Hymn History: I’d Rather Have Jesus May 25, 2022

I'd Rather Have Jesus

“By faith Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter; Choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; Esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt: for he had respect unto the recompence of the reward.“– Hebrews 11:24-26

We are thrilled to share a series of brief accounts of how some of the great hymns of our faith were written. Each synopsis has been compiled through the research of Jerry Vargo and is shared by permission. It is our hope that these stories will be a help and encouragement to your Christian walk. This week we read the full story behind the well-known and stirring hymn, “I’d Rather Have Jesus.”

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The impact this song has had, by influencing and changing lives for God, will only be fully evaluated in eternity.

At the age of 23, George Beverly Shea (1909 – 2013) had a hard decision to make. He could accept a job offer in a secular singing position in New York City, with a great salary and wide respect; or he could continue singing in churches and on Christian radio programs.

George Beverly Shea was known for his booming baritone voice. He ministered alongside Billy Graham and Cliff Barrows, often singing right before Graham stepped to the podium. One of his best-known songs was, “I’d Rather Have Jesus.”

Mr. Shea was born in Winchester, Ontario, Canada. He had the advantage of good musical training early in life. In his early years, he had his share of lucrative offers from this world.

Shea had been singing since he was a young man in the Wesleyan Methodist churches, where his father was a minister. He was forced to leave college and work in an insurance office as a young man, due to the family’s financial needs. However, that did not stop him from singing. He continued to sing in churches and for Christian radio programs. This practice led to the unexpected offer of an audition in New York City. He was offered a substantial salary and wide recognition for this secular singing position. Shea prayed long and hard while making this difficult decision, but he thoughtfully turned them down to become a singing servant for our Savior.

Beginning with Billy Graham in 1944, George Beverly Shea carried the Gospel in song to every state in the Union and to every continent of our world. “I first met Bev Shea while in Chicago when he was on Moody Radio,” declared Mr. Graham. “As a young man starting my ministry, I asked Bev if he would join me. He said yes and for over 60 years we had the privilege of ministering together.”

Bev Shea’s mother often would leave poems and quotes around the house that she collected, in order to spiritually guide him. “I was living at home with my parents, continuing to work at Mutual Life Insurance and studying voice. Going to the piano one Sunday morning, I found a poem waiting for me there. I recognized my mother’s handwriting. She had copied the words of a poem by Mrs. Rhea F. Miller, knowing that I would read the beautiful message, which speaks of choice.”

This is how George Beverly Shea tells the story himself:

“The poem was written by a lady named Rhea Miller. Mother thought it to be a very wonderful poem and wanted me to read it. She then asked me to try my hand at writing a melody for the verses.” He was immediately impressed with the words and so “deeply moved” that he began to compose music for the lines. “I began to play as a melody came to me. It seemed to fit the lyrics and so I began to sing, for the first time, I’d Rather Have Jesus.”

That same day, he sang the song in his father’s church service. As the people in the church listened to George’s deep voice sing out “I’d Rather Have Jesus, than silver or gold,” little did they know that the song was destined to become one of the most well-known of all recent Christian hymns.

When Bev Shea signed with RCA Victor, I’d Rather Have Jesus was chosen to spotlight their new singer.

Bev Shea commented, “Over the years, I’ve not sung any song more than I’d Rather Have Jesus, but I never grow weary of Mrs. Miller’s heartfelt words.”

He allowed these words to guide and direct him as a young man, and we are better off for it. Otherwise he may never have teamed up with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Crusades and shared such a powerful message with the world in song.

Since George Beverly Shea turned down a lucrative offer to become a secular singer, it is fitting that this song became his most used song. This hymn is a testimony of his life.

I’d Rather Have Jesus became his musical “theme song” for audiences around the world.

George Beverly Shea yielded his talents and his life to the service of Christ at a very early age. He realized that in this life only what is done for Christ has any lasting value. It is because of this that his singing has been a blessing around the world.

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7 Comments

  1. Susie Hall on May 28, 2022 at 9:40 PM

    This song has touched my heart for many years. It heart warming to know the story behind the song. Thank you for sharing.

    • scottpauley on June 3, 2022 at 4:53 PM

      It is a blessing!

    • Noah on September 10, 2023 at 10:37 AM

      How I love this hymn

  2. Agnes okon on October 1, 2022 at 3:46 PM

    Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful piece. It keeps me focus on christ above all the world can offer

    • scottpauley on October 2, 2022 at 7:12 PM

      We are happy it is a blessing!

  3. Sheri on April 15, 2023 at 8:36 PM

    This night as I ponder on this world, the vanity displays by the wealthy and famous, the subtle covert and overt wickedness and brutality of powerful monarchs all over the world, this song came to my heart. I searched it out on YouTube. I listened to some versions of it prayerfully. I was fortunate to stumble on the story behind it. What a blessing. Thank you for sharing it.
    May we all make it safely to the feet of Jesus in heaven at the end of time in Jesus name. Amen
    Shalom!

  4. Robert Patton on June 10, 2023 at 9:20 AM

    Thanks so much for sharing the stories behind many of these songs. We often sing them, even from memory, without much thought about the actual content or that they are a testimony to others. The stories help focus me on the purpose behind the song.

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