Remembering Earl F. Palmer

The Rev. Earl F. Palmer went to be with Jesus on April 25, 2023. Palmer was pastor emeritus at University Presbyterian Church and a longtime friend of Seattle Pacific University since the 1950s when he was UPC’s youth pastor. Through the years, he was a frequent speaker on campus at numerous chapels, new student convocations, C.S. Lewis Institutes, a President’s symposium, Church Leaders Forums, and, in 2012, he gave the annual Friends of the SPU Library Lecture.

Seattle Pacific was blessed by Palmer’s deep and rich insight into God’s word and the writings of numerous theologians such as C.S. Lewis.

“[Palmer] is one of the great preachers and teachers of our time,” said SPU’s President Emeritus Phil Eaton. “We are so proud to call him a friend of Seattle Pacific."

SPU awarded Palmer an honorary doctorate in 2008. That same year, the University's alumni magazine published an article on “Palmer’s Secrets for Preaching Great Sermons.” In tribute to the late Rev. Palmer, we are reposting the article from the Spring 2008 issue.

“I tried to convert my whole family in one weekend,” the Rev. Earl Palmer confessed during Seattle Pacific University’s Church Leaders’ Forum this fall, thinking back on his early days of faith.

The admission prompted laughs from an assembly of preachers, laypersons, and pastoral interns who know the challenges of sharing the gospel with non-believers as well as teaching the Bible to Christians who want to grow in their faith. Palmer then proceeded to describe what he’s learned over a 50-year career about delivering great sermons instead of Sunday morning snoozers.

Palmer, the retiring senior pastor at Seattle’s University Presbyterian Church and former pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, California, speaks from a wealth of experience. Yet he didn’t grow up with dreams of preaching. “My mother was a strong Episcopalian, but my Christian upbringing didn’t stick,” he said.

During his studies at the University of California-Berkeley, however, Palmer was invited to a small Bible study group. “I saw men my own age looking at the New Testament and reading it through adult eyes,” he remembered. “I had to go out and buy a Bible.” This led to “three renaissance years” at Princeton Seminary, where he gained experience as a Bible study leader.

“I wasn’t trying to be an evangelist,” he explained. “I was just opening the text. … I became convinced that if I could get someone to look at the text, sooner or later the text would win their respect, and it would always point them to its living center: Jesus Christ. And when Jesus Christ has your respect, that’s not very many inches away from faith.”

Palmer told the SPU audience that he is bothered by the popular approach of “thematic preaching.” When a preacher proclaims his views on a theme, bolstered with Scripture verses, the congregation misses an opportunity to experience textual revelation, he explained: “If you just tell them something, that doesn’t mean they’ve got it.” Rather than trying to “steer the text toward an issue,” Palmer recommended that leaders “let the text steer.” He defined “expositional preaching” as “the task of enabling the text to make its own point, within the whole context of the gospel, and then affirming that message with persuasiveness and joyful urgency to the people in today’s language.”

According to Palmer, once congregations understand the Bible in its original context, then they can explore what it conveys to them today. This dynamic encounter with the text, he says, may help listeners “see it before you [the pastor] say it … and that’s the most electric moment in preaching.” When a pastor allows listeners to make their own journey to revelation, he said, the gospel becomes personal.

The assembly responded like a congregation inspired. The Rev. Richard Dahlstrom of Seattle’s Bethany Community Church agrees that neglect of Scripture “creates multiple caricatures of the gospel. The humility of beginning with the text and letting it guide the day is critical to those of us who preach since our calling is really to be stewards.” Dahlstrom, who usually insists that his staff join him for SPU’s Church Leaders Forums, adds, “Palmer’s commitment to sound exegesis, his love of reading, and a commitment to ‘downhill skiing’ [taking the risk of a journey with God] have been three qualities that I’ve sought to emulate in my own life.”


Related articles

Joseph Earle Cowley | photo courtesy the Cowley Family
In Memoriam
Building eternity with hammer and nails

My Journey Into the Orthodox Church

In Memoriam
Ray Bakke called Christians into the cities

President Martin
The President’s View
Farewell to President Martin