Know thy Friend: Nelson File



Peter Jones, Tasmania Regional Meeting

Nelson File

Nelson File is best known as the current Principal of the Friends’ School in Hobart, but what is little known to Australian Friends is his long history of Quaker ancestry since the four Walton brothers left Bibury in the Cotswolds to move to West Jersey in the American colonies in 1674.  This farming family, like many other Quakers, moved across the Atlantic to escape the persecution being waged against them during the Restoration period (1660-85). They settled as farmers and the family remained so in Philadelphia until forced to sell their land during the Great Depression in the 1930’s.

Nelson’s Quaker antecedents are on his mother’s side as his father was ‘a lapsed Episcopalian’ or what we would call an Anglican. The family has been in continuous membership at Byberry Meeting (the spelling got changed in the US) for more than three centuries on land allocated by William Penn in 1694.  One of Nelson’s jobs when he was young, was to look after the cemetery where so many of his ancestors were buried.  He recalls the section where many of the Lenape Native Americans were buried after the devastating smallpox epidemic of 1707, when other white settlers denied them burial rites in their ‘Christian’ cemeteries, but the Quakers accepted them.

While his father moved through various jobs, his Quaker mother eventually returned to paid work through employment in Philadelphia at the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. Nelson himself started Year Seven at Abington Friends’ School (another change in spelling from Abingdon in England) and then went on to college at Johns Hopkins near Baltimore. He told the story of how the founder was once a Quaker but got disowned because his business involved shipping alcohol so instead he left his fortune to found the university bearing his name. Nelson said that this period was an important one in his life because, although brought up in a Quaker family, he now felt the need to become ‘convinced’ and by taking up a comparative religion course at Johns Hopkins helped him realise that Quakerism was indeed his spiritual home.

 His knowledge of the history of Quakers and his own family still leaves him puzzling of how a religious society that had initially predominantly appealed to yeoman farmers in England (the 1652 country) and in the American Colonies (Penn‘s Holy Experiment) then over three centuries became what is perceived today as much more of an urban middle class movement with a strong intellectual bent.

Nelson File in Nepal in 1985

Nelson studied political science and history before moving on to try his hand at teaching at the Friends’ Central School in Philadelphia. After teaching for two years at Friends’ Central, Nelson felt the call to undertake service and volunteered for the US Peace Corps. He was posted to a remote village in Nepal to assist with a UNICEF project to install a gravity flow community drinking water system where he spent two years and met his wife, Lisa, who was serving as a volunteer at a nearby village. Returning to Philadelphia, he continued his teaching career there until opting for more work overseas.  However their time in Kinshasa (the capital of what was then Zaire but is now the Democratic Republic of Congo) was a brief stay as the political chaos at the time (1991) led to their hasty evacuation and they transferred to the American Embassy School in New Delhi for the next eleven years, where they started their family of three children.

While there was a small Friends’ Meeting in New Delhi, there were no Quakers at Nelson’s next post at the American International School in Muscat, the capital of Oman. Having developed his own understanding of other faiths by learning about Hinduism in India and Buddhism in Nepal, he now learned about the moderate form of Islam practiced in Oman, a small state at the entrance to the Persian Gulf but one with a long and fascinating history.

 Here in 2012, he noticed the ad for a Principal at the Friends’ School in Hobart so after nine years in Oman, he made another big switch in his career as an educational administrator, this time to Tasmania. Recently Nelson announced his retirement from the post of Principal at the end of 2023, proposing this time to move back to the United States, not to Philadelphia but to their new home in Hawai’i.

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