Edward Lee Roy Elson – Colonel, United States Army

Religious Leader

The Presbyterian Church leader who baptized and confirmed President Dwight D. Eisenhower and was chaplin of the United States Senate for a dozen years, died August 25, 1993 at Presbyterian Hospital and Home in Washington, D.C. He was 86 and the cause of death was heart failure and complications from Parkinson’s Disease.

He was a senior pastor at the church from 1946 until his retirement in 1973 and was one of the dominant figures in his church, was an Army chaplain, author of 11 books and a counselor to many leaders of government. His sermons reflected an uncommon blend of Calvinisn and unabashed patriotism, critized by some, they were nevertheless acclaimed for their stylish eloquence and skillful delivery. Born at Monongahela, Pennsylvania, on December 23, 1906, he was the son of a railroad enginer and one of seven children in a devout Presbyterian family. He was educated at Asbury College in Wilmore, Kentucky, and at the University of Southern California, where he received his master’s degree in theology.

Ordained by the Presbytery of Los Angeles, he served his first pastorates there and in La Jolla, California. In World War II, he served as an Army Chaplain in Europe, reaching the rank of Colonel. His post-war work in Germany drew the attention of then-General Eisenhower, who commissioned him to be the envoy to the German Protestant Church. In 1946, he was named pastor of the Convenant First Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., a congregation that started services on the White House grounds in 1795. He led the church to its designation as the National Presbyterian Church and guided its building program in North-West Washington, completing it in 1969, debt-free. It was in 1969 that he became Senate Chaplain, serving in that post until 1981. He knew eight Presidents of the United States, but was closest to Eisenhower, who regularly attended services during his Presidency. Ten days after the inauguration in 1953, the President was baptized and confirmed by Dr. Elson as a member of his church. It was the only time in history that a President was baptized while in office.

The National Presbyterian’s historic church is known for its “President’s Pew” which was used by Andrew Jackson, James Buchanan, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison and Woodrow Wilson, but not by Eisenhower.

Dr. Elson went on special missions for Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson sometime traveling abroad with personal messages. A student of the Middle East, he often visited the region and met with world leaders, including King Hussein, David Ben Gurion, Golda Meir and the Prime Ministers of Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. Among his books were one on spiritual values, “America’s Spiritual Recovery,” and an autobiography, “Wide Was His Parish.” His first wife, Frances Sandys, died in 1933 and he is survived by his second wife of 56 years, Helen Chittick Elson.

He is buried in Section 2 of Arlington National Cemetery.

Helen C. Elson, 92, a fixture in Washington religious and political circles as the wife of Edward L.R. Elson, an influential cleric who served as chaplain of the U.S. Senate and pastor of the National Presbyterian Church in Washington, died August 20, 2007, of a heart ailment.

Mrs. Elson died at Ingleside at Rock Creek, a retirement and care facility that had been her home for the past decade.

Adam Bernstein

She married Edward Elson in California in 1936 and accompanied him to the Washington area in 1946, when he began a 27-year pastoral career at what became National Presbyterian Church. A longtime confidant of presidents, he baptized and confirmed President Dwight D. Eisenhower and was Senate chaplain from 1969 to 1981. He died in 1993.

Mrs. Elson periodically worked outside the home — as a dean’s assistant at Catholic University, in the development office at Mount Vernon Seminary — but her primary responsibilities were as her husband’s helpmate, social host and homemaker.

In 1966, she was named D.C. Mother of the Year by the local Mothers’ Association.

“My wife is a wholesome, well-rounded person,” her husband said at the time of the award. “She is reverent and religious without being sanctimonious.”

Mrs. Elson helped her husband write several books. She accompanied him around the world, often on assignments to the Middle East, where he sometimes carried presidential messages.

Helen Louise Chittick was born in Des Moines on Jan. 19, 1915. She was raised in La Jolla, California, where her parents became prominent landowners.

She was studying history and French at the University of California at Los Angeles when she left in her senior year to marry Dr. Elson, then a young widower. She had been a church secretary for him in La Jolla. As a young woman, she also taught dancing to blind children.

She became known for designing and making hats, many for family weddings. In her 80s, she attended a summer program on British romantic poets at Oxford University.

She was an elder of National Presbyterian Church, where she did volunteer work in the library and for bazaars.

Survivors include four children, Eleanor Heginbotham of North Bethesda, Beverly Elson Gray of Washington, Savannah, Ga., and Orange, Va., Mary Faith Suarez of Martinsburg, W.Va., and David Edward Elson of Sharpsburg, Md.; a brother; a sister; three grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.


On August 20, 2007, of Washington, DC, wife of the late Rev. Dr. Edward L. R. Elson; mother of Eleanor, Beverly, Mary Faith, and David Edward. Also survived by three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren; brother Clark Chittick and Eleanor Hoekstra. Memorial service will be held at the National Presbyterian Church, 4101 Nebraska Ave., NW, Washington, DC, on Saturday, September 29, 2007, at 4 p.m. On Monday, October 1, 2007 at 3 p.m. a Memorial service will be offered at Ingleside at Rock Creek, 3050 Military Rd., NW, Washington, DC. Interment private at Arlington National Cemetery. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the Library at National Presbyterian Church




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