COMMENTARY | Eric Reed
There’s an ancient treasure housed in our sanctuary. It’s a Hammond organ with its Leslie speaker, a gift to the church from George Beverly Shea.
Hearing that “Bev” had died April 16, I immediately thought of the old Hammond. Long-timers at the church remember how Shea, who lived nearby, sometimes sang concerts there. On one annual visit, he noted that the church’s electronic organ had seen better days, and since he was getting a new instrument for his home, he would give them his trusty Hammond. Only half as old as 104-year-old Shea, it served faithfully him, then us for half a century. How many times must that squat brown machine with its wonderful tremolo have accompanied Billy Graham’s famed soloist.
When I first heard the organ’s history, I sat on the bench and tried to pick my way through “I’d Rather Have Jesus.” When Shea was a young man still living at home in Canada, he was facing a particular spiritual struggle. His mother sensed her son’s trouble and left a copy of the poem by Rhea Miller on their piano.
“I’d rather have Jesus than men’s applause,” young Shea read when he saw it. “I’d rather be faithful to His dear cause; I’d rather have Jesus than worldwide fame, I’d rather be true to His holy name.”
Shea at 20 made his choice and soon set the tune to music. He eventually gained fame not because he sought it, but because he turned to Christ. He could have been a star opera singer, but he chose the ministry instead.
Joining the Graham team in his 40s, Shea was Graham’s featured singer for more than 60 years. He produced 70 gospel albums, won a host of awards, and always sang about Jesus just before the evangelist preached. In Los Angeles and New York and Moscow and London, no matter how famous or contemporary the night’s musical guest, Shea always sang pure gospel in simple bass clef before Graham delivered the message of salvation.
I saw this in person at one of the last crusades. I crashed the choir loft. It was an accident. Arriving at the stadium early, I found myself in a line at the only open door. It was the entrance for the choir. So, intentionally, I went with the crowd.
Wedged between tenors and basses, I watched all the backstage happenings. A few moments before Dr. Graham was to preach, a golf cart brought a spry white-haired man to a special entrance. He climbed up to the pulpit and in an instant, I was singing back-up for George Beverly Shea – me and 2,000 of my closest friends.
“We should sing ‘I’d Rather Have Jesus,’” I said to our worship leader just after the old saint’s passing.
And we did.
Grateful for his musical gifts and for his enduring legacy, we could say from Shea’s example, “I’d rather have Jesus than anything this world affords today.”
Eric Reed is a pastor and journalist in Wheaton, Illinois. He is serving Glenfield Baptist Church in Glen Ellyn.