PODCAST: How Great Thou Art (The History Behind the Hymns #25 with Daniel Whyte III)

Welcome to the History Behind the Hymns podcast. This is episode #25

I am your host, Daniel Whyte III, president of Gospel Light Society International. I am one of many Christians who still loves the old hymns of the faith even more than many modern Christian songs. For the past 33 years, my wife and children and I have sung the old hymns during our family devotion time. Over the years we have used an Independent Baptist hymn book, a National Baptist hymn book, and a Southern Baptist hymn book to sing the old hymns of the faith. And we have sung the old hymns of the faith with traditional Methodist churches online. The old hymns of the faith have been a tremendous source of blessing and encouragement to my heart down through the years. The purpose of this podcast is to encourage you to dust off your old hymn book and experience the power and blessing of well-written hymns based upon sound doctrine for the glory of God that will strengthen your faith.

The History Behind the Hymns passage of Scripture is Psalm 8 which reads: “O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! who hast set thy glory above the heavens. Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies, that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger. When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet: All sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field; The fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas. O Lord our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth!”

The History Behind the Hymns quote for today is from William Temple. He said: “Worship is the submission of all our nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by his holiness; the nourishment of mind with his truth; the purifying of imagination by his beauty; the opening of the heart to his love; the surrender of will to his purpose – and all of this gathered up in adoration.”

The quote in connection to today’s hymn is from Charles Spurgeon. He said: “There are no measures which can set forth the immeasurable greatness of Jehovah, Who is goodness itself… Notes of exclamation suit us when words of explanation are of no avail. If we cannot measure we can marvel; and though we may not calculate with accuracy, we can adore with fervency.”

Our hymn for today is “How Great Thou Art” by Stuart K. Hine. It reads:

O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made,
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed:

When through the woods and forest glades I wander
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees,
When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur,
And hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze:

And when I think that God, His Son not sparing,
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in,
That on the cross, my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin.

When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation
And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart!
Then I shall bow in humble adoration,
And there proclaim, My God, how great Thou art!

Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee:
How great Thou art! How great Thou art!
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee:
How great Thou art! How great Thou art!

Now here is the history behind the hymn, “How Great Thou Art”. According to Umcdiscipleship.org:

As Carlton Young was preparing The United Methodist Hymnal, a United Methodist Reporter poll revealed that “How Great Thou Art” headed the list of hymns that should be retained in the then-forthcoming 1989 hymnal.

As the poll was published, John A. Lovelace, Reporter editor emeritus, wrote, “What no previous survey had found, though, is that ‘How Great Thou Art’ may also be United Methodism’s least-liked hymn” (The United Methodist Reporter, August 23, 1985).

Earlier, when the hymn was reluctantly included in the 1966 Methodist Hymnal (as most-requested hymn), Dr. Young notes that many complained that “the church’s official hymnal would bring respectability to the theme song of the Billy Graham Crusades . . .. Others brought equally uninformed and unfair criticism on the Methodist Publishing House for presumably dictating editorial policy and cheapening the church’s official hymnal”.

Many who fervently sing this hymn throughout the world each Sunday in myriad translations have no idea of the polarity of feeling that exists around it. Perhaps both sides would benefit from some historical perspective.

The origins of this hymn may be found with Swedish pastor Carl Boberg around 1886. Boberg (1859-1940) was a leading evangelist of his day and the editor of an influential Evangelical Lutheran Church of Sweden periodical Sanningsvittnet (“Witness of the Truth”). Boberg served in the Swe­dish par­lia­ment and published sev­er­al vol­umes of po­e­try, including hymns. He al­so helped com­pile the first two hymn­als for the Swe­dish Co­ve­nant Church.

Boberg’s inspiration is said to have come one day when he was caught in a thunderstorm on the southeastern coast of Sweden. The violence of the storm followed by the return of the sun and the singing of birds left him falling to his knees in awe. Soon he penned the nine stanzas of the original version in Swedish beginning with “O Store Gud, nar jag den varld beskader.” Several years later, Boberg unexpectedly heard his poem sung by a congregation to an old Swedish folk melody.

The subsequent history of the poem is somewhat unclear, but interesting. An earlier literal English translation of four of the stanzas by E. Gustav Johnson in 1925 began “O mighty God, when I behold the wonder.” This version never caught on, however, though it may be found in some hymnals. The first stanza and refrain follow:

O mighty God, when I behold the wonder
Of nature’s beauty, wrought by words of Thine,
And how Thou leadest all from realms up yonder,
Sustaining earthly life in love benign,

Refrain:
With rapture filled, my soul Thy name would laud,
O mighty God! O mighty God!
With rapture filled, my soul Thy name would laud,
O mighty God! O mighty God!

In 1907, Manfred von Glehn translated the text from the Swedish into German. It became the hymn, “Wie gross bist du.” In 1927, a Russian version by the evangelical leader Ivan S. Prokhanoff appeared in Kimvali (Cymbals), a collection published by the Baptist Press in Poland. English missionary Stuart K. Hine (1899-1989) and his wife heard the Russian version sung as a vocal duet in the Ukraine.

As the Hine couple crossed into Sub-Carpathian Russia, the mountain scenery brought back the memory of this song. The first three stanzas were composed while in the Carpathian Mountains. When war broke out, Hine and his wife were forced to return to England in 1939. They used the first three stanzas in evangelistic endeavors during the “Blitz years.” The fourth stanza was added after the war.

Baptist hymnologist William Reynolds cites comments by George Beverly Shea on the hymn’s introduction in the United States through the Billy Graham Crusades: “We first sang [it] in the Toronto, Canada, Crusade of 1955. Cliff Barrows and his large volunteer choir assisted in the majestic refrains. Soon after, we used it in the ‘Hour of Decision’ [radio broadcasts] and in American crusades. In the New York meetings of 1957 the choir joined me in singing it ninety-three times!”.

The first two stanzas establish the grandeur of God’s creation while the refrain establishes our response, “How great Thou art!” In stanza three, the God of the natural created order continues the creative act by sending God’s Son to redeem a lost humanity. With this stanza, the primary theological perspective shifts from creation to atonement. While the first two stanzas express humanity’s awe at the natural created order, this is not the ultimate goal of this hymn. Human sin has marred the gift of the Creator. The vivid description of nature in the first two stanzas finds its fulfillment in heaven or when we escape the earth.

The final stanza, however, may be seen as the completion of the story of creation and human redemption on an eschatological note; the fulfillment of creation takes place in heaven. Thus, this hymn embodies the breadth of the redemption story from Genesis to Revelation. Given the sweeping and shifting theological territory covered in this hymn, the refrain ties all the themes together with the reiteration of the hymn’s central premise four times, “How great Thou art!”

After an extended court battle to determine the ownership of the text and music, Hine’s English words and his musical setting were assigned to Manna Music. The publisher was able to show that the 1953 version of the gospel hymn was the “first, final and fixed form of the hymn”.

The reader may notice that the text of the first stanza is not included in this article. “How Great Thou Art” is one of the most expensive hymns to include in a hymnal, costing $2,000 for a permission fee for The United Methodist Hymnal. In spite of this, one can find numerous websites that provide the entire text (obviously without the publisher’s permission) with accompanying music. I have heard the hymn sung in Sweden using Boberg’s original version. The Swedish version is understated and sung in strict rhythm. This version is no less fervently felt, however, by Swedish Christians. The versions sung in the Graham Crusades are a vastly different experience from those I have heard in Sweden. Conducted by Cliff Barrows, the Crusade renditions featured soaring lines with fermatas on the last phrase of the refrain, and the resonant bass voice of George Beverly Shea. These were a part of my sacred soundscape as I grew up seeing the televised crusades (in black and white) and hearing them over and over again on LP vinyl records.

Recordings by numerous popular recording artists may be found on YouTube, but perhaps none are as memorable as the rendition by Elvis Presley on his farewell tour in 1977 weeks before his death.

In our next episode we will look at the history behind the hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” by Joseph Scriven.

Let’s Pray —

Dear friend, this hymn honors God and the Lord Jesus Christ, if you do not know the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior, and you want to get to know Him today here’s how.

First, accept the fact that you are a sinner, and that you have broken God’s law. The Bible says in Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”

Second, accept the fact that there is a penalty for sin. The Bible states in Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death…”

Third, accept the fact that you are on the road to hell. Jesus Christ said in Matthew 10:28: Also, the Bible states in Revelation 21:8: “But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.”

Now this is bad news, but here’s the good news. Jesus Christ said in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Just believe in your heart that Jesus Christ died for your sins, was buried, and rose from the dead by the power of God for you so that you can live eternally with Him. Pray and ask Him to come into your heart today, and He will.

Romans 10:9-13 says, “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For the scripture saith, Whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed. For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him. For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Pray and ask Him to come into your heart and He will.

May God bless you and keep you until we meet again.