1853  — 1926

Daniel Nelson

Pioneer Norwegian-American Lutheran missionary in central China.

Born to a poor Norwegian family near Haugesund, Norway, Nelson went to sea as a young man to earn a living. During 14 years at sea he visited China twice, once as a Norwegian sailor shipwrecked off the China coast, later as a crew member on the U.S.S. Hartford, which was stationed in Chinese waters. Back in Norway, Nelson and his wife determined to immigrate to America and take up farming; ultimately they settled in Eagle Grove, Iowa.

In Iowa, while shingling his roof, Nelson heard a voice that said, “Sell your farm, take your family and go to China.” By this time an owner of a prospering farm and with a wife and four children, Nelson nevertheless took this word seriously. He was derided by neighbors and local clergy as an impractical visionary, but he was determined to go to China, answering a mystical call shaped by boyhood experiences. Although he had no mission society to support or authorize his work, he proceeded anyway, arriving with his family in Shanghai in 1890. They went first to Wuhan, Hupei, (Hubei), which was in the midst of antiforeign rioting, and then briefly to Fanghsien (Fancheng). After the Boxer Rebellion (1900), the Nelsons found a successful field in Hsinyang (Xinyang), in southern Honan (Henan), where they devoted 25 years to church planting and to opening schools and hospitals. Their work was later adopted by a Norwegian-American Lutheran mission society.

Nelson was widely loved for his childlike faith and admired for skills as explorer, groundbreaker, and developer. In February 1926, as missionaries gathered in Hsinyang behind closed doors for protection from marauding troops, Nelson preached his final sermon before being struck in the head by a bullet. He died 40 days later.


This article is reprinted from Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, Macmillan Reference USA, copyright (c) 1998 Gerald H. Anderson, by permission of The Gale Group; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan. All rights reserved.


  • Daniel Nelson, The Apostle to the Chinese Communists, (1935). Mary Lee (Nelson) Latimer, An Adventure with God: Biography of Daniel Nelson (1970; previously published as Daniel Nelson, His Life and Work [n.d.]).

About the Author

James A. Scherer

Emeritus Professor of Christian Missions and Church History, Lutheran School of Theology, Chicago, Illinois, USA