by Adventist Today News Team
The death of George Beverly Shea, the well-known singing evangelist for Billy Graham, in April was noted by Adventists across North America, especially among older generations. Adventist Today asked a number of musicians about Shea's influence on Adventist music and worship.
Shea was highly influential for Adventist singers involved in evangelism from the late 1940s through the 1980s, Pastor Jim Teel, worship coordinator for the Keene (Texas) Seventh-day Adventist Church, told Adventist Today. “He had a profound influence on Del Delker, in her singing and her song selection.” Teel worked with Delker and the King's Heralds quartet for a number of years. "Shea had an influence on all who did evangelism, whether in meetings or on the radio or television."
Shea wrote "I'd Rather Have Jesus," which was "one of my most popular songs," Delker told Adventist Today. "He was very prominent. Everybody knew him." She recalled that she met him once when she went with a friend to hear him sing and was taken backstage after the concert. Shea recognized her name immediately, Delker said. "He gave me a kiss on the cheek."
"I admired him because he wasn't on an ego trip like some people," Delker stated. "He was a very humble person, although he was probably one of the best known religious singers in the world."
There are two songs written by Shea in the Seventh-day Adventist Church Hymnal pointed out John Boyd, who was chair of the music department at Southwestern Adventist University before he retired. Shea's greatest contribution was as a musical evangelist, singing altar call songs for Billy Graham, Boyd told Adventist Today. "His gift was a mixture of spiritual emotion with a basic message which could bring someone to Christ; not doctrine, just a connection to Jesus."
"I don't personally feel that Shea had much influence … in shaping Adventist musical choices," stated Dan Shultz, who edits the newsletter and web site of the International Adventist Musicians Association (IAMA). He traces the origins of the music made well-known among Adventists by media ministries "to a larger area of gospel music that also influenced Shea."
Shultz told Adventist Today that "our church had its own 'stars' and unique brand of gospel tunes from its very beginning. James White, his sister Anna and his son Edson, all published collections of early Adventist gospel-style music, beginning as early as 1849."
Homer Rodeheaver was a strong influence on changing styles of church music, Boyd stated. This is the stream within which Shea's music develped, "mainline gospel music." John Peterson "began to break out of the 'old school' mold … from the 1950s through the 1970s. He paved the way for Ralph Carmichael, who pushed back the barriers between sacred and secular styles." There are three songs by Carmichael in the current Adventist hymnal. As contemporary music became big business it had more and more influence on Christian music, Boyd stated. "Musicians like Amy Grant became cross-over artists."
"Contemporary Christian Music was a radical break from traditional gospel and hymn music," Shultz said. Among Adventists it "got started in the 1960s with the Wedgewood Trio and in the 1970s with the Heritage Singers." Adventist groups "were inspired by what was happening in popular music" where there was "a radical break from the form of popular music that had held sway through the 1950s."
"Some older Adventists still prefer their hymns, but the transformation in church music that started in the 1960s and 1970s is pretty well established," Shultz observed. This has happened as the Baby Boom generation who were young people in those decades has "moved into leadership positions in the ministry. Now, in the minds of younger Adventists, the music from the last decades of the 20th century is viewed as dated."
"Through the years, there has been little support from highest levels of leadership in the church for the more formal worship music and for musicians who could serve as church musicians in the tradition of other churches," Shultz told Adventist Today. "In a sense, although there have been attempts to moderate these changes in worship music," the new trends have been generally accepted among Adventists. For example, "the music at the Toronto General Conference Session [in 2000] encompassed traditional and other types of music [and] became very controversial."
IAMA has published the history of music trends in the Adventist Church on its web site: https://www.iamaonline.com.