by Larry Downing | 22 March 2019 |
Harold Marshall Sylvester Richards Sr. holds high place among the giants of Adventist pioneers. In 1926, on a central California radio station, Richards first aired what would morph into a nationwide radio ministry. In the years following that first venture into mass communication, The Voice of Prophecy became known throughout the world. Richards, the speaker/director, was acknowledged both within the Adventist church and by religious broadcasters as one of the most influential radio preachers. It was not an easy task to bring his dream to reality. As successes multiplied, Richards, along with a collection of his colleagues and friends, and despite pushback from church administrators, made a contract with the Don Lee network, a company with radio stations located throughout the West Coast, to air the Voice of Prophecy program. The VOP, as it was affectionally termed, became the official name for what would eventually become a nationwide broadcast. Richards would continue as speaker/director until 1969. What follows is one person’s recollection of a man whose vision and dedication to his Lord made a lasting and significant difference in the lives of those who knew him or his ministry. I add my voice to the many others who benefited from his preaching and his persona.
My family, as did many other Adventists, frequented the yearly Central California camp meeting. My dad attached our Traveleze trailer to whatever vehicle he had that year, and the four of us—my dad, mother, sister and I—made our way up the 101 from San Luis Obispo to the Soquel campground. As a kid, I was fascinated by the main auditorium, a gigantic Quonset-type building where the “big people” met. When we pulled onto the camp meeting grounds, our first stop was at LOCATING, where we learned where our trailer would join the dozens of others. In those days, motor homes were scarce or non-existent.
Above the trailer parking area were rows of family tents pitched on numerous terraces. To the east of the main auditorium were the large tents that hosted the various kids’ programs, the youth tent, the Spanish-language tent and the Dorcas Society tent. To the north of the large tents and closer to the auditorium was the cafeteria and the Loma Linda Food booth where the camp meeting vegeburgers and juice were sold to Bakersfield potato farmers, typesetters from the Mountain View, California, Pacific Press Publishing Association and hordes of us famished kids. The Soquel camp meeting was where I first saw Elder Richards in person. I had noticed him walking about the campground, dressed, as was his custom, in a blue serge suit, white shirt and black tie. I was not then aware that Soquel was but one of numerous camp meetings on the VOP summer tours that took Richards, the King’s Heralds and Del Delker from one side of America to the other and points in-between.
One evening, at the encouragement of my father, I ditched the kids’ meeting and joined my parents to hear Elder Richards. His way with words, his review of history, his experiences and stories, especially those that referenced John Wesley, his genuineness caught my attention. I’m not sure how many times I heard him speak that year, but at the close of one of the meetings, after most people had left, I went with my dad to meet the famous radio preacher. What he said I cannot say. The fact that this man spoke to me provided an indelible memory. I do not know if there were other camp meetings over the years that provided opportunity to hear H.M.S., as he was commonly known. What I can say is that when I became a pastor in the Southern California Conference the proximity to the Voice of Prophecy provided opportunity to have personal conversations with this man and a chance to share thoughts and opinions.
On my occasional visits to the Southern California Conference in Glendale, California, I had on more than one occasion seen Elder Richards walking from his home to the Voice of Prophecy headquarters, his thick-lensed tortoise-shell glasses fixed firm, his nose in his book, literally. Elder Richards was affected with poor eyesight. (Years later, I followed his walk-read practice as I walked the street from my home to the church office.)
On occasion, we pastors would be invited to meet with H.M.S. at the Glendale, California, Vallejo Drive church. The subjects most often related to preaching and sermons. I did not attend to learn from him how to preach. He could not teach someone to preach as he did. I attended to hear his stories and soak in his persona. He, on one occasion, extended an invitation to visit him in his study. His “study” was a converted garage located behind the Richards’ house. I noted this statement and put in my mind to take him up on his invitation.
In one of the sessions with us preachers, H.M.S. drifted off his subject, as we hoped he would, and recounted to us that his grandfather, Franklin D. Richards, was one of the 12 apostles of the Mormon Church. It was he, Richards told us, whom Joseph Smith sent as his representative to oversee the Mormon property in Nauvoo, Illinois, after the Mormons were run out of the territory. The Richards name, H.M.S. told us, provided a unique opening to the Mormon community. He also told us that he had in his possession one of two copies of a book that described the Mormon Blood Atonement doctrine. This unique doctrine, stated Richards, affirms there are certain sins that can be paid for only by the shedding of a person’s blood. The Mormon hierarchy, Richards told us, had frequently made effort to obtain this book. There were several occasions, he said, when attempts were made to steal it.
On one occasion, when H.M.S. was holding evangelistic meetings in Utah, someone knocked on his bedroom window in the middle of the night and told him not to follow his usual route when he left the meeting hall to return to where he stayed. He was told that someone had made plans to blood atone him. Richards said he followed that advice. On a later day he walked the path he would have been on had he followed his routine. At the side of the path, not far from where he stayed, he saw a freshly dug area the size of a grave. Whether that was intended as his final resting place he could not say, but, he told us, he wondered.
My first solo pastoral assignment was to the Gardena, California, church. Henry de Fluiter (Uncle Henry), the well-known Adventist musician and hymn writer, was a parishioner. Not long after my arrival, Uncle Henry died. In his early years, Uncle Henry was H.M.S.’s song leader and music director. With this background, the de Fluiter family contacted Richards and asked him to conduct de Fluiter’s memorial service. Richards agreed. I do not recall the content of his remarks but part of the conversation Richards and I had has a permanent place in my memory. H.M.S. and I rode in the funeral car from the church to the cemetery in the funeral car. Richards began to reminisce about the times he and Uncle Henry, as Richards called him, were on the sawdust evangelistic trail together.
Richards described an occasion when they were to hold meetings in a small town. They visited a local real estate agent to see if there was an available house to rent. The realtor assured them there were no houses available. The two evangelists decided to take a look about town for themselves. Their search brought them to see a vacant house located on the outskirts of town. They asked the real estate agent about the house and were informed that he had not shown them the property because the house was known to be haunted. Richards and de Fluiter were not concerned about such stories and made arrangements to rent the house. They and their wives moved in and began to make themselves at home.
The opening meeting, as expected, ran later than usual. The wives, as was their custom, returned to the house to await their husbands’ return. After the rituals of prepping the tent for the evening, Richards and de Fluiter began their journey to the house when an idea struck. “Let’s have some fun.” They went to the truck that carried their tent, found a couple of chains and climbed the back stairs that led to the attic of the “haunted” house, where they began to drag the chains from one end of the ceiling to the other. Richards reported that this event brought forth a more vigorous response from their wives than they expected. It scared them roundly and when they found out the cause, there was a price to pay.
When reciting this event Richards told us preachers that it was his practice that when they neared the town where they were scheduled to conduct their meetings, he would stop the truck, untie the ropes and loosen the chains and head to the town’s main street. There he would drive the truck from one end of town, then turn around and head back. The racket from the bouncing tent poles and pegs would catch people’s attention. It was, he said, cheap advertising.
As stated above, at an earlier meeting at the Vallejo Drive church with Richards and us preachers, he had extended an invitation to stop by his Glendale, CA study. There came a day when I fulfilled my intent to be one of those who visited him.
When I walked into the garage-turned-study, my eyes roamed over his impressive library containing books from America and England. He had told us his joy when rummaging about through the treasures offered by English booksellers. The shelves were loaded with ancient-looking volumes gleaned from his used bookstore explorations. I noted the volumes were conveniently lined up by subject and author, and I remarked on this. He said that shortly after he moved into his study, while he was on one of his travels, the Voice of Prophecy staff came to his study and catalogued his books. What a task! and how appreciative was the recipient.
After a few minutes of expected questions from H.M.S.—who was I? Where did I pastor? and other topics I do not recall—H.M.S. took me on a tour of his library, spending considerable time showing me his Wesley volumes. He admired Charles Wesley. He often used Wesley’s life-events and dedication to preaching the gospel to illustrate his sermons. I was impressed with the quantity of theology and historical books that filled the shelves. It was apparent he well knew his way about this pile of collectables. They were friends, his books and he. At last came my opportunity to question my host.
A rumor roamed about that H.M.S., when questioned about what happens after death, would not give a succinct answer. I had come prepared to test the veracity of this unverified grist from the rumor mill. Now was my chance.
“Elder Richards, what do you think happens after we die?”
“Well, brother,” he replied, “I believe what the Bible says.”
This answer goaded me to probe further. I said something to the effect that I understood, but wondered, after he read the texts, what conclusions did he reach?
He replied with an answer similar to his first response. How long this game went on I cannot say. What I do recall is that I after several rephrases of the original question Elder Richards looked at me through those thick glasses and said, “Brother, you can read the Bible as well as I can. That’s what I believe.” This ended the interrogation of a great man with a phenomenal understanding of human behavior and high toleration for an irreverent pipsqueak’s interrogation. I count him a very wise man!
Elder Richard’s library was donated to what is now the HMS Richards Divinity Division of Graduate Studies of La Sierra University, Riverside, California.
A biography of Richard’s life, H.M.S. Richards: Man Alive, was written by Virginia Cason, his daughter.
Lawrence Downing, D.Min, is a retired pastor who has served as an adjunct instructor at La Sierra University School of Business and the School of Religion, and the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies in the Philippines.