Nelson, Robert Alexander
1905-1992; e.m. 1926

Missionary in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), born on 6 November 1905 near Lisburn, county Antrim, Ireland. Both he and two brothers entered the Methodist ministry. Ordained in 1930, he married Lorna, née Warren, and sailed for Ceylon in September. After one year in Trincomalee and another in Colombo, he served in Hatton in the tea-growing hill country from 1933 to 1942, in Kandy, the centre of Buddhist culture, from 1943 to 1945 and from 1948 until 1961 at the Kollupitiya Church, Colombo, where the Church headquarters are located and the annual Conference is held.

Nelson had a distinguished ministry in Ceylon. Though he had not attended university, partly due to early illness, he became an able, self-taught theologian who kept abreast of the latest theological writing. Much sought after as a speaker at church, inter-church and student events, he addressed such weighty themes as 'The Cross of Christ and the Mystery of the Unfolding Universe', 'Jesus Christ and the Reconciling Community' and 'Paul Tillich and his Theology'. His articles and pamphlets appeared in print locally and occasionally in international journals, including the International Review of Mission(s) and The Ecumenical Review. He represented Ceylon Methodism at the Faith and Order Conference at Lund (1952) and Irish Methodism at the Faith and Order Conference at Montreal (1963). He fearlesly addressed the issues of the day, including the Sri Lankan government's take-over of schools after independence, the 'Sinhala Only' language policy, ethnic conflict, and the misuse of power by church and state, emphasizing the role of the Church and of Christians as servant. He played a leading part in unsuccessful efforts to unite the Methodist Church and the (Anglican) Church of Ceylon. With Fred de Silva, who later became the first President of the autonomous Sri Lankan Conference, he represented the Methodist Church at the funeral of the assassinated Prime Minister, S.W.R.D. Banadanayake in 1959.

On his return to Ireland he served in Belfast and Dublin and played a full part in Methodist and inter-church activities. He was elected President of the Irish Church in 1965. His wife, a warm, gracious and friendly person, was a great asset to his ministry in both Ceylon and Ireland. He died in Dublin on 9 November 1992.

  • Norman W. Taggart, 'Robert A. Nelson: His Ministry in Ceylon' in the Bulletin of the Wesley Historical Society (Irish Branch), Winter 2001, pp.49-60