J. Lester Shipley was born in Baltimore, Maryland on June 21, 1838, the eldest son of Charles and Mary George Shipley. He was educated at a private classical school for boys in the city and then entered Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania with the class of 1860 in September, 1857. While at the College, he became one of the founding members of the Phi Kappa Psi chapter on campus and was elected to the Union Philosophical Society. Shipley gave up his original career idea of becoming a civil engineer when he felt called to the Methodist ministry; he received both his degree and his license to preach in the summer of 1860.
Shipley joined the Virginia Conference and was assigned to Warrenton, Virginia. The outbreak of the Civil War saw him as an ordained minister at Winchester, Virginia. With the advance of Union forces, he joined General "Stonewall" Jackson's Brigade as a chaplain under the auspices of the Methodist Soldier's Tract Association and served until the summer of 1862. He then took up the post of chaplain at Randolph-Macon College, then in Boydton, Virginia. That college was forced to close its doors not long after due to the conflict but it is thought that Shipley remained there until the war's end. He later served on the Randolph-Macon board of trustees, from 1888 to 1900. Immediately following the surrender he was assigned to Petersburg, Virginia. In 1868, he transferred to the Baltimore Conference but still spent much of his career in Virginia, notably in the Shenadoah Valley, with his last assignment before his retirement in Roanoke, Virginia.
In October, 1865, at Petersburg, Shipley married the daughter of the Carlisle, Pennsylvania presiding elder who had first licensed him to preach. Elizabeth Augusta Gere Shipley bore three sons and a daughter and died in Baltimore on September 12, 1906. In 1934, Shipley became the oldest living alumnus of Dickinson College when James Patterson, class of 1859, who was one day older than he, died. He held that distinction until June 11, 1937, when he died at the home of his son, Rev. J.A. Gere Shipley in Bedford, Virginia. J. Lester Shipley was ten days short of his ninety-ninth birthday.