Skip to content

Twisting the Tail of the Comet: Bill Loveless at the Beginning


Today a memorial service for William A. Loveless, a beloved pastor who impacted countless lives during his notable career, is being held at the Loma Linda University Church at 2pm.

Since his recent death, tributes and remembrances have been written, citing some of his most influential accomplishments, including creating the church’s student missionary program, pastoring the two largest congregations in the US (Sligo and Loma Linda), preaching dynamic and non-traditional sermons (The Adventist Review, in its tribute, called him a “trend-setting pastor with lively sermons”), and serving as president of Columbia Union College.

But T. Joe Willey remembers a Bill Loveless from an earlier time. Willey was a teenager in Idaho when Loveless began his career there, and over the next three years he watched Loveless become the extraordinary influence that so many people remember.

Elder William A. Loveless passed away September 15, 2014.  His death stirred frost-bitten Idahoan memories of the time I first knew him in 1953.  Bill had just graduated from the Adventist Theological Seminary and was starting his internship as a minister in my father’s district.  

It was said that Elder C. Lester Bond, president of the North Pacific Union Conference, had taken a chance in sponsoring Bill. (Bill spent the first two years in college at La Sierra.  At the end of his sophomore year he was asked not to return to the college — because of his interest in playing jazz on the saxophone.) 

Not prone to theological speculations or surplus gossip Elder C. Lester Bond was a pious, no-nonsense preacher, after the austere style of Messages to Young People.  Bond was a prolific writer hoping to change Adventist youths who held their religious views apart from secular life. He found comfort in leading young people and devoting much of his interest to the Junior Missionary Volunteer society. 

From the outset, Elder Bill Loveless was, how shall we say, slightly different in style and attitude, and treated conformity to the ministry with suspicion. From time to time he tended to twist the tail of the comet in a tug of war against the mundane, and examine a certain class of truths that cannot become true till our faith has made them so.

My father, Tom Willey, was one of the more experienced ministers in the conference, having served in departmental work in Montana, Idaho and Oklahoma.  Dad supposed that Bill Loveless was assigned to him to learn the ropes because during the 40s he and Elder Bond worked together in Missionary Volunteer programs and in summer junior camps.  Both were Master Comrades. (The title was later changed to Master Guide because of the Cold War with Russia.)

My father passed away in 1990, Elder Bond in 1971.  

Unless we gather up these early recollections we will miss the practical matters largely concealed by the thrashing sweep of death in the progress of time.  From these earliest years in the Pacific Northwest we can discern the ministerial pattern that would eventually come to characterize the preacher man Bill Loveless became.

Freshly-minted youthful ministers Bill Loveless and Sunny Liu, the singing evangelist, were assigned to the Moscow Idaho district to conduct roving evangelistic meetings throughout the area. They often preached two sermons on Sabbath in the small wooden churches in the district.  Then they held evangelistic meetings during the week.  Remember this was the 50s. The evangelistic messages were mostly the overworked “end of the world” narratives and warnings about the judgment and the second coming. The Moscow district included Farmington, Washington, Deary, Troy, Potlatch and Viola Idaho.  Today, these towns have faded away with the shifting population migrating to larger commercial areas of the country. 

I encountered Bill and Sunny Liu when I came home on “leave” from Upper Columbia Academy (UCA) at Spangle Washington. UCA was about 20 miles south of Spokane, Washington, and 60 miles north of Moscow.  Saturday night conversations at home were lively when the three preachers got together.  Bill had launched a call-in radio program in Moscow on family issues.  The Moscow church members were upset with his forthright and open answers to certain questions on marriage and sex.  (Frank Robinson, the man who talked to God, founded his radio programs while living in Moscow.  On Sabbaths I went with the two young evangelists or my father and listened to them preach.  Bill Loveless began to break the speaking traditions around Adventist Sabbath services and Sunny Liu presented special music that seemed necessary for eternity and nothing else had a chance of being put in its place.

On one of these visits home I went with my father and Bill to give a Bible study to a woman living in the woods near Viola.  Her husband was not at home, but he had previously told my dad that if he caught him on the property he would shoot him with his deer rifle.  The deer rifle was in the back of his pickup.  Throughout the Bible study, I sat at the front door, which was slightly ajar, watching down the driveway with a very anxious feeling.  The threat didn’t bother my dad or Bill.  As I recall, the week before Bill had preached on guardian angels and his own sermon shielded him from the fear of being shot.  They both showed no weakness of nerve and continued to give studies to the wife.

Bill nurtured a carefree spirit, born with genes that enhanced his ability to remember people’s names and establish common friendship. Upon entering a room Bill became the center of attention; he liked variety and drew people to him with genuine affection.

Life was full of surprises with Bill around.  For instance, my father told me about Sunny Liu singing in the café downtown in Troy.  Truckers, farmers and loggers and general run of people gathered there for coffee and meals.  The three preachers were in Troy preparing for the Sunday evening meeting.  After eating their sandwiches, Bill stood up and announced with ebullience that there was a renowned singer with them who had a singing voice that could tame wild horses.  Would they like to hear him sing?  Without waiting for unanimity Bill called to Sunny Liu to stand up.  But Bill was not about to give Sunny Liu’s voice away for free.  To the surprise of the café owner Bill proposed a slice of lemon pie to the three preachers in exchange to hear his friend from Hawaii sing.  Liu appeared inescapably reluctant, or so he feigned, but he took his position at the counter and sang — The Holy City without holding back.  Afterwards everyone was invited to hear more at the tent meeting in the center of town.

Bill never knocked at the door when he and his wife Edna Maye came over to our house to visit.  He just barged in, calling out, “Where’s the Bishop?”  Eventually, he dropped Bishop and simply called dad the “Bish.”  These were happy days.  My father remembered later his days with the Loveless as some of the happiest of his life.  Also, my folks found any stretch of conversation with Edna Maye, Bill’s wife, pleasant and spontaneous.  Marilynn, their first child, was born in Moscow. 

When I came home Bill wanted to know about my grades, participation in prayer bands, where I worked, who my friends were, whether they were a positive or negative influence on me and what kind of mischief I had achieved.  He left me with the impression that I should create some great fire burning under the edges of the world.  We shared our common academy experiences.  He thought the faculty was too trigger-happy when it came to kicking students out of school over irrelevant matters. 

Not that he brooded about it, but Elder Loveless was also a preacher’s son and he said he used to feel that he could never measure up to his father’s calm soul.  I found it easy to talk frankly to Elder Bill.  “Stop frowning” he said in a low voice, “I know it is not a simple life to be a teenager.  And you don’t help things any by pretending.  I know what it means to have poor grades and be in trouble with institutional laws.” And he went on, “Some boys stroll through life neatly made, but that was not the case with me.” 

Upon learning of the yearly visit by conference president Elder Bond to the Moscow church, my dad offered Bill the opportunity to introduce the president and “make a hit with the boss.” 

“Don’t do anything out of the ordinary,” Dad said. When the time came, Bill welcomed the church members and introduced the conference president as Bishop Bond.  Not many people took notice, but “Bishop” Bond was obviously offended.  Standing behind the pulpit Elder Bond slowly turned and looked at Elder Loveless sitting behind him; he announced that he was not a “Bishop” and did not appreciate being called one.  The category had a Catholic ring to it, which is not something an Adventist wants to be associated with.  He was Elder Bond.  This caused ripples to run through the crowd.  Completing his sermon, Elder Bond sat down and Elder Loveless got to his feet and remarked on the pleasure of hearing Bishop Bond’s sermon. The president stood looking down at Bill with an icy gaze.  Later I heard my father tell Elder Loveless that was not exactly what he had in mind when he suggested that Bill introduce the president.

After a few years in Moscow my mother began to receive rosy and shining love notes from a woman in the Troy church who imagined she was attracted to Bill.  It was said of the woman that she had an unstable mind.  This was no frivolous matter to Elder Bond and he decided to move both Sunny Liu and Bill.  For a short time Bill and Edna Maye conducted evangelistic meetings in Washtucna, a small community south and west of Moscow.  My father was quite disappointed to see Bill and Sunny Liu push on.  In the spring of 1957, after Washtucna, Bill Loveless and Edna Maye were appointed to the Spokane Central church.

Three years in the Moscow district was the proving ground for Bill and Sunny Liu.  They preached under considerable pressure to both believers and infidels alike.  Bill established radio ministry in Moscow.  The move to Spokane Central opened other opportunities, which eventually launched Bill’s public image that we know today.  He was soon on his way to the headquarters church in Sligo.

Bill was distressed at the state of affairs with the young people in the church and the long-held legacy of little change.  To illustrate his views of what should be done, a group of Adventist high school students organized a softball team from Spokane Central.  The games were played on Monday and Wednesday evenings.  But the church would not allow the students to play in the city league on Wednesday because of mid-week of prayer.  Bill went to bat for the students and obtained a compromise.  The young people were not coming to prayer meeting anyway and many no longer attended church.  So Bill proposed that he hold a special prayer meeting on the field on Wednesday evenings and then play ball.  The church board approved this compromise and Bill joined the team to play in the right field.

Bill would go on to devote considerable energies in ministering to the youth of the church.  He forged opportunities in student missionary programs.  He became known by his preaching of good tidings. He was unpredictable in certain ways and was different than the rest.  He introduced listeners to complex impressions and new ideas.  All of this was compounded out of learning the ropes in the backwaters of western Idaho and eastern Washington.  There he learned to focus a strong practical light on the pathway of his listeners, believing that individuals were born to belief in the same way that an apple tree bears apples.

Read Spectrum Editor Bonnie Dwyer’s tribute to Bill Loveless here.

Image: A younger William A. Loveless, from the tribute published by Washington Adventist University.

Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.