In Loving Memory of

Earl Frank Palmer

November 26, 1931 - April 25, 2023

    The Reverend Earl Frank Palmer died on April 25, 2023, following a brief battle with multiple myeloma. He was 91 years old.  
    Earl was a Presbyterian minister, scholar, author, and teacher who served in pastoral posts at the University Presbyterian Church in Seattle, Union Church of Manila, First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, and The National Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. 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. 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.” He was known for his plain-spoken style, his fierce intellect, and for drawing insights from his literary heroes—including C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, G.K. Chesterton, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Blaise Pascal, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. He authored 20 books, received honorary doctorates from Seattle Pacific University and Whitworth University, and served on the boards of Princeton Theological Seminary, New College Berkeley, Whitworth University, and Regent College.

    Earl was born and raised in McCloud, California, a company-owned lumber town at the foot of Mount Shasta. His father, Lewis Ward Palmer, worked in the lumber mill, and his mother, Myrtle Elizabeth Hovey Palmer, was a schoolteacher. Earl grew up in a family of six, along with his older brother, Lewis Ward Jr., and two younger sisters, Nancy Elizabeth, and Marian Lee. Earl’s parents encouraged their children to speak their minds. Their McCloud kitchen was a lively forum for political debate, music, and funny stories told over late-night pots of coffee and card games. Later in life, when Earl and his siblings gathered at their parents’ home in Sacramento, California, it was much the same. Growing up in a rugged lumber town in the 30’s and 40’s meant that Earl and his siblings learned how to work hard. Each summer, the Palmer children would spend their father’s one-week summer vacation in the forest taking trees, and then cutting and stacking the firewood needed to heat the family home throughout the coming winter.

    The 14,162-foot Mount Shasta and its surrounding wilderness captured Earl’s heart at a young age. He loved to camp, climb, and ski on its flanks. He would return to the mountain many times over the course of his life, and it became a recurring presence in his poetry. He summited Mt. Shasta over 50 times, prompting his mother to ask what he lost “up there that he had to keep going back.” As a young man, he worked as a compass man for the McCloud River Lumber Company, guiding forays from the logging camps into the deep Shasta wilderness to survey stands of timber.

    In 1949, Earl entered UC Berkeley. He earned a degree in political science in 1953. His college years would set the course for the rest of his life. He developed a lifelong love of the Cal marching band, and the Golden Bears football team. He embraced the city’s music, cinema, and cultural vitality as well as the robust exchange of ideas at its great university. Most importantly, it was in Berkeley, through a dorm Bible study, that Earl decided to commit his life to Jesus Christ—a faith that would deepen and sustain him over the next seven decades. Dr. Robert Boyd Munger, the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, became an enormous influence. Earl followed his footsteps and enrolled in seminary at Dr. Munger’s alma mater, Princeton Theological Seminary. He graduated from Princeton in 1956 with an understanding of Greek and Hebrew, and a love of scholarship that would last his lifetime.
    In 1956, Earl accepted a position as pastor to high school and college students at University Presbyterian Church in Seattle, Washington. Students in those years remember him as an earnest bible teacher and irreverent stand-up comic rolled into one. “We need to laugh,” Earl has written, “because life is exciting, and the source of happiness is as joyous as it is serious.” At youth group meetings, he would sit at the piano, play songs, and tell jokes. Sometimes, at the end of a piano routine, a co-performer planted in the audience would interject and ask with grave seriousness how someone could be telling cheap jokes in a sacred place of worship. At the end of his lecture, the plant would ask, “don’t you know the 10 commandments?” After a long pause, Earl would say: “I don’t know. Whistle a few bars, and I’ll see if I can play it.”

   One student at the University of Washington caught his eye. The way Earl told the story, when he saw Shirley Green, “it was love at first sight." Earl and Shirley were married on June 14, 1958, the year Shirley took her first job as a teacher at Garfield High School in Seattle. They welcomed their first child in 1962.

    In 1964, Earl was called to be pastor of Union Church of Manila Philippines—a post he held for the next six years. During this time, he also taught at Union Theological Seminary. Earl and Shirley became active members of both the local and expatriate communities, as he led the large international protestant church and she worked as a junior high counselor at the American School and taught nutrition in the rural villages following the guidance of World Health Organization. With the conflict in Viet Nam, and mounting tensions throughout Southeast Asia, Manila, in the late 1960s was a crucible of political, commercial, and military activity. According to Earl, "the Manila years were deeply formative as I learned to preach to an international community and serve as a solo pastor to a congregation of over five hundred."

    In 1970, Earl and Shirley (now with three children) moved back to the United States, when he was called to be senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley. Returning full circle to the church of his undergraduate years, Earl stayed in that post for the next 21 years, while Shirley returned to her profession as a schoolteacher, and later became a senior school district administrator. Earl described Berkeley in the early 1970s as a “turbulent” place of political and social unrest. Sunday after Sunday, 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. 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, Earl co-founded New College Berkeley, an interdenominational graduate school of theology for laypersons, Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, he took study leave sabbaticals (along with his family) in Cambridge and Oxford, England, Australia, and Austria. He also travelled twice to apartheid era South Africa to teach at interracial Christian conferences. Earl’s ministry also included travel throughout Asia responding to invitations to preach and teach. During the Berkeley years, he deepened his scholarship, published 13 books, and honed his major theological theses. 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—not as abstract concepts, but as events anticipated in the Old Testament, and witnessed during the life of the historical Jesus Christ. In his teaching, no one earns God’s love and grace. 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.”

    In 1991, Earl was called again to the University Presbyterian Church, Seattle—this time as its senior pastor. In a second full-circle decision, he returned to the church he served as a freshly minted pastor 35 years earlier. He would lead that congregation for the next 17 years, and support Shirley as she reentered the University of Washington to earn her Ph.D. Under Earl’s leadership, the church grew to the point that he had to preach five sermons each Sunday to fit people in. Even so, arriving late to a church service usually meant sitting in the overWlow section outside the sanctuary.

    In 2008, ten days after he retired from the pulpit at University Presbyterian Church, Earl headed to Washington D.C. to serve for over two years as Preaching Pastor in Residence at The National Presbyterian Church. As a lifelong student of politics, he was thrilled to develop deep friendships with the public servants in his congregation from both major political parties.

    Earl did not believe in retirement. With that in mind, in 2008, a small 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. The foundation was a great source of joy and inspiration for Earl, because it enabled him to continue to study, write, teach, and mentor young interns and pastors throughout the world. It also allowed him to deepen his partnerships with the many organizations and institutions he loved, including Princeton Theological Seminary, New College Berkeley, and the C.S. Lewis Foundation, which owns and manages Lewis historic Oxford home, “the Kilns,” as a center of Christian study. A noted C.S. Lewis scholar, Earl spent several summer stints as a lecturer in residence at the Kilns, where the plaque in Lewis’ study reads:
The Study of C.S. Lewis

Restored in grateful appreciation of The Reverend Earl F. Palmer
On the occasion of his 50th year of Christian ministry
For he also has been captivated by “The Great Lion”
“Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
   True to his word, Earl never did retire. In September 2022, he published his 20th and final book—a biblical exposition on the book of Ephesians. He compiled a volume of poetry for his family for Christmas 2022. He preached two sermons at University Presbyterian Church on New Year’s Day, 2023, and on January 21, 2023, he provided reflections on his latest book, Called to be a People of the Gospel: St. Paul’s New Testament Letter to the Ephesians in an event attended by more than 300 people. He studied and worked daily, writing articles and poetry, and preparing for future lectures, up until March 16, 2023—the day of his diagnosis.

    In addition to his scholarship and 67-year ministry, Earl will be best remembered for his gift of encouragement to thousands of people from all walks of life. He lived with the love, grace, and humor that he taught. Although he stood at just 5’ 8”, he was a giant—full of enthusiasm, warmth, and laughter. He was, above all else, a devoted husband and the world’s biggest fan for each of his three children and eight grandchildren.

    Earl 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.

    The Princeton Theological Seminary Library houses “The Earl Palmer Collection,” his legacy in lectures, sermons and writing. It contains over 3500 audio and video recordings, and selected writings and papers, many of which are accessible online.
A memorial service will be held at the University Presbyterian Church, Seattle, on June 24 at 11:00 a.m. It will be live streamed at the link below.
 In lieu of flowers, please consider a contribution to a charity or church of your choice, to The University of California, Berkeley, Letters and Sciences Leadership Fund or to Princeton Theological Seminary (for online donations to Princeton, please specify “The Earl Palmer Award for Excellence in Expository Preaching,” which is a scholarship award established in 2020; similarly designated checks may also be mailed Princeton Theological Seminary Attn: Department of Advancement/P.O. Box 821/64 Mercer Street/Princeton, NJ 08542-0803.)