I remember the day we piled in the car to head down to see Billy Graham. My grandmother had told me about “Billy” and how he used to come down and preach at the Calvary Gospel Mission on Halsted Street in Chicago. My grandfather had been the “Superintendent” (which is what they called you when you ran a mission back then, before there were “Executive Directors”). “Billy” was a student at Wheaton back then, and honed his preaching skills at skid row missions.
My father, who was a mission convert, now was the “superintendent” of the mission in Roanoke. My mother, who was only sure of one thing growing up and that was she would never, ever end up in mission work, was his faithful helper. After his death, the board gave her the title of Executive Director, a position now held by my sister Joy. But let’s get back to Billy.
He was in town for a “Crusade” and while my grandmother made it no secret that she preferred the “old” Billy to the world famous evangelist version, the praise for George Beverly Shea was fulsome. Shea had become familiar to Chicagoans as a radio personality and singer on WBMI, the granddaddy of evangelical radio stations, emanating from the campus of the Moody Bible Institute. Then, in January, 1944, Shea found his way to the basement of the Village Church, pastored by the young Billy Graham, to add his voice to their broadcast Songs in the Night. The combination proved immensely popular. When Graham went on the road, George Beverly Shea was virtually always by his side.
Because of the huge crowds drawn by Graham, Shea holds the record for singing live to more people than any other person in history. And no song was more popular than the old Swedish hymn, How Great Thou Art. Since it was a constant in his repertoire, it is likely that How Great Thou Art holds a record, as well. In Chicago, my mother had been a waitress at the coffee shop next door to the Moody Church, and so she knew the pastors there well. She also recognized a great song when she heard it, and so my earliest memories involve my sister and me singing How Great Thou Art at churches all over town, when my folks would be invited in to present the ministry of the rescue mission.
Based upon a poem written by the Swedish Covenant Church pastor Carl Gustaf Boberg, How Great Thou Art ranks second only to Amazing Grace in popularity worldwide. Entitled O Store Gud (O Great God), the poem was written by Boberg as he arrived home just after a violent thunderstorm. He submitted the poem to a local paper, which published it. Imagine his surprise when he heard a group of fellow Swedes singing the words of his poem to an old Swedish tune vaguely similar to the one we are familiar with today.
It turns out that the song was rapidly finding its way around the Baltic, where an Estonian Christian translated it into German, where it made its way into a hymnbook spreading throughout Russia1 . . . well, you get the idea. A Russian translation became popular in the Ukraine. It was only then that the song found its way into English, thanks to missionaries Stuart and Edith Hine. In fact, Hine had experienced a storm very similar to Boberg, and added a verse or two of his own, including one quite familiar to American listeners, “And when I think that God, His Son not sparing, Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in.”
What the “Volga Germans” of the Ukraine remember as the killing times, when Stalin systematically starved millions, led to a migration to the English-speaking world of large numbers of Ukrainian Christians, who brought their beloved “Valeky Bog” with them. Still, it was left to the melting pot of Chicago to bring this old Swedish poem together with its most famous singer.
Mainstream denominations were, at first, embarrassed by the tent meetings and revivalism of Billy Graham. But the crowds kept coming, and soon evangelicalism was mainstream. George Beverly Shea had a lot to do with that. While conservative denominations warmed to Graham’s evangelicalism, the “early” Graham was also a fundamentalist. While his fundamentalism underwent transition, his “altar calls” remain a staple of the Crusade. A throwback to the emotionalism of Charles G. Finney, the Graham altar call became the template for a generation of American evangelical churches.
An interesting side note is that it was Shea who suggested that the choir alone should sing Just As I Am so that listeners might consider where they stood with the Lord without distraction. It was new, but it became at once familiar. “While the choir sings, you come.” And come they did. Despite claims of psychological manipulation, emotionalism and “decisional regeneration,” untold thousands of Americans mark the beginning of their walk with the Lord to those crusade meetings. Before long, the Crusades were an international phenomenon, no longer an innovation, but the standard against which the modern mega-churches judged their success.
It’s easy, of course, to poke holes in the theology of others, and Graham has left his critics with plenty of ammunition over the years. There’s the fiery anti-communist fundamentalist, the confidante of Presidents, the careful moderate, or one of several other personas that have come and gone with the times. Ah, but George Beverly Shea was one of those people that, even if you did disagree with him on something, you’d just rather not know it. His whole life shouted out glory to God. And so it is left for all of us to ponder what the world would be like if all those of us who profess a better or a deeper understanding of theology produced fruit in proportion to the light that we were given. Because in the end, it is all of grace.
George Beverly Shea went home to be with his Lord on April 16, 2013, at the age of 104.
1 http://www.assistnews.net/Stories/ 2007/s07100068.htm