Monday, July 28, 2008

Who was Thomas Nelson? I.

No doubt many of our readers have purchased books published by Thomas Nelson publishers. Perhaps some have seen the 'since 1799' on their website. But how many have actually stopped to think who Thomas Nelson was?

Thomas Nelson was born at Throsk, near the Stirling, in 1780. His grandmother had been a member of Ebenezer Erskine's congregation and had followed her minister when he had been compelled to secede from the Church of Scotland. Although the family name was pronounced Nelson, it was spelled Neilson, and that is how Thomas Nelson spelled it at first.

His father, William Neilson, was a member of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in the Craigs of Stirling, and long one of the managers of that congregation. He and his wife had joined the Reformed Presbyterian Church in around 1766, and so their son Thomas was baptized in the old Reformed Presbyterian meeting-house by the Rev. John McMillan, first minister on the Craigs congregation. From then on he was a regular member of the congregation of the old Cameronian church through his childhood. The modern successor to the old Craigs Kirk is St. Columba's, Stirling.

Although the towns of Scotland were well-provided for in educational terms in the eighteenth century, small places like Throsk were not so lucky, and Thomas Nelson's (to avoid confusion we use the spelling of his name that he afterwards adopted) first schoolteacher was an elderly lady called Mrs. Abercrombie, who could not teach much more than the alphabet. His second school taught only reading and writing, the unnamed master being apparently unable to teach the mysteries of arithmetic. Schoolbooks were rare, and when the supply of reading-matter ran dry, the teacher resorted to using the old books to teach Thomas the art of reading a book held upside-down! Yet even in this he was being prepared for the work that lay ahead of him. For a while Thomas Nelson was the sole pupil in that school, and often on hot summers' days teacher and pupil agreed to sleep much of the day rather than spend it in lessons!

Thankfully Thomas Nelson's third teacher, Mr. More, was a better teacher. A patriotic Scot, he often thrilled his scholars with his teaching of Scottish history, enlarging on the valour or William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, for Bannockburn is not far from Stirling, and Wallace's greatest victory against the English had been the Battle of Stirling Bridge, so the scenes of the deeds of these great heroes were familiar to the pupils. More was not, however, blind to the heroes of his own age, and the greatest of those was Admiral Horatio Nelson, who had defeated Napoleon's fleet at the Battle of the Nile. Hearing the accounts of this hero, Thomas Nelson would feel a glow of pride that he shared the name of this great man.

Thomas Nelson did well at More's school, and at the age of 16 he became a teacher himself. While young for the work, he was probably better prepared for it than the nameless second teacher who had ensured a peaceful class-room by the simple expedient of falling asleep and letting his sole pupil do the same. Young Thomas kept an orderly school, though by more conventional means, and we can be sure that his charges were grateful for his instruction in later life.

In this period many a Scot sought to make his fortune by emigrating to the Indies, and Thomas Nelson made plans to do that very thing. A vessel lay at Alloa, and he had arranged to go aboard it to the Indies. His father offered to go with him to the ship, and on the way he said kindly to his son, "Thomas, my boy, have you ever thought that where you are going you will be far away from the means of grace?" The young man reflected and answered, "No, father, I never thought of that, and I won't go." So, for the sake of religion, he gave up a dream of a fortune. That is the sort of man that Thomas Nelson was, an old Cameronian.

God willing, we shall have more to say about Thomas Nelson next time.

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Blogger Michael S. Hyatt said...

Thanks for posting this. I am the CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers. I did not know any of what you wrote about, so I am eager to hear what you say in the next installment. I would also be interested in knowing your sources, so that I may do further research myself.

My understanding is that Nelson was an Anglicized form of Neilson, and Neilson was an Anglicized form of Mac Neil. As you may know the Mac Neil clan seat is in Barra, which has its own rich history.

Thanks again for posting.

5:40 pm  
Blogger Highland Host said...

The main source is D.D. Ormon's 'A Kirk and a College in the Craigs of Stirling', which was the official history of the Craigs congregation. The next installment will deal with why Thomas Nelson changed the spelling of his name.

7:17 pm  
Blogger Wayne said...

Thank you for your post. I am the Bible Publisher for Thomas Nelson and your post certainly helps me understand the spiritual heritage of our company.

1:56 pm  

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