In memoriam: Emeritus missionary Ralph Webster Harrell, 90

Ralph Harrell

Ralph Harrell

Ralph Webster Harrell, an emeritus International Mission Board missionary who shared the gospel among Sub-Saharan African Affinity Peoples in Tanzania and Kenya, died Nov. 30, 2019, at Brookshire Assisted Living in Hillsborough, North Carolina. He was 90.

Harrell was born in Aug. 8, 1929, in Rocky Hock, a rural community of Chowan County, North Carolina, and was the 11th of 12 children born to Mary Perry and Webster Worcester Harrell, who was a farmer.

During the summers while in college, Harrell worked for the Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. He was assigned to small churches in Appalachia or other disadvantaged areas of North Carolina to help them develop Sunday Schools for children and young people. It was during this work that he met a young woman from a tobacco farm in Granville County, Rosalind Knott, and her twin sister, Rebecca.

Both young women felt God was calling them to serve on the foreign mission field. Ralph and Rosalind faced a crisis when he asked her to marry him because he did not share her calling to go overseas. According to her family, she stayed up all night praying and by morning knew that she had to let God work out their vocational callings and “marry this Rocky Hock boy!”

Harrell received the Bachelor of Arts from Wake Forest College (now University), now in Winston-Salem and the Bachelor of Divinity from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.

Ralph and Rosalind were married in July 27, 1952. They were appointed on June 19, 1958, as Southern Baptist missionaries to East Africa. Three months later, they sailed with their two children to Dar es Salaam, Tanganyika (now Tanzania).

The family served there in the first Baptist church established in the country, as well as in villages on the outskirts of the city, helping to grow the church, disciple young Christians, and teach leadership, literacy, sewing and other skills that might help young men and women survive in an urban setting. For health reasons, the family transferred to Nairobi, Kenya.

They settled in Kenya about the time that the country was receiving its independence from Great Britain. In Nairobi, Ralph served as mission treasurer and worked with African pastors in church planting and discipleship. Rosalind worked with the women in the community, cared for the children and invited many guests into their home. They invited and in turn were invited into the homes of Hindi-speaking Indians, Arab-speaking Muslims, Swahil- and Kikuyu-speaking Kenyans, and folks from Europe, Australia and other countries.

Soon after the birth of their third child, Samuel, in 1963, they were asked by the mission to convert an old British hotel near Limuru into Brackenhurst Baptist Assembly, where groups of all denominations could meet. Once the conference center opened, Ralph and Rosalind became accustomed to serving 200 guests at a time, for one- to two-week stays.

After a few years in Limuru, Ralph and Rosalind moved back to Nairobi, where they worked in publications. By the time they retired, the Harrells had worked in Sunday School literature production for Eastern and Southern Africa, training writers and mentoring young Africans. They also had served as mission administrators and counselors of younger missionaries, and as Bible correspondence school and language school directors.

When they retired in 1995 after 36 years as missionaries to Africa, Ralph and Rosalind returned to the U.S. Ralph was interim pastor in many churches well into his late 70s. Near 80, he was asked to be full-time pastor of a church in Durham, North Carolina, which he led to open its buildings to congregations of Christians from other countries and languages.

Harrell was preceded in death in 2017 by Rosalind, his wife of almost 60 years. He is survived by his three children: Stephen, Beverly and Samuel, and their respective spouses: Daniela Coacci, James Barnett, and Melody Carroll; and by eight grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held 2 p.m., Dec. 7, 2019, at First Baptist Church of Hillsborough, N.C

Read an obituary here.