For Black History Month – Yet Another Personal Reflection

Continuing my commemorative pilgrimage through Black History Month remembering another whose life witness and tutelage formed and shaped me: The Reverend Joseph W. Nicholson, Ph.D. (1901-1990)

Father Nicholson was the revered rector of my home parish, All Saints’ Episcopal Church, St. Louis, Missouri.[1] He officiated at my baptism, presented me for Confirmation, and, through his incomparable intellect and surpassing pastoral presence, planted within my soul the earliest and, for me, at the time, secreted seed of what would bear fruit years later as a call to ordained ministry.

Before arriving at All Saints’, Father Nicholson served as the professor of Pastoral Theology at the Bishop Payne Divinity School;[2] in 1878, founded in Petersburg, Virginia, to train African Americans for ministry in the Episcopal Church. Earlier in his career, Father Nicholson co-authored with Benjamin Mays[3] a study, The Negro’s Church (1933); the first sociological treatment of the Black church in the United States.

I have marvelous memories of this influential man (who, in his post-retirement years, encouraged me to call him Joseph; something, out of respect, I never could do, for he was and always will be Father or Doctor Nicholson). One among many…

I was and remain an inveterate and, at times, intemperate questioner. Mrs. Beryl Stuart, my 5th grade Sunday School teacher, charging me with being “disruptive,” dismissed me from the class and directed me to the rector’s office. There, the great man awaited, sitting imperiously behind his massive desk. Sure to receive a reprimand, one which I knew would be reviewed and reinforced by my parents, I hurried across the floor, quickly slumping with hunched shoulders into an overstuffed wingchair. What happened next stunned me. Father Nicholson asked me to tell him why I was there. I recounted that the class had been reading the Genesis creation stories, quite familiar to me from Bible studies with my grandmother, and I had wondered aloud and repeatedly, “Why are there no dinosaurs?” Hearing Father Nicholson’s chuckle, timidly I looked up into his smiling countenance, his large hands folded, seemingly in prayer. He said, “That’s a good question. I want you to do some study on that and come back and tell me what you find.” With wide-eyed relief, I rose, moving to the door. “Paul,” he called out in his stentorian baritone, “keep asking your questions. It’s one of the best ways we learn.”

© 2023 PRA

Photograph (c. 1972): The Reverend Joseph W. Nicholson, Ph.D.

[1] 1949-1972

[2] 1945-1949

[3] The Reverend Benjamin Elijah Mays, Ph.D. (1894-1984), a Baptist minister, first dean of the School of Religion, Howard University, Washington, DC, civil rights leader, and later professor, then president of Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia.

2 thoughts on “For Black History Month – Yet Another Personal Reflection

  1. Well, now I’m wishing that I could have known Dr. Nicholson also, Paul. He sounds like a very wise, sensible man to me. And now, of course, I have to ask whether you fulfilled your assignment of researching why there are no dinosaurs in the Genesis account of creation. It may be that your entire education, particularly divinity school, became research into that question, but I’m wondering whether you did as a boy seek to find the answer. I don’t remember being besotted with dinosaurs as a child, but I do remember that Emilia certainly was for a time as a young child, and I know many kids’ imaginations and curiosity are fired by them. I can envision you as one whose creation story was not complete absent some accounting for dinosaurs! I hope you offer further stories of your young encounters with Dr. Nicholson. I think it’s hugely important how pastors and other religious leaders interact with children. I have some stories myself, both positive and negative, of my own and Emilia’s early encounters with pastors, youth leaders, and choir directors. They can make or break a child’s feelings about church and religion in general. I’m glad you had Dr. Nicholson. Now I want to know more!

    Thank you for sharing this lovely story.

    Much love,


    Liked by 1 person

    1. My dearest Karen, ‘twas my staunch Baptist grandmother, Audia Mae Hoard Roberts, who taught me, at the age of 10, that the Bible’s creation stories were Hebraic poetic expressions. Thus, the creation stories, though ahistorical (not factual in the dimensions of time-and-space) were nonetheless true; pointing to the object of faith: the nature and works of God. In this, she encouraged my acceptance of the findings of science, i.e., archeological discoveries of dinosaurs. Therefore, I learned to accept and accord as valid these parallel — not competing, but rather complementary (each grounded in and focused on its own realm) tracks of understanding the world around me.

      And, yes, Father Nicholson, tho’, at times, stern in appearance (at least, through my child’s eyes), possessed a tender heart in league with a brilliant mind.

      Love, Paul


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