Rhea F. Miller

Short Name: Rhea F. Miller
Full Name: Miller, Rhea F.
Birth Year: 1894
Death Year: 1966

A biography and song history from Ron Kelly, Jr:
Rhea F. Miller was the only daughter of Martin and Bertha Ross, from Brooktondale, NY, which is 8 miles out of Ithaca, NY. "Grampa Ross," we called him, had been a drunk and wanted nothing to do with religion. His wife, Bertha, was faithful to God in spite of her husband's drunkenness. Her faithfulness and the prayers of family and friends eventually led to his salvation and deliverance from alcohol. As a result, he entered the ministry and became pastor of the Baptist Church in Brooktondale. The Miller family attended the Baptist church, whose members included a young man named Howard Vassar Miller. He was saved in 1910 when he was just 16 years old. It wasn't long before he and Rhea caught each others' eye, and after he graduated from Colgate University, he and Rhea were married.

One day in 1922, at 28 years of age, while walking the fields of their Brooktondale home, Rhea began to reflect on her father's testimony of how he had been delivered from alcohol, and how he had said he would rather have Jesus than all the gold and silver in the world, and all the houses and land that money could buy. Thus the song was born and soon took form with her own words complete with her own music. That same year, she and her husband Howard moved to Providence, RI where they joined the Church of the Nazarene. Howard was a strong Christian and a dynamic speaker and soon was called to pastor the Church of the Nazarene in Hartford, CT in 1923.

Howard later became the District Superintendent of the New England District of the Church of the Nazarene which consisted of 6 states and much of Eastern Canada! In 1929 he went back to NY State and became the District Superintendent there. In 1939 he became the Dean of Religion at Northwest Nazarene College in Idaho. That same year is when George Beverly Shea found the song in just its poem form and wrote his version of the music to "I'd Rather Have Jesus." In 1940 Dr. Miller was elected as one of the General Superintendents of the Church of The Nazarene. He died at home in Brooktondale, three days after Christmas in 1948 while cutting firewood out behind the family home in Brooktondale, NY.

Rhea was an accomplished pianist and taught piano to help sustain herself after her husband died. She had one particular goal with her teaching, and that was to get into as many pastors' homes as possible and teach their children how to play the piano, at no fee to the pastor's family, so that when they reached maturity they would have something to contribute to the Church. She was a fascinating, vibrant woman, so very positive and encouraging. I have stood by her side, watching and listening intently while she played her song for me, and other songs she had written. She had a classical style and I think a bit of that showed in her own music that she wrote for "I'd Rather Have Jesus." She was a faithful member of the Brooktondale Church of the Nazarene, which her own father, "Grampa Ross" had started. I was only 17 at the time and my Dad was the pastor. When my wife and I were married, April 10, 1955, she played the piano for our wedding. I can still see her in her little 1948 gray Nash Coupe, driving down the road, going somewhere to teach piano.

"Grampa Ross" died in 1957. Rhea and her mother, Bertha, stayed in the area for as long as they could. We held mid-week prayer meetings in their home to save money from trying to run the old fuel oil furnace in the church. You never knew when the thing would get the hiccups and blow black smoke all over the church. Besides, there was no running water at the church. They had a Cocker Spaniel which they would take out to the back part of the house and tell it to stay there during our prayer service. Somehow that dog knew when my Dad would pray and say "Amen" that the service was over, and he would come tearing into the living room to say "Hello" to all of us.

Rhea eventually developed Parkinson's Disease and began to lose control of her left hand. It broke my heart to see her struggle to play the piano after that. She and her mother moved from the area soon after her father died, to Chilicothe, Ohio, where her daughter Betty lived, with her husband, Bob Quanstrom, who pastored the Church of the Nazarene there. It was a sad day when we heard she had passed away in 1966.

The Nazarene's Upstate NY District Center and Campgrounds is located in Brooktondale and is land which came from the Ross's and the Millers together, the final outcome of a vision both Rev. Ross and Dr. Miller shared. The camp meeting runs over the 4th of July every year unless it conflicts with the schedule of General Conference.

If you ever want to hear "I'd Rather Have Jesus" sung with new meaning, you need to come and hear it here, right where it was born. I sing the song everywhere I go and tell the people it's half Wesleyan and half Nazarene, because George Beverly Shea was Wesleyan and Rhea was Nazarene, and because of a Baptist preacher named Billy Graham, the song went all around the globe. I was in a Gospel Quartet for years and we sang in Bev Shea's home church, which if I remember correctly, was in Rutherford, NJ.

And that is some of the story of "I'd Rather Have Jesus". I've read several books on stories of hymns, but have yet to find one that tells how the song was really born. -Ron Kelly, Jr.





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