Cigarettes, Whiskey, and Wild Religion
Now we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve like the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, so also we believe that God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep as Christians.For we tell you this by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will surely not go ahead of those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be suddenly caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
SING “Write on the cross at the head of my grave
For women and whiskey here lies a poor slave.
Take warnin' poor stranger, take warnin' dear friend
In wide clear letters this tale of my end.
Cigarettes and whiskey and wild, wild women
they drive you crazy they drive you insane.
Cigarettes and whiskey and wild, wild women
They drive you crazy they drive you insane.”
Vernon Spencer, better known as Tim Spencer, of Roy Rogers and the Pioneers fame, wrote that song in 1947. By 1955, he was singing a very different song.
Vernon Harold Timothy Spencer was born July 13, 1908, to Edgar and Laura Spencer in Webb City Missouri, one of eight children in the family. Vernon loved music, and even ran away from home one time with a banjo ukelele he’d bought using his father’s credit - credit intended for food for the family. But a sense of duty, or love for his family, or maybe fear of his father, led him to come back home, finish his schooling, and work in the mine where his father was superintendent.
That probably would have been that, if Vernon hadn’t found himself next to an ore cart one day when it overturned. He suffered a cracked vertebrae and, unable to work, turned his attention back to his other love: music. His first live performance was in a bar in town which was charmingly named “the Bucket of Blood.” He made $9 in tips the first night, and in 1931 found himself on a train to Los Angeles, where he worked at a Safeway and did everything he could to become a famous country singer.
In 1931, while Vernon was sitting in with the Rocky Mountaineers, Stuart Wesley Keene Hine was half a world away. Hine was a Methodist missionary from England, serving on an evangelistic mission to the Ukraine. It was there where he heard a Russian song he just had to translate into English. So he did.
Vernon Spencer started going by a shortened version of his middle name, and became known as Tim Spencer. One of his fellow Mountaineers, Leonard Slye, changed his name to Roy Rogers. Together with Bob Nolan, they formed the Sons of the Pioneers, and the trio found steady employment at KFWB, beginning some twenty years of success in radio, movies, television, and touring.
That probably would have been that, if Tim Spencer hadn’t met and married Velma. Velma was a dedicated Christian woman, and by her account she prayed for her husband every day. She didn’t know what was to come, but she believed her devotion to Tim and her devotion to God did not have to be in conflict with one another, so she prayed for him, all the way through the thirties and into the forties.
While Velma was praying, Stuart Hine could not get that song out of his head. Happy with his translation, he began writing new verses. Marveling at Christ’s sacrifice, he wrote a third verse about his awe at the idea. As he saw the ravages of world war two, he wrote a fourth verse about Christ’s future return. Lesser known verses about human impact on the environment and times of struggle were added, first in Russian for use in his evangelistic services, then translated into English for his own benefit.
At some point after World War II, possibly while Stuart was writing verse 4, Velma wrote a verse of her own. It was a reference to a Bible verse, which she put in a letter and mailed to her husband, Tim. Sitting in his hotel room as he read the letter, Tim pulled the Gideon Bible from the nightstand and read what Velma wanted him to read. And this time it hit home. Tim committed his life to Christ, and his professional career began to change. He stayed with the Sons of the Pioneers for a while, but began making appearances on a weekly Christian music program.
Then he started writing Gospel music of his own.
Then he founded a Gospel Music publishing company called Manna Records.
Then he began touring with Billy Graham.
The man who wrote about how cigarettes, whiskey, and wild, wild women ruined his life, had found new life thanks in large part to a woman who loved him.
While Tim was transitioning away from the Sons of the Pioneers, Stuart Hine was finalizing the English version of his song, which was introduced to the United States in 1951. It spread gradually through the country, reaching the ears of two young people in California who went home and told their father about it.
So it was in 1955 that Stuart Hine got a call from someone at Manna Records, letting him know that Tim Spencer was interested in buying the rights to “How Great Thou Art.”
I don’t know what it was Spencer heard in that song. Perhaps it was the reminder of how his life had been changed by Christ’s sacrifice. Perhaps it was the promise of a new life yet to come. Perhaps he just knew good music when he heard it. Whatever the reason, the man who wrote “Cigareets, Whuskey, and wild wild woman” ended up being the same man who made sure the whole world would come to know one of the most beloved hymns of the 20th century.
Sure enough, when Tim died, his grave did not say “Take warnin’ dear stranger, take warnin’ dear friend.” It said, in wide letters, “O Lord My God. How Great Thou Art.”