Canon Dr John S. Nurser (1929-2020): A Personal Memoir

John Nurser

Martin Albrow (Peterhouse 1955) reflects on the life of John S. Nurser (Peterhouse 1945)

It was somewhat daunting for a boy from an ordinary background to arrive at Peterhouse in 1955. But my history teacher had wanted me to follow in his footsteps and even the most self-confident might have been overawed by the college’s galaxy of history professors, Postan in Economic History, Knowles in Mediaeval, Brogan in American, and Butterfield in Modern History and Master of the College.

None of these greats of course could give supervisions to a mere undergraduate, so it was both my lot, and what turned out to be my great good fortune, to receive mine from a postgraduate, my senior by only eight years, in the final year of his research, John Shelley Nurser. From modest circumstances similar to my own, he was the first boy from his school to reach Cambridge, achieved a double first and did his national service before returning to write a thesis under Butterfield’s supervision on Lord Acton, Regius Professor of Modern History in the university from 1895 to his death in 1902.

There is a sense of apostolic succession in the sequence, Acton, Butterfield, Nurser. John was documenting the moving force in the Cambridge history school in the man whose lectures on modern history were still on the reading list for new students in 1955. Acton never wrote a book (understandable perhaps when the notes to his inaugural lecture were twice as long as the text).

John worked in the same spirit, constructing his thesis from the mountain of materials, essays and letters in the Acton Collection housed in the University Library. As he wrote later ‘it seemed only too likely that even the best efforts of a young research student could only result in the accumulation of notes on Lord Acton’s notes.’ (Nurser 1987, Preface).

I was blissfully unaware of the burden John was carrying. He was kindness itself in supervisions, boosting my confidence whenever it faltered. But as he wrote to me later he was thoroughly disillusioned with his thesis at the time and was only saved by the new found encouragement from an American postgraduate student of history at Newnham, Elizabeth Kimber.

They married on 30th August 1956 in Peterhouse Chapel and the next month were on their way to Harvard Divinity School, courtesy of the Commonwealth Fund Fellowship John had been awarded. He gave me his squash racket when he left, and that was the last contact we had for many years.

Butterfield had warmed to his thesis. As John wrote, the author of Christianity and History was ‘never more Actonian’ than when he commended for the historian ‘intense work of the most detailed and textured kind’ as a focus, linked with another focus by ‘the most general narrative lines’ (Ibid, 13). John was a loyal, dedicated and industrious apprentice. He found his own focus in Acton’s emphasis on conscience. Painstakingly he elicited it from the stories of increasing liberty and secularization that were Acton’s contribution to the twentieth century understanding of itself.

In his year in Harvard John was able to round off his thesis and submit before Easter 1957 with the title, ‘The Idea of Conscience in the Work of Lord Acton’. But Acton remained his inspiration for very much longer. When an updated thesis was published 30 years later, John wrote that his work on him had been ‘influential on all that I have done in the intervening years’ (Ibid, Preface). And it continued to be influential thereafter.

At the end of the 1987 volume John extended Acton’s influence to the Vatican Council of 1962, with its emphatic acceptance of conscience, noting that Monsignor Roncalli, later Pope John XXIII, had been important in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Ibid, 174). It was this line of development that John followed through to the publication of his masterpiece, For All Peoples and all Nations: the Ecumenical Church and Human Rights (2005), which won the American Society of Church History’s Albert C. Outler Prize for the best book in ecumenical church history.

He dated its inspiration back to his conviction that: ‘Lord Acton’s metanarrative of universal history had had wide influence in the English-speaking world in preparing early-twentieth- century students for human rights as the key to “progress”.’ (Nurser 2005, p. xiii). It was a belief that expanded the scope of his enquiries far beyond Acton’s historical contexts and into the voluminous theological debates on religion in a changing world in the World Council of Churches in the run up to and during World War II. John traced the impetus to shaping the Universal Declaration of Human Rights back to multiple American Protestant organizations, secular and clerical, from Sunday Schools to the small group of national religious organizations housed in downtown Manhattan.

Our paths might never have crossed again had John not noticed a flyer from the journal I was editing in 1984, Sociology, Journal of the British Sociological Association. If Butterfield had been influential in keeping John to his mission, he had sent me in another direction, though only accidentally. Finding myself sitting next to him at the graduation dinner in 1958, the only conversation I ever had with him went something like this: Him, What do you want to do next?  Me: I’m interested in studying Max Weber. Him: Well you’d better go to the LSE then. So it turned out, and a sociologist I became in the heady days for the subject in the 1960s.

John wrote to me that, while in Australia as Warden of St Marks Institute of Theology, Canberra (1968-74), he had recommended a book by me to his library, but now he was a Canon of Lincoln Cathedral. We aimed to meet up but it was not to be until 2006, occasioned by a Peterhouse Feast, when John was buoyed up by the publication of For All People’s and All Nations. Happy with it as John’s gift, I settled down to read it with growing admiration as well as the sense of a return home to real historiography.

Over the years following his retirement from Lincoln Cathedral, while undertaking a variety of pastoral commitments and establishing a charity, Christianity and the Future of Europe, John was culling the archives of the World Council of Churches in Geneva, the Dag Hammarskjöld Library, the Franklin D., Roosevelt Library, the Library of Congress, the National Library of Australia and many others.  But his focus on the theological debates of the 1940s was embedded in the development of the Acton inspired narrative to write what Max Stackhouse described as ‘the most important work on how religion has influenced human rights’.

When we met John was still bubbling over with the excitement of what he had found about the influence of Christian ideas in the founding of the new world order.  In the Jean Monnet Centre in Lausanne he had just found that Monnet and John Foster Dulles had renewed acquaintance from their days of service in the Versailles peace talks. Dulles spoke to Monnet of German concentration camps as early as 1936, they met in Paris in 1937 while Dulles attended a League of Nations session, from which he went to the Oxford Conference that set up the World Council of Churches (personal letter 19.9.06). And of course Dulles and Eleanor Roosevelt were close in their Christian faith as allies and leaders in the drive that led to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

John and I were excited not just by the renewal of our personal relationship but also by a growing recognition of our intellectual affinities. For I had returned to Acton in a small way in a book I was glad to give him, The Global Age, State and Society beyond Modernity (1996). Quoting Acton that the study of modern history was ‘a narrative told of ourselves, the record of a life which is our own’, I proposed that the narrative for our own days was rather one of globality, and that modernity was of the past.

In a characteristic response, appreciative and critical, John wrote to me that it was ‘a wonderful piece of fortune that our paths have crossed again. There are many points I’d like to raise. A strategic one is the resounding absence of religion in your story. I think this goes contrary to all known human history’ (email 13.3.07). Lamely I could only point to my reference to T.S. Eliot’s view that the universal church was the antecedent of a collective good beyond the nation state.

At the same time I have to concede that my work is closer to a genre Acton was careful to distance himself from, namely contemporary history, and is based in public narrative and not in archives. I make a great deal of the growth in the use of the terminology of the globe and there John’s book is particularly revealing. I have been inclined to see its usage taking off with the nuclear explosions of 1945, but he provides evidence for ‘global’ becoming a convenient term in theological debates in the early 40s, probably because it avoided the confessional differences in the uses of ‘ecumenical’ and ‘universal’.

Globalization has been only one of the many avenues that John and I have explored together over the years since we met again, enjoying his and Elizabeth’s hospitality in their charming cottage in Sudbury, Suffolk, to which they retired in 1995. He was especially keen to know of my experiences of China, its attitudes to religion and the place of spirit in public and everyday life. He had long had a keen interest in Christian missions there.

The materials he had collected over the years about those missions, and indeed all his research notes, he wanted me to retain, but I persuaded him that there were others who were better qualified to make use of them and we arranged for them to be sent to Professor David Hollinger of the Berkeley History Department of the University of California. Perhaps they can prompt further doctoral research, and even specifically on John’s own work as an exemplary case of the engaged intellectual, whose life’s commitment was to the Christian religion and to the development of ideas for a better human future.

John died on 16th November, 2020, not long after going into hospital. Elizabeth was with him as he died and he had just seen his four children George, Isabelle, Henry and Louise. The funeral was in his parish church on December 2nd, streamed on Facebook. There will be many others who, like me, will sorely miss his friendship, inspiration, and immense kindness.

Martin Albrow (Peterhouse 1955), Emeritus Professor of the University of Wales, is a sociologist.


John Nurser, 1987, The Reign of Conscience: Individual, Church and State in Lord Acton’s History of Liberty. Garland Publishing Inc., New York and London.

John S. Nurser, 2005, For All Peoples and All Nations: Christian Churches and Human Rights. World Council of Churches Publications, Geneva.