The Rev. W. Clayton Nielsen
May 14, 1923 - July 20, 2020
W. Clayton Nielsen was born May 14, 1923 on the family farm in the Danish American community of Diamond Lake, Minnesota. He grew up as a normal farm boy in the 1920s and 1930s, the drought years of the Great Depression, and shared a strong sibling rivalry with his younger brother, Wayne. He also had a younger sister, Ethel, and brother, Everett, who also grew up to become a Lutheran pastor.
Clayton was active in 4-H and showed livestock at fairs all over Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota. His father, Harald, was a progressive farmer who was active raising and breeding purebred Poland China hogs, white Leghorn chickens, Holstein milk cows, and Angus beef cattle. Judges disqualified Clayton at age fifteen from participating in 4H because they deemed him a professional. At age fifteen, his father trusted him to show a whole herd of hogs at the North Dakota State Fair. The fair was successful, but several days after returning home to Minnesota, his father realized they were missing one of the prize sows and had to retrieve her from a long ways away. It was a very difficult experience that Clayton stoically described as a "good learning experience." At one point, Clayton had a goal to be a headmaster, raising purebred hogs.
Clayton attended church conventions as a teenager in Minneapolis and Tyler, Minnesota and Viborg, South Dakota. His parents were good friends with the local Baptist minister and his wife. After these friends moved to South Dakota, the Nielsens would visit annually. Clayton’s parents would sing duets in the Baptist church and were introduced as “seven-day- a-week Christians.”
Why the Ministry?
When Clayton was in his early teens, the experience of nearly drowning one July 4 had a significant impact on him. He figured that God had a purpose for him because he survived. At his confirmation a few years later, he announced to his pastor, Rev. Harald Ibsen, that he was going to seminary to become a minister. This was at a time when most of his contemporaries did not go to high school, let alone college and seminary.
Early Adulthood and Dancing
At age fifteen, Clayton was thrust into growing up quickly when his father passed away suddenly. Harald died due to a car accident when he was campaigning for another term as a Minnesota state legislator. Clayton had skipped grades and was able to graduate from high school early to run the farm for a year and in 1939, at age seventeen, he headed to Grand View College in Des Moines, Iowa. There, in his second year, he met Virginia Jensen, who became his wife and with whom he shared a lifelong partnership until her death. She had grown up in the Danish American community of Kimballton, Iowa and was a folk dancer. She expected Clayton to learn to folk dance if they were going to date. As Clayton told it in his 2011 acceptance speech of the Grand View Danish Heritage Award, Virginia asked him at Studenterfest if he were going to folk dance. He hesitated, saying he had two left feet and had never tried it. To which Virginia responded, “If you don’t dance with ‘em, I’ll get someone else!” With some coaching by Harald Knudsen who was teaching at Grand View, Clayton became Virginia’s able dance partner. From the days at Grand View and continuing through their life together, folk dancing was a common activity and theme.
Though dancing had been frowned upon in Clayton’s childhood home due to the influence of their Baptist pastor friend, his mother said that he needed to make his own decisions. He began to teach folk dancing during the first summer of his seminary internship in Denmark, Kansas. It was 1945 and the war was still underway so the rationing of gasoline limited the ability of young people to move about. Clayton brought them together with folk dancing in the community hall every Wednesday night, regardless of the summer heat. The dancing in Denmark, Kansas continued when he returned as intern the next summer and then the next three years when he served as pastor there. He continued to teach folk dancing at vacation bible school and summer youth camps at his other parishes. He and Virginia danced with groups in Withee, Wisconsin; Omaha and Axtell, Nebraska, and Kimballton/Elk Horn, Iowa. After they retired to Solvang, California, Clayton led folk dancing at the annual Farstup-Mortensen Lectures for about twenty years.
Clayton and Virginia were a team from the beginning and Clayton was the first to recognize that everything he may have been credited with accomplishing, as least half of it, was Virginia’s doing. It seems to have all started with folk dancing at Grand View College.
Education, Seminary, and Ordination
After receiving an Associate in Arts degree from Grand View College in 1942, Clayton went on to obtain his Bachelor’s degree from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. He then returned to Des Moines to attend Grand View Seminary where Virginia’s uncle, V. S. Jensen, was one of his professors. Room, board, and tuition was $300 as he participated in a work-study program with his work being washing dishes in the kitchen. Tuition assistance also came from the college and church in the form of a note to be cancelled upon ordination.
Clayton was not yet twenty-four years old when he was ordained to the Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church on February 9, 1947. A usual requirement that a candidate be twenty-five was waived by an action of the denomination because Clayton was needed and ready. As Clayton said in his Christmas letter in 2016, looking forward to the seventieth anniversary of his ordination, “You have to start young and live long.” He did both.
Marriage and Ministry Begin
Clayton married Ydun Virginia Jensen on June 27, 1947 at Immanuel Lutheran Church, in Kimballton, Iowa. They spent the first three years as a married couple at Clayton’s first call to Denmark, Kansas where he had served two summers as an intern during World War II. There were thirty-eight people in the congregation. The salary was $1500 a year plus offerings on Easter, Christmas, and Pentecost, as was the custom among Danish American churches. Church services were suspended during the wheat harvest because everyone was out working. It also gave Clayton an opportunity to supplement his salary by working the harvest himself.
Growing Church and Family
At the request of the synod president, Clayton and Virginia moved to Withee, Wisconsin to serve at Nazareth Lutheran Church, another Danish American parish. During the nine years he served in Withee, Clayton developed a reputation for helping congregations transition from being Danish American churches to being churches of the community. The congregation grew so much it needed a new building. They designed the church by driving around until they found one they liked and then copied it. No doubt that Virginia’s activity in the church, volunteering for whatever needed doing and, as an extrovert, talking to anyone to make them feel welcome, played a significant role in its growth.
The family started to grow as well with the birth of two sons, Warren and Lance. As a family, they went sledding on Squirrel Hill every winter. Every fall, Clayton would go deer hunting.
The Omaha Years
Once again, in 1959, the synod president requested that Clayton move, this time to an urban congregation in Omaha, Nebraska. Before 1953, Central Lutheran Church had been known as Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, which had been established in 1874 as a Danish American congregation. For the first time in his career, Clayton enjoyed gathering regularly with other pastors since there were more churches nearby. Also new for him was that congregants came from different parts of this large city so his church was not a neighborhood parish.
Early in the Omaha years, Clayton and Virginia’s daughter Melanie was born, completing the family.
After a five year discernment process, the congregation decided that in order to remain viable, it needed to move and chose to relocate to northwest Omaha. To make the move, the congregation set a $20,000 fundraising goal. The enthusiasm of the congregation manifested on the first day of the campaign when it raised $38,000!
Eighty-five percent of Central Lutheran’s congregation moved to the new congregation, named Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church. The first worship service in the new building took place on January 19, 1964. The building was already too small as it was among new subdivisions where there were families with numerous children. Virginia assisted Clayton in the many activities of the parish in all their years of ministry. As the children grew up, Virginia also returned to her teaching profession, including writing a course on television writing and production and teaching it in the high schools of the Omaha Public Schools.
Clayton and Virginia served twenty-one years in these two Omaha parishes. During these years, Clayton attended Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago for post graduate study, which he completed in 1980. Clayton’s son Warren had also completed his divinity degree at the same Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago in 1977. He also served as a Lutheran pastor for forty years. Clayton and Warren enjoyed discussing together their pastoral service. Warren said he found his Dad very helpful in ministry and life, especially with frequent phone calls in the later years. Clayton kept his active mind and spirit throughout his ninety-seven year life.
National Church Service
Clayton felt blessed to be able to serve his church beyond his individual parish, starting as early as the first year he was ordained when he was elected to serve on the Santal Mission Committee of the DELC (Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church), a mission which has since merged with the World Mission Prayer League. In the 1940s, Clayton was elected president of the Danish American Young People’s League. He was a DELC delegate at the 1950 constituting convention of the National Council of Churches in Columbus, Ohio. Clayton served on the Evangelism Commission of national Lutheran church bodies and was elected to the Nebraska Synod Board while serving in Omaha.
Back to the Countryside
Clayton and Virginia moved to Axtell, Nebraska where he served Bethany Lutheran Church, which had been established as a Swedish congregation in 1876. The church building, erected in 1885, had been dubbed “The Cathedral of the Prairie.” People of Danish and Swedish background had come to worship together after the merger into the LCA (Lutheran Church in America), but they maintained a friendly rivalry. The church had a strong tradition of the midsummer picnic, which was an annual reunion of folks from all over the area. Just as Clayton had been involved in a building program at his previous congregation, he also led the Bethany congregation to build a parish hall during his tenure.
After Clayton retired in 1988, he and Virginia moved to her hometown of Kimballton, Iowa and later to nearby Elk Horn. He became known as “Virginia’s husband,” as she already knew everyone. While Clayton did a lot of pulpit supply in the surrounding communities, he was careful about not interfering with local church functions and tried to support the local pastor from behind the scenes. While Virginia served as one of the founding members of the Danish Immigrant Museum, now known as the Museum of Danish America, Clayton became active in promoting tourism in the county, such as serving as spokesperson for the Iowa State Cornhusking Contest hosted by the county.
In 1988, the first winter after retiring from the pastorate at Bethany Lutheran in Axtell, Clayton served as interim pastor at Bethania Lutheran in Solvang, California. Since he and Virginia liked the area so much and found many of their church friends had retired there, they started spending several months in Solvang every winter. As part-time residents, they said, “It took twenty-four years to live eight years in Solvang.” Clayton continued the annual pilgrimage even after Virginia passed away in 2006. He moved to Solvang permanently in 2012 after he had emergency heart surgery and became a resident of Atterdag Village where he served as the residents’ representative to the board of Atterdag Village. He frequently led morning devotions and was instrumental in including grace at mealtime. He would proudly wear his Danish folk dancing costume on all the Solvang parade floats.
In his acceptance speech for Grand View’s Danish Heritage award in 2011, Clayton asserted that in his preaching he would try to answer the question, “What does this Gospel have to say to this people at this time within the Grundtvigian philosophy — first the whole person, ultimately a Christian?” On the occasion of the seventieth anniversary of his ordination, Clayton commented, “When doors were open, I walked through them.” These words aptly summarize how he lived his life and served his Lord.
Surviving family includes Clayton and Virginia’s three children: Rev. Warren (Erin) Nielsen, Lance (Wende) Nielsen, and Melanie Phoenix (Teresa Robinson); seven grandchildren: Chad, Joy, Ross, Sarah, Ashley, Kirstin and Rachel; and six great-grandchildren.
From comments from his children and notes for his acceptance speech for the 2011 Grand View Danish Heritage Award and the celebration of the seventieth anniversary of his ordination.