Hymnspiration: I’d Rather Have Jesus

HymnspirationLogoToday’s hymn was penned in 1922 by Rhea F. (Ross) Miller and its most famous melody composed by George Beverly Shea in 1939.

Rhea F. (Ross) Miller

Rhea was born in 1894 in Brooktondale, New York to parents Martin and Bertha Ross.  Rhea’s mother was a Christian but her father was an alcoholic who wanted nothing to do with church or religion.  Bertha, however, faithfully prayed for her husband and he eventually accepted Christ and became a pastor.

The Miller family attended Martin’s church where their son Howard met Rhea, fell in love and married.  The story goes that Rhea was walking through a field near her home in 1922 and began to reflect on her father’s testimony of being delivered from alcoholism, and how he would rather have Jesus than all the silver and gold.  From those reflections she penned the words – one source indicates that she also composed music to accompany them —  but the melody that would make the song known world-wide would be composed several years later.

I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold;
I’d rather be His than have riches untold;
I’d rather have Jesus than houses or lands;
I’d rather be led by His nail-pierced hand

Refrain:
Than to be the king of a vast domain
Or be held in sin’s dread sway;
I’d rather have Jesus than anything
This world affords today.

I’d rather have Jesus than men’s applause;
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

He’s fairer than lilies of rarest bloom;
He’s sweeter than honey from out the comb;
He’s all that my hungering spirit needs;
I’d rather have Jesus and let Him lead

Howard Miller served as a Nazarene pastor and District Superintendent for both the New England and New York State Districts.  In 1939 he became Dean of Religion at Northwest Nazarene College in Idaho.  In 1940 he was elected as one of the General Superintendents of the Nazarene denomination.  He died on December 28, 1948 while cutting firewood at his home in Brooktondale.

RheaRossMillerFollowing her husband’s death, Rhea taught piano and according to the account of Ron Kelly, Jr., “[S]he had one particular goal with her teaching, and that was to get into as many pastors’ homes as possible and teach their children how to play the piano, at no fee to the pastor’s family, so that when they reached maturity they would have something to contribute to the Church.”  Rhea was described as a vibrant and fascinating woman.  Sadly, she later developed Parkinson’s Disease and lost control of her left hand.  She passed away in 1966.

George Beverly Shea

George Beverly Shea was born on February 1, 1909 in Winchester, Ontario, Canada to Adam Joseph and Maude Mary Theodora (Whitney) Shea.  His father was a Wesleyan Methodist pastor, ministering in Canada until taking a pastorate in New York.  Bev Shea, with his distinct baritone voice, first performed publicly as a member of the church choir.  He apparently had a natural affinity for music as he later related:

I’m in the middle of eight children and my mother noticed that I couldn’t stay away from the piano, he said. When I was very young, before the others came along, I was banging on the piano and so she took time to teach me some chords, like people do on a guitar these days. I took lessons for a while, but I found out that I would rather just develop different chords in all the different keys and play by ear. I don’t do it for people today, but I still play like this for my wife and for my own enjoyment morning and night.

Although he became a Christian as a young boy, he recommitted his life to Christ at the age of eighteen.  For a time he attended Annesley College in Ottawa and later transferred to Houghton College in New York where he studied music.  When his funds were depleted he dropped out in 1929 and took a job with Mutual Insurance Company of New York as a medical clerk.  His work involved assisting medical examiners in gathering information about a policy applicant’s health history.

GeorgeBevSheaIn the course of his work he made the acquaintance of Fred Allen, host of a coast-to-coast radio talent show.  Upon learning of Bev’s singing talent, Allen arranged an audition.  A few weeks later Bev was singing “Go Down Moses” on the National Broadcasting Company.  His efforts garnered him second place, fifteen dollars and a taste for possible fame.  He was offered a substantial salary to sing on the radio, a tempting offer in the midst of the Great Depression.

Not long afterwards, he sat down one Sunday morning at his mother’s organ to practice for the morning service.  His mother had copied the poem penned by Rhea Miller in 1922 and left it on the instrument where he would find it.  Bev Shea meditated on the words and reflected on his own ambitions, while running his fingers over the keyboard to find the appropriate melody.  That Sunday morning he sang I’d Rather Have Jesus for the first time, the hymn that would later become his signature song.

Bev later relocated to Chicago and worked in Christian broadcasting.  One morning he heard a knock on his door and was met by a tall young blond-headed man, none other than Billy Graham.  Billy had traveled from Wheaton College on a train to stop by and say “hello.”  Bev Shea began working with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in 1947 as gospel soloist.  Following the 1949 Los Angeles crusade, Billy Graham’s ministry gained international notoriety.

He was honored by the Guinness Book of World Records for having sung before more than 220 million people – more than anyone in history.  He married his first wife Erma Scharfe on June 16, 1934 and they had two children, Ronnie and Elaine.  Erma died in 1976 and in 1985 he married Karlene Aceto.  Bev became a naturalized American in 1941 and later made his home just down the road from Billy Graham’s home in Montreat, North Carolina.

As a result of his international gospel singing career, he garnered recognition and awards, including induction into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1978 and a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 2011.  George Beverly Shea lived a good long life, dying at the age of 104 on April 16, 2013 of stroke complications.  He is buried on the grounds of the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

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© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.

4 Comments

  1. Thank you for the history of this song and background information on both Rhea Ross Miller and George Beverly Shea. This is a song I have loved and sung for many years. However, two special times in my life this song held even more meaning for me than usual. One time my sister sung this as a solo while visiting our parents church – First Church of the Nazarene in Little Rock, Arkansas. She also sung, “Whatever it Takes to Draw Closer to You, Lord” The week before, her beautiful house which my father had designed for her family (he was an architect) burned to the ground. Very few material possessions were salvaged. Even before the pastor preached that morning men, women, teens, boys and girls filled the altar, confessing their sin and seeking forgiveness.

    The 2nd time it had extra special meaning was October 29, 1986. My father had been ill for several months. The doctor believed he had the flu combined with his extreme grief over the loss of his beloved wife, Opal, a short time before. They had been married nearly 51 years.

    A woman took the position of care giver to my mother only 13 days prior to my mother’s death. It turns out, my mother was murdered by the caregiver and was also in the process of murdering my father using arsenic. My brother-in-law threw her out of the house several months prior and we believed she was out of our lives. That night I learned that this woman had been coming back to visit Daddy, bringing him food and preparing a meal for him while she was “visiting.” As Daddy and I sat reminiscing and singing as we had for most of my life, Daddy told me that this woman, Dorothy, told him that the main reason for her visits was because she wanted to know more about his LORD. Daddy said, “I don’t think she really wanted to know about my LORD, but it wasn’t worth the risk! I know where i am going — to be with my LORD and my wife!” Then we sang this song — I’d Rather Have Jesus — What a spiritual heritage I have! Since those events I have been unable to sing them without considering the words to this beautiful hymn.

    Thank you for “listening” to me. This is such a beautiful story I needed to share it.

    Always in His Service,
    Rev. Sharon M. Rowley
    Retired Nazarene Pastor

    Reply
    • Wow .. just wow! Thank you so much for stopping by and sharing your story. Was the caregiver ever charged with a crime? In the nineteenth century they called arsenic “inheritance powder”.

      God bless you for your faithful service to the Savior!

      Sharon Hall

      Reply
  2. Thank you so much for this history! Wow! It really is amazing how God’s music can touch you on a personal level on the surface, and then so much more deeply when you know how God impacted the writers through Whom He gave it! I have a question that I hope someone can help me with. I have already recorded this song to include on my latest CD, with the understanding that the song is in the public domain. I noticed today where my church hymnbook (from 1999) says that it is copyrighted. If anyone can provide an answer as to whether or not this song has fallen into public domain, I would greatly appreciate it! God bless!

    Reply
    • According to Hymnary.org the copyright status of this hymn is public domain. Thanks for stopping by!

      Reply

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