I walked across the school playground to the church for my appointment with the pastor. I was still sweating after playing ball during recess, while he sat behind his desk in his office wearing a suit and tie. He asked me a lot of questions, “Why do you want to be baptized? What has Jesus done for you? What are you going to do for Him?” I didn’t realize until many years later the significance of this interview. Dr. Holmes did me a kindness as he led me to spend about thirty minutes witnessing for Jesus.
This serious-minded Finn preached one long sermon series after another at the Fairplain Seventh-day Adventist Church in Benton Harbor, Michigan. And the church was packed every Sabbath. There were many regular visitors, high society folk in the community, who came every week just to hear him preach. He had a warm molasses timbre that was easy on the ears. And he began every sermon with a brief recitation, (I don’t remember what it was), that captivated the congregation. During that time, he taught homiletics at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary on the campus of Andrews University. For those interested in learning the difference between the art of public speaking and homiletics, go online and listen to some of his sermons. I regard him as the greatest homilist in the history of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
One evening after Sabbath, there was a talent night program in the church basement. While not abandoning in the slightest his Finnish soberness, he did a stand-up comedian routine. The audience roared in laughter during that ironic moment. As a young boy, I knew a little bit about the struggles he experienced in his faith journey from Lutheranism to Seventh-day Adventism, as recounted in his book, Stranger in My Home. I am still affected by a comment, totally random, that he made to me as he and his family departed from our house after one Sabbath lunch. He said, “The Christian life is a life of suffering.” As I sensed his rough edges, his words and demeanor ministered to my firebrand disposition. During one sermon, he flung his arm downward and pointed at me and spoke to me a rebuke that was graciously too short and subtle for others to notice. And I, still reeling, joined the line afterwards and shook his hand.
During one sermon, which was preached on some unknown Sabbath day in the 1970s, the usual rustling in the congregation turned to silence. He had just offered some warm words of affirmation about Martin Luther King, Jr. It was very hard for a white person to live in the proximity of the slums of Benton Harbor and not be a racist. Everyone in the church was a racist, except Dr. Holmes.
The church replaced him with a new pastor, I moved on from those formative years to Andrews Academy, and we did not see each other again.
Later, as he became a leading opponent of women’s ordination, I read another of his books, The Tip of an Iceberg. Given his remarkable faith journey, we should not judge him too harshly for his aberrant position, as he was neither a biblical scholar nor hermeneutist. Instead, we should concur with his overriding pastoral concern about critical attitudes that might distort one’s interpretation of Scripture. For me personally, on this sad day of his death, I think about my childhood and the privilege of being baptized and discipled by this valiant servant of Jesus.
Phillip Brantley is an attorney who offices in Houston, Texas and lives in Sugar Land, Texas and Berrien Springs, Michigan. He is a graduate of Andrews Academy, Andrews University, and The University of Texas Law School. He is married to Marilyn Brantley, and they have one daughter Rachel.
We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.