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How Great Thou Art

How Great Thou Art

Editor's note: In The Faith of Elvis, Billy Stanely (Elvis' step-brother) illuminates Elvis’s journey of faith in Jesus — from the notes Elvis made in his beloved Bible to his struggles with sin as his fame increased to his remarkable generosity toward fans and movie stars alike. Enjoy this excerpt:


Why do larger-than-life people like Elvis do what they do?

Why do they go through the difficult process of trying to build a career? Why live with the unpredictability of fame and success on a large scale? Why put yourself out there so people can criticize your every move? Why try to reinvent yourself every decade or so?

Every artist has their own answers. Elvis loved music. He loved the audiences. He loved performing. He loved his fans. He loved the opportunity to help others because he was in a privileged position.

But there was one overriding reason he did what he did.

Elvis was a man on a mission.

It wasn’t about having a career or creating the next album, concert, or movie gig. He saw what he did as a spiritual calling.

The apostle Paul had a mission too. He laid it out in Romans 1:14–17:

I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

Paul preached the gospel from every imaginable place in the ancient world. Sometimes his “stage” was a Jewish synagogue, a prison cell, a ship, or even Mars Hill in the city of Athens. Elvis shared the same mission of spreading God’s love. But he chose to share it through music.

Elvis started doing live concerts again after his 1968 TV special on NBC (the ’68 Comeback Special). That whole experience was an experiment to see if crowds would still respond to Elvis. And indeed they did! Soon afterward, Elvis booked a residency at the new Hilton in Las Vegas. He interspersed these residencies with concert tours around the country.

In 1973, Elvis performed his famous Aloha from Hawaii TV special and included “How Great Thou Art” in the set list. This was his way of showing he was a true believer.

He recognized that his ministry was his music. It was the only way he knew to get his message out.

Evangelism has always been challenging for people of faith. Even in the earliest days of the church, not every person who heard the gospel became a believer. Nothing had changed in nearly two thousand years — some believed, and some wouldn’t. Elvis knew he had a much better shot at sharing God’s love through the art form of music.

Why music? Music touches the heart directly. It goes straight to the emotions and moves people in a way that a sermon or lesson never could. Elvis was committed to using this powerful tool to reach as many people as possible.

Elvis also wanted to avoid the judgmental attitudes he saw in so much of the Christian world.

It’s hard to step on anyone’s toes or cast a judgmental attitude when you’re singing about God’s love and grace.

His job was to put the message out there. His audience’s job was to decide to either accept or reject the message. The funny thing is that it was probably pretty hard for a nonbeliever to reject the message of God’s love when they saw how much the gospel moved Elvis.

There was something different about him when he sang gospel songs. The gospel message had changed him. He wanted the same change for his audience. When you let God in, something miraculous happens in your heart.

Or as Elvis would say, “That’s God knocking on your door. Are you going to answer it?”

Although Elvis recorded numerous albums of gospel music, he didn’t see the gospel message as only contained within traditional gospel songs. A lot of the songs he used were not gospel songs, but they contained a message of inspiration, encouragement, or spirituality. Songs such as “Why Me, Lord?” and “You Gave Me a Mountain” all contained important messages Elvis wanted to share. If you listen to them with an open heart and an open ear, you’ll see these songs are talking about faith.

Elvis has sometimes been criticized for not writing his own songs. Many other artists of his era — indeed, most of the popular ones — wrote many if not all of their own music. Elvis’s main gift was not in writing songs, but in recognizing and selecting amazing songs that aligned with his worldview and message. Then he would put his own spin on them, adding something special and unique in the process.

For example, his rendition of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge over Troubled Water” is very different from the original. Yet the message is the same: the singer is telling the listener to give him their troubles and woes. He will lay himself down to be their bridge so they can make it across in a time of trouble.

If you take a moment to listen to Elvis’s version, it is obvious he wasn’t faking it. He meant every word. He wanted to be like Jesus, getting people through a hard situation. His whole life was focused on helping people and sharing love. It was the perfect song for him.

These kinds of songs were not straight-up gospel songs. They were not necessarily written from a Christian viewpoint. However, Elvis turned them around and used them to express his love and faith. He wanted to get people focused on the Lord. Sometimes you have to do that in indirect ways.

Gospel wasn’t just a style of music Elvis incorporated into his concerts or used to fulfill his recording contracts. It was also his heart language and a way to unwind after the emotional high of a concert.

When Elvis came off the stage, he would be so wound up with energy that it was impossible to turn it off. He never gave a half-hearted performance. Even if he felt something could be musically a little better, or he was unhappy with some small aspect of a concert, he never gave anything less than 100 percent of his energy.

Giving out all this energy affected him. You would think he would be exhausted, but it was the exact opposite. All the love and affection he had just put out to the audience was now coming back to him, and it filled him.

The only way he knew how to come down from this high was to sing gospel. Elvis would gather with some people in his hotel suite, usually with the gospel quartet that accompanied him onstage, and one of the guys from the band would sit down at the piano and get started. Because Elvis would be there for weeks at a time, he would have the hotel bring in a piano during his stay there. Elvis was bringing in a massive amount of money for them, so they would do whatever he asked.

They would sing gospel songs until the sun came up or until Elvis said, “I’m ready to go to bed.” They would sit up there for hours, and people would come up after the show. It was almost like a second concert. After the midnight show, Elvis would invite people up and they would go on for hours. People would stand around and listen or they would mingle in the suite.

One of the songs I heard frequently in these post-concert settings was “Lighthouse.” In an unusual move, Elvis chose not to be the main singer. He did add some vocals, but his background vocalist Donnie Sumner sang the lead. If you watch the documentary Elvis: That’s the Way It Is, you’ll see Elvis and the group singing “Lighthouse.”

There is a fascinating story from 1 Samuel 16 that tells how King Saul was being tormented by an evil spirit the Lord had allowed to come upon him. Unbeknownst to Saul, young David had been anointed as the next king, and it was only a matter of time before he would replace Saul.

Ironically, David was also in the service of King Saul. One of Saul’s servants had heard about David’s ability to play the lyre and had recruited David to perform for the king. First Samuel 16:23 says,

Whenever the spirit from God came on Saul, David would take up his lyre and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him.

This story reminds me of the power of music to soothe and comfort in all kinds of circumstances. For Elvis, gospel music played much the same role. He took refuge and found comfort in this sacred music, long after the lights of the stage had faded and into the wee hours of the morning.

Excerpted with permission from The Faith of Elvis by Billy Stanley, copyright Billy Stanley.

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Your Turn

“That’s God knocking on your door. Are you going to answer it?” Every one of us believers can live the message of the Gospel with our lives. We don’t have to be a pastor or a theology professor to share the Word of God and His love with those around us. How are you sharing God’s love? ~ Devotionals Daily