A Memorial to the Late Dr. Ralph Larson
The following memorial to Dr. Ralph Larson, was written by his son, David R. Larson, and it is found at the following address:
father was born on November 14, 1920 near
men in his family worked in the forests, lumber mills, dairies and businesses
The Early Years of Ministry (1946 – 1966)
1946 he took our mother and me, when I was three weeks old, to
1957 the Hawaiian Mission made our father’s dreams come true by commissioning
him to full-time public evangelism. We moved from
moved to the Northern California Conference in 1959 where he continued his
evangelistic work. We first lived at
He rooted us on these plots of land as he commuted to the evangelistic meetings that he 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 it to the chassis of a truck in which he had installed a powerful Chevrolet engine. We called this mammoth vehicle our “ark.”
were very happy years for our family. He was an excellent father who
regularly scheduled us time with him for swimming, horseback riding and other
fun things and he let no one interfere. While we lived in
Our father was not a severe disciplinarian, spanking me only three times: once for going out of my way intentionally to insult another youngster, a second time for lying and a third for joining another fellow in roughing up a third. His expectations were simple and clear: act respectfully, speak truthfully and fight fairly.
response when as an early teenager in
that someone was about to present to our parents a long list of complaints
about her, including the charge that she was acting inappropriately with
young men, one evening many years later Karen sat down our parents and
explained in advance her side of each the stories. When she had completed her
detailed defense, our father’s reaction was typical. “May I please go to bed
now?” he asked. They never discussed these issues again.
Our father was not the most scrupulous member of our family. That would have been me! We once tethered a horse on a distant property and it was my responsibility to ride him bareback to the house, groom him and give him grain and water and either take for a ride or back to his grassland. Somewhere along the line I became convicted that I should neither ride nor lead him on Sabbath because I enjoyed it too much. I insisted that our father transport the water to the horse by car in a large and heavy container. “Are you certain that this is what God requires?” he asked. “I’m working harder than the horse!” “Never mind,” I replied, “we are not supposed to do our own pleasure on the Sabbath.” He hauled the water.
I once listened with much moral admiration as a young man explained to our father that he had progressed in his Christian life to the point that he no longer played popular music on the ukulele, some of which was for Hawaiian dances. “Don’t be impressed,” he said. “That kind of fanaticism is usually the last gasp of a spiritually dying person.”
years later, when I was old enough to know better, I asked my father at
Sabbath dinner whether he knew that his church organist was gay. I knew I had
said the wrong thing the minute the words left my mouth because everyone at
the long table stopped eating to see what would happen next. My father glared
at me as if to ask if I had lost my mind. “I know that,” he replied in
measured words that all could hear. “But we need that young man. That young
man needs us. He is not hurting anybody. So nothing is going to change.” With
that he returned to his meal and eventually everyone else did too.
father’s middle years of ministry, roughly the time between 1966 and 1985,
flourished in 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 our
denomination too. As we should have expected, the turbulence in our society
and in our church found their parallels in our family. From our infancy on
our father had taught us to think for ourselves, never imagining that in
doing so we might come to see some things differently. As children we naively
assumed the same thing, that if we thought clearly and followed the evidence
wherever it led, we would arrive precisely where our highly respected and
deeply loved father had. When it slowly became clear to all of us that this is
not how things were turning out, everyone in our family experienced much
pain. And yet, although they were often stressed and strained to the very
end, the cords of love that bound us never snapped. That he requested that
his children tell the story of his life on this occasion is evidence of this.
He trusted us.
eventually accepted an invitation to do evangelistic work, always his first
parents thoroughly enjoyed
Over the years it has been difficult for me to figure out why our father seemed not to understand from the inside why so many Adventists were drawn to the somewhat different paradigm and its relatively heavier emphasis upon God’s forgiveness. While thinking about the whole of his life since his death, I saw clearly for the first time something that I must have known all along without giving it much thought. This is that, as far as I know, our father never obsessed about his salvation or anything else. He never tossed and turned throughout the night wondering if he had confessed all of his sins or if he had fallen short of Christian perfection by making some mistake. Never! This was largely a matter of his temperament. But it was also because he was confident that God would judge him and everyone else fairly.
In this respect our father’s Christian experience was not at all like that of Martin Luther whose obsessions about his sins and God’s wrath in his early life have given some psychiatrists much valuable data. I believe that this made it difficult for him to understand from the inside the anguish of those whose experience is more like Luther’s and why such people need to be told again and again and again and again, as if the gospel contains no other good news, that no matter how many mistakes they make God still loves them.
Our father often viewed this emphasis upon God’s forgiveness as a theological excuse for irresponsible conduct. In some cases this was so; however, in most instances it wasn’t. The more ethically obsessive Martin Luthers of every age like me need to camp on the doctrine of justification by faith and never move much beyond it and then always keeping it view. There was nothing in his temperament to help him understand this. I now think that in this area of his life he was the healthier.
The Latter Years of Ministry (1985 – 2007)
he officially retired in 1985 at sixty-five years of age, two decades of
ministry were still before him. Working with self-supporting ministries whose
mission in life is to preserve historic Adventism was a matter of integrity
for our father. Also, in these endeavors he enjoyed a measure of collegiality
with other ministers that he had not known since he left
year of 1990 was especially sorrowful. In its months our brother Thomas died.
My first marriage ended. And the Pacific Union Conference revoked our
father’s honorary ministerial credentials, something our denomination
provides its retired clergy who are in good and regular standing. Especially
my mother could not understand how the church that they had served with
dedication and distinction for decades could now reject them. Our parents
fully expected that they would also lose their church membership. But the
comparison with the last nine, their first three years together were
relatively easily. 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, at their home in
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, 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. These blessings included Gary Larson cartoons, the carbonated beverages he added to virtually everything he drank, including milk, and football, which he watched with the sound off because he believed with some justification that his commentaries on the games were superior to those that were broadcast.
order to give Betty some rest, Hospice arranged for him to stay at
He relaxed on Sunday and peacefully slipped away. His nurses told us that rarely do they see such an easy death. Several of us circled his lifeless form for about two hours, grateful that he was no longer suffering. When the vehicle arrived from Montecito Mortuary and Memorial Park, we were ready.
Our father’s greatest legacy is not what he said and wrote in the heat of theological controversy after he retired. It is the thousands of people all over the world who were blessed in his active ministry. In his professional life, first and foremost he was a public evangelist and then he was pastor and teacher. People, not polemics, were always his highest priority.
of our earliest memories is watching our father leading a congregation in