Author: Hayden McKenna
On May 20th 2023, Elder George Ralph Thompson, finished with the troubles of this world, was called to rest. The administration, faculty and staff, students, alumni and friends of the University of the Southern Caribbean express our deepest condolences to the family, relatives, ministerial colleagues and many friends of Elder Thompson. We also join in the celebration of a life of one of our favourite alumni sons whose long, distinguished and praiseworthy tour of duty and service in this world, will long be remembered and brilliantly historicized by our church.
George Ralph Thompson, the son of George Gilbert and Edna Thompson, was born on March 20, 1929 on what was then the British colony of Barbados, (now the Republic of Barbados). His early life was nested in the hamlet of Connell Town in St. Lucy, Barbados’ rugged northernmost parish. His parents, members of the Pilgrim Holiness Church, raised G. Ralph as a protestant Christian. In his youth, G. Ralph displayed noble qualities and tremendous promise that did not go unnoticed by members of his community. Young G. Ralph apprenticed as a tailor in nearby Checker Hall with Mr. Fred Greaves who was a member of the Checker Hall Seventh-day Adventist Church. Fred Greaves gave a copy of The Great Controversy to the lad. The inquisitive young man read the book and was intrigued.
When A.R. Tucker the then principal of Caribbean Training College (CTC) – a Seventh-day Adventist boarding school in Maracas Valley on the island of Trinidad, visited Barbados on a recruiting expedition, he, abetted by Fred Greaves prevailed upon young G. Ralph Thompson’s parents to send the intellectually curious young man off to CTC.
On March 22nd 1946 George Ralph Thompson entered CTC . It was in this fertile valley, that lifts its eyes on the south-face of El Tucuche that his preparation for a historic, five-decade long career with the Seventh-day Adventist Church germinated. It was on the CTC campus that G. Ralph Thompson was baptized by A.R. Tucker and became a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. It was at CTC that he was exposed to a fourteenth-grade curriculum that prepared him for entry into the gospel ministry. In Elder Thompson’s own words, “It is here that my educational horizons were opened up, and apparent impossibilities became challenging and intriguing realities… I can say today with absolute conviction, all that I am, and whatever I might have been able to achieve, I owe to that school in the Maracas Valley in Trinidad.”
It is at CTC too that a youthful G. Ralph Thompson also found the time to dabble in constructive extra-curricular activities that deepened his affection for Adventist culture and contributed valuable addenda to his preparation for ministerial service. For instance, he was a member and one of three first tenors in an outstanding male vocal ensemble called the College Heralds. Their debut performance was held in the College Auditorium in January 1950. Donned in impressive livery, they opened with a memorable rendition of Where are the Boys of the Old Brigade.
G. Ralph Thompson had two graduations from Caribbean Training College. He graduated from the twelfth-grade – the equivalent of secondary school completion – in 1948. Two years later, with advanced schooling, he graduated again having completed a two-year diploma course in Theology ,which qualified him, by the standards of the time, for entry into the gospel ministry.
Elder G. Ralph Thompson began his long and fruitful career as a minister of the gospel in the La Brea and Point Fortin areas of southwestern Trinidad as an intern pastor under the supervision of Pastor Samuel L. Gadsby. His devotion to God, teachability, genuine love for people, giftedness as an evangelist, and staunch commitment to the mission and unique message of the church quickly attracted pastoral success. Throughout G. Ralph Thompson’s remarkable denominational career, he remained steadfastly loyal to these helpful character traits and aptitudes.
In the 1953 to 1954 academic year, Elder G. Ralph Thompson briefly joined the faculty of CUC as a teacher in the secondary school division of the college. This may have been an institutionally organized pre-requisite to availing an opportunity for him to study abroad at Atlantic Union College (AUC) in South Lancaster, Massachusetts, USA. In 1954, he left for AUC, where he completed his Bachelor’s degree in 1956. After his graduation, he was employed as a pastor and teacher in the Lake Region Conference in the United States.
In 1959, he returned to CUC as a member of the faculty. In August of that very year, he was ordained to the gospel ministry in the College Chapel. On June 14 1961, Elder Thompson left for Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, USA to complete a Bachelor of Divinity degree at the seminary. He returned to CUC in 1962 and between 1962 and 1964, he rose to the status of the Head of the Theology Department and Pastor of the College Church. As head of the Theology Department, he was careful to ensure that the Ministerial Association (the fraternal society for ministerial students) was always vibrant, keenly engaged in public evangelism and spiritual formation activities. One memorable public evangelism campaign of the period, was a series Elder Thompson conducted on Jackson Street in Curepe, Trinidad. In this effort he was supported by his eager students.
Elder Thompson also taught a famous history class of the campus titled “European Survey” which had an elegantly paginated tome for a textbook. This class was famous for its demanding intellectual rigour and its fine tutelage.
Elder Thompson was also a cherished mentor to his students and members of his pastorate.
He would succinctly, yet eloquently share ways of seeing and being that would inspire his students to be accomplished but humble. One of the many students he taught, led to Christ and baptized, recalls him advising that when one receives a promotion one should “step up humbly” and at its end, one should “step down graciously”.
The prodigious progress of Elder Thompson as an extraordinary evangelist, pastor and teacher was carefully followed by the Adventist constituency in Barbados and by extension the eastern Caribbean. In 1964, the thirty-five-year-old Elder Thompson, was asked to serve as the President of the East Caribbean Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, headquartered in Barbados. Permitting no one to despise his youth, Elder Thompson stepped up humbly to this important assignment. He served the East Caribbean Conference as its president for two consecutive triennia.
The demands of the presidency did not attenuate Elder Thompson’s passion for the public proclamation of the gospel. In April of 1967, he established the Faith for Today Radio Broadcast. It aired locally in Barbados and to the islands of the eastern and southern Caribbean.
A flight of denominational elevations would pursue Elder Thompson’s outstanding work and preternatural devotion to service. In 1970, he was elected to the presidency of the Caribbean Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. Among the many duties that came with this new role was the chairmanship of the Board of Trustees of his alma mater, dear old CUC. Through his steadfast obedience to God’s leading, he acquitted himself well at Rookery Nook.
In 1975, Elder Thompson was asked to serve as one of the general vice-presidents of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. In 1980, in the midst of theological commotions in the world church, Elder George Ralph Thompson was elevated to the position of Secretary of the General Conference. In this position, he served for four consecutive quinquennia, and towards the end of his tenure, briefly acted as President of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. His two decades as Secretary of the General Conference, spanned the presidencies of Elders Neal C. Wilson, Robert S. Folkenberg and part of that of Elder Jan Paulsen. Elder Thompson’s twenty unbroken years in this office, makes him the longest serving Secretary of the General Conference in the history of the organized Seventh-day Adventist Church. He was also the first person of colour and undiluted subaltern heritage to serve in this esteemed position.
Early in his tenure as Secretary of the General Conference, Andrews University conferred the honourary Doctor of Divinity degree on this worthy recipient in 1983.
The world church experienced institutional development and tremendous membership growth during Elder Thompson’s long stewardship as Secretary of the General Conference. In his report to the 57th General Conference Session in Toronto, Canada in 2000, (his last report as secretary of the world church) he shared that in 1999, an average 2,989 persons joined the church each day or 2.08 each minute of that year.
As high as God elevated his trusted Barbadian servant, he never lost the common touch, his love for people, and his distinct Caribbean personality. There are countless stories of his official and unofficial visits to the Caribbean especially to Barbados and Trinidad and his stubborn habits of visiting and conducting devotions at the major Adventist institutions there, and making house calls to old friends and colleagues. He manifested none of the trappings of pride and power distance that high office could easily summon.
Elder Thompson retired in 2000 after five decades of exemplary denominational service. Even after his retirement, he remained an asset to the church, serving as a field representative for the Ellen G. White Estate and delighting and inspiring congregations with the word, on the special occasions he took to the pulpit.
Elder G. Ralph Thompson was also the devoted husband and father. He married Imogene Clotilde Barker (also a Barbadian) on July 19th 1959 in New York, USA. Imogene Thompson was an alumna of CTC and studied at the college from 1948 to 1951. She is remembered as a “strong singer” on the campus. Imogene Thompson, had an accomplished career as a graduate nurse who worked in Barbados, Trinidad, New York and Washington D.C.
He and his Imogene were partners in long life, ministry and in parenthood. Together they lovingly raised three children: Carol Jean, Gerald Randolph, and Linda Mae. They were also grandparents to four girls. Imogene preceded Elder Thompson in 2018.
On July 10th 2023 Elder G. Ralph Thompson’s body was laid to rest in Naples, Florida, USA. Heaven has marked the spot of his interment for disturbance on that great day. May the long life and rich legacy of this extraordinary servant of God to humanity, inspire us to go beyond excellence like Elder George Ralph Thompson managed to do in his lifetime.
Written by: Hayden McKenna
Special thanks to: Dr. Glenn O.I. Phillips, Dr. Vernon E Andrews, Ms. Norma Greaves, Mr. Ian Green, Mr. E. Lennard McKenna & Mrs. Anastacia Mulraine-Campbell, Forde Library, USC.