I knew that Elvis’s repertoire included some songs that were deeply spiritual. I wrote about him two years ago, featuring one of those selections.
But I didn’t know, prior to reading Gary Tillery’s The Seeker King: A Spiritual Biography of Elvis Presley, that Elvis was so immersed in the quest for God. I didn’t know that faith played so large a role in Elvis’ life and career, even to the last minutes of his life.
But there, in the pages of this well-told story, I could see it:
As a young child, Elvis attended a fundamentalist church, the First Assembly of God in Tupelo MS, with his family. That congregation took a literalist view of the Scriptures, and their worship was full-bodied and enthusiastic. Perhaps their spirited song and dance formed the foundation for Elvis’ rhythms and gyrations later, when he transformed the American music scene with his unique rock-‘n-roll style.
Later he veered into Eastern mysticism and New Age spirituality–seeking God in every person, practicing meditation and yoga and reading works such as Autobiography of a Yogi and Urantia. Theosophy took its place alongside traditional Christianity as a means of achieving deeper understanding.
Interestingly, Elvis’ interest in one type of spirituality, one path to deeper understanding, never seemed to preclude other options. With his friend and spiritual confidante Larry Geller, he turned to prayer. He admitted his confusion to God–that he had strayed from the path and lost his way–and appealed to the Lord for help. His thirst for spiritual knowledge led him to become curious about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints; and singer Donny Osmond recalls Elvis, in the 1970s, discussing the Book of Mormon with Donny’s mother Olive.
When Elvis met a Greek Orthodox pastor, Father Nicholas Vieron, the two spoke at length about “faith, religion, and things beyond.” Elvis was interested in the early church; so the priest gave him copies of The Incarnation by St. Athanasios, the Philokalia (texts written to instruct monks in the contemplative life), and sermons by the fourth-century theologian and orator St. John Chrysostom.
Elvis’ search for truth continued until the end of his life. On August 16, 1977, he died of a drug overdose in the bathroom of his Graceland mansion. On the floor beside him was the book he had been reading: The Scientific Search for the Face of Jesus.
Again, Tillery offers a great wrap-up of the faith which motivated this talented young man. I do caution here that Tillery’s worldview, steeped in theosophy, is not mine; I believe that God has revealed Himself to us in the Scriptures but that He is God and I am not. Nonetheless, I greatly appreciate Tillery’s spiritual biography of the man who exerted such an influence on American music and culture. Tillery explains:
Elvis came from a background where religious feeling too often focused on a simplistic, hellfire-and-brimstone, believe-in-Jesus-and-you’ll-be-saved view of the world. But he had a willingness to grow beyond boundaries and see through new eyes. He kept searching. Through wide reading, meditation, and prayer, he came to accept that the light of Christ is embedded in everyone. He sensed that God wanted him to make use of his inner light to uplift other people. For that purpose he had been given extraordinary talents and unparalleled fame.
His fans misunderstood and hailed him as a king. But no matter how exalted he became in the world, he remained insatiably curious about matters of the spirit. Up to his very last moments–as evidenced by the book he was reading when he died–he remained a seeker.
If you like Elvis… if you enjoy music… if you’re a lover of biographies… you’ll enjoy The Seeker King.