George Beverly Shea, 1909-2013
Well Sung, Thou Good and Faithful Servant
By Rick Marschall
Monday Morning Music Blog
George Beverly Shea, who provided the theme music, in a real way, to the faith of several generations of Christians, died on Tuesday, April 16, 2013.
He lived to the age 104, a number that had many people talking when they heard of Bev Shea's passing. Yet other numbers are more significant. Two hundred million is the approximate number of people before whom he performed his hymns, live, through the years. Sixty-five is how many years ago he joined Billy Graham's ministry. Seventy is the number of albums he recorded. Ten is the number of Grammy nominations he received.
And "countless" is the number of people who profoundly were touched by Bev Shea's sincere renditions; and countless the number of souls he ushered into Heaven through his musical ministry.
So 104, by itself, is not a significant number. A form of an old joke addresses the chronological milepost: "Just reach 103, and be very careful!" But the 16th-century French essayist Michel de Montaigne wrote: "The value of life is not in the length of days, but in the use we make of them; a man may live long yet very little."
Bev Shea's career is a testament to a full life, lived yielded to the Holy Spirit. He was serene, confident, and dedicated in his musical ministry. In fact his part in the story of the three men who were the core of hundreds of crusades – more than 60 years of friendship with each other, and friendship with Jesus – is remarkable.
Luther had Walther… and Bach, 200 years later. Dwight L Moody had Ira Sankey, and Fanny Crosby's hymns. Billy Sunday had Homer Rodeheaver. Many great preachers and evangelists have surrounded themselves with music and musicians, knowing that between heartfelt hymns and catchy gospel songs, there was "bait" enough to attract people not yet secure in their faith. Billy Graham himself admitted he never would had a successful ministry without Bev Shea's singing. Graham's own singing talents were charitably described by Bev as sustaining the "malady of no melody."
Many advertisements and handbills for early crusades read, "BEV SHEA SINGS… Billy Graham will preach." Indeed, it seemed the cart approached the horse when the unknown fledgling preacher Billy Graham knocked on the door of Bev Shea's office at WMBI, Moody Bible Radio in Chicago, and asked the famous singer to join him. Bev accepted, reminding more than a few people of Jesus calling a diverse group of Disciples.
For all of Billy Graham's powerful sermons and tremendous influence, one cannot envision a crusade without music, without Bev Shea. The associations are many: the altar-call hymn, "Just As I Am"; the inspiring "This Is My Father's World"; the sermon-in-song "The Ninety and Nine." Bev himself was responsible for the tune to "I'd Rather Have Jesus'; and wrote words and music to "The Wonder of It All." The music at an early crusade in Los Angeles was responsible for the conversion of cowboy star Stuart Hamblin… and then his own gospel songs, like "Until Then" and "It Is No Secret (What God Can Do)," were also sung at crusades.
One of Bev Shea's signature songs is regarded as the world's favorite hymn, after "Amazing Grace" -- "How Great Thou Art." Today, many people think it is a centuries-old standard, but it was only in the 1950s, at a Billy Graham Crusade in New York's Madison Square Garden, that Bev Shea first sang it in the form we know today. Audience reaction demanded multiple encores on successive days, and an extended booking for the nightly crusades. The hymn had originated as a poem and unrelated folk tune in Sweden and traveled to Christian communities in Germany, Russia, the Ukraine, England, Canada, and the United States… until, with Bev Shea's variations and powerful performance, it caught fire.
The astonishing appeal of Bev Shea is due only in part to his velvet-toned bass-baritone. It is more than his straightforward presentation of classic hymns, which, sung by any other voice in the 21st century, might have seemed anachronistic. It is not even fully explained by his courtly presence, so manifest on platform and in private, with a few personal friends or multitudes of fans.
I believe Bev Shea's appeal, ultimately, was his lack of guile. "No shadow of turning." He simply introduced Christ. Technically speaking, Cliff Barrows introduced Bev Shea, Bev Shea introduced Billy Graham, and Billy Graham introduced Jesus Christ; all yielded to the Holy Spirit's direction, according to their God-given talents.
That explains his life. To explain his death, I cite my friend Jim Watkins, who recalled the gospel song written by Bev Shea, and referred to that lifetime of friendly partnership with the crusade team: "George Beverly Shea, Billy Graham's featured soloist for 60 years, is now realizing the full extent of his famous song, 'I'd Rather Have Jesus.'" It was time, and Heaven is sounding sweeter right about now.
Well sung, good and faithful servant.
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Click: I'd Rather Have Jesus
© Rick Marschall. Used with permission.
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Rick Marschall is the author of more than 70 books. His most recent include The Secret Revealed (with Dr Jim Garlow; Faithworks, 2007); Johann Sebastian Bach: Christian Encounters (Thomas Nelson, 2011); and BULLY! The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt (Regnery History, 2011). He currently is working on two devotionals for Tyndale House. Marschall produces the weekly blog, Monday Morning Music Ministry (MondayMinistry.com/blog) He interviewed Bev Shea, Cliff Barrows, Joni Eareckson, and others for a proposed PBS documentary on American gospel music.
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