MONTREAT, N.C. -- Billy Graham and nearly 1,000 others gathered here Sunday to remember George Beverly Shea, the Canadian-born bass-baritone who warmed up the crowds at Graham’s crusades for six decades with his hearty versions of “How Great Thou Art” and “I’d Rather Have Jesus.”
The snow-haired Graham, now 94, was wheeled into the church-like auditorium by son Franklin and did not speak at the service, which was dominated by song and sunny, often funny stories. The 11 hymns included four recordings of the Grammy Award-winning Shea himself.
Speaking for 15 minutes was 90-year-old Cliff Barrows, the Graham crusades’ longtime choir director. He called the 6-foot-2 Shea – who died last week at 104 – a “gentle giant.”
Graham, Shea, and Barrows were pioneers in selling the Old Time Gospel message on ever-more-modern media – radio, TV and concert-like rallies in sports stadiums. For much of the 20th century, they and their crusades defined mainstream Christian evangelism in America.
What’s taken their place – the Joel Osteens, Rick Warrens and the Franklin Grahams – is a splintered field. They’ve emerged in an age when media is divided into countless niches, and they don’t have the same reach, affection and cachet – with presidents, celebrities and ordinary folks – that Graham & Co. once did.
Even the old-fashioned Christian music that Shea popularized with LP records has been largely replaced with rock-inspired music played in evangelical churches that seem more like theaters or concert halls.
Preparing Billy to preach
At the service, Barrows told the packed pews: “Whenever Bev got into town (for a crusade), we would relax because we knew that, whatever took place on the platform before Billy Graham spoke, Bev would be used by the spirit of God to prepare the hearts of the people for the message. And he would prepare Billy’s heart to preach that message.”
Barrows and Graham are the only ones left of that original team, which launched its first crusade in 1947 in Charlotte, Graham’s hometown, and did its last in 2005 in New York.
Preceding Shea in death were Grady and T.W. Wilson, brothers who grew up with Graham and became his associate pastors; George Wilson, a business manager who set up the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in Minneapolis; and Billie Barrows, Cliff’s wife and the crusades’ one-time pianist.
But the Big Three in that group – the ones who gave the crusades their public profile – were Graham, Barrows and Shea.
On the day after Shea’s death following a stroke, Barrows said he met with Graham and told him that the Old Guard is clearly fading away.
“I said, ‘Bill, we’ve lost the third member of our trio and you and I don’t sound too good together,’ ” Barrows recalled, sparking laughter. “(But) we’ll soon be in heaven with him.”
Barrows and other speakers – including Shea’s son, Ron, and his stepson, Steve Aceto – described Shea as a humble man who loved organs – he once owned eight of them.
Among those attending Sunday was a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, representing the government of Canada. Growing up a preacher’s son in Ottawa, Shea originally wanted to be a Mountie. But he gave his life to music and, in time, to gospel music.
Singing to an estimated 210 million attendees at Graham’s crusades over the years gave Shea the record for performing live before the most people, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
He released 70 gospel albums, won a Grammy in 1966 and won a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award two years ago, during a Los Angeles event that also honored Julie Andrews, Dolly Parton and the Kingston Trio.
‘Songs in the Night’
When Graham first met Shea in the 1940s, it was Shea who was better known. The young evangelist traveled to Chicago to ask Shea to appear with him on a new radio program, “Songs in the Night.”
A few years later, Graham invited Shea to sing at his crusades.
Since 1985, when Shea married his second wife Karlene (his first wife, Erma, died in 1976), he’s lived in Montreat – not far from Graham’s mountaintop home.
Though Graham didn’t speak Sunday – he’s frail these days, and can’t see or hear well – the evangelist did release a statement last week about his longtime friend.
“I’ve been listening to Bev Shea sing for more than 70 years, and I would still rather hear him sing than anyone else I know,” Graham said. “Bev was one of the most humble and greatest Christians I have ever known.”
Shea will be buried Monday on the grounds of the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte.
The library will be closed Monday for the private ceremony.