Nielsen, emeritus professor and founder of the Department of Religion, dies at 97

Niels C. Nielsen Jr., Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Religious Thought and honorary associate of Will Rice College, died March 27. He was 97.

Niels C. Nielsen Jr.

Niels C. Nielsen Jr.

Nielsen, who earned a bachelor of arts from Pepperdine and a bachelor of divinity and doctorate in theology from Yale University, served on the Rice faculty from 1951 through 1991. He was the author of nine books. His last, “God in the Obama Era: Presidents’ Religion and Ethics from George Washington to Barack Obama,” was published in 2009 and analyzed the private religious lives of 20 U.S. presidents. A popular lecturer, Nielsen remained active in his retirement, providing a 2012 interview with CNN and appearing on talk radio shows.

Nielsen founded the Department of Religion (then named the Department of Religious Studies) in 1968 to provide students with an opportunity to study religion from critical perspectives. At the time, theological studies were the norm and religious studies was newly emergent in university settings. Nielsen’s vision of a religious studies department with outstanding undergraduate and graduate programs in the critical study of religion was prescient, and he served as the chair of the Department until his retirement.

“Rice is a very dynamic school,” Nielsen told Ventura, Calif., radio station KVTA following the release of his final book in 2009. “They’ve been very kind to me. I taught the history of religion as well as philosophy of religion. In short, I was teaching undergraduates, then graduates, of all major religions. A lot of the youngsters were interested in their family traditions and came to study with me to see if there was anything to it. I took what I’d call an objective approach — one that gave priority to philosophy and history.”

During Nielsen’s tenure, a number of endowed chairs were established in the Department of Religion and remain crucial to its operation today.

Nielsen was born and raised in Long Beach, Calif., and married Erika Kreuth in 1958. They had two children. As an ordained Methodist deacon and elder, he served as the pastor of Woodbury Methodist Church in Connecticut from 1944 to 1946 and taught religious studies as a junior instructor at Yale from 1948 to 1951.

In 1965, Nielsen was awarded a Fulbright scholar grant and conducted research in Madras, India, through 1966. He served as president of the Southwestern Philosophical Conference and was a regional representative to the American Council of Learned Societies Committee on History of Religions. Between 1982 and 1983, he was a visiting professor of humanities at the Colorado School of Mines. Nielsen was a member of the American Philosophical Association, the American Academy of Religion and American Society for the Study of Religion.

A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. April 25 at St. Paul United Methodist Church in Houston.


About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.