Born NOVEMBER 1, 1921
In 1940 John traveled and sang with two of his brothers as the Norse Gospel Trio. One night between Wichita and Lincoln, Kansas, a tanker truck heading their way crossed the center line. It hit them head-on. The collision destroyed their car, but the three Peterson brothers walked away with minor injuries. That incident and many other episodes John experienced made the word “miracle” the theme of the songwriter’s life.
YOUNG SINGER, SONGWRITER
John was born in Lindsborg, Kansas, the youngest of seven children. As a child, he loved to sing. He dreamed of singing as a career. One year, talent scouts for the popular radio program The Original Amateur Hour (hosted by Major Bowes) came to town. The young John beat out all the other performers that day. His grand prize: voice lessons and a few months of singing on his own radio program on the local station.
When he was twelve, John responded during a church altar call, accepting Jesus’ payment for his sins. He began reading the Bible. Starting in Genesis, he read ten chapters per day until he finished Revelation. John kept repeating the practice, becoming well grounded in his understanding of the Bible’s teachings. His devotional life as a teenager fed into what became John’s desire to write gospel songs.
After high school graduation, John worked at a few jobs and traveled and sang with two of his older brothers. One of them preached. When the attack on Pearl Harbor brought America into World War II, Uncle Sam knew where to find John.
FLYING WITH GOD
John received his draft notice in the fall of 1942. He entered the Air Force. By the time he was shipped overseas in 1944, he had married Marie and they were expecting their first child.Stationed in the Burmese jungle, John the Air Force pilot flew supplies over the “China Hump,” a nickname for the Himalayan Mountains. He had a number of close calls. One night in a storm, the plane rose and fell like a rollercoaster while being pelted with rain, snow, and hail. Then lightning struck the front of the plane, knocking out the electrical equipment.
God guided John through the storm, safely back to camp. Another of many miracles in John’s life.
“IT TOOK A MIRACLE”
After the war, the G. I. Bill allowed John to attend Moody Bible Institute. By then he had decided to pursue gospel song writing as a career. A couple of publishers had bought some songs he’d written, but he sold them without royalty contracts and did not receive much money.Something one of his classroom instruct-ors said in 1948 started John thinking, reflecting on the miracles in his life. As soon as the class ended, he bolted to a room in the music building. There, he put together the words and the music floating around in his heart and head.
The chorus of the resulting song, “It Took A Miracle,” declares that God’s placing the stars and the earth in the universe was indeed a miracle, “But, when He saved my soul, cleansed and made me whole, it took a miracle of love and grace!” When published, the song caught on immediately.
Following his education at Moody, John remained in Chicago to attend the American Conservatory of Music. He graduated in 1953. By then John had written other songs that received exposure and touched lives. Titles included “Springs of Living Water,” “No One Understands Like Jesus,” and “Over the Sunset Mountains.”
In the mid-1950s John moved his family to Montrose, Pennsylvania. He became music editor at the Singspiration Publishing Company. John eventually branched out to write choral music and cantatas. Again, God blessed John’s work.
He continued penning hymns like the 1957 song “Jesus is Coming Again.” The chorus expresses the anticipation of Jesus’ return with the words, “May be morning, may be noon, may be evening and may be soon!”
“SURELY GOODNESS AND MERCY”
Alfred B. Smith had founded the Singspiration Publishing Company in 1941. One day, Alfred and John were tossing around ideas for a new song. They thought about the 23rd Psalm. The contents of a letter Alfred had received helped them zero in on verse six.
The letter, from a descendant of hymnwriter Philip Bliss, related a story from his childhood. Philip’s teacher Miss Murphy had been teaching him the famous Psalm. He had memorized the phrase from verse six as “surely good Miss Murphy shall follow me all the days of my life.” Since 1958, John and Alfred’s hymn “Surely Goodness and Mercy” has encouraged many.
An example of the song’s meaning in John’s own life came when the Zondervan Publishing Company purchased the Singspiration Publishing Company. John was invited in 1963 to become president of Singspiration. He accepted and moved his family to Grand Rapids, Michigan. He faithfully served in that post for ten years.
“HEAVEN CAME DOWN”
Other well-loved hymns God gave John to write include “Isn’t the Love of Jesus Something Wonderful?” and “Heaven Came Down.” Both were copyrighted in 1961. The inspiration for “Heaven Came Down” occurred one summer while John led hymns at the Montrose Bible Conference.
Between songs, John asked for testimonies from the congregation. An elderly fellow stood to his feet. He recalled the very evening that he as a younger man surrendered his life to Jesus Christ. He summed up the experience with the words, “Heaven came down and glory filled my soul.” The words stuck with John. A few days later, he turned them into a song.
A standout phrase from the first verse is, “Shadows dispelling, with joy I am telling, He made all the darkness depart!” Verse two concludes with, “(I) took of the offer of grace He did proffer– He saved me, O praise His dear name!”
AN ONGOING MIRACLE
John’s individual songs (over 1,000) have been highlighted in Billy Graham crusades, recorded by well-known singers, and published in various denominational hymnals. About 10 million copies of his larger works —musicals and cantatas— have been sold. After step-ping down as president of Singspiration, John accepted invitations from churches to con-duct choral workshops.
In the 1970s, his and Marie’s three daughters traveled as the Peterson Trio. (see YouTube link below). In 1976, John wrote his autobiography, The Miracle Goes On. He received numerous honors and awards, including induction into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1986.
John never sought to be popular; he sought to be God’s servant. He stated, “I am under obligation to communicate the gospel as much as the man in the pulpit.”
John passed away at his home in 2006. His life is truly a testimony to God’s miracles. The continuing influence of his writings is evident every Easter and Christmas as churches per-form his cantatas. His influence flourishes the rest of the year as Christians throughout the world sing his hymns.
LET ME KNOW: How has John’s story informed, encouraged, or otherwise helped you? I welcome your comments.
- Peterson, John. The Miracle Goes On. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing, 1976.
- Petersen, William J. and Ardyth Petersen. The Complete Book of Hymns. Carol Stream, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 2006.
- Davis, Paul. Inspirational Hymn and Song Stories of the Twentieth Century. Greenville, SC: Ambassador Publications, 2001
- Osbeck, Kennth. 101 More Hymn Stories. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 1985.
- John’s daughters (the Peterson Trio) sing some of his songs-http://www.youtube.com/user/gospelclassix.
- Type in “songs by John W. Peterson” for a wide array of his individual songs and some of his seasonal numbers.