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Earl E. Cleveland (1921-2009)


Edward Earl Cleveland was born March 11, 1921, in Huntsville, Alabama, to William Clifford and Eunice Cleveland. William, a World War I veteran, accepted the Seventh-day Adventist message as a result of reading the book Bible Readings for the Home. Earl had an older brother, William, and a younger brother, Harold. Earl was drawn to preaching from an early age, often practicing preaching to a congregation of rocks out in the woods. His father would take his young son to hear prominent Black orators of the day, which had a profound effect on the young boy. He actually preached to congregations in the city at the age of 6. Later, when looking back over his life, Earl recognized that he had always wanted to be an evangelist, and that commitment never wavered.

In 1939, Earl followed his elder brother, William, to Oakwood Junior College. There he began in earnest his studies for the ministry. While a young boy growing up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, he first met a young girl, Celia, daughter of the pastor of the church, Elder Benjamin Abney, Sr. He smiles as he remembers pulling her pigtail, which caused her to run away from this rude fellow. Celia accompanied her parents to South Africa, where her father served as one of the early African-Americans who went to labor as missionaries.

By the time Earl entered his studies at Oakwood, Celia was back from the mission field and also enrolled. She had grown into a beautiful young woman, and caught Earl’s eye. But, he remembered, he did or said nothing, even though prompted by several of his friends. As his time at Oakwood grew short, a friend took things into his own hands and arranged a “chance encounter” between Earl and Celia out in front of the library. A date was arranged and the rest is history. In 1943, Celia and Earl were married in Meridian, Mississippi. Their happy union lasted 60 years until her death in 2003.

Celia was a perfect partner in ministry for Earl. A consummate musician, she played the piano and organ and organized and conducted choirs. Her willingness to support her husband led her to study the Bible voraciously to eventually become one of the church’s most effective Bible workers, leading thousands to make their decision for Christ. The young couple adopted a baby boy and named him Earl, Jr. The family unit was now complete as Celia had a “little man” to keep her company during the times Earl, Sr., was away on church business. “Little Earl,” as he was lovingly called during his boyhood years, brought much joy and fulfillment into the family.

Earl and his three brothers all served the church as ministers. Their father was head elder of the Chattanooga church for many years. A conference leader approached him with the idea of him entering the ministry. William Clifford deferred; it was during the Great Depression, and he did not believe he could feed his family on the ministerial salary of the time. He always felt that he had done wrong in turning down the call, but when his three sons became pastors, he believed the Lord had forgiven him. Elder Wagner, president of the South Atlantic Conference, told William Clifford, who was on his deathbed in 1955, that his youngest son would be ordained at the upcoming camp meeting. Both of Earl’s brothers served the church with distinction. William served as president of the Southwest Region Conference, and Harold as president of the Allegheny West Conference.

Earl started as a self-supporting preacher as he was not extended a call upon his graduation. Initially he had a difficult time. He had no car and many times lunch was a small bag of potato chips. He lost so much weight that when he visited his elder brother, William, his sisterin-law burst into tears. Eventually, he received a call and started work in the Carolina Conference. In 1942, he ran his first tent meeting, which produced 83 new converts. The next year his meeting was blessed with 84 converts. His evangelistic ability impressed the church leaders, and he was assigned to do just evangelism, which delighted Earl. In 1943, Earl began a radio broadcast, and Celia organized a radio chorus, which became very popular in the community.

Earl became conference evangelist for the newly formed South Atlantic Conference in 1946. He ran meetings that netted many baptisms, leading to his selection as Southern Union evangelist in 1950 and in 1954 as associate ministerial secretary of the General Conference. He was only 34, some thirteen years younger than the next youngest of his associates. That same year he conducted a meeting in Montgomery, Alabama, which resulted in 500 baptisms, an unheard-of number at the time.

In 1956, Earl conducted meetings on the South Side of Chicago. Here he again was blessed with success, baptizing 200 souls and rebaptizing 25. Music was becoming an important part of Earl’s campaigns. Four young Oakwoodites joined the tent meeting and radio broadcasts as the Cathedral Quartet. Joyce Bryant sang for Earl after she became an Adventist. For many years Elder T. Marshall Kelly and the late Elder Charles E. Brooks lent their talents in music to Earl.

Earl began a long ministry to the world field in 1957 when he was called to conduct meetings in Kampala, Uganda. He would also conduct one of many field schools of evangelism for 20 local pastors. The meetings produced almost 200 baptisms, including the brother of the crown prince of Uganda. In 1958, Earl traveled to the nation’s capital, where he conducted meetings in the Capitol Arena. Here he preached nightly to a multiracial audience, and at the end held the largest baptism to that time in the Allegheny Conference territory. A total of 262 souls were baptized.

Earl traveled again to Africa in 1957, arriving first in Monrovia, Liberia, where he held an evangelistic crusade along with a field school for the ministers. Here, again, more than 100 were baptized, with many more placed in the baptismal class. Earl then went to Accra, Ghana, also with great success. Many years earlier, as a boy, Earl had been baptized by Elder A. B. Story. In the intervening years Elder Story had become disaffected and left the church. In one of life’s strange twists, Earl had the privilege of rebaptizing Elder Story back into the church.

In 1960, Earl was selected for a unique task for a Black SDA church leader. He prepared to go to Poland, behind the Iron Curtain. He conducted 13 public meetings in Warsaw, resulting in 50 baptisms. His itinerary took him next to Finland, where he preached in several cities before making a stop in Denmark and heading home. A great challenge presented itself in 1962. Earl accepted a call to visit India. In the fall of that year Earl flew to Mumbai (then Bombay), where he conducted a field school attended by 45 pastors and Bible workers. In the evening, he conducted evangelistic meetings. Local laws prevented large gatherings, but about 500 were in attendance each night. Earl also preached in Rangoon, Burma. His presence there had long-lasting effects, as there was a dramatic rise in the number of baptisms for years to come. That same year Earl traveled to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Once again a large field school was conducted and a church of 150 was raised up in that city. In 1964, a series of meetings conducted in St. Louis netted 150 baptisms, setting the stage for what was to be the largest Adventist evangelistic meeting in North America to the time.

In the summer of 1965, two large tents were pitched side-by-side in Queens, Long Island. The total seating capacity was 3,000. Earl would conduct meetings nightly simultaneously with a large field school attended by local ministers and a class from the SDA Theological Seminary. A program to feed the hungry with food donations from crusade attendees was conducted from the tent meeting. A total of 400 persons were baptized, and a new church was organized.

Earl’s largest meeting, and the most extensive evangelistic outreach by the church to that date, took place in 1967. Trinidad had been considered, for some time, a fertile area for the gospel. General Conference and local church officials decided upon a large reaping campaign following an extensive preparatory effort. More than 100 ministers from the Inter-American Division participated.

The attendance at the two large tents in Port-of-Spain ranged from 4,000 to 6,000, as the meetings quickly became the talk of the nation. By the end of the crusade 1,000 persons had been baptized. This meeting had a profound effect on the church’s outreach as it established a powerful Adventist presence in the Caribbean and showed what was possible, encouraging other evangelists to aim higher.

In 1968, Earl conducted a crusade in New Orleans, Louisiana, which added 229 souls to the church. He again taught his methods to a group of seminarians during the summer campaign. In 1970, a crusade in Oakland, California, resulted in 250 baptisms. By this time, Earl’s methods and results had reached “down under,” and he found himself flying off to Australia. Crusades in Sydney and Melbourne produced hundreds of baptisms along with challenge and encouragement for the country’s ministers and Bible workers.

Detroit, Michigan, was the venue for a different kind of campaign targeted toward the inner city. The meetings were held in a hall, and a storefront was opened during the day and named the Better Living Center. From this venue, food distributions were made and free medical screening and dental treatments were given. This innovative program became a model for future inner-city crusades.

Earl entered a new phase of his General Conference ministry when he was appointed head of the Mission 72 and Mission 73 programs (followed by Missions 74-76). He was chosen to develop an overall outreach strategy for the church while continuing to conduct public meetings. Earl had, for years, been active in pushing the church toward an outward-looking philosophy. Now he pushed his concept of every Adventist minister, pastor or administrator, becoming an evangelist. In 1982, Earl conducted meetings in Columbus, Ohio, and in 1990 he conducted his last tent meeting, in Nashville, Tennessee.

Earl retired from the General Conference in 1977. His motivation was his love for mentoring a new generation of evangelists to go forward and change the world. This change was also helpful as Celia was suffering from crippling arthritis, and Earl would be home more to care for her. Earl’s connection with Oakwood dated from the 1950s, when he began visiting to conduct short seminars in evangelistic methods. He always set apart time for this no matter what pressures he was under from the world field. This long association became the inspiration for the Evangelism Council, begun in 1981. This weekend of seminars has grown to become a fixture in the church’s year for more than 25 years.

As the new century dawned, Earl faced advancing years and the inevitable slowing down. He was saddened by the death of his older brother, William, and his younger brother, Harold. In 2003, he had to bid farewell to the love of his life, Celia. However, Earl continued to fill preaching appointments, even a 2007 four-week crusade in Las Vegas in his mid-eighties. Many honors came in his later years–honorary doctorates, a book on his life, but the greatest possibly was the establishment of the Bradford-Cleveland-Brooks Leadership Center at Oakwood University. Here, along with these other two giants of the church, Earl and what he lived for will be preserved for future church leaders.

Earl was one of the church’s most prolific authors. He wrote numerous articles for Adventist Review, Ministry, Message, and other church magazines. He wrote 16 books, including: Come Unto Me, Mine Eyes Have Seen, Free at Last, Sparks from the Anvil, and Ask the Prophets. His written works still speak to hearts today.

On August 30, 2009, Earl’s journey through life came to its close. He died full of faith and in sure expectation of the resurrection. To all who came to know and love him in this life, he would no doubt say, as in the title of one of his books, “Let the Church Roll On”.

Earl leaves to survive him: his son and daughter-inlaw, Earl and Pinkie Cleveland; a sister-in-law, Elizabeth Cleveland; four grandsons; three granddaughters, one cousin, Dolly; and several nieces and nephews. May our memories of Earl, our friend, pastor, family member, and mentor, be sweet and linger long.

-William Cleveland