Joseph Walter Nilsen (1897-1974), son of Swedish immigrants to America, laid much of the foundation for the growing Assemblies of God work in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire). He also was the first Assemblies of God missionary in Tanzania and established the first Assemblies of God mission station in northern Malawi. During his 30-year term as a missionary, he and his wife, Ebba, supervised day schools, evangelized villages, built churches, and opened medical clinics, while serving God and the Congolese people faithfully.
The son of Swedish Evangelical Covenant Church pastors, Nilsen served in the United States Navy during World War I and then joined the Standard Oil Company in California. He was successfully climbing the business ladder when he met a shy young lady, Ebba Arvidson, at a church meeting. His friends bet him that he could not make her talk, so he took the bet and made a date with Ebba. He asked her father for her hand in marriage and was given permission upon making the promise that he would never take her more than a day’s journey from her parents.
While on a business trip, Nilsen felt an impression that God was calling him to ministry. He quit his well-paying job and enrolled in the Assemblies of God school in San Francisco, Glad Tidings Bible Institute (later Bethany College). One evening, while in prayer after the church service, Joseph prayed that God would use him to help meet the world’s great need. As he prayed, he had a vision of a map of Africa that gradually became focused on the central region of the Belgian Congo. He saw a missionary going from village to village, building chapels. He was amazed to see that the missionary was himself.
He said nothing to Ebba about this vision. She had married a strong young man in the burgeoning oil industry who had then quit his job to go to Bible school. He also promised he would not remove her from her family. After graduation, Joseph and Ebba accepted a pastorate in Montana and had two children, but the young pastor was restless, consistently hearing in his heart that word, Congo! He prayed in desperation, “Lord, I am willing to go, but you must speak to my wife.”
Not long after, when tucking their 8-year-old daughter, Ruth, into bed after a church service, she said to her parents, “Tonight the Lord asked me if I would be a missionary to the Congo. I told him I would go if my mommy and daddy went with me.” Neither of her parents spoke. Finally, Ebba said softly, “The Lord has been asking me the same thing. I told him he would need to speak to my husband.” In 1929, with 8-year-old Ruth and infant Paul, they embarked on the 10-week journey to the Belgian Congo, conducting services each Sunday on the ship taking them to Africa.
Four days after arriving, Joseph was down with dysentery. The next week, little Paul had a serious fever. Within the first six months, all of the family experienced some form of illness including fever, measles, dysentery, and malaria. Finally, they settled on the edge of the Ituri Forest, where the sun never penetrated the thick jungle. The forest was home to wild animals, witch doctors, juju priests, and shy Pygmies. The family set about learning new languages, making friends, and building a mud home. Soon they had not only a circle of friends, but a small group of Christian believers.
In their first six-year term, the Nilsen family started a school, built churches, and established a mission station. During their second term, they opened a Bible school to train Congolese men and women to lead their own churches. More areas began to open to the gospel and the Nilsens were asked to help. Joseph took Ebba and their now three children across Central Africa and helped to establish the church in Tanzania. While in Tanzania, a chief from Malawi invited Nilsen to begin a church in his area. Later, Morris and Macey Williams came to take charge of the Malawi work and the Nilsens were able to return to the Congo.
The Assemblies of God of the Belgian Congo was formally established in 1956 and Joseph Nilsen was elected to serve as the first superintendent. However, due to the constant exhausting work and the effects of many and varied diseases, both Joseph and Ebba’s health had deteriorated over the years. By August 1959, 63-year-old Joseph knew that their health would not permit them to continue the rigorous work, and they returned to the United States leaving their work in the capable hands of Congolese workers and young missionaries whom they had trained, such as Jay and Angeline Tucker.
In 1960, political unrest caused most of the missionaries to be evacuated. However, due to the groundwork laid by Nilsen in training and commissioning Congolese converts to lead the work, every phase of the Assemblies of God ministries was able to continue under national leadership.
The Pentecostal Evangel announced the passing of pioneer missionary Joseph Nilsen in its June 30, 1974, issue, reporting that “in the face of great spiritual opposition, he established the work…” Despite the political turmoil that followed decolonization of the Congo in the 1960s, including the martyrdom of Nilsen’s young fellow missionary, J. W. Tucker, the Congolese Assemblies of God has continued to be a strong church committed to training and mobilizing workers for the harvest in Pentecostal power, largly due to the foundational work of pioneer missionaries like the Nilsen family.
Read the announcement of Nilsen’s death 28 in the June 30, 1974, issue of the Pentecostal Evangel.
Also featured in this issue:
• “The Upper Window” by Emil Balliet
• “The Churches in Eastern Europe” by T.F. Zimmerman
And many more!
Pentecostal Evangel archived editions courtesy of the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center.