Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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(1911-1977) American historian and sociologist; after training as a medievalist at Columbia, taught at several universities, including Chicago, Minnesota, and SUNY–Stony Brook before moving to the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research in 1966.

Nelson merged his studies of usury in the history of religion, law, and literature with sociological perspectives drawn especially from Max Weber. This culminated in 1949 in The Idea of Usury (second augmented edition, University of Chicago Press 1969), where he argued that interpretation of the Deuteronomic commandment on usury shifted from a dualistic ethic of "tribal brotherhood" in Ancient Judaism and early Christianity, to an experiment with "universal brotherhood" in the Medieval period, from the twelfth century forward, to a new ethic of "universal otherhood" forged by Calvin and other Reformers, in which all become brothers by becoming equally others. Nelson's emphasis on the "genealogy of ideas" and the encounters of "the Brother" and "the Other" anticipated current intellectual concerns.

In a series of essays, Nelson went beyond Weber's ideas about religion and rationalization. He focused on the roles of mediatorial elites, especially "priests" and "prophets," in developing systems of spiritual direction in the histories of civilizations. He emphasized that rationalizing and universalizing movements occurred in medieval sociocultural life, especially in theology, after the twelfth century. He argued that the quest for subjective certitude in religion and objective certainty in knowledge later led Luther, Galileo, and others in the Reformation and scientific revolution to attack the Medieval system of conscience, moral casuistry, and cure of souls. Since this crucial period, new religious ideals and technocultures have emerged, including linkages of science to Protestant values, the antinomian transmoral conscience, and new rationalizations of conduct (e.g., Taylorism, cost-benefit analysis).

Nelson consistently opposed theoretical and practical "uniformitarianism" in favor of studying varied cultural "histories." His later work consequently emphasized the study of civilizational complexes and encounters, including, especially, comparisons between China and the West.

Active in many professional organizations, Nelson helped found the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, serving as its Vice President from 1976 until his death. He also was President of the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations from 1971 until his death.

Donald A. Nielsen


B. Nelson, "The Future of Illusions," Psychoanalysis 2, 4(1954):16-37

B. Nelson, "Scholastic Rationales of 'Conscience', Early Modern Crises of Credibility, and the Scientific-Technocultural Revolutions of the 17th and 20th Centuries," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 7(1968):157-177

B. Nelson, "Max Weber's 'Author's Introduction' (1920)," Sociological Inquiry 44(1974):269-278

B. Nelson, "Max Weber, Ernst Troeltsch, and Georg Jellinek as Comparative Historical Sociologists," Sociological Analysis 36(1975):229-240

B. Nelson, "On Orient and Occident in Max Weber," Social Research 43(1976):114-129

B. Nelson, On the Roads to Modernity (Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Little-field, 1981).

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