A committed Adventist Christian. An effective evangelist. A secretary with an eye for detail. A great storyteller. An avid photographer. An admirer of God’s nature.
These are some of the laudatory phrases family, friends, and church leaders used to describe Athal Tolhurst, a former undersecretary of the General Conference, during a funeral service at Avondale Memorial Church in Cooranbong, New South Wales, Australia, on August 16. Tolhurst, who had a stroke while visiting his native Tonga earlier this month, passed away in Auckland, New Zealand, on August 7.
Just before falling ill, Tolhurst, who actively supported his local church and the mission of the Seventh-day Adventist Church well into his retirement years, addressed a group of Tongan pastors living in various countries who had just finished an evangelistic initiative in that South Pacific island nation. His son Wes, a photographer, recorded his father’s message, unaware it would be his last.
“He was personally committed to the message of the Church and the three angels’ messages,” said South Pacific Division Secretary Lionel Smith. “That was his passion because he wanted people to be ready to see Jesus.”
Committed to Mission
Tolhurst was born on January 4, 1935, to missionary parents in Tonga, where he spent the first five years of his life, before moving to Auckland, New Zealand. In 1956, he graduated from Avondale College, an Adventist-operated school in Australia, and began work as a pastor in Australia the year after.
Ordained in 1963, Tolhurst continued working as a pastor and evangelist in Australia until he was elected president of the North New South Wales Conference in 1975. In 1980, he was elected president of the Trans-Tasman Union Conference. After five years in that position, Tolhurst was elected as secretary of the South Pacific Division, a position he served in until 1991.
In 1992, he became undersecretary of the General Conference and served in that position until 2005, at which piont he retired and returned to Australia.
“In his work, he knew right was right, and wrong was wrong, and he didn’t mix the two,” said Smith. “And he had an eye for detail, as he was involved in drafting many church policies.”
“He gave years of valuable service to the church,” added executive secretary of the world church G. T. Ng in a letter addressed to the family. “He was noted as a scribe with an unusual gift for writing and editing…. The church lost a faithful soldier of Christ.”
Vernon Parmenter, who worked alongside Tolhurst for years at different levels of church ministry and administration, said despite the pain of losing a friend, he felt there was much to be thankful for. He expressed gratitude “for the numerous lives that have been led to Jesus through his service. He will be sorely missed, but we know we will see him very soon,” he said, in a nod to the Advent hope in the second coming of Jesus.
Tolhurst is survived by his wife of almost 60 years Linley, his daughter Kerrie, sons Dean and Wes, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
His Last Hours
Tolhurst, his wife, his son Wes and two grandchildren landed in Tonga in the early hours of August 4, among other things, to reconnect with and share part of his heritage with some members of his family, said Paula Latu, a Tongan “brother” friend of Wes’ for decades. As an evangelistic series had just wrapped up across Tonga, Tolhurst was invited to address the group of pastors who had led the meetings. Many are serving abroad and had flown to Tonga to support the church evangelistic outreach in their home country.
“[Tolhurst] told them, ‘Don’t think for a moment that your job is finished,’” shared Latu. “‘We must go on until we finish the work. Then we can rest.’”
Latu shared that together with Wes, they had been invited to take some pictures of the crown prince and his family at the royal palace. They decided to invite Athal to come along. While Paula and Wes were on assignment, Athal stayed outside the palace.
“Through a window, I could see him walking around the royal gardens and taking some pictures,” said Latu. “He looked so happy.”
In her tribute through a letter read at the service, Linley explained that her late husband loved nature. “He loved worshipping God in nature, and seeing God’s handiwork,” she said.
Their son Wes concurred. “On his last afternoon [in Tonga], he walked the beautiful shore that reminded him of his world to come,” he said. Drawing a parallel with the death of Moses as told in the Bible, he added, “My dad was not Moses, but surely he loved the wilderness. And like Moses, God showed him the land before he passed away.”
“Our last journey together began with great happiness, but ended with great sadness,” wrote Linley in her letter. “He had to be rushed to the hospital, and then airlifted to Auckland, where he stayed under the care of our granddaughter nurse Kelly.”
On August 7, Tolhurst passed away peacefully.
“He would have given his life for his faith in God,” wrote Linley.
In a simple but moving funeral service, family and friends shared fond memories of Tolhurst and read a dozen letters his wife and sons received from around the world.
Among the letters, the Tolhurst family shared a message from Tonga’s Crown Prince Tupoutoʻa ʻUlukalala. “We lost a devoted Christian missionary, and a great friend of the kingdom of Tonga,” wrote the prince.
“Your dad was a man of considerable integrity as well as loyalty to the church,” wrote Adventist Church Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research director David Trim in a letter addressed to son Dean. “He had a gentle heart.”
Smith concurred. “[Athal was] the only non-family administrator who came to my office to see how things were going and to pray for me,” he shared, “which says a lot about the man.”
Tolhurst’s funeral ended with the moving video Wes recorded of his dad’s last message.
“God raised his church so we can be a link in the chain,” Tolhurst had told the group of Tongan pastors. “But the question is, ‘Is Jesus a compelling force in your life?’”
Then Tolhurst added a statement that would become even more meaningful after his passing.
“I trust that you and I, until we breathe our last breath, will be faithful.”