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Reflections on R. Nelson Nash

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By Robert P. Murphy

When sufficient time had passed after I learned of Nelson’s death, I posted a link on social media to my recent interview with him. I had no hesitation in referring to Nelson as a “great man.” I’m not sure I’ve used that expression before, certainly not for someone whom I knew personally. Yet with Nelson, it seemed utterly natural and sincere to refer to him in this way.

Among his many qualities, Nelson’s key strength was his ability to boil down complicated issues to their essence, in order to talk straight to the common man (and woman). For those of us who enthusiastically embraced the role of elaborating upon Nelson’s works and “translating” them into a manner more palatable for academics and hot shots in the financial sector, sometimes we would be frustrated at certain turns of phrase or analogies that Nelson had used in Becoming Your Own Banker, because they spawned misunderstandings in certain circles, among people whom I can refer to as the Pharisees of Finance, I hope without causing offence to religious readers.

Yet it was undeniable that Nelson’s blockbuster book did exactly what it was supposed to do, namely to convince the typical reader of the urgent need to take control of the banking function. Nelson’s admonitions to “play honest banker with yourself” and “don’t steal the peas” were far more effective than a 3-page appendix on the actuarial basis of cash surrender value would have been. Say what you will about the grocery store or headwinds metaphors, but everybody who starts Nelson’s book is going to keep plowing through it, to see, “What is this guy going to talk about next?!” (And now, after helping create a training course to teach Nelson’s ideas to financial professionals, I can say that all of those metaphors served very specific purposes in the book. Nelson wasn’t “rambling,” he was adapting the parable approach that Jesus so famously used in order to communicate lofty principles to regular people.)

Now please don’t misunderstand me: Nelson could have written a much more technical book, catering to academics and career life insurance agents, explaining more of the mechanics of his vision for IBC. Indeed, I personally become aware of just how sharp Nelson was, during a phone call when I was asking him very specific questions about the dollar figures in one of his tables in BYOB. There was a lot going on behind the scenes in that book, and Nelson had made editorial decisions about how much to discuss with the general reader, versus how much to ignore because it would have been too distracting.

Yet Nelson wasn’t merely a great writer—after all, I’ve heard countless people explain that they read Nelson’s book in one sitting and some even woke up their poor spouses at 1am to tell them the good news—he was also a great speaker. For those who never got to see Nelson in his prime, it would be hard to understand how someone could possibly give a 10-hour seminar (over two days) on using life insurance as a way to take control of your financial life. Yet that’s exactly what Nelson did, and if you sat in on his presentation, you would immediately understand how it could be so. Nelson had an uncanny ability to blend in personal anecdotes, outright jokes—particularly his one about the Auburn students taking a course in logic—and seemingly tangential remarks on U.S. history and political economy, all in with a rather dry discussion about the mechanics of whole life insurance. The people in attendance at these seminars couldn’t have absorbed all of what Nelson relayed to them, but he made sure they got the important stuff. They knew something was horribly wrong because the “snakes and dragons” had seized control of the banking function away from the you-and-me level.

The last aspect of Nelson I must mention is his strong Christian faith. Although Nelson’s death shocked me, it did not disturb me. I smiled when I realized that, after passing the pleasantries, Nelson was in a better place, having a stern discussion with his brother who had sold him a life insurance policy without telling him all that it could do.