e is arguably one of the most effective evangelists to serve the Seventh-day Adventist Church. For more than 55 years, on six continents (all except Antarctica), Edward Earl Cleveland has tirelessly presented the everlasting gospel and trained gospel preachers in 67 countries of the world.
“The other day some of my students asked me what I consider my greatest contribution,” said Pastor Cleveland recently from his home in Huntsville, Alabama. “I said, ‘Letting Adventism produce a satisfied old man.’ The gospel has given me a sense of appreciation for what God has done in my marriage, my career—every day of my life.”
And by all accounts, the Lord has crammed a lot into the more than threescore and ten years that Cleveland has been standing in front of congregations large and small (he will celebrate his seventy-ninth birthday next month).
In the Beginning
“I’ve known since I was on earth what I was born to do,” says Cleveland, the middle son of Bill and Eunice Cleveland. Earl’s two brothers, William and Harold, also served the church as administrators (as presidents of the Southwest Region and Allegheny West conferences, respectively), but Earl whistled a different tune. “I had a one-track mind from childhood to evangelize. My pop used to take me to tent meetings, and I couldn’t wait to get out and do the thing I always wanted to do,” he says.
By the age of 6 Cleveland would accompany his father to churches in the area of Chattanooga, Tennessee, where the family lived at the time. Cleveland preached sermons that his father, a lay member, had written. “The preachers seemed to be happy with them,” he recalls.
Cleveland and his brothers all attended Oakwood College, and Earl graduated in 1941. The nation had yet to recover completely from the Great Depression, and upon finishing college with a degree in theology, there was no “Colored money” for newly graduated pastors.
Cleveland worked for a few months with a church in Toledo, Ohio, until he received a telegram from his father. “Carolina Conference offers internship,” it said. “Will you accept?” Cleveland recalls, “I fired off a one-word reply— ‘Accepted!’”
His first assignment was to pastor a district of seven small congregations. “I spent most of my time evangelizing, filling up those little churches.”
While Cleveland’s love of evangelism quickly became obvious, he had no attraction to administration. “Board meetings, business meetings, and all those things bored me. I was born to do the thing on the corner,” he says. Cleveland’s first evangelistic campaign netted 84 new members; the next one, 113. This at a time “when men were baptizing 30 or 40 and being crowned lord of all.”
Evangelistic crusades of that era typically ran six nights a week for 12 to 20 weeks (three to five months).
During the fifth week evangelists presented the Sabbath and began having services on Sabbath mornings in addition to their Saturday night meetings. “We’d go on and on as long as a soul moved in our direction.”
In Greensboro, North Carolina, Cleveland held a campaign that brought 142 members into the church of 35. “I told the conference that if they’d send me across town, there was another 100 people,” he relates. “They sent me, and we baptized 113 more. So they decided to put me into evangelism [full-time], and I’ve lived happily ever after.”
Hitting His Stride
Over the years Cleveland hit upon several “innovations” that he used with great success in every city in which he held evangelistic meetings. The first was radio.
In 1943 Cleveland started in radio without any training and without any money. He walked into a radio station, told the manager he wanted to start a radio program, and signed a contract. “I didn’t have money for bread in my pocket,” he recalls. When the manager asked, “Would you like to pay now or when you broadcast?” Cleveland replied, “‘I’ll pay when I broadcast.’ And that’s how I got started.”
Another way Cleveland raised community awareness and support was to sponsor a “radio chorus.” His wife, the former Celia Marie Abney, would assemble a group of young members from the local Adventist church and augment it with young people from the community—Methodists, Baptists, Roman Catholics, etc. The radio chorus would sing for Cleveland’s meetings and provide musical selections for his 15-minute Sunday radio program. Most of the young people ended up being baptized after sitting through all those weeks of meetings.
At one of the two campaigns Cleveland held in Greensboro, a young man, the son of an Adventist mother and a non-Adventist father, attended the meetings. The young man was planning a career in dentistry. One evening he sat in one of the folding chairs long after everyone else had left, just before all the lights in the tent were turned off. Cleveland saw the young man and went to sit with him.
“As I sat here this evening listening to you,” began the young man, “the Holy Spirit convinced me to do what you’re doing—preach the gospel.” That young man, Charles Decatur Brooks, went on to Oakwood College and then to serve the church as a powerful preacher and evangelist. But he began his career in soul winning as part of Cleveland’s radio chorus.
After his second series of evangelistic meetings, the local conference president began sending young pastoral prospects to work with Cleveland and help in his campaigns. And beginning in 1950, at the president’s invitation, Cleveland presented one-week evangelistic training seminars at Oakwood College. He observes that during those years “nearly every Black pastor who came to the pulpit had a little bit of my treatment.”
A few years later Cleveland began an association with the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University as one of the evangelists with whom seminary students would participate in summer evangelistic field schools.
At the General Conference session of 1954, held in San Francisco, Cleveland was elected an associate director of the General Conference Ministerial Association. Cleveland still remembers the conversation he had with R. A. Anderson, the secretary of the Ministerial Association.
“He took me out under the bleachers of the Cow Palace, and he said, ‘Earl, we welcome you to the association. Now, you won’t be running any more tent meetings and public evangelistic meetings. Your business will now be to teach other men how to do it, and you’ll do it on a world scale.’
“I told him, ‘I’m afraid you have the wrong man. Perhaps you need another horse’—that was the word I used—‘because when I leave here, I’ll go to Montgomery, Alabama, where a tent is already waiting on me. And I’ll be there for 12 to 20 weeks.’”
Cleveland remembers Anderson’s amazed expression at being told by his assistant what he intended to do. But Anderson replied, “All right, Earl, go on down to Montgomery, and I’ll be down to see what you’re doing.”
According to Cleveland, the meetings were packed from start to finish, from the end of summer until December. When the meetings ended, 480 people had been baptized, and there was a new Adventist congregation worshiping in Montgomery. When Anderson came to observe Cleveland’s methods, Cleveland said to him, “The best way to teach evangelism is to do it.”
And that’s been Cleveland’s method of operation ever since. Over the years he’s trained more than 1,100 pastors and ministerial students who have been involved in his more than 60 full-scale evangelistic meetings, in addition to countless smaller revivals and reaping meetings. Many of North America’s largest cities (New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Washington, D.C.), as well as cities in Europe, Asia, South America, Africa, and Australia, have hosted Cleveland and his evangelistic team.
Cleveland cites as his biggest evangelistic thrill the campaign he held in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. He recalls that up to 1966 no single Adventist evangelistic campaign had yielded 1,000 baptisms. Cleveland went to Trinidad with a team of 47 pastors from 13 countries. Arriving during the rainy season, Cleveland and his team asked the Lord to stop the rain from 5:00 until 11:00 each evening. “None of our services was rained on,” he recalls. “That was nothing but an act of God.”
“I’ve carried with me the sense of having been trusted by this church,” Cleveland observes. “You give a man 47 preachers and you say, ‘You’ve got them for nine weeks; do what you will.’ That means a lot.” The church’s confidence was well-founded. More than 800 people were baptized at the first baptism of the Trinidad campaign, and more than 400 others joined the church before the series concluded.
The Social Activist
In more than 55 years of public service (he still teaches religion classes at Oakwood College), Cleveland has been an eyewitness to many of the societal changes that have taken place both in and outside of the church. When he began his ministry, Blacks and Whites still used separate facilities in schools, hospitals, government buildings—even Adventist institutions.
In his autobiography, Let the Church Roll On, Cleveland describes some episodes in which he was instrumental in integrating some Adventist schools and hospitals. He was one of the founders of the General Conference Human Relations Committee.
But Cleveland’s influence in race relations wasn’t limited to the Adventist Church. “I was in the General Conference when Martin Luther King, Jr., had his first march on Washington, D.C.,” he remembers. “There were about 250,000 down there at the Lincoln Memorial when he gave his ‘Give Us the Ballot’ speech.”
Cleveland remembers the tension that followed King’s assassination in 1968. It came just prior to the Poor People’s March, which was being planned in Washington, D.C. Several days of chaos left thousands of poor people without food or shelter. Cleveland tells of approaching General Conference president Robert H. Pierson and describing the situation.
“What can I do?” was Pierson’s response. The General Conference was joined by the Columbia Union and the South Central Conference in providing food, shelter, and medical care to the people who were involved in the Poor People’s March, just one of many efforts to mend relationships that had been strained by racial division.
“You could put about $15,000 into the enterprise,” suggested Cleveland.
“And you’re going to go down there and work with them?” asked Pierson.
“I’ll be there,” he assured Pierson.
“OK, consider it done.”
His Continuing Influence
Even though Cleveland’s schedule isn’t nearly as demanding as it once was, he still traveled more than 35,000 miles last year to speak at camp meetings, college campuses, and leadership meetings.
And when he’s not traveling, he teaches two classes each semester at Oakwood College: Evangelism and Religious Broadcasting, and Dynamics of the Christian Faith. “My teaching career goes on. I’d like to be teaching at 95—if the Lord delays His coming. And let’s hope He doesn’t.” He reports that students come to his classes to learn, and end up being converted to a closer walk with the Lord.
Cleveland remembers ondly the influence that one of his teachers, Calvin Mosley (known affectionately as “Old Man Mosley”), had on him when he was a student at Oakwood College. Cleveland credits Mosley’s “ministry in the classroom” as being one of the ways God called him and his brothers into the gospel ministry and helped reinforce his decision to dedicate his life to public evangelism. And after evangelism, training young people is one of Cleveland’s specialties.
The list of those who have worked with Cleveland over the past five and a half decades reads like a Who’s Who of Adventist pastors, administrators, evangelists, and thought leaders, and represents a diversity of ethnic and geographical backgrounds.
Earl and Celia Marie Cleveland live quietly in Huntsville, close to their son and grandsons. Cleveland’s days are divided between teaching, writing, and occasional visits to the golf course. Almost every Sabbath finds him occupying the pulpit in one of the churches within driving distance of their home.
“My supreme passion has been to develop my own spirituality,” he says. He compares growing in Christ to traveling an unlimited horizon that will culminate in Christ’s return. Beyond that, evangelism, or “populating the kingdom,” is how Cleveland would like to be remembered.
Stephen Chavez is managing editor of the Adventist Review.