Ralph S. Larson was born on November 14, 1920, near Salem, Oregon. He peacefully slipped into the sleep of death on August 19, 2007.
The eighth child in a family that would include five sons and four daughters, his mother’s family, which was of Irish and Scottish descent, traversed the Great Plains in the wagon trains of the nineteenth century. His father was a Swedish immigrant.
The men in his family worked in the forests, lumber mills, dairies, and businesses of the Pacific Northwest. He might have lived a similar life had he not become a Seventh-day Adventist through the evangelistic campaigns and radio broadcasts of Elders Dan and Melvin Venden, respectively the uncle and father of Louis and Morris Venden. One evening when he was a teenager, after listening to one of their radio sermons, he knelt beside his bed and quietly gave his life to God.
While studying at Walla Walla College [Walla Walla, Washington], he noticed Jeanne Reiderer from Ketchikan, Alaska. She noticed him too. After their marriage, they transferred to La Sierra College in Riverside, California, where he studied during the day and drove taxi cabs at night, often delivering military men to March Air Force Base. After he graduated, he did his ministerial internship in Elko, Nevada, where they lived in a house that had been built out of used railroad ties. Thus began 60 years of ministry.
The Early Years of Ministry (1946 – 1966)
The early years of ministry were spent in the Hawaiian Islands, where Elder Larson moved with his wife and baby son David in 1946. There he pastored a number of churches while his family grew with the addition of Thomas, who was born in Honolulu in 1948, and Karen, who was born in Hilo in 1950. Along the way, in order to benefit the church schools, he helped run a poi factory on Kauai and an orchid exporting business on the Big Island of Oahu. In 1957, the Hawaiian Mission made his dreams come true by commissioning him to full-time public evangelism.
The family moved to the Northern California Conference in 1959 where Elder Larson continued his evangelistic work. The evangelistic meetings were held throughout Northern California in an airatorium, an inflated tent that attracted much attention because it looked like a huge, upside-down bathtub. He enjoyed mechanical things of this sort, preferring to overhaul the engines of the family automobiles himself and being one of the very first to build a motorized home by riveting a trailer house to the chassis of a truck in which he had installed a powerful Chevrolet engine.
Those were very happy years for the Larson family. He was an excellent father who regularly scheduled time with his children for swimming, horseback riding, and other fun things, and he let no one interfere with these special times. He was not a severe disciplinarian, but his expectations were simple and clear: act respectfully, speak truthfully, and fight fairly.
The Middle Years of Ministry (1966 – 1985)
Elder Larson’s middle years of ministry, roughly the time between 1966 and 1985, flourished during a time of much turbulence. In society at large, after the ethos of the 1950s disappeared with the murder of John F. Kennedy in 1963, everything seemed to change. This was a tumultuous time in the life of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination too. As should have been expected, the turbulence in society and in the church found their parallels in the Larson family. From infancy on, Elder Larson had taught his children to think for themselves, never imagining that in doing so they might come to see some things differently. As children, they naively assumed the same thing, that if they thought clearly and followed the evidence wherever it led, they would arrive precisely where their highly respected and deeply loved father had. When it slowly became clear that this was not how things were turning out, everyone in the family experienced much pain. And yet, although they were often stressed and strained to the very end, the cords of love that bound the family never snapped.
After leaving Northern California, Elder Larson served in the state of Washington and, after completing additional graduate work at Andrews University [Berrien Springs, Michigan], moved to the campus of Atlantic Union College (AUC) [South Lancaster, Massachusetts]. While at AUC, he earned his Doctor of Ministry degree from Andover-Newton Theological Seminary in Boston, Massachusetts.
Eventually, he accepted an invitation to do evangelistic work, always his first love, in New Jersey; then shortly thereafter moved to Phoenix, Arizona, to pastor one of its congregations. Only intense encouragement from some administrators and some relatives persuaded him and Jeanne, reluctantly, to move to Loma Linda, California, and to the Campus Hill Church. [See Pastor John Grosboll’s remembrances of this time in the October 2007 LandMarks.]
Because he became embroiled in intense theological debates, this was a difficult chapter in his life. Yet, as always, he found enough courage and strength to persevere, and many people benefited from his ministry.
It was with joy that he accepted an invitation to teach at the Seventh-day Adventist theological seminary in the Philippines. This allowed him to return to public evangelism, which was always his first love, as he took his students on the campaign trail from that campus.
As the theological controversies in the church intensified, Elder Larson increasingly identified with those who believed that many of the issues could be traced back to 1957 and the publication of Questions on Doctrine (Review and Herald Publishing Association, Washington, D.C., 1957). In forceful sermons, articles, and books, he contended that on some issues this book did not accurately portray the writings of Ellen White and a number of the other pioneers and that these inaccuracies were too massive to be accidental and too important to be ignored. Although he was often lampooned, he did not relent but stood his ground and advanced his cause whenever he could. In the end, he and his colleagues turned out to be right on this issue, as the annotations in the most recent edition of Questions on Doctrine repeatedly document. George Knight, an Adventist historian who often disagreed with Elder Larson, even though he became an Adventist in one of his evangelistic campaigns, prepared these annotations.
Questions on Doctrine and later developments prompted theological issues as well. Surely some version of the positions Elder Larson and his colleagues took will prevail there as well.
The Latter Years of Ministry (1985 – 2007)
When he officially retired in 1985 at 65 years of age, two decades of ministry were still before him. Working with self-supporting ministries whose mission is to preserve historic Adventism was a matter of integrity for Elder Larson. Also, in these endeavors he enjoyed a measure of collegiality with other ministers that he had not known since 1959 in Hawaii. In addition, they prevented him from wasting his retirement years in idleness, requiring him to preach, teach, write, and travel to many parts of the world instead. These were all pluses, yet for the first time, he was working outside of and, in some cases, partly against the denomination.
Sadness entered Elder Larson’s life in the early 1990s. Thomas died in 1990. During this same time, the Pacific Union Conference revoked his honorary ministerial credentials, something the denomination provides its retired clergy who are in good and regular standing. Jeanne especially could not understand how the church that they had served with dedication and distinction for decades could now reject them. During the last months of her life, Elder Larson devoted himself to her care until she died from cancer on November 16, 1994.
How fortunate for him that Betty Newman caught his eye in March 1995 at a meeting of historic Adventists. Thirteen days later, he proposed marriage. She resisted, and he insisted. They were married in July of that year. Their first three years together were relatively easy, but everything changed for them when a misfortunate cardiac procedure nearly killed him, sending him home a physically devastated man after four months in the medical center. Then he was diagnosed with Parkinsonism. As he slowly declined in physical strength, but very little in clarity of mind, Betty’s loving care of him became increasingly heroic. She refused to transfer to anyone else what she often described as her privilege of caring for her husband.
His characteristic courage in the face of adversity did not fail him. Rarely complaining, he suffered from not being able to speak above a whisper, a consequence of having a tube in his throat for so long (during the aforementioned cardiac procedure and hospitalization), and from his inability to continue working with his colleagues. I once asked him what he did when he could not sleep at night. “I rehearse every detail of my life, reciting all the ways God has blessed me,” he replied.
Elder Larson’s greatest legacy is the thousands of people all over the world who were blessed through his active ministry.
This article is adapted from a tribute David R. Larson gave at the memorial service held to honor his father September 1, 2007. Individuals from around the world attended the service—both those who agreed with Elder Larson and those who did not. They all respected the man and his stand for truth. David is a professor of religion at Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California.