For those who remember decades of George Beverly Shea lifting the rafters at Billy Graham Crusades with “How Great Thou Art,” beginning in the 1940s, it may be surprising to know that he is alive and well.
Shea celebrated his 103rd birthday Wednesday in the company of his family and in quiet reflection, reading greetings from around the world, according to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, the BGEA.
“Karlene and I rejoice in the Lord’s overwhelming grace to give me 103 years of life!” Shea said.
He met Billy Graham in 1943 and began singing at crusades in 1947. He holds the world record for singing in person to the most people, with an estimated total audience of 220 million, according to the Guinness Book of Records.
“For all these years, the fellowship of the BGEA team has been precious as I have sought to serve the Lord,” says Shea.
He’s known for singing a solo just before Graham’s messages, to set the tone.
Graham has said Shea’s singing was more powerful than the sermon.
“I’ve been listening to Bev Shea sing for more than 50 years, and I would still rather hear him sing than anyone else I know,” Graham said in a 2002 interview with the Ottawa Citizen.
In the interview with the BGEA, marking his 103rd birthday, Shea, the fourth of eight children, recalled his beginnings in Winchester, Ont., Canada, where he was born in 1909. His father was a pastor with the Wesleyan Methodist Church denomination, and his mother a church organist who “instilled in all of us a love for the old hymns.”
At the age of 8, his family moved to upstate New York, where he remembers his mother waking up the children 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,’” Shea recalled.
“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.’”
Watch George Beverly Shea sing “How Great Thou Art” in a recent appearance:
At home, he said, the family prayed around the table three times a day, and his father read from the Bible in the evening.
He came to faith in Jesus Christ at the age of 5 or 6.
“But there were times when I needed to rededicate my life to the Lord Jesus,” he said. “When I was 18, my dad was pastoring a church in Ottawa, and I was feeling not too spiritual. The church was having ‘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!”
He composed one of his signature songs, “I’d Rather Have Jesus,” at the age of 23.
His mother brought home a poem from a meeting in New York City written by Rhea F. Miller called “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,” he said. “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.”
Watch George Beverly Shea tell the story of composing “I’d Rather Have Jesus” before singing the song at a 1965 Billy Graham Crusade:
Shea, nominated for 10 Grammy Awards, won in 1966 for Best Gospel or Other Religious Recording for his album “Southland Favorites.” He received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award in 2010.
He was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1978 by the Gospel Music Association.
He recalled a life lesson his father taught him and his brothers.
“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.”
During his years of work with Graham he remembered sometimes feeling down because he didn’t feel he was effective enough.
“I’ve known discouragement,” he said, “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 have learned to look up, and He’s there. He loves us. He has given me more than I deserve.”
He recalled the story of a man who came to Graham’s famous Greater London Crusade in 1954 at Harringay Arena. The 12 weeks of meetings was regarded as the biggest single venture in evangelism attempted in the century, with a total attendance of 1.75 million.
The man, who had been brought by his neighbor, “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 Graham’s invitation to trust in Jesus Christ as savior, the man stood, came forward “and gave his heart to the Lord Jesus.”
Asked what advice he would give, as “someone who has walked with the Lord for quite some time,” Shea said: “Keep your devotions, study the Word, enjoy His presence, and learn from Him daily!”