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'O Happy Day': The Song that Led this Atheist to Christ

Charles Mackesy, artist, London, England

Edwin Hawkins leaves behind a lasting legacy on the church and the music industry – one that spans multiple decades and different genres, much like his crossover musical style and appeal. The impact of his music also cuts across traditional demagraphic and religious lines.

Hawkins' "Oh Happy Day" was an international hit soon after it was released in 1967 and became a gospel standard featured in movies like "Sister Act 2" and recorded by scores of musicians in the U.S. and abroad, including the London Community Gospel Choir.

Charlie Mackesy, a British artist whose work has been sold to celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg and Sting, said the song had a profound personal effect on him as he made his journey from atheism to Christianity.

Mackesy was attending a music festival when he heard Hawkins' signature song for the first time performed by the London Community Gospel Choir. The piece moved him to tears and prompted a quest for deeper meaning.

"All I wanted to do, honestly, was get in that entrance and go to the front of the arena and see who was singing and stand there and get more of it," Mackesy told an audience at Holy Trinity Brompton in London in 2015.

"I didn't know much about black gospel music, but I bought loads of it," he recalled.

He moved to New Orleans and started painting pictures that reflected the essence of what he believed Hawkins' music and lyrics conveyed: freedom.

"This whole idea of grace – and I never heard it [before] – 'washed my sins away' and this freedom: they had this freedom I had never seen before," Mackesy explained. "And it was this whole notion that life is hard and messy but that we're loved. And that this is worth singing about."

In November 2015, Mackesy told CBN News "For me it was a good metaphor, because I was too filthy to be allowed in, and I think a lot of people feel like that."

As a former atheist, Mackesy believes he can relate to people who are skeptical about God, the church, and Christians.

"If you're on the outside looking in, it may seem very strange but actually is very good – and I can't recommend it more highly," he said in concluding his talk at the London church. "Even though it's difficult and faith is a difficult journey, it's worth every second."

For Mackesy, it was a religious journey that started with a soulful song, an upbeat tempo, and a simple message about a savior.

Hawkins would no doubt would call that story of one lost soul returning to God's flock, a happy day.

Meanwhile, the condolences continue to pour in with fans and fellow artists, like Israel Houghton, sharing the impact of the gospel music legend on social media.

"Heaven gets to hear him sing his song O Happy Day in person. Grateful for the music that shaped my upbringing and informed my own music."

RCA Inspiration, Sony's gospel music division, highlighted Hawkins' contributions, along with other members of his family like his brother Walter Hawkins, who died in 2010.

"You cannot mention anything in Gospel music and not reference the Hawkins Family. We issue our sincerest condolences and heartfelt prayers to the Hawkins Family and our industry family."

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