This is the week all church choirs—pros and shaky amateurs alike—tackle cantatas. The most popular new one is probably “The Wonder of Christmas,” penned by a man who has sold one million copies of ten cantatas.

In 1957, John W. Peterson was known only as a writer of hymns and gospel songs, but “without really knowing how” turned out his first cantata, “Hallelujah, What a Savior,” in a month. Since then, twenty-live to fifty fan letters a week have poured in, including one from the superiors at a Michigan convent who “adjusted” the text.

Viewing his career from this popularity crest, Peterson finds even the setbacks—a ruined vocation, wartime piloting in Burma, foodless days in college, the rise of Elvis Presley—were guidance from God. He’s now forty-two but looks about thirty-five, an effect enhanced by a tall, trim figure, dark hair, and an almost boyish face with a ready grin.

The Petersons are spending their first Christmas in Grand Rapids, where he recently moved to steer the renascent Singspiration, a gospel music house with a mercurial past. With the composer are his serene wife, Marie, and three daughters who reflect her dark Syrian beauty: Pamela, 13; Candace Kay, 15; and Sandra Lynn, 18, back from Moody Bible Institute. Their handsome L-shaped ranch house might lack furniture and rugs at the moment, but because of its newness, not lack of finances. There’s a white Imperial in the garage, too, but one day fifteen years ago, when he also was at Moody, Peterson didn’t even have twelve cents to ride Chicago’s Lake Street el.

In analyzing this cantata-based prosperity, Peterson listed pitfalls he has tried to avoid: “Most cantatas are disjointed. The choir has a number, then everything stops while the soprano wails through ...

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