*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 21st of October 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.
You know the worship song “Awesome God”. If you’ve been to church camp you have sung it. If guitars are a part of your worship service, you’ve sung it. Maybe you know the hand movements. Maybe the song makes you cringe a little. I knew that it was written by Rich Mullins and that he died tragically. That was about it.
A few weeks ago, listener Forrest asked if I would do a show on Mullins today on what would have been his 66th birthday. And so I went down the rabbit hole- so many interviews, documentaries, songs. Today we will tell his story in brief.
I want every story to move me- these are the stories of our brothers and sisters in folly, triumph, tragedy but most importantly in faith. The story of Rich Mullins is especially moving to me, so let’s see what I can do with it in a few minutes.
First: imagine if you only knew Sting as the guy who sang Roxanne and did the backup vocals for Dire Straits' “Money for Nothing”? You might think, “that’s catchy” but would not know the actual singing and songwriting skills of the former Police frontman. This is what judging Mullins's career on “Awesome God” would be like.
If you’re younger, think of Sufjan Stevens. Playing across musical genres with a kind of manic depressive obsession with sin and grace. There are a few parallels between him and Mullins.
Let’s do the timeline:
Richard Wayne Mullins was born OTD in 1955 in Indiana. He grew up with 4 siblings on a farm, his mother was a Quaker but when his Dad got religion they ended up at Whitewater Christian Church. Rich started playing piano at 4 and his first performance was playing during communion at church.
Homelife was difficult for Rich whose gruff father was known to say “I have 2 sons, 2 daughters, and a piano player”. Rich would attend Cincinnati Bible College where he formed the group Zion in 1978. Through Zion, a demo tape made its way to producers who had Amy Grant cover his “Praise to the Lord”. From here Mullins went to Tennessee to strike out on his own. He would continue to write and record but would take intermittent breaks to work in churches and tours. He decided he wanted to work full time in ministry teaching music on reservations to native Americans. To do this he enrolled at Friends University in Wichita Kansas while also working in New Mexico among the Navajos.
Rich was peripatetic, always on the move. He often looked like and lived like a vagrant. He had an obsession with St. Francis of Assisi and recognized his own desires for acquiring fame and wealth. And so he did what he could to check those desires. He arranged to have his accountant collect his royalties and income, pay Rich the median American salary and give the rest away. He would write the Canticle of the Plains, a musical based on the life of St. Francis set in the Wild West.
Life on the reservation wasn’t what he thought it was and this seems to have crushed him. In his later interviews, he talked about the stress of combining his life, ministry, and career. His friends would talk about the darkness that seemed to lurk below the surface. A bandmate and friend remarked that “resignation and longing” were the two major themes of his work. He was called the “uneasy conscience” of Christian music just as it was becoming a billion-dollar global industry. On September 19th, 1997 he was headed from Chicago where he was recording to a benefit concert in Wichita. In Peoria, he lost control of his jeep and was thrown out. A semi-truck swerved to miss the Jeep and hit Mullins- killing him instantly. Born on this day in 1955 Rich Mullins was 41 years old.
The last word for today comes from Psalm 68:
Sing to God, O kingdoms of the earth;
sing praises to the Lord
O rider in the heavens, the ancient heavens;
listen, he sends out his voice, his mighty voice.
Ascribe power to God,
whose majesty is over Israel;
and whose power is in the skies.
Awesome is God in his sanctuary, the God of Israel; he gives power and strength to his people.
Blessed be God!
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 21st of October 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man who when He rolls up His sleeves He ain't just putting on the ritz, he is Christoper Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man with neither thunder in his footsteps or lightning in his fists. I am Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.