A Conversation With George Beverly Shea
December 1, 2001 - George Beverly Shea, often called "America's beloved gospel singer," has been singing for Billy Graham's crusades for more than 50 years. "Decision" magazine's Executive Editor, Jim Dailey, recently spoke with Mr. Shea about his experiences in singing for the glory of God.
by Jim Dailey
Q/ What was your life like as you were growing up?
A/ I was born in 1909 in Winchester, Ontario, where my dad served as pastor of the Wesleyan Methodist Church. Six of us were born during that time, and when I was eight, we moved to upstate New York. My mother was a church organist, and at home we had a piano that came from England. Mother played it so beautifully. She instilled in all of us a love for the old hymns. She would wake us up oft-times in the morning with an old song titled "Singing I Go." She would play an E-flat chord, and we would hear her voice: "Singing I go along life’s road,/For Jesus has lifted my load."(1)
Sunday mornings it was another hymn: "Lord, in the morning Thou shalt hear/My voice ascending high,/To Thee will I direct my prayer, /To Thee lift up mine eye."
I have always loved the hymns. All eight of us remember the times when we took our Lord Jesus as Savior. In our home we had prayer three times a day around the table. Dad would read from the Bible in the evening—just a couple of verses, and the prayer was brief, because he knew that children became restless.
Q/ So you came to Christ at an early age.
A/ Yes, at five or six. But there were times when I needed to rededicate my life to the Lord Jesus. When I was 18, my dad was pastoring a church in Ottawa, and I was feeling not too spiritual. The church was having a "special effort," as they called it, for a week. I remember that on Friday night Dad came down from the pulpit, and tenderly placed his hand on my shoulder. He whispered, "I think tonight might be the night, son, when you come back to the Lord." Whatever Dad did or said, I listened to him and respected him.
And, yes, that was the night!
Q/ When did you begin to sense God's call for you to sing for Him?
A/ After I attended a year at Houghton College, in New York State, I moved to New York City, where I worked as a clerk in the medical department of a life insurance company. I was there for 10 years, and I also pursued singing as an avocation.
While I worked there, Will Houghton, pastor at Calvary Baptist Church, became president of Moody Bible Institute, in Chicago. Moody had a radio station, WMBI. I had met Dr. Houghton at Pinebrook Bible Conference, and he had asked if I had ever thought of Christian radio as a vocation.
I said, "No, sir, I haven’t."
Well, he wrote me about it, and after prayerful deliberation New York was left behind.
Q/ It was while you were at WMBI that you met Billy Graham, wasn't it?
A/ Yes, I had a program called "Hymns From the Chapel." One morning in 1943 there was a rap at my office door. I opened it, and there stood a tall gentleman with a big smile waiting to say hello. I realized that I was meeting someone quite unusual. His name was Billy Graham. He was 23, and I was 34. He said that every morning he listened to my radio program before he went to class. Later he became pastor at Western Springs Baptist Church, near Wheaton, and he asked if I’d come and be his soloist on his new Sunday evening program, "Songs in the Night," to be aired on WCFL Chicago.
A few years later Mr. Graham asked me to join him, Cliff Barrows and Grady Wilson, as he was forming an evangelistic team. I had heard about many people coming to hear the young evangelist. As I thought about this, I felt inadequate. I thought I would be nervous. I told him that the only soloists I knew of seemed to sing a verse and then stop and talk for a while. "Would I have to do that?" I asked.
"I hope not!" he said.
"Then I’d like to come with you."
The first meeting with Mr. Graham was in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1947. There was a wonderful crowd in the old Armory. Mr. Graham’s father and mother were to be in the audience, and I wondered what to sing. I chose "I will sing the wondrous story/Of the Christ who died for me."(2) Mr. Graham’s mother took to that song and always requested it.
Q/ What are some of the memorable Crusades in which you've been a part?
A/ At one of the Crusade meetings in Sydney, Australia, my son, Ron, who was 11 years old at the time, walked forward in the rain. Grady Wilson saw him coming and prayed with him.
My daughter, Elaine, at the age of eight, walked forward at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, California, and received Christ as her Savior and Lord.
I have warm memories of the Greater London gatherings at Harringay, in 1954, that lasted for nearly three months—we all speak of that one so much. Cliff Barrows, Tedd Smith and all of us were so taken with the way the people sang. They would put their heads back and really sing hymns such as, "To God Be the Glory."
In 1964 our talented pianist, Tedd Smith, and I had the privilege of doing an evening of sacred music and song at the prestigious Royal Albert Hall, 10 years after Harringay. We were overjoyed to see the hall filled to capacity.
As Tedd and I went out onto the stage, a man in uniform parted the stage curtain for us. He commented, "People say that you never amount to anything in this world until you have filled Royal Albert Hall."
After my first song, which was the old sacred classic, "The Earth Is the Lord’s," I greeted the audience, saying, "Thank you for coming. Tedd Smith and I know why you’re here—because you remember Harringay!" Yes, that memory is what brought the people to the hall.
I look upon my life and wonder why I have been given this privilege to be with Mr. Graham and his Team. At the beginning and all through these years, I have felt so inadequate—perhaps it is OK to feel that way. There are people who can sing so much better than I. God is gracious in giving me this privilege to sing a quiet Gospel song before a man of such stature lifts up the Lord Jesus to great crowds and in such a precious and faithful way.
The recording ministry has been a marvelous experience too. I have never had an agent, even though you’re supposed to. Some of the personnel of RCA, WORD and EMI have asked how it was possible to do 73 albums. I always said, "It has been a privilege to lift up the Lord Jesus in song this way!"
Q/ You composed "I'd Rather Have Jesus" when you were 23. How did that happen?
A/ My mother had been to a meeting in New York City and brought me a poem written by Rhea F. Miller, "I’d Rather Have Jesus." On a Sunday morning, with the poem in front of me, I sat down at the piano, and the melody came to my heart and mind. When I finished that first verse and chorus, Mother, with tears in her eyes, came from an adjoining room, and put her arms around me. She had wanted that poem to have an effect on my life, and it seemed that after that morning better things happened all along the way.
Q/ What are some of the life lessons you've learned about trusting Christ?
A/ My father used to tell my brothers, Whitney and Alton, and me, "There will be many times when you don’t feel connected. The Lord is with you. Just look up—keep that vertical relationship. Practice His presence in your life."
I’ve had moments, even when working for Mr. Graham, where I’ve felt as if I weren’t effective enough, and I’ve known discouragement. But I go to the Lord, and He extends His grace. On many occasions I go to the piano and play an old favorite. God always encourages through His Spirit and renews our strength.
I do get tired of travel, especially now at age 92. I have learned to look up, and He’s there. He loves us. He has given me more than I deserve.
I’m so grateful for my dear spouse of 16 years, Karlene, and for my late wife, Erma, who went to be with the Lord 26 years ago. I’m thankful too for my children and grandchildren.
There are many wonderful stories of this life journey. One is of a gentleman who came to the Harringay meetings in London. He had been brought by his neighbor. He came thinking that he would just sit and make fun of everything.
When I got up to sing, he was talking out loud and probably criticizing as he heard me singing "He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands." But when I got to the line, "He’s got the tiny little baby in His hands," the man slumped in his seat, probably thinking of his little one, who was ill at home. During Mr. Graham’s invitation, the man stood, came forward and gave his heart to the Lord Jesus!
Q/ What are your favorite hymns?
A/ With a smile on my face I ask, "Is that a fair question?" Oh, yes, "Great Is Thy Faithfulness," "The Old Rugged Cross," "How Great Thou Art," and there are many more. There is great strength in the hymns that are inspired by the Scriptures.
I love Psalm 71:23: "My [heart] shall greatly rejoice when I sing unto thee; and my soul, which thou hast redeemed."(3)