Build up the body of Christ. Support the Pentecost Offering.

The Rev. Earl F. Palmer, among the PC(USA)’s best-loved preachers and authors, is remembered for 67 years of ministry

An overflow crowd gathers at University Presbyterian Church in Seattle for stories, music and a few laughs

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Earl F. Palmer (Photo courtesy of Earl Palmer Ministries)

LOUISVILLE — An overflow crowd gathered at University Presbyterian Church in Seattle Saturday to remember the Rev. Earl F. Palmer, a Presbyterian minister, scholar, author and teacher who died April 25 at age 91.

In addition to two stints serving University Presbyterian Church, Palmer was pastor of Union Church of Manila in the Philippines, First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, California, and National Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., which he served as preaching pastor in residence. “Over the course of 67 years of ministry, he brought a unique blend of scholarly analysis and humorous storytelling to churches, colleges and conferences throughout the world, and to people of all ages and backgrounds,” his obituary stated. “As a pastor, Earl took the long view. He believed that if he could open people to reading the biblical text for themselves, ‘it would do its own convincing.’”

Watch the two-hour service celebrating Palmer’s life and ministry here. The bulletin for the service is here.

“I brought a show and tell,” said Shirley Palmer, Earl’s widow, holding a book over her head. “It’s frayed. There are sheets falling out. It’s put together with tape. It’s Earl’s Bible. What does that tell you about Earl, my husband? He used this book a lot.”

Her husband was “a man with a calling to interpret the gospel in a way people could understand it for themselves. This calling was foremost in his mind and heart throughout the 67 years I knew him.”

During the summer before her senior year in college, he invited her for coffee, and then proposed five weeks later. They wed on the day she graduated from college, June 13, 1958, and were married for just short of 65 years. “I can tell you a lifetime is not enough,” she said, surrounded by family members who formed a semi-circle behind the pulpit. “He listened to God with his entire being. I caught it. When he spoke, I would pray, ‘Give Earl the freedom to give the message you want people to hear.’”

When she was in her 60s, her husband supported her pursuit of a doctoral degree. “He encouraged me … to be all that I could be,” she said. “He encouraged me to be a force in the world.”

“I’ve been proud to carry that name,” she said. “It took a lot of effort at times, but I can report I am most grateful to have lived my life with him.”

While in hospice care, Earl’s last words to his wife were, “I love you.”

“I commend Earl into the hands of God,” she said. “Thank you.”

According to his obituary, Palmer wrote 20 books and served on the boards of Princeton Theological Seminary, New College Berkeley, Whitworth University and Regent College.

He grew up near the company-owned lumber town of McCloud, California, at the foot of Mount Shasta. In his lifetime, he summited the iconic mountain more than 50 times, prompting his mother to ask what he’d lost “up there that he had to keep going back.”

He was a 1953 graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and completed his theological studies at Princeton Theological Seminary three years later. His first calling at University Presbyterian Church was as a pastor to high school and college students, who remembered Palmer as “an earnest Bible teacher and irreverent stand-up comic rolled into one.”

“We need to laugh,” Palmer wrote, “because life is exciting, and the source of happiness is as joyous as it is serious.”

After six years serving Union Church of Manila, Earl and Shirley and their three children came to Berkeley in 1970, where Earl served for 21 years as senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church. He preached to an increasingly diverse and growing congregation “with a style that combined Greek word studies with humorous parables, history lessons and allusions to art, movies, musicals, sports and literature,” his obituary states. “He delivered these messages with the same common sense and matter-of-fact language he learned at his kitchen table, and in the lumber camps of his younger days.”

In 1977, he co-founded New College Berkeley, an interdenominational graduate school of theology for laypersons. During those years — he published 13 of his 20 books while serving the congregation in Berkeley — “he never glossed over the reality of suffering and injustice. But neither did he dwell on it. Earl’s teaching and writing focused, rather, on the reality of God’s love and grace,” his obituary states. “Grace is God’s sovereign decision. He taught that when human beings discover that truth, they respond to it with faith. Faith, Earl taught, ‘is an amateur act.’ It is not an abstract concept or technique, but simply ‘our response to the evidence we discover of God’s trustworthiness.’”

Palmer returned to University Presbyterian Church in 1991, this time as its senior pastor, and would lead the congregation for the next 17 years. The church grew to the point that he had to preach five sermons each Sunday to fit people in. In 2008, 10 days after he retired from the pulpit, he headed to Washington, D.C., to serve National Presbyterian Church as its preaching pastor in residence. “As a lifelong student of politics,” Palmer’s obituary states, “he was thrilled to develop deep friendships with the public servants in his congregation from both major political parties.

That same year, a group of friends encouraged him to establish Earl Palmer Ministries, a nonprofit foundation that enabled him to continue his work as a teacher and writer. In 2022, he published his 20th and final book, “Called to be a People of the Gospel,” a biblical exposition of the book of Ephesians. He compiled a volume of poetry for his family for Christmas that year and preached at University Presbyterian Church on New Year’s Day in 2023 and on Jan. 21.

Palmer is survived by his beloved wife of 65 years, Shirley Green Palmer; his children, Anne Palmer Welsh, Jon Palmer (and Kara Diane), Elizabeth Jacobsen (and Eric); and his grandchildren, Sarah Welsh, Kate Agyei-Yeboah (and Philemon), Drew Palmer, Peter Jacobsen, Emma Jacobsen, Tommy Palmer, Emily Welsh, and Abe Jacobsen. He was preceded in death by his mother and father, his brother and his two sisters.

At Palmer’s request, the scriptures read during Saturday’s memorial service were Romans 12:9-18, Ephesians 3:14-21, and Romans 8:38-39.

“There is nothing that happened to Earl that a little resurrection can’t fix,” said the Rev. Doug Bunnell, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Bellingham, Washington, who eulogized his friend. “This is the easiest job I ever had. I just need to tell you, ‘Remember what Earl said.’”

Bunnell recalled words of advice Palmer would offer preachers, including, “Did you make your interpretations lean, not luxurious?”

Palmer preached at the memorial service for Bunnell’s 10-year-old son, Zach, where he asked mourners to pay attention to the pronouns used for God in the 23rd Psalm. Early on in the psalm, they’re third-person pronouns — “they” in Hebrew. But once the psalmist walks through the valley of the shadow of death, God is referred to as “you” throughout the rest of the psalm. Bunnell noted Palmer’s mourners have been walking in that valley for a few months and would be walking it for a while longer. “Hold on, friends. Keep walking and open your lives to that second-person God who wants to be with you,” he said.

“Remember what Earl taught us: We are resurrection people,” Bunnell said during his benediction. “Let’s get on with it.”

Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

  • Subscribe to the PC(USA) News

  • Interested in receiving either of the PC(USA) newsletters in your inbox?

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.