Crowds of over 50,000. Famous special guests. Hundreds of cities in the US and around the world. Beloved, catchy songs. For many, these might sound like readouts from the Taylor Swift Eras Tour hype machine. But exchange the glittery girl power for the gospel in baritone, and you have one of the most successful musical touring acts in the postwar world: the Billy Graham Crusades.

The first association that “Billy Graham Crusade” may evoke is not musical at all, but rather a close-up shot of the evangelist, with his penetrating, wide-eyed gaze and raised forearms, thundering, “The Bible says …” Admittedly, music was not the main focus.

Yet as the late historian Edith Blumhofer shows in her final book, Songs I Love to Sing: The Billy Graham Crusades and the Shaping of Modern Worship, neither Graham’s ministry nor the late-century rise of contemporary Christian music can be understood without it. As crusade song leader Cliff Barrows pursued his main goal—“sing to save”—he and his teammates bridged stylistic, cultural, and generational divides, transforming evangelicals’ music into the harmonic blend of old and new that is familiar today.

Mining rich resources

Before unpacking this highly original book, a few words about the author. Blumhofer is an American religious historian renowned for her empathetic biographies of hymnist Fanny J. Crosby and evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, as well as broader studies of evangelicalism and Pentecostalism. She concluded her career with this new study, sadly succumbing to a battle with cancer in the process.

To finish the project, her publisher, Eerdmans, tapped Jesus People expert Larry Eskridge, with whom she had for many years directed the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College. Having studied under and worked for Blumhofer and Eskridge as a master’s student—and witnessed their erudition, musicality, and mirth—I cannot think of two scholars better suited to telling this story.

Because Eskridge maintains in the preface that the text is essentially Blumhofer’s, I will refer to it as such. Fellow historians will be disappointed by the lack of footnotes—unfortunately, these are impossible to recover. But a “selected bibliography,” along with her earlier essay in Billy Graham: American Pilgrim, show her indebtedness to hymnologies, histories of postwar evangelicalism, press coverage of the crusades, and archival material from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (formerly held at Wheaton College).

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In its final form, Songs I Love to Sing gathers what Blumhofer calls “biographies” of the hymns and people that anchored Graham’s evangelistic campaigns. As she argues, the lyrics of hymns “told the crusade story of biblical truth, rendering the narrative of sin and redemption in ways that mattered in all times and places.”

And the hymns’ rich backgrounds—their authorship, inspiration, source material, and historical evolution—told the larger story of modern evangelicalism and gospel music as it cohered in the stanzas of “How Great Thou Art,” “Just as I Am,” and other crusade mainstays. Blumhofer’s richly detailed histories cross continents, languages, cultures, and classes, revealing contributions from remarkable yet obscure men and women of faith.

In determining program selections and style, Barrows followed past revival song leader Charles Alexander’s advice: “‘Sing to save,’ and ‘sing as if you were preaching, not singing.’” He mined the rich resources of gospel musicians from his era and before—including Dwight L. Moody’s song leader Ira Sankey—and adapted both specific hymns and general principles of worship leading to the crusades’ unique audiences.

Soloist George Beverly Shea, a star of religious radio who joined the team in 1947, sang in the resonant, emotionally laden style that first landed him a contract with the mainstream Decca label in the 1930s. (For context, fellow Decca artist Bing Crosby had popularized a similar “crooning” sound during the Great Depression’s nadir.) Although evangelistic intentionality marked every component of Graham’s program, including music, Shea was allowed to follow the Holy Spirit’s impromptu leading in choosing his solos—those songs “he loved to sing.”

Regarding the team’s relationships, any reader looking for a Behind the Music–style exposé of egos will not find it here. Instead, Blumhofer illuminates the warm-hearted partnership between the “chord of three—Graham, Barrows, and Shea,” maintaining that it was, indeed, rarely broken by personal conflict.

Humorous anecdotes are sprinkled throughout. As one example, the story of Graham’s introduction to Barrows in June 1945 feels particularly of its era. While guest preaching in North Carolina, Graham was struggling to find musicians for the evening. Then he heard about a honeymooning couple in attendance, who nervously agreed to assist. While the new Mrs. Barrows took her seat at the piano, her husband dutifully ran to his car to retrieve his trombone (as one does).

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Over the ensuing decades, Barrows chided the rather tone-deaf Graham that evangelists would be unemployed in heaven, while he and Shea would keep on singing. While on earth, however, both men submitted to Graham’s leadership, fulfilling “what each had vowed before God to do in the 1940s,” as Blumhofer notes.

Graham’s musical responsibilities included leading the team’s winsome, albeit pointed, response to external criticism—and criticism they did receive, especially during their 1966 evangelistic campaign in London. In a land marked by liturgical tradition, anti-American skepticism, and emerging secularism, the British press claimed that playing “Just as I Am” during the closing invitation elicited purely emotional “decisions for Christ.”

After reading such carping, Graham told his team to play no music at all. The press sheepishly watched as hundreds still made their way to the front, night after night, before later protesting that the silence itself was manipulative.

As Blumhofer’s study shows, succeeding under such pressures necessitated more than Graham’s evangelistic acumen; indeed, Shea and Barrows had to become music industry insiders. In formulating the campaigns’ sound, they went beyond the styles of earlier evangelical revivals and contemporaneous Youth for Christ rallies, drawing upon their “broad experiences in radio” and “on new material that reflected the continuously evolving musical tastes of a changing evangelical culture.” Prolific hymnist Homer Rodeheaver—a millionaire by the 1940s—provided a model not only for song leading but for handling the business of music publishing, especially copyright disputes.

In Blumhofer’s account, the crusade team worked diligently for legality and fairness to all songwriters whose hymns they used. Nevertheless, the behind-the-scenes wrangling over the international copyrights for “How Great Thou Art” got ugly and litigious after Shea debuted it during the 1957 Madison Square Garden campaign. It is understandable why the hymn’s English translator, the British missionary Stuart Hine, was upset by Shea’s revision of “works thy hands hath made” to “worlds”—supposedly a nod to the space age—as Shea’s version became increasingly “standard” around the world.

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A related theme, and one worthy of more critical analysis, is the somewhat discordant blend of Christian sincerity and American celebrity that fueled the crusades’ success. Blumhofer zeroes in on the most significant recurring guest musicians on the platform, from cowboy singers Stuart Hamblen and Roy Rogers in the 1950s to jazz-age legend Ethel Waters and outlaw-country star Johnny Cash later on. These stars of the screen and stage had much in common besides lengthy résumés—multiple marriages, personal demons, and vivid testimonies emphasizing their “surrender” to Jesus.

From the crusade team’s perspective, the presence of such guests showcased the power of redemption and brought in starstruck audiences eager to hear familiar entertainers sing a new song. Considering the stars’ motivations, Blumhofer highlights Graham’s efforts to vet their faith before offering them spots. But we should remember that the context was postwar America: Rather than shrink their audiences by hitching their wagons to Graham, the country singers (Hamblen, Rogers, Cash) may well have widened them. For troubled 60-year-old Ethel Waters, the evangelistic campaigns provided a career lifeline.

Waters’s story is particularly interesting, as it reflects not only on the quandary of Christian celebrity but on the crusade team’s efforts to bridge racial and cultural divides. After Graham integrated his crusades in the mid-1950s, he invited civil rights advocates such as Chicago-based gospel singer Mahalia Jackson for guest appearances at the platform and featured Southerner Myrtle Hall in numerous crusades. But Waters became the best-known Black female soloist after she attended the 1957 New York rally, rededicated her life to Jesus, and then sang for “her baby Billy” until the 1970s.

Her signature song was the 1905 hymn “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” which she had famously recorded in the early 1950s. Although Blumhfoer does not say this, it is worth observing that Waters’s persona in her later acting roles, in her memoirs, and on the crusade platform reflected a well-entrenched stereotype for American audiences: the folksy, Southern Black nanny. And yet, Blumhofer insists, “The issue of cultural appropriation never surfaced—and may well never have even occurred to anyone at the time—even in the wide press coverage.” This was true across the team’s incorporation of ethnically diverse singers, African American spirituals, and international audiences’ musical tastes.

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The crusades and CCM

If the music of the Graham crusades adapted rather well to different cultural contexts, it became increasingly out of step with younger audiences, despite the aging team’s continued inclusion of “contemporary” worship songs and singers (Amy Grant in 1979, for example).

However, reaching postmodern youth necessitated a special “translation,” the name of the book’s final substantive chapter and the hinge point for Blumhofer’s argument that the Graham crusades helped fuel the rise of contemporary Christian music (CCM) and modern worship music.

Compared to Leah Payne’s new history of CCM, God Gave Rock and Roll to You, in which Graham and company hesitantly supported such musical innovation from the sidelines, Blumhofer’s narrative centers the crusades at the intersection of modern hymnody, praise and worship, Southern Gospel music, and Christian pop-rock.

By 1969, Graham had launched a series of youth nights during his crusades, which attracted baby boomers with a laidback coffeehouse vibe, folk singers, and Pepsi. While the Jesus People and early CCM acts began to popularize Christian rock over the next decade, both Barrows and Shea, according to Blumhofer, remained opposed to sacrificing the traditional crusade format for something more akin to a concert. Graham, taking the lead, admitted that CCM wasn’t his preference but conceded its evangelistic usefulness.

Thus, starting in 1994, huge acts such as DC Talk and Michael W. Smith headlined a series of revamped crusade youth nights. Teenagers could belt out Smith’s “Place in This World” and headbang to DC Talk’s “Jesus Freak” before hearing a “grandfatherly” Graham deliver a short gospel sermon. The book quotes Graham’s reaction after the first such concert, held in Cleveland: “Personally, I didn’t understand a word of those songs [as they were being sung]. But I had all the lyrics written down, and they were straight Bible, great lyrics.”

Blumhofer does not contend that CCM required Graham’s blessing to win over youth; the opposite is more likely true. However, she makes the case that Graham’s platform helped expand CCM’s audience, lend it legitimacy in the eyes of parents and local churches, and attract mainstream journalists’ attention.

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The Gospel Music Association even inducted Shea, Barrows, and Graham into its Hall of Fame for their contributions, giving the intergenerational “blended worship” model some powerful validation. By 2005, when the chord of three led the final singing of “Just as I Am” during Graham’s farewell crusade, it had become standard in many churches.

In an era when historical writing about evangelicalism can be overwhelmingly critical and cynical, Songs I Love to Sing leaves quite a different impression but without swinging to the opposite extreme. To riff on the title, this seems like a book that the author loved to write.

Certainly, its topic and anticipated audience—not limited to scholars—help explain the tonal difference. Yet worship music styles have divided church members for decades, and uneasy questions about Graham’s accommodation of American popular culture persist. The book’s core difference lies in its emphasis on the hymn lyrics themselves. As Blumhofer maintains, the texts ultimately sang “one song” with their appeals to God’s greatness, redemption, and eternal salvation for those who can say, “Oh Lamb of God, I come, I come.”

This framing device, I am inclined to think, testifies in part to this Christian historian’s faith amid bleak circumstances. Writing what she eventually knew would be her last work, Blumhofer has shown that serious evangelical history might also emanate sincere joy .

Amber Thomas Reynolds is adjunct assistant professor of history at Wheaton College.

Songs I Love to Sing: The Billy Graham Crusades and the Shaping of Modern Worship
Our Rating
5 Stars - Masterpiece
Book Title
Songs I Love to Sing: The Billy Graham Crusades and the Shaping of Modern Worship
Release Date
August 1, 2023
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