This is not the usual story about the three wise men that brought gifts to Jesus at His birth. This is a story of two wise men that I have learned about over many years and with whom I was personally acquainted.
H.M.S. Richards, Sr. This man was the first graduate from the grade school at Campion, Colorado, in 1909. After studying religion, he became what I consider to be one of the greatest preachers the Seventh-day Adventist denomination has ever produced. He ended up in California in the early 1920s and began his ministry as an evangelist. Back in those days, he would go to a particular town, set up a large tent, and hold a series of meetings every night for six months which equals 180 meetings. Those who stayed with the program also stayed with the church. Back then, there were none of the quick three-week then dunk them members who, in most cases, do not stay with the church.
In 1930 Elder Richards started a radio program called “The Voice of Prophecy” which he broadcast from a small studio that he had built on the rear of his home in Glendale, California. I have had the privilege of being in that small studio, which doubled as his study.
In 1968, I was in college at La Sierra in California, majoring in theology. At that time, I was taking a class by Professor Wilbur Alexander in homiletics, which is the preparation and delivery of sermons. Arrangements had been made for our class of 13 to spend a day with Elder Richards in his home, so early in the morning we all piled into the van and drove to Glendale. There were no freeways in those days and the trip took three hours to drive the 60 miles to his home.
Our class spent a very enjoyable day with Elder Richards, listening to him tell of his many years in the ministry. This was a man who lived what he believed. He shared a vision Ellen White saw in 1906 on a visit to Loma Linda which she never wrote down. The story went something like this.
Mrs. White had been visiting the site of Loma Linda, which she had previously seen in vision, and had said that the site had been chosen by God for the establishment of a medical school. While on her return to Elmshaven, near St. Helena, California, she was standing on the platform of the small train station at Loma Linda with two physicians who were to accompany her when she was suddenly taken off in vision. It was a short vision, lasting less than five minutes. When she came out of the vision, she relayed it to the two young physicians that were with her who wrote it down giving it the title, “A Storm is Coming.” One of these physicians lived until 1961 in Boulder, Colorado. He related this vision many times and the story never changed.
In the vision Mrs. White saw a large field of grain, ripe, ready for harvest. Suddenly the sky turned dark, the wind began to howl, and an enormous hailstorm followed. Every stalk of grain was flattened, and the entire crop was devastated with not one stalk remaining. As she continued to look, suddenly a stalk of grain popped up, then another and another until the field had many new stalks. When she asked the angel messenger what this meant, she was told that the field represented the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The angel said that “everyone who sought after a position in the organization will not be left standing.” The storm represented the time of trouble, and the new stalks represented the people who will step in to assume positions of leadership following the devastation of the church during that time. Only a small remnant will remain to carry on until the very end.
When our group was about to leave, Elder Richards said one thing that I remember clearly from that day with him. He turned to us theology students and said, “whatever you do—please do not degenerate into an administrator.” He may have said that as a result of his knowledge of that little vision of Ellen White in 1906.
Another short story about Elder Richards. One time he was asked about the use of makeup. He paused and then said, “If the barn needs painting, paint it!” Most people take that to mean that it is okay to use makeup. However, what Elder Richards really meant was that if you are so big and ugly as an old barn that you need to cover it up with paint, then you should really do something about getting yourself in shape so that you don’t need to cover it up with paint.
This is a story about Elder H.M.S. Richards, Sr. as told to me personally by his son H.M.S. Richards, Jr. when he was a speaker at the Ohio camp meeting in Mt. Vernon in the late ’70s or early ’80s.
When H.M.S. Richards, Jr. was 15, his father bought a new car, a big Chrysler. In those days, Chryslers had a straight-eight engine. For those who do not know what that is, it is an engine with eight cylinders in a straight line. To house the extra-long engine, the hood of the car was as long as the living room couch. Junior wanted to test drive that big car so badly he could taste it. However, he had been informed by his father that he was not to get behind the steering wheel until he had a driver’s license for which he had to wait one more year until he would be 16.
It came to pass that Junior’s parents were spending the day away from home with some friends. After they left, he thought this would give him a chance to test drive the new car. He would just take it around the block once and reasoned that no one would ever know. So, he got the keys and started very carefully backing out of the driveway into the street. What a thrill it was for him as he drove around the block. Returning to his house he recognized he had a problem; the Richard’s house had been built in the days when the only cars on the road were the size of a Model T Ford. The Chrysler was about twice that size and the driveway was very narrow.
On both sides of the entrance to the driveway were two brick pillars about two feet square and six feet high and as Junior navigated his way into the driveway, he managed to scrape a fender against one of the pillars. The damage was done, and nothing could reverse what had happened. He was literally sick!
Sometime later his parents came home and went into the house without saying a word. Father went into his study and began reading while mother began to prepare supper. After some time, mother called that supper was ready, and when all had sat down father asked the blessing. Still nothing was said about the car. All began eating except Junior who was literally sick to his stomach and unable to eat. After some minutes passed Junior finally blurted out what he had done asking his father if he could ever forgive him. Putting down his fork, his father looked over the top of his thick glasses and replied that he would forgive his son but there would be consequences—Junior would have to pay for the damage. Sin, even forgiven sin, has its consequences. True love is not unconditional.
Often in the churches today there is too much emphasis on love and forgiveness with no mention of consequences. This teaching is exactly what the Roman Catholic Church advocates. The priest in the confessional says, ego te absolve which is Latin for I absolve you. You have not been forgiven—you have been absolved of your sin—unconditional forgiveness with no consequences. It is a free pass to continue sinning. This is a big difference to the truth.
My father once told a story to illustrate this very lesson. My father was an atheist, but still had a very good conscience. Back in 1027 when he was 21 years old, he lived in Chicago and worked for a chain of restaurants by the name of Geiger’s. Each Friday morning, he would drive the company van over to a wholesale meat warehouse to pick up some necessary supplies for the weekend. In this warehouse were large bins full of various prepared meat products such as hamburger, sausages, wieners and the like. My father would load the required amounts on a large scale to be weighed and the appropriate bill was prepared for the purchaser.
Each Friday at the same time he saw another fellow who was there purchasing meat products for several Italian restaurants. It is well known that the majority of Italians are Roman Catholic. While the seller was making out the invoice for this man’s produce and not looking, the man would reach into the bin of sausages and throw another 40 or 50 pounds onto his already weighed amount. Bothered by what he witnessed each week, my father inquired of this Italian man, “Doesn’t your conscience bother you to be stealing every week?” His answer was, “Not in the least. I go to confession every Friday after work.” This gave him a free pass—unconditional forgiveness—no consequences—totally absolved of all responsibility.
However, “There are limits even to the forbearance of God.” The Review and Herald, August 14, 1900.
“The unconditional pardon of sin never has been, and never will be.” Patriarchs and Prophets, 522.
Every sin, no matter how small (there really are no small sins), has consequences. In the very least, each sin affects our estimation of the importance of not sinning. Unconditional forgiveness without consequences diminishes the holiness of God and how totally repugnant sin is to Him. It diminishes the enormity of the sacrifice of His Son on the cross. To make forgiveness into a free pass with no consequences is an abomination to God’s judgment. It presumes upon God’s grace. That is what has been seeping into our church and it is not just the camel’s nose that is under the tent flap—but the entire camel inside!
Wilbur Alexander was my professor for a number of different classes in theology. Never a godlier man walked this earth than Dr. Alexander. He taught for a number of years at La Sierra/Loma Linda and then went to teach at the seminary at Andrews University. Wilbur grew up in a typical Adventist home. When he reached his teen years, he became restless and rebellious (his own words) with the church. His parents couldn’t reason with him and at age 17, he joined the navy to see the world and “sow his wild oats.” And sow them he did! He ended up in the submarine corps during the Second World War in the Pacific.
As was standard procedure for submarines, it would occasionally dock at a port to replenish supplies. Back then there were no atomic submarines that could stay at sea for months to years and when any naval vessel docks, the crew is given shore leave for a few days, known as “liberty,” and liberty is what the crew would take—all sorts of liberties in every aspect of living. Wilbur told his class that they could not name a liberty in which he did not indulge.
After ten years, the Lord finally got hold of him and he was discharged from the Navy at which time he decided to further his education. As such he became a professor of religion in the Adventist school system where I was privileged to meet him.
One time in our class of 13 as we sat in a circle discussing all sorts of things concerning the church, a student asked him about adornment. Wilbur went through the entire Bible showing us what the Scriptures had to say on the subject. Then it narrowed down specifically to the wedding ring. I am sure in his answer he reflected on his many years in the submarine service. He said that he had learned over many years that invariably in his experience anyone who insisted that they need a wedding ring had a deep-rooted spiritual defect. That defect may not be obvious to human discernment, but visible to God. He described it as a periscope of a submarine. When the periscope is seen sticking up out of the water, you may think that it is just a little thing, but, deep down underneath there is something big and rotten! His conviction was never baptize anyone who insisted on wearing a wedding ring.
Considering these men of God who had great wisdom and understanding, who had such an influence on so many lives, it reminds me that we all should endeavor to leave a legacy of faithfulness so that those within our sphere of influence, and whoever come after us, will be encouraged to follow in the way of Jesus.
The late Gene Swanson was a retired Adventist physician living in Montrose, Colorado, before his passing in 2019.