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The Songwriter and the Voice

Whenever one is researching, he never knows what interesting tidbits and trivial factoids he'll discover in the process. The key is not to get stuck in the rabbit hole so long that you forget what you were researching in the first place.

I found myself in that very situation recently. I needed to find a detail about the life of famed hymnist John W. Peterson. (No, as far as I know, there is no relation, although I do know that if there were a family link I definitely never inherited any of the musical genes from it.)

I had grown up hearing Peterson's music but knew little about it and even less about him. From my quick research session, however, I learned that he was born on November 1, 1921, in Lindsborg, Kansas. (We at least share not only the same last name but also the same birth month, so I guess that should count for something, though not much.) He was the youngest of seven Peterson children.

In 1933, at the age of 12, he accepted Christ as his Savior during a church service. By 1940, he was sometimes traveling with two of his brothers and singing together as The Norse Trio. One of his brothers preached wherever they sang.

Then I discovered the golden nugget.

Traveling with the Peterson brothers was a fellow, three years older than Peterson, who was the group's announcer. His deep, rich voice provided a fitting introduction to the group's musical repertoire. That man was none other than Paul Harvey Aurandt, better known later as simply Paul Harvey. Yes, THE Paul Harvey, who later became famous for his distinctive voice and cadence on his radio programs "Paul Harvey News and Comment" and "Paul Harvey's the Rest of the Story."

Who knew?

That amazing discovery almost made me forget the rest of my research. But not quite. I continued to research and learn.

The Army drafted Peterson in 1942, and he entered the U.S. Army Air Force. He was assigned in 1944 to the China-Burma theater of the war and flew planes over "The Hump," as the Himalayas were called, delivering arms, ammunition, and supplies to the Nationalist Chinese.

After the war, Peterson attended Moody Bible Institute on the G.I. Bill and later the American Conservatory of Music, from which he graduated in 1953. All the while, he was writing music. He later was for 10 years the president and editor-in-chief of Singspiration, a music-publishing company founded in 1944 by renowned hymnist Alfred B. Smith and later bought by Zondervan Publishing.

During his life, Peterson composed more than 1,000 hymns and wrote 35 cantatas, many of which you might be familiar with if you've been in church very much, especially at Christmas or Easter. As soon as I see the titles of some of his songs, I find myself humming them. (Yes, I do so quietly and privately so as not to disturb those with sensitive ears.) Here are a few of the titles:

  • "Heaven Came Down"

  • "In the Image of God"

  • "Isn't the Love of Jesus Wonderful"

  • "It Took a Miracle"

  • "Jesus Led Me All the Way"

  • "No One Understands Like Jesus"

  • "So Send I You"

  • "Springs of Living Water"

  • "Surely Goodness and Mercy"

Peterson went on to compile and publish hymnals and many more songs. Often called the "dean of modern hymnwriters," he was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1986.

When a reporter once asked Peterson about his favorite composers and hymns, his reply showed that the old hymnists and their works provided the foundation for his own hymn writing, and they are still as relevant and influential now as they were the day they were introduced.

His favorite hymnwriters: John Newton, Charles Wesley, Isaac Watts, and Ira Sankey.

His favorite hymns: "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," "And Can It Be," "It Is Well With My Soul," and "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross."

Peterson often autographed his musical scores, always adding the Bible reference for Galatians 2:20: "I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me."

Whenever you hear any of these old songs or sing them in church, think of John W. Peterson and his many songs. And remember that along his way to fame and ministry, Peterson crossed paths with another soon-to-be famous and influential voice, that of America's voice--Paul Harvey.

Now where was I? I must get back on track!

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