During the early 1950s in segregated North Carolina, for a black minister and a white minister to become friends was perhaps not unheard of, but certainly unusual.
As a child, I watched my father and his pastoral colleague, Edward Earl Cleveland (1921–2009), fellowship and interact together in such a way that the color of either one’s skin was no issue. In fact, I remember many evenings when our family would trek the 15 or so miles from our home in High Point to Pastor Cleveland’s evangelistic meetings in Greensboro just to hear my dad’s favorite preacher!
Few Adventist leaders are so well known and loved that merely their initials identify their ministry and mission. Along with H. M. S. Richards Sr., E. E. Cleveland is one whose worldwide influence is recognized the moment you say, “E. E.”
Born in Huntsville, Alabama, to William C. and Eunice Cleveland, Dr. Cleveland began preaching at the age of nine with no other ambition for his life than to proclaim the gospel message wherever even one person would listen. Thankfully, those audiences were large and spread over the entire globe, from which his evangelistic preaching personally led over 15,000 individuals to accept Jesus as their Savior and follow Him as Lord.
In 1954, at the age of 33, E. E. was elected as associate ministerial secretary of the General Conference, where he served the global church for 23 years (more than half the length of an ordinary career). As the first African-American minister elected to a General Conference department, E. E. brought keen insights to our team by demonstrating the power of racial inclusiveness and the deadly dangers of exclusion and discrimination.
One of my predecessors, Pastor Robert Spangler, stated, “Earl has done more than anyone to demonstrate the need for cooperative utilization of all individuals—especially those from different racial backgrounds.” As an example, Spangler shared that during their travels together, E. E. was busy taking photos of the best sights and places he could fi nd. Rather than illustrating extraordinarily primitive or backward conditions to shock those who would see his mission reports, E. E. strived to show the best side of any culture, regardless of how poor and different they may have been.
Another former General Conference ministerial secretary, N. R. Dower, stated, “And when he instructed ministers, he knew from personal experience what he was teaching. At one point in his ministry Earl pastored as many as eight churches, preached a weekly radio broadcast in three of the cities, with as many as eight hundred correspondence students studying at one time, all while conducting public evangelistic meetings that lasted from twelve to twenty weeks, six nights per week.”
In 1977, at the time of E. E.’s transition to Oakwood University to serve as director of the department of Church Missions, Dower noted, “Wherever he goes, Earl inspires men with a vision of greater evangelism and helps them to see clearly how this can be accomplished. His wisdom and foresight, coupled with Christian courtesy and tact, have enabled him to divert many a crisis that otherwise might have brought great embarrassment and distress to the cause of God.”
E. E. was a leader in various areas—including social justice—as he worked within the church to combat racism and discrimination and as he associated beyond the church with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and great civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr.
But his primary priority was always mass evangelism. Throughout his career, he coupled public proclamation with mentoring young preachers who would become the future leading evangelists for the church. My associate, Peter Prime, was influenced by E. E.’s Trinidad evangelistic series of 1966, in which more than 1,000 individuals were baptized—the largest single endeavor to that point in the church’s history. Prime shares his experience in that massive series:
From his imperial height of what looked like seven feet to me, E. E. Cleveland’s voice thundered with the accompanying banging of his huge fist on the poor podium and in the disquieted air caused by the sweeping gesticulations of his mighty arms. Sixty-three of us ministers and Bible instructors formed the support team for the revered teacher-evangelist.
I was just a ministerial stripling at the time. At least this is what Pastor E. E. must have thought. However, I thought otherwise with the result that, on not a few occasions, heated debates erupted during the instructional classes. And when he felt that his masterly sayings did not receive the emotional response from us that they rightly deserved, he would cry out with all his wit, “You Britishers!”
Personally, E. E. met in me a doubting Thomas and converted me into one with resolute faith. Was it because of his unmistakable eloquence as a preacher, his masterly skills in presenting the doctrines of the church, or the compelling nature of his personal appeal? All of these must have played a part, but most significant, I witnessed a living, modern-day example of a preacher, a man like Enoch, walking with his God. And this was all I needed. How humble I feel to sit in the very seat in which he sat in the Ministerial Association of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists when he conducted this evangelistic series.
In 1972, E. E. was asked to spearhead the church’s first massive evangelistic thrust, “Mission ’72—Reach Out for Life,” which pushed the concept of every Adventist minister, pastor, and administrator presenting an evangelistic program. During that great effort, as Seminary students from Andrews University, Sharon and I preached our first public evangelistic meetings in Plymouth, Indiana.
In 1979, E. E. founded the annual Oakwood Evangelism Council, which continues to attract more than a thousand attendees each December, and he continued conducting public evangelistic meetings until his final series in 2006 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
If massive public evangelistic endeavors were his professional priority, team ministry with his wife, Celia, was his passion. From the very start of their marriage in 1943, Earl and Celia (Abney) Cleveland worked together as a team. Throughout their career, you would find Celia playing piano, directing choirs, and coordinating Bible instructors for their evangelistic programs. Celia was Earl’s true love and ministering partner, and he publicly affirmed her ministry everywhere he preached.
In addition to his preaching and teaching, Cleveland was a prolific author of numerous articles, 16 books, and featured as the subject of a biography, E. E. Cleveland: Evangelist Extraordinary, by Harold L. Lee and Monte Sahlin.
In 1989, he was cited as Alabama’s most distinguished black clergy by Governor Guy Hunt, and in 1993, he was inducted into the Martin Luther King Jr. Board of Preachers, Scholars and Collegium Scholars at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. In 2007, Oakwood University honored its own alumnus and faculty by naming Edward Earl Cleveland as one of the three honorees of its new training center for evangelists and ministers: the Bradford-Cleveland- Brooks Leadership Center.
In November 2007, he donated his vast collection of personal manuscripts, including over 2,000 sermons along with other papers, to the Center for Adventist Research at Andrews University. This priceless collection forms a lasting legacy beyond his death. Anticipating the end of his life and desiring to make a further contribution to training evangelists, E. E. pitched one last evangelistic tent by establishing a virtual “canvas cathedral” where his sermons can continue to win souls until Christ’s return (www.eeclevelandministries.org). R. Steven Norman III, who worked diligently to establish this visionary Web site, says, “Pastor Cleveland has not laid his sword down. He has passed it on to us, his fellow soldiers, to help us fight to lift the banner of Prince Emmanuel.”
In tribute to this remarkable life, Adventist world leader, Jan Paulsen, says,
E. E. Cleveland taught his students that to be an effective Seventh-day Adventist preacher you must first possess a “holy boldness.” As I look back at the life of this extraordinary man of God, I see this very quality—a holy passion that acknowledged no boundaries—as the thread that connected every part of his life and ministry. He was a gifted preacher and teacher. His courage and moral leadership profoundly influenced the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America and around the world. But his most important legacy can’t yet be measured. It’s a legacy that still unfolds in the lives of many thousands of men and women who came to see their Savior through his faithful witness. It’s a legacy whose breadth will only be revealed when our Lord returns. The loss of this steadfast servant of God will be felt deeply by his family, the Oakwood University community, and the church in North America. And it’s a loss shared by the international Adventist community as well, for he belonged to the whole church.