An icon is defined as “A person or thing widely admired especially for having great influence or significance in a particular sphere.” The irony is this: Calling Thomas Marshall Kelly an icon in the Seventh-day Adventist Church would drive him to quickly deflect that moniker away and direct any focus back to Christ. Still, that was what he truly was — an icon — widely admired, of great influence, and of great significance.
Have You Got Any Rivers
Thomas Marshall Kelly’s influence began 92 years ago in Cleveland, Ohio, when he was born as the only child of an Adventist couple, Louis and Mary Kelly. Though a precocious boy, he unfortunately developed a severe stutter that made expressing himself difficult. Other children teased him, and he later spoke about a teacher who completely wrote him off, and declared that he would never amount to much. But, God had a much different plan for his life. His amazing baritone singing voice began to develop, and it would soon change his life.
God Leads His Dear
A product of Adventist Christian education, Kelly went from Ramah Academy to Oakwood Academy and Oakwood College (now Oakwood University) in the 1940s. He became featured in a quartet called “The Velvetones” that toured with E. E. Rogers, Ph.D., around the nation to recruit students for Oakwood. He transferred to Emmanuel Missionary College (now Andrews University) to receive his four-year degree in theology in 1952. A popular student, he became the class pastor, and was a charter member of a choral group called “The Collegians.” Upon graduation, he was called to serve in the Lake Region Conference, where he would pastor for 25 years.
Never Doubt His Love
In 1952, he married a girl he had known since kindergarten, named Jean Garland. Their romance would span 63 years and produce two talented children, Eric Marshall and Karen Nadine. Marshall and Jean’s life was never a life of ease. As a pastor’s family in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, there would be many years of relocating from one area of the midwest to another and ministering in eight different congregations. As a young couple, they would experience the pain of a pregnancy loss. But, in the midst of their sorrow, the Lord gave Marshall a song that would forever be one of his most famous, “Never Doubt His Love.” His lyrics, “He who sends the sunshine, He allows the rain, but never, never doubt His love,” would soothe hearts of the broken-hearted for generations. God’s great love for His people would forever be a recurring theme throughout the ministry of T. Marshall Kelly.
It Takes Everything to Serve the Lord
Kelly began a recording career when it was not the most popular or even an acceptable enterprise for an Adventist pastor to conduct. The irony is that Scripture is very clear that the duties of the Levites include the ministry of music. His musical gift was to be shared in “temples” around the world. In fact, his powerful, musical ministry would draw countless people to Christ in numerous evangelistic efforts and campaigns. As Ellen White said in the book Patriarchs and Prophets, “Singing, as a part of religious service, is as much an act of worship as is prayer.” Kelly’s albums and performances became a part of the rich lexicon of musical ministry as he toured throughout the years with church evangelists Don Jacobsen, Earl E. Cleveland, Charles D. Brooks, W. C. Scales Jr., Tim Lewis, and John Carter. His songs, broadcast over loudspeakers, drew people to countless tent efforts — including my own father, Murray E. Joiner’s “Big Bible Tent” meetings in Mississippi and Alabama. We will never know how many lives were changed as he ministered around the world in Canada, Bermuda, Japan, Ghana, New Zealand, Fiji, New Guinea, and South Africa. He also had the honor of singing at the world-renowned Sydney Opera House in Australia.
All That Thrills My Soul is Jesus
For more than 40 years of ministry, Kelly was featured on various media outlets. His first televised appearance was on the program “Faith For Today” with William and Virginia Fagal. He sang and spoke on the 3ABN television network over the years, and was featured on “The Voice of Prophecy’s” Family Reunion series. He began his own talk show, called “Think It Over,” on Oakwood University’s radio station 90.1 FM WOCG/WJOU. “Think It Over” has run continually every Sabbath afternoon for more than 44 years. It has the distinction of being the longest- running program in station history, and has always started with the greatest Scripture of all — John 3:16, 17.
As his fame grew, Kelly became even more grounded in Jesus. He never wanted accolades from people, and would often shy away from award ceremonies and declined honors. He said in one of his last interviews, “I never thought that I would go some of the places I have gone. But God has never been impressed with me!” Everywhere he went, he lifted up Christ and Christ alone.
Peace in the Valley
After 25 years of pastoral ministry in the Lake Region Conference, Kelly made the difficult decision to step away from the pastorate and move from Detroit, Michigan, to the Tennessee Valley. He did not even have a job, but felt led by the Holy Spirit to take time away to focus on his family. He had ventured into education in Chicago, where he was pastoring when he taught Bible classes at Shiloh Academy. It was a natural fit for him to continue at Oakwood Academy and Oakwood College as a teacher and chaplain. Kelly’s kindness and tender love endeared him to the students over the many years in Huntsville, Alabama. At his recent memorial service, dozens of former students lined the pulpit of the Oakwood University Church to pay homage to their beloved teacher and friend.
I Could Never Outlove the Lord
In his latter years, he was called to pastor several churches, including congregations in Harvest and Athens, Alabama, as well as the Breath of Life and Westminster Good Samaritan churches in Southern California. He tried to retire over and over again but was called back into service as a pastor and later as interim chaplain at Oakwood University. Early in the mornings, he would venture to Oakwood Adventist Academy to open doors and greet each student with a courtly bow and a cheerful, “Good Morning, Miss!” or “Good Morning, Sir!” His music ministry continued at countless concerts, weddings, funerals, and church services. His weekly talk show never ended, even when he was commuting between Texas, California, and Alabama. Well into his 80s and early 90s, he kept up with the latest technological advances in radio broadcasting, and gave weekly messages online through Zoom meetings throughout the pandemic and beyond.
And finally, one of his most cherished ministries was his gift of intercession. He spent countless hours over the years visiting the sick or calling friends, loved ones, and leaders to pray earnestly with or for them. To be the recipient of those phone calls and prayers was truly a gift from God.
When word came of his passing, tribute after tribute poured out across social media with one recurring theme — Elder T. Marshall Kelly was truly a man of God. We all knew he was connected completely to the Holy Spirit. Everyone repeated the same story, “When I was at my lowest, the phone would ring, and he would say, “The Lord placed you on my heart today, and I called to pray with you.” It was always right on time! He was always there when we needed a word of encouragement or even a word of admonition! He was real; he was funny; he was caring; he was the living embodiment of what a Christian should be. He was not perfect, but he was always quick to ask for forgiveness. He was so generous, loving, and so very kind, to the point that everyone felt as if they were members of his family.
This loss hurts. Our beloved icon rests now. He is survived by his son, Eric (Lori) Marshall; his daughter, Nadine (Dane); his grandson, Justin (Sheree) Marshall; his granddaughter, Marissa, and her mother, Marci; his grandson, Korey, and his father, Vernon; and his two great-grandchildren, Adella Lynn and Charles Marshall, as well as a host of family and friends in the worldwide community of faith.
Thanks be to God, we have this hope. God will swallow up death in victory, and He will wipe away all tears from our eyes. One day we will all be reunited around the throne to sing with Elder Kelly and all of the saints of God. But until then, we must pick up the mantle that he has left for us. Let us all follow after him as he followed after Christ. Let us remember to live as he said, “When you help somebody, don’t help them for a plaque, or for praise, or to be called a nice person. Do it for Jesus.”
“A new commandment I give to you that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another,” John 13:34 ESV.
Southern Union | August 2023