"The First Parish of Leicester" was organized Feb. 9, 1S33.
Five other religious societies were organized during his
ministry. A Protestant Episcopal church at what is now called
Rochdale ; the Second Congregational Society ; a Methodist
Episcopal church in Cherry Valley ; a Wesleyan Methodist church
in the centre village ; and a Roman Catholic church between the
Centre and Cherry Valley.
One of the most trying periods of Dr. Nelson's ministry was that
of the Unitarian division, in which, although the church retained
its standing, and continued to hold the meeting-house and other
parish property, some of his highlyvalued friends became dissatis-
fied, organized themselves into a Unitarian Association, and finally
withdrew from his ministration. The objection as formally stated
was not so much to his own preaching, as to the choice of his
exchanges ; which were regarded by them as on the one hand
exclusive, and on the other as objectionable. He was, by the
association, requested to exchange with neighboring Unitarian
ministers, and notified that if he did not do so measures would
be taken to " procure Unitarian preaching in this place." To this
memorial he replied, explaining his position, and firmly but cour-
teously declining the proposition. In consequence of this refusal,
the Second Congregational Society was formed, April 13, 1833.
Dr. Nelson was actively identified with the various interests of
the town. For many years he was associated with the public
schools, giving to them the benefit of his judgment and personal
He was actively associated with the temperance reformation in
the various stages of its progress.
In pohtics he was a Whig ; and never, I think, quite lost his
admiration for that party, or his regret at its dissolution. Later
he was a Republican, and gave his influence and voice in favor of
those restrictive measures, which aimed at the final suppression of
slavery, and hastened its overthrow. His active life was in the
days of the great struggle, and its closing years witnessed the great
convulsion, and the final consummation. •
He did not approve the extreme and disorganizing measures
urged by many earnest advocates for the abolition of slavery.
His duty as a Christian minister he well expressed in his sermon
preached on the fortieth anniversary of his ordination. " I con-
scientiously believed that, while I ought to sympathize with and take
what part I could in all wise and Christian measures for effecting
outward reforms, my main concern was with the purifying that
great fountain of evil, man's heart, by means of gospel ministra-
tions, so that in the end all the streams wliich issue from it might
become pure." Slavery he regarded as "in principle and in fact
in every way wrong " ; a political, social, and moral evil ; "a sin
against God and humanity." He desired its abolition, and be-
lieved that it might be secured constitutionally, gradually, and in
a manner beneficial to master and slave alike, and to the nation
at large. He rejoiced when in ways far other than he had hoped,
and in ways too, in many respects the reverse of those urged by
ardent and sincere men from whom he differed, the day of eman-
cipation came at length, not as man had ordained, but in God's
own way, and in God's own time.
He dreaded the struggle, and anticipated the crisis with anxious
forebodings, but during all the period of the civil war his soul
glowed with patriotic ardor. Though the strain on his sympathies
was exhausting, the emergency gave vigor to his discourse, and
animated him with unwonted zeal. Especially memorable is his
sermon after the death of Lincoln, news of whose assassination
did not reach Leicester till nearly noon of the day before it was
Such men as Dr. Nelson are often misunderstood, and some-
times misrepresented, especially in times of high debate. He
was not fitted to be a leader in revolution ; he was not a theo-
logical nor a political combatant. He was not a man of war, but
a man of peace. He had the spirit and the skill rather to lay-
quietly and noiselessly, and yet securely, the foundations of social,
moral and religious prosperity. He had no use for the weapons
of invective and sarcasm. His gentle and loving heart recoiled
from their indulgence. Yet, although he was not a controversialist,
his judgments were decided, and in his own wise and quiet way he
executed his purposes, held his position, maintained the integrity
of his church, and nurtured its spiritual growth, in times when
more belligerent and illustrious champions of orthodoxy and reform
failed. He understood himself, and only a few days before his
death he said to me, "Whatever good I have ever done, it has
been done in a quiet and gentle way ; and I think that ministers
in general would do more good by this quiet, gentle way, than
by the use of the sword and sarcasm."
He published in 1852 a volume entitled "Gatherings from a
Pastor's Drawer" ; and in i860 a little book entitled "The Eve-
ning." Various sermons and address^ from his pen have also at
different times been printed.
Dr. Nelson received the degree of D. D. from Williams College,
in 1843. From 1826 to 1833 he was a trustee of that college,
and from 1839 to 1848 of Amherst College. He was a trustee of
Leicester Academy from 181 2 to the time of his death, Dec. 6,
1 87 1, and president from May, 1834.
He was made a Corporate Member of the American Board of
Commissioners in 1842.
He preached by appointment before the Massachusetts Home
Missionary Society ; the General Association of Massachusetts ;
the Pastoral Association ; and the Convention of Congregational
He was active in the organization, at Paxton, of the Worcester
Central Association, Nov. 4, 1823, and preached the first sermon
before it ; also of the Worcester Central Mission Society, at
Holden, Nov. 1 7, 1824. Of this society he was the first president,
retaining the ofifice twenty years. He was also one of the
founders of the Worcester Central Conference of Churches, at
Worcester, April 28, 1852, and was one of the preachers at that
He was commissioned chaplain of the First Regiment of the
Sixth Division, Massachusetts Volunteer Militia, Sept. 26, 1812;
and discharged Oct. 8, 1828.
It was a time when military honors were highly appreciated
and sergeants, corporals, ensigns and lieutenants proudly bore
their titles at town meeting and market. Accepting the position
of chaplain, he manfully attempted to do his duty and fulfill his
trust at the first muster. He was a good horseman in those days,
with a fine, erect figure, well suited to adorn the Colonel's staff,
but his part of the proceedings was to offer prayer before the
regiment, surrounded by the officers, and mounted upon an ex-
cited horse. He had to hold his reins, keep his eyes open, and
use the customary language ; but he once said in describing the
scene, that he never was sure whether he ended the service with
whoa or amen.
Next to his church and parish, Leicester Academy stands
indebted to Dr. Nelson. His devotion to its welfare during the
fifty-nine years of his service on its Board of Trustees was untiring.
The delicate questions of administration often arising, were occa-
sions of more anxious and perplexing thought than even the
concerns of his parish. He fully appreciated the importance of
its influence on the community, and freely gave his time and
strength and the benefit of his rare wisdom for its advantage.
He was personally interested in its teachers, and in its pupils, and
they were always welcome to his home. His manly form, his
benignant face, and his kind and fatherly counsels are still cher-
ished as among the most delightful memories of the Academy, in
the minds of hundreds of its sui-viving members. His portrait
appropriately occupies a place of honor in "Smith Hall."
Dr. Nelson was unfortunate in coming to the ministry just at
the time when the ancient custom of settling a minister for life
with an estate of land was abandoned. The old records of the
town of Leicester show that these settlements had not been for-
tunate for the parish ; but in his case the result would have been
quite different. He loved the soil, he was an enthusiast in agri-
culture, and a close observer of nature. He was skillful and
energetic in gardening, and wise in sound maxims of husbandry.
He was one of the early advocates of systematic forestry, and
when our villages were bare of trees and shrubs, he urged his peo-
ple to plant shade trees, and to graft apple trees, and set them the
example. To one of his namesakes, then in his fifth year, he
wrote in a new year's letter, " If you do not become a minister I
hope you will be a farmer." A few months later he wrote again,
" I am eighty-five years old to-day. I am too old to work any
more at tilling the ground, and I therefore send you this rake and