A Memorial to the Late Dr. Ralph Larson

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Dear Reader,


The following memorial to Dr. Ralph Larson, was written by his son, David R. Larson, and it is found at the following address:



Our father was born on November 14, 1920 near Salem, Oregon. He was the eighth child in a family that would include five sons and four daughters, once his younger sister Doris was born. Of the nine children in his family of origin, she is the only one who still lives and we are delighted that she and her husband are with us today from Maryland. 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 an undocumented immigrant from Sweden.

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, the “true” Venden brothers who are respectively the uncle and father of Louis and Morris. 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.

He studied at Walla Walla College, quit for a while to earn some money when his father died, and returned to continue his preparation for ministry. He noticed that in the meantime Jeanne Reiderer had arrived on campus from Ketchikan, Alaska. Although she was in a steady relationship with another man, she noticed him too. They were married after our mother had graduated and worked in Portland, Oregon for a year because she refused to walk down the aisle with anyone until she had proven that she could support herself.

They transferred to La Sierra College where she worked and edited the student newspaper. He studied during the day and drove taxi cabs at night, often delivering military men to March Air Force Base. They lived in one of the tiny cabins that still stand on the west side of the campus. 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. This was the start of sixty years of ministry.

The Early Years of Ministry (1946 – 1966)

In 1946 he took our mother and me, when I was three weeks old, to Hawaii by way of Alaska to see her family. With her gregarious and intelligent help, he pastored the church in Kappa, Kaui for three years, moved to the congregation at Hilo on the “Big Island” for another three and then transferred to the Central Church in Honolulu for an additional four. By then our family had expanded to include 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 had helped run a poi factory on Kauai and an orchid exporting business on the Big Island.

In 1957 the Hawaiian Mission made our father’s dreams come true by commissioning him to full-time public evangelism. We moved from Honolulu to Kailua on the Windward side of Oahu. This home was our family’s headquarters from which we traveled throughout the Islands accompanying our father on his evangelistic tours. We studied in a correspondence school, helped out with the efforts, and enjoyed the experience immensely.

We moved to the Northern California Conference in 1959 where he continued his evangelistic work. We first lived at Walnut Creek on a ten-acre property near the North Gate of Mount Diablo State Park and then we moved to another 10-acre property at Angwin where he built the first of three homes that he would construct with his own hands and some hired help.

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.”

Those 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 Honolulu, for instance, our parents made certain that the family was always ready for Sabbath by noon on Friday. Every week we then spent the rest of the day at Prince Kuhio beach at Waikiki, returning home only after we had all enjoyed an ice cream cone at the nearest Dairy Queen. This is how our Sabbaths always began!

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.

His response when as an early teenager in Northern California I was suspended from school for striking a bully hard enough to burst some blood vessels in his left eye was characteristic. “How would you like to spend a few days with me at the campaign in Camino?” he asked. “Sure!” I replied and the two of us had a great time together. Not once in my entire life did he ever say a word to me about that fight.

Knowing 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.

Although it may have seemed to blunt to others, his candor made us feel secure. When Karen regained consciousness after a very serious horseback accident that nearly took her life, she was frightened by a woman who kept saying, “Don’t cry, Don’t cry! Everything’s going to be all right!” when she knew in or six or seven year old heart of hearts that this was not true. She felt safe when our father pushed his way through the gathering group and said, “Karen, you’ve been badly hurt. But I will never leave you.” True to his word, he rushed her to the hospital in a car because the ambulance drivers would not let him ride with them. All the way he kept saying to her, “Squeeze my hand, Karen. Keep squeezing my hand!”

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.”

Many 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.

The Middle Years of Ministry (1966- 1985)

Our 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.

After leaving Northern California, our father served in the state of Washington and, after completing additional graduate work at Andrews University, on the campus of Atlantic Union College, where Doctor Herbert Douglass, whom he chose to present today’s homily, served as President. While at AUC, he earned his Doctor of Ministry degree from Andover-Newton Theological Seminary, one of the oldest and most respected in the nation.

He eventually accepted an invitation to do evangelistic work, always his first love, in New Jersey because it included a willingness to put to a trial a detailed formula he had developed for financing such efforts. Shortly thereafter he moved to Phoenix, Arizona to pastor one of its congregations, after he concluded that the leadership of the church in New Jersey was not as interested in testing his formula as he had thought.

Our parents thoroughly enjoyed Arizona, so much so that they did not want to leave it. Only intense encouragement from some administrators and some relatives like me persuaded them reluctantly to move to Loma Linda and to the Campus Hill Church. Because he became embroiled in intense theological debates, this was a difficult chapter in his life. This was not lost on those of us who had encouraged him to come here in the first place. Yet as always he found enough courage and strength to persevere and many people benefited from his ministry. Many of us were happy when he accepted an invitation to teach at the SDA 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 our church intensified, our father increasingly identified with those who believed that many of them could be traced back to 1957 and the publication of Questions on Doctrine. 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 our 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 QOD repeatedly document. These annotations were prepared by George Knight, an Adventist historian who often disagreed with our father even though he became an Adventist in one of our father’s evangelistic campaigns. George Knight is honest.

QOD and later developments prompted theological issues as well. Although the jury is not yet back on these matters, and perhaps it may never be able to render a verdict, I think that some version of the positions our father and his colleagues took will prevail there as well. I think this will be a good thing. Some may be surprised to hear me say this because he thought of himself as a conservative Seventh-day Adventist and I would not use those terms to describe me and I doubt that many others would. What some may have overlooked is that we are both Wesleyans. This means that we have always had more in common with each other than either of us had with those in our church who seem to us to be trying to nudge it a bit in the direction of a somewhat different paradigm.

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)

When 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 Hawaii in 1959. 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 these efforts cost him and our family a great deal because for the first time he was working outside of, and in some cases partly against, the denomination. It saddens us that some people became acquainted with him only in this chapter of his life.

The 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 Loma Linda University Church became their shelter in a time of storm. In this congregation their membership was safe and secure. Doctrinal diversity has its pluses after all!

Our mother died from cancer on November 16, 1994, one day short of her seventy-fourth birthday. How fortunate our father was that Betty Newman caught his eye in March of 1995 at a meeting of historic Adventists. Thirteen days later, he proposed marriage. She resisted and he insisted. They were married in this chapel in July of that year. Their union gave us three fine adult step brothers: Robert, Paul and Jim.

In 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 Cherry Valley, Betty’s loving care of him became increasingly heroic. All the rest of us joined our father in requesting that she hire some help, something they could afford. But she refused to transfer to anyone else what she often described as her privilege of caring for our father.

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.

In order to give Betty some rest, Hospice arranged for him to stay at Heritage Gardens for five days, beginning Thursday, August 16. On Friday and Sabbath, he very much enjoyed visits from friends, former students, his wife, his living son and daughter, his daughter-in-law, and three of his five grandchildren. Although his whisper was sometimes difficult to decipher, his grandchildren often doing this better than the rest of us, his faith, courage dignity were as strong as ever. No matter what the adversity throughout his life, he had never blinked and he had never ducked and he faced his upcoming death the same way. When we paused in prayer to thank God for all the blessing of his life and ours, he mustered all of his remaining energy repeatedly to exclaim, “Amen! Amen! Amen!” A hugely powerful man, he never was a wimp; and he certainly wasn’t one now.

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.

One of our earliest memories is watching our father leading a congregation in Hawaii as it joyfully sang, “Trust and Obey!” Please help us sing it again!

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