Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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(1938-) Ph.D., Vanderbilt University; Professor of Sociology, Pennsylvania State University. President, Association for the Sociology of Religion, 1981; Religious Research Association, 1987-1988.

As a Danish American Presbyterian in a rural community in Minnesota dominated by Lutheran and Catholic interests, Nelsen learned of in-groups and out-groups at an early age. At age 11, he wondered about the effects of cowboy and Indian movies on Native American children from the area. These youthful questions would mature into a distinguished career of teaching and research focused on the sociology of religion, minority status, and ethnic relations.

Nelsen's early academic training was in biology and chemistry, but then his interests in sociology and religion led him to Princeton Theological Seminary (M.Div., 1963), before taking his doctorate in sociology in 1972.

Teaching and research have been Nelsen's enduring commitments, accompanied by significant years in university administration. Nelsen's administrative experience began at Catholic University. Later, he moved to Louisiana State University as chair of sociology and head of rural sociology, answering to two different sets of administrators, which serendipitously served as preparation for accepting the position of Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Pennsylvania State University in 1984. Nelsen returned to the classroom as a full professor at Penn State in 1990.

Unswervingly committed to quantitative sociology, Nelsen has produced a stream of articles and books oriented to four topics: (1) sectarianism and southern Appalachian religion and values, (2) clergy and the black church as politicizing agents, (3) development of religious and other attitudes among children and adolescents, and (4) political orientations, religious involvement, and political behavior of evangelicals. He is currently examining black-white differences in religious and political orientations.

Without question, Nelsen's most important work has been on the black church, much of it done in collaboration with his wife, Anne Kusener Nelsen (Ph.D., history, Vanderbilt), and also with R. L. Yokley and Thomas Madron. The Black Church in America (coedited with Raytha Yokley and Anne Nelsen, Basic Books 1971) advanced the theses that membership in the black church was almost involuntary and that the black power movement would redirect the church's effort from dependence on a white-determined status quo to a progressive policy of advocacy for its black constituency.

A second volume, The Black Church in the Sixties (with Anne Nelsen, University Press of Kentucky 1975), substantiated the earlier argument. In addition to documenting the activism of black ministers, the Nelsens emphasized the importance of the black church in building a sense of ethnic identity and interest. This book also showed that declines in attendance during the 1950s and early 1960s were partially reversed with the emergence of political involvement. However, in later work Nelsen demonstrates a downward trend for black church participation, especially outside the South (Nelsen 1988, Nelsen and Kanagy 1993).

Beyond his work on the black church and its ministers, Nelsen has been interested in the clergy role as such, arising in part from his training under Samuel Blizzard and Ernest Campbell. He laments the lack of attention to the clergy role by current scholars.

A central contribution of Nelsen's career was to challenge Holt's theory that rural migrants to metropolitan areas turn to sectarian religion as a result of culture shock. Using data from the southern Appalachian and Detroit areas, Nelsen and Whitt (1972) not only found a lack of culture shock but also that sectarianism was less prominent among rural migrants than among those remaining in rural areas. In related work with Kanagy and Firebaugh (Nelsen et al. 1994), Nelsen showed that regional differences in church attendance are declining and cannot be explained by migration; rather, the evidence suggests increasing secularization in the South.

Nelsen's work on the religious socialization of children and adolescents, using data from Minnesota, is also significant. He found (1980) that parental religiousness is strongly related to preadolescent religiousness, but parental support is weakly related. Sex of the child has no bearing on the relationship. Also, he was able to demonstrate that factors external to the family, such as denomination and historical developments, interact with gender and birth order to enhance or impede religious transmission (1981).

In addition to organizational presidencies, Nelsen was Executive Secretary of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (1983-1987) and Editor of the Review of Religious Research (1980-1984); he has also served terms on the editorial boards of Social Forces and Sociological Quarterly and represented the social scientific study of religion to the American Academy for the Advancement of Science.

Larry C. Ingram


C. L. Kanagy et al., "The Narrowing Gap in Church Attendance in the United States," Rural Sociology 59(1994):515-524

H. M. Nelsen, "Religious Transmission Versus Religious Formation," Sociological Quarterly 21(1980):207-218

H. M. Nelsen, "Religious Conformity in an Age of Disbelief," American Sociological Review 46(1981):632-640

H. M. Nelsen, "Ministers and Their Milieu," in S. W. Blizzard, The Protestant Parish Minister (Storrs, Conn.: Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1985): 1-18

H. M. Nelsen, "Unchurched Black Americans," Review of Religious Research 29(1988):398-412

H. M. Nelsen and S. Baxter, "Ministers Speak on Watergate," Review of Religious Research 23(1981):150-166

H. M. Nelsen and C. L. Kanagy, "Churched and Unchurched Black Americans," in Church and Denominational Growth , ed. D. A. Roozen and C. K. Hadaway (Nashville: Abingdon, 1993): 311-323

H. M. Nelsen and H. P. Whitt, "Religion and the Migrant in the City," Social Forces 50(1972):379-384.

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