Feast of Nelson Wesley Trout (September 20)   Leave a comment

Above:  Logo of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America



First African-American U.S. Lutheran Bishop

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America celebrates the life of Bishop Nelson Wesley Trout on September 20.

Trout was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1921.  He attended and graduated from Capital University and Trinity Lutheran Seminary, both in Columbus.  Also, Wartburg College, Waverly, Iowa, bestowed upon Trout the Doctor of Divinity degree.  Trout pastored congregations in Eau Claire, Wisconsin; Montgomery, Alabama; and Los Angeles, California.

Taylor Branch wrote of Trout in Parting the Waters:  America in the King Years, 1954-1963 (1988), the first volume in his America in the King Years trilogy.  (Volumes Two and Three are Pillar of Fire and At Canaan’s Edge, completing the exodus metaphor.)  Trout left Montgomery in 1955, but not before he befriended Martin Luther King, Jr.  Trinity Lutheran Church, Montgomery, was a small congregation with an attached private school funded as a mission by the World Lutheran Council.  This school provided a fine and much sought-after education for Montgomery African-American children, even though many of their parents disliked the high Lutheran liturgy.  Trout and King kidded each other.  Trout asked King how he got the name “Martin Luther.”  King replied by asking Trout how he had become a Lutheran.  Trout joked that competition among Baptist preachers was rough, and that the Lutherans were begging for Negroes (to use the word common at the time).

Trout served on the staff of the American Lutheran Church (ALC) in the 1960s.  (Two denominations carried the name “American Lutheran Church.”  The first resulted from a 1930 merger and existed for three decades before combining with other Lutheran bodies to create the second American Lutheran Church.  This second organization merged into the Evangelical Lutheran Church in 1987.)  From 1960 to 1967 Trout was the ALC’s Associate Youth Director, a post he left to become Director of Urban Evangelism (1968-1970).  Trout also served as Executive Director of Lutheran Social Services in Dayton, Ohio, then as a professor and Director of Minority Ministry Studies at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, Ohio.  He held that position on June 17, 1983, when the South Pacific District elected him their bishop, making him the first African-American bishop in U.S. Lutheranism.  Trout was 62 years old.

From 1983 to 1987 the Rev. Dr. Nelson Wesley Trout oversaw the South Pacific District, which in 1983 had 144,000 members in 310 congregations in California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Hawaii, and some Texas counties.  The three-way merger, which formed the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) in 1987, entailed the creation of 65 synods, so Trout’s jurisdiction ceased to exist.

(Note:  The practice among those U.S. Lutheran bodies who have the episcopate is to elect bishops to specified terms, with the possibility of re-election.  Yet once a bishop leaves office he or she ceases to be a bishop.)

Trout became the Bishop Emeritus of the new Southwest California Synod, as well as the Director for Mission Theology and Evangelism Training within ELCA’s Division of Outreach.  In 1991 his alma mater, Trinity Lutheran Seminary, established the Nelson W. Trout Lectureship in Preaching.  Trout died at Inglewood, California, on September 20, 1996, survived by his wife and three children.  He was 75 years old.

Kenneth Randolph Taylor

May 16, 2010

(The Seventh Sunday of Easter)


Almighty God, you have raised up faithful bishops of your church, including your servant Nelson Wesley Trout.  May the memory of his life be a source of joy for us and a bulwark of our faith, so that we may serve and confess your name before the world, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

The First Reading:

Ezekiel 34:11-16 or Acts 20:17-35

The Response:

Psalm 84

The Second Reading:

1 Peter 5:1-4 or Ephesians 3:14-21

The Gospel:

John 21:15-17 or Matthew 24:42-47

(The Proper for a Bishop from Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 2006, hymnal of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America)

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