F. Burton Nelson

1920 to 2004

by Peter Sandstrom

A vast sea of acquaintances knew Burton Nelson in any of several roles: seminary professor, pastor, theologian, Bonhoeffer scholar, social critic, ecumenist, author, and editor, among others. I am one of a handful of people, though, who can claim to have known Burton as their boss! In fact, Burton was the first boss I ever had. For two years he was Summer Program Director of Covenant Harbor Bible Camp in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. After my freshman year at North Park College, I served as a counselor at Covenant Harbor during Burton’s second summer there in 1972. Burton modeled the very best aspects of leadership while supervising an eclectic and independent-minded group of college students.

He was invariably cheerful and supportive, calm and energetic, a subtle yet effective decision-maker, counselor and spiritual director, and the most gentle and efficient of whip snappers! He also served as willing defender of his staff from the camp’s various critics and detractors. To those of us who considered a life in Christian leadership and service Burton was always a model for what we wanted to be. He was generous with his friendship and his free time, usually joining us counselors in our recreation, pranks, and games.

He had not abandoned the skills of the high school basketball star he was back in Princeton, Illinois. Burton possessed a wicked 25-foot set shot, which he hit nine times out of ten. If he was your opponent during a staff game in the old barn and a teammate got him the ball in the clear—anywhere on the perimeter, you were toast. I know this because I was usually the toast! I have had a great variety of bosses and supervisors since then—a rather long list— class acts as well as boors and manipulators. Burton still stands as the one of best bosses for whom I have worked.

I first met Burton when I was in third grade (1963). My family moved to Chicago into a bungalow just down the block from Burton’s home on Bernard Street in the North Park neighborhood. Both families were members of North Park Covenant Church and I was a classmate of Burton’s middle daughter, Ingrid, at Peterson Elementary School. I went through grade school with Ingrid and later we entered North Park College together.

My sister, Kari, was a kindergarten classmate of Ingrid’s younger sister, Emily, and all of us were part of a large group of children, known to many as “The Bernard Street Gang,” whose games and activities traversed the neighborhood from the time school let out until sunset. In the process, we got to know each other’s parents fairly well (Pietisten’s Elder Lindahl was one of those parents!). This was how I got to know Burton and Grace, his wife. Their house was well known both because they were not bothered much by the state of their front lawn which meant we were free to play at will and because the Nelson family’s grandmother was a popular baker and distributor of donuts when she visited them!

When I was in either fifth or sixth grade, Burton gave me one of my first lessons in systematic theology and church history. I happened to pick up an issue of The Covenant Companion. One article in particular got my attention because of the earnest and intense look on the face of someone in a rather old-looking photograph. When a glance across the page revealed the words: “Nazis,” “martyr,” “gallows,” and a German-looking name I couldn’t read or pronounce, I found myself intrigued and I read the entire article—an unusual experience for me in those days! I was, of course, reading about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This was the first I had heard of his story. I looked at the title again and discovered that Burton Nelson (rather, Ingrid’s dad!) had written it. This article began to add a new facet to way I would think and read and about WWII. In high school I began to study the Resistance efforts of that war more seriously and learn of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s legacy. It was Burton who first opened my eyes to this amazing person and the larger movements of which he was a part.

In seminary I got to know Burton at his scholarly and passionate best. “Theology Of Bonhoeffer” and “Holocaust Studies” were two of the courses that I took from him during my seminary years. I took these two in different years but it would be something of a misnomer to call them different courses! Because, as any of his former students will attest, to study Bonhoeffer for Burton was to study the Holocaust and to study the Holocaust was to study Bonhoeffer. The larger arenas of WWII and of Jewish-Christian relations were attendant to both courses. We were privileged to sit at the feet of an internationally recognized Bonhoeffer scholar. He taught with the deep passion of a man whose own faith had been transformed by this German pastor’s life and thought and by the legacy of the Church struggle in the midst of the Third Reich. He was like a man possessed when he lectured or led class discussions. He desired to be a bridge for us to the questions Bonhoeffer was asking and to the responses he both wrote and acted out. Burton once asked jokingly if we had come to be persuaded that Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship should be considered the fifth Gospel. Though he was laughing, I think we all realized that for our Professor this was pretty close to an article of faith!

For a number of reasons in recent years, I have regretted that I went to seminary and that I spent most of those seminary years at North Park. The match in some significant ways was not a good one for me (nor conversely for the seminary and the Covenant). The path my life journey has gone often does not seem to warrant all the time spent in theological education. Yet, I have never been able to rest completely at ease with such judgments about those old decisions. One of the biggest objections to these judgments, some region of my memory resolutely points out, is that in spite of the courses and experiences that did not seem worth the time and resources, in each of my three years at North Park Seminary campus there was a course which I not only loved but which also profoundly altered the way I thought and looked at the world and continues to influence me to this day. Among these courses are Fred Holmgren’s on Wisdom Literature in the Hebrew Bible, John Weborg’s seminar on Pietism, Don Frisk’s theology classes (I was privileged to be among the very last classes to spend a year under his tutelage), and Burton’s courses on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Holocaust. These courses were a core of life-changing classes and it is difficult to imagine myself facing my present world without their aid and insight.

I conclude with some observations of Burton Nelson’s life within the larger Covenant beyond the seminary. He can truly be describ-ed as “an Israelite in whom there is no guile.” He continually reached out to people both in casual conversation and in serious effort at dialogue and persuasion. His jovial manner was infectious and his interest in people as individuals seemed inexhaustible. A pastor friend recently recounted how at one Covenant ministerium midwinter conference he and another former student challenged Burton to keep track during the week of how many people he knew and could greet by name. When the conference was over, he had counted more than 600 people!

Burton had an amazing skill as a prophet for social justice in the Covenant and—even more amazing—getting away with it! Burton not only survived, he thrived, and did so smack in the middle of things in Chicago. Furthermore, he was admired by many on both sides of a number of issues. If Burton had enemies, I have not heard of them. I venture that a major reason for this was that Burton was recognized as a person of unquestioned integrity by those who encountered him. This, combined with his unfailing common touch, sustained Burton as a respected Covenant prophet for more than forty years.

I saw Burton for the last time a few years ago at a festschrift for our mutual friend, the late Dr. Paul Sebestyen, held in the Nyvall lounge at North Park Seminary (appropriately enough, Ingrid was there, too!). Though his hair and mustache had gone gray, it was as though Burton had never left the place where I had left him so many years ago. With one hand holding a coffee cup, the other hand gesturing, his head thrown back in a grin and a laugh, and telling a story or making gleeful theological commentary, he was happy in the company of friends and students. Good-bye, Burton; God bless and keep you.

Peter Sandstrom teaches education and is an editor of Pietisten.

See all articles by Peter Sandstrom