The following column is an opinion piece and reflects the views of only the author and not those of The Georgia Virtue.
By: Dr. William F. Holland Jr., minister, chaplain, and author of the column series ‘Living on Purpose’. You can read more about the Christian life and see other works by Dr. Holland at billyhollandministries.com
I remember as a young boy, sitting in the living room with my parents and occasionally when my grandparents would visit, we would all listen to a Billy Graham crusade on television. It was common to see my grandmother wiping her eyes with a Kleenex during the message when Cliff Barrows would lead the choir, but I also noticed how everything became quiet when George Beverly Shea would step up to the podium and begin to sing. His vocal style, was characterized by a resonant bass-baritone, and contained such a sincere and humble delivery that conveyed his passionate conviction. He did not consider himself an entertainer or a showman, but rather simply wanted to tell the world about the love of Jesus and His salvation. When asked about his faith and service for God, he would always point toward Heaven and say, “I do it for Jesus, it’s all for His glory.”
One of eight children, his father was a Methodist minister and he sang in the church choir. In the late 1930s Mr. Shea moved to Chicago to join the radio station of the Moody Bible Institute, as a staff announcer and singer. One day in 1943 a young man knocked on the studio door. The visitor was a Wheaton College student named William Franklin Graham Jr., who had stopped by to tell him how much he loved his singing. Before long Mr. Graham, who had become a minister in Western Springs, Illinois, had recruited Mr. Shea to sing on his own religious radio program, “Songs in the Night.” From 1944 to the early 1950’s. In 1947 Mr. Shea joined the Graham team and remained until his death in 2013. When they joined forces, Mr. Shea was already a nationally known voice in Christian music, while Mr. Graham was still gaining in popularity. Their early revival meetings were often advertised with George Beverly Shea singing as the headline and Billy Graham preaching in smaller print. It is estimated that throughout his ministry, Mr. Shea sang to over 200 million as the powerful revival meetings would fill stadiums and was televised around the world. He would often laugh and say that Billy would not allow him to retire as the Bible says nothing about retiring from the Lord’s work.
As the Billy Graham crusades were so popular and still watched today, and with singing on radio programs such as “The Hour of Decision” George Shea was perhaps at one time the most widely heard gospel artist in the world. He was a recording artist with RCA and WORD and has recorded approximately 500 vocal solos on more than 70 albums. including, “In Times Like These” (1962), “Every Time I Feel The Spirit” (1972), and “The Old Rugged Cross” (1978). In 1966 he won the Grammy Award for best religious recording for the album, “Southland Favorites” with the Anita Kerr singers. He was the author of several books, including the memoir “How Sweet the Sound” (2004) and the recipient of numerous awards such as being a member of the Nashville Gospel Music Hall of Fame, the Religious Broadcasting Hall of Fame, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Recording Academy in 2011. On a more intimate scale he sang at the prayer breakfasts of a series of United States presidents, including Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson, and George Bush Sr.
Of the hundreds of hymns he sang, Mr. Shea was most closely identified with “How Great Thou Art” that became the signature anthem of his ministry. In 1957, at a crusade in New York City, Mr. Shea, by popular demand, sang it on 108 consecutive nights. Other songs for which he was known include, “I’d Rather Have Jesus” for which he composed the music, and “The Wonder of it All” to which he wrote the lyrics and music. While having a conversation with a passenger on his way to Scotland to join Graham, Mr. Shea was asked to describe what these revival crusades were like and he replied, “I found myself at a loss for words, and finally said, if you could only see the wonder of it all.” Later that evening in his room Shea wrote the song. He often declared the crowds did not come to hear him, they came to hear Billy Graham and that his favorite part of a crusade was watching the waves of people stream forward during the altar call. Shea is quoted as saying, “The truth is, no man can ever ﬁnd true peace or happiness apart from Jesus Christ.”