He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him. (KJV)
It was penned by Knowles Shaw, known as “The Singing Evangelist” and set to music by George Minor, a Richmond, Virginia composer.
Knowles Shaw was born in Butler County, Ohio on October 13, 1834 to parents Albin and Huldah (Griffin) Shaw. Knowles was their first child and soon after his birth the family moved to Rush County, Indiana. Albin worked hard to provide for his family, so difficult was it that “the early settlers in this then new country had too hard to struggle in subduing the forest and gaining a scanty subsistence to pay much attention to either moral or intellectual culture.” Religious meetings were held outside in the summer and fall and a school house employed for services during the winter. Sometimes the roof leaked and it was cold, but “preaching was uncommon enough to be a luxury, no matter how cold or hot the house might be.”
Albin Shaw loved his family and wanted them to be successful, having a better life than himself. He was a farmer and tanner, at one time traded cattle and also had a business in Rush County selling goods. He would sometimes take his three children and “prognosticate their future by examining their heads.” His attempts at predicting Knowles’ future were inconclusive – either he would be a “terrible bad man or a very good one; that whatever he did he would do with all his might.”
Knowles had to grow up sooner than his father expected, however, when Albin died – Knowles was twelve years old. Knowles was called to his father’s bedside and the last words Albin spoke to his son were “My son, be good to your mother” and “Prepare to meet your God.” Albin also gave his violin to his oldest son. Knowles grew to be a strong young man who never forgot his father’s dying words “be good to your mother”. Music was a passion for young Knowles and when the work day was completed he would practice until he became quite a skilled musician.
Neighbors would gather at his home to hear him play and eventually he played at social gatherings – a patriotic rally, a barn raising or a wedding. Inevitably, though, whiskey was also part of those types of gatherings. And so it was that Knowles came to “acquire a taste for strong drink” – he was the life of the party and young people danced to his music. Eventually he was able to command more substantial fees for his performances, almost all of which he gave to his mother.
He was “extremely deficient” in his education, perhaps due to the fact that he became the man of the family after his father’s death. It didn’t seem to matter to him, however, because the life of a musician seemed to suit him well. Religion was not something he thought much about either – like other young people his age he wanted to “sow some wild oats”.
One night, though, Knowles suddenly walked away from that lifestyle in the middle of a dance, a “most unlikely of all places for serious thought” – he began to remember his father’s dying words: “prepare to meet thy God”. He considered it not only a message from the grave of his father but a voice from heaven. One moment he was playing dance tunes and the next he was standing in the middle of the dance floor telling everyone of his feelings and his father’s dying words. There he expressed regrets for the way he had lived his life to that point and vowed to follow another course.
For the next several days he struggled to find answers. When his mother asked what his trouble was, he said “he was having a battle with the devil.” He began attending the Flat Rock Church where he heard a clear presentation of the gospel. He confessed his faith in Christ following a message by Gabriel McDuffie and was baptized on September 13, 1852 – Knowles Shaw’s life had changed. Many people, knowing his background, predicted that he would soon return to music, dancing and drinking.
He was mentored by McDuffie, even though people believed he was wasting his time on Knowles. He was, however, determined to prove them wrong. At this point he decided that his lack of schooling required him to embark upon a course of self-education. He thirsted for knowledge and although he still was deficient in some areas, he managed to make progress.
He fell in love and married Martha Finley on January 11, 1855. He was twenty years old, certainly not rich, but determined to be successful. They moved to Missouri and there two children were born: Georgie Anna in 1856 and Mary Elizabeth in 1858. Knowles continued to try and live a humble and godly life, attending church regularly. On the third Sunday of October 1858 he was called upon to speak to the congregation:
He made the attempt with some diffidence and confusion at first; but gradually gaining his self-possession, he made a brief address, marked by such good sense, and delivered with such unaffected earnestness, that his hearers were satisfied that they had before them one possessed of the elements of a successful preacher.
No one was more surprised than Knowles himself, never thinking it possible to be an instrument of good. It was a turning point in his life and brought on a struggle not unlike the one he had after turning away from his musical profession. After much careful thought and prayer and the advice of Uncle Gabriel, Knowles decided he would from that day forward devote his life to preaching the Gospel.
He preached whenever and wherever an opportunity presented itself, receiving invitations to speak throughout the county. His preaching, coupled with his musical talents, brought him a following. People would come from miles around to not only hear him preach but to hear the “Singing Evangelist”. His labors began to be rewarded as people answered the call to follow Christ. In 1861, he recorded “some sixty persons have enlisted under the banner of Christ.”
His message was simple – “[O]f theology he knew nothing, only as he had heard it from the pulpits of the various religious parties, and he had no narrow creed of his own to cramp and fetter his powers.” He didn’t rely on a library of books to prepare his sermons – his messages were drawn directly from the Bible. He didn’t dress or act like a minister of the Gospel, but instead sought out people where they lived and worked, lending an ear to “learn all their wants, doubts, troubles, and also enter into their joys, and leave them better far for the call and with minds made up, even without an invitation, to hear him preach the next Sunday without fail.”
When he went to a town to preach, he was quick to acquaint himself with the residents, going into business places to introduce himself. In this way, he knew what those he would minister were going through and he addressed those needs in his sermons. His ministry flourished as evidenced by this record of some of his meetings through the years as many came to Christ:
This, however, represented only a small number of recorded conversions throughout his ministry. Not long before his death he remarked that he had been in meeting after meeting in succession for thirteen years, scarcely taking a rest. In 1876 he also pastored a church in Chicago but resigned when he decided his focus should be that of evangelist.
His work as an evangelist was by all accounts successful, but his family life was marked by the deaths of his children. Knowles and Martha had a total of five children, two dying in infancy. Of the remaining children, two of them died in one year and within four years all three children had died. These events perhaps influenced the hymns he would write like “Lambs of the Upper Fold” and “My Beautiful Dream”.
When he came to a town for a meeting, the local press would report that his audiences were moved, “often being melted into tears.” So skilled was he on the organ that people would say “he made it talk”. He had begun composing hymns soon after he began to preach, but his most well-known hymn was written in 1874, the melody added in 1880 by George Minor:
The last meeting that Knowles Shaw would hold began on May 4, 1878 in Dallas at the Commerce Street Christian Church. The meeting continued for five weeks with great success and 112 conversions. On June 6, for what unbeknownst to him would be his next to last sermon, he spoke on the death of Moses:
He said he hoped that God would not permit him to outlive his usefulness; that he wanted to die in the strength of manhood, with the harness on; that if he could have his wish he would like to go from the pulpit to glory; but, if not, he wanted to die suddenly.
That night he closed the meeting with a solemn and impressive sermon. In his farewell remarks he spoke presciently about his own death, as related by his biographer:
The house was crowded to overflowing, and many gathered outside to catch the last strain of song and hear his last words. His sermon was one of his grandest efforts. He then gave his farewell talk, which proved to be his last public utterance on earth. He said that we were soon to separate, never to meet on earth; that we knew not who would be taken first; it may be myself, it may be your beloved pastor; God alone knows. Some of us may be dead in less than twenty-four hours.
He had been called upon to visit a church in McKinney, Texas after his meetings in Dallas concluded. He spent the night of June 6 in Dallas and telegraphed to the church in McKinney that he would arrive the next day. A strong rain storm the next morning did not deter him from making his journey, although the brethren tried to convince him otherwise.
Just before the train reached McKinney it derailed, plunging down an embankment. The body of Knowles Shaw was found in water beneath the wreckage. Within hours of his farewell at Commerce Street Christian Church he had died, the only fatality. Moments before he perished he had been speaking with a fellow passenger, Reverend Malloy. Knowles was asked the secret to his successful ministry.
He stated simply that he “preached Christ; always kept Jesus before the people; made them feel that they were sinners, and needed just such a Savior as he preached; that he never became discouraged; had confidence in the gospel truth as the power of God; that he loved his work, and became wholly absorbed in it.” His last words just before the accident were “Oh, it is a grand thing to rally people to the Cross of Christ”.
Excerpts and quotes in this article were all taken from The Life of Knowles Shaw, The Singing Evangelist. It’s a fascinating book which is available to read online here.
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!
© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.