An overflow crowd gathers at University Presbyterian Church in Seattle for stories, music and a few laughs
August 21, 2023
An overflow crowd gathered at University Presbyterian Church in Seattle recently 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 states. “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.’”
Shirley Palmer said 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.
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.”
He grew up near the company-owned lumber town of McCloud, California, at the foot of Mount Shasta. In his lifetime, he summited the 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.
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.
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.
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.
Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service
Today’s Focus: Rev. Earl F. Palmer remembered for 67 years of ministry
Let us join in prayer for:
Let us pray
Loving Creator, open our hearts so that we can encounter you. Guide our work by your Holy Spirit. Give us sincere joy in our work according to your power and wisdom. Amen.