Joseph Hermanus Warrington Laurence was a pioneer minister all his life. He lost his father soon after his birth on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, in 1885, and was raised by his mother and stepfather as an Episcopalian. Against his mother’s wishes, he was baptized at 15. When news of his baptism got around the island, he was expelled from the Episcopal School where his stepfather was the headmaster and he was a student and part-time teacher. He was kicked out of his home and had nowhere to go to complete his education. A pastor from Grand Junction, Colorado, who came to St. Kitts helped him with funds to attend the Oakwood Training School in Huntsville, Alabama. He entered Oakwood in 1903 as its first foreign student.
Laurence was a student at Oakwood when Ellen G. White visited and lectured on campus in 1904. During her stay, several “unspeakable things” that were happening on campus were resolved. She personally counseled him to stay away from a particular young woman. Later it was learned that the student was pregnant. Had he not heeded Sister White’s counsel he would have been implicated, expelled from school and his ministerial career ended.
Fred R. Rogers called Laurence into the gospel ministry in August 1904. Rogers came from Walla Walla, Washington, to work with James Edson White and the Southern Missionary Society—a ministry dedicated to evangelizing Blacks along the Mississippi River. Laurence’s first church was the Lintonia Chapel in Yazoo City, Mississippi.
In 1916, Laurence served the Southern Union as an evangelist. Using large-format glass-mounted slides, Laurence pioneered the use of projected pictures and texts to help communicate the gospel. During his career, he baptized some of the denomination’s most prominent Black ministers, including F. L. Peterson, who became the first Black to serve as a General Conference (GC) vice president; Frank Bland, who also became a GC vice president; William Scales Jr., who became the GC associate ministerial director; and many other influential leaders of the church. “J. H.,” as he was sometimes called, baptized thousands and planted and built numerous churches throughout America.
In 1952, after 48 years of ministry and at the age of 67, Laurence accepted another pioneer assignment. He came to pastor a fledgling church on the last frontier of ministry among Blacks in the U.S., the Shiloh Church in Seattle. Soon after arriving, he moved the church to the northeast corner of 24th Avenue and East Spruce Street. Being a seasoned minister and having a vision for the future growth of the work, Laurence skillfully negotiated with the conference to purchase the entire north side of East Spruce between 24th and 25th avenues in 1953. By 1956, the newly renamed Spruce Street Church began an eight-grade elementary school and is now known as the Emerald City Church.
Laurence was an outstanding preacher and evangelist. Under his leadership, from 1952 through 1962, the Spruce Street Church grew from 48 to 224 members. He was known for having a phenomenal memory and never relied on written notes. He often said, “If I write what I plan to say, the devil will know and keep the very one away who needs the message!”
Laurence was a health enthusiast and kept himself in excellent physical shape. He preached and lived the health message. For a while no one knew his age and he would not reveal it for fear that he would be asked to retire. Eventually he was coaxed to retire at the age of 77. After retirement, he continued preaching throughout the Northwest. Although his desire was to live to see Jesus come, he passed away at 102 in 1987 in Huntsville, Alabama.