How Great Thou Art

based on
O store Gud, när jag den verld beskådar

also translated as
Du grosser Gott, wenn ich die Welt betrachte
Великiй Богъ! Когда на мiръ смотрю я
O mighty God, when I behold the wonder

with HOW GREAT THOU ART (O STORE GUD)


Fig. 1. Mönsterås Tidningen, front page, 13 Mar. 1886.

Origins. The story behind this famous hymn involves a long journey, beginning in Sweden, where the original form of the text was written by Carl Boberg (1859–1940). Boberg’s text began “O store Gud” and was first published on the front page of the newspaper Mönsterås Tidningen, 13 Mar. 1886 (Fig. 1), in nine stanzas of six lines. Boberg was born and raised in Mönsterås and was a preacher there at the time this was written. A full translation in English was given in a pamphlet by Stuart Hine, as follows:


O (Thou) great God! When I the world consider
Which Thou has made by Thine almighty Word;
And how the web of life Thy wisdom guideth,
And all creation feedeth at Thy board:
Then doth my soul burst forth in song of praise:
O (Thou) great God! O (Thou) great God!

When I survey beneath the vault of heaven
The golden world-ships plough th’ ethereal blue,
And sun and moon the hours of time do measure,
And wax and wane, twin clocks (trustworthy, true):

When in the storm I hear the thunder rolling,
And lightning flashes darting through the sky;
When gently fall the showers of rain refreshing,
And shines the promised rainbow (there on high):

When summer wind across the field is rustling,
And flowers give out their scent beside the spring;
When trills the thrush within the verdant arbour,
Or in the pinewood shade (I hear it sing):

When in the Bible see I all God’s wonders
Which He has wrought, since Adam (came to life);
How full of grace and truth was He at all times,
And helped His people ’midst life’s sin and strife:

I hear deluded men, in darkened folly,
Denying God—they mock His words (of love);
I see that meanwhile they His help experience,
And by His pow’r and grace they live and move:

And when I see His image coming earthward,
Who ev’rywhere did good (showed forth His worth);
When see I Satan flee with deathly trembling
Before the Lord, as Crucified set forth:

And when, oppressed by sin, I fall before Him,
Down at His feet, and pray for grace and peace;
And then, my soul in righteous pathways leading,
He saves me, makes my sin and strife to cease:

When finally the veil of time is lifted,
And when my faith is changed to sight at last;
When comes the clarion call, th’ eternal summons,
My soul, redeemed, shall enter into rest:
Then doth my soul burst forth in song of praise:
Thanks, gracious God! Thanks, gracious God!

The Story of “How Great Thou Art” (1958)


By 1890, the text had already been transmitted to the United States, where it appeared in Sionsharpan (Chicago: Mission Friend’s Publishing Co., 1890 | Fig. 2), printed with a version of the Swedish folk melody known today as O STORE GUD. Textually, this version omits the original ninth stanza. Musically, this form of the melody is given in 3/4 time with a rising opening interval, 1-1-1-3, rather than the more familiar descent, 5-5-5-3.

Fig. 2. Sionsharpan (Chicago: Mission Friend’s Publishing Co., 1890).

The following year, when Boberg was editor of the periodical Sanningsvittnet (“Witness of the Truth”), he published his poem again, this time with the Swedish folk melody, on 16 April 1891 (Fig. 3). It seems, based on this printing and the previous one, Boberg had written his text with this melody in mind, except some accounts of Boberg’s experience have described how he had attended a meeting in Värmland and was “surprised to hear his poem being sung to the tune of an old Swedish melody.”[1] Whether by intention or by divine serendipity, these two vehicles have been almost inseparable. Boberg’s 1891 printing is notable in many respects, including (1) the full arrangement for voice, piano, and guitar, composed by Erik Adolf Edgren (1858–1921), (2) the shape of the opening notes, 5-3-3-5, (3) the martial, dotted rhythms throughout, and (4) the way the melody ends downward rather than climactically upward.

 

Fig. 3. Sanningsvittnet, 16 April 1891.

 

One other printing in Swedish of some importance is the appearance of this song in Svenska Missionsförbundets Sångbok (Stockholm: P. Palmquists Aktiebolag, 1894 | Fig. 4). This copy contains the full nine stanzas. The key variations here are (1) in the rhythm, being expanded to 4/4, (2) in the first melodic phrase, starting 5-5-5-3, and (3) the shape of the last melodic phrase, rising upward stepwise before returning to the tonic. This form of the melody is the one still in common use in English and elsewhere.

Fig. 4. Svenska Missionsförbundets Sångbok (Stockholm: P. Palmquists Aktiebolag, 1894).


Russian Translation. A prolific Russian compiler and translator, И.С. Прохановъ (I.S. Prokhanoff; transliterated spellings vary), published his translation of the hymn as early as 1908 in Кимвальi (“Cymbals”), in eight stanzas, text only (Fig. 5). A music version appeared as early as 1923 (Fig. 6). This Russian version includes all the Swedish stanzas except for number six, and it transposes the order of the third and fourth stanzas. The last stanza is arguably a new stanza rather than a direct translation of Boberg’s ninth. The quote at the top is from Psalm 18:2 (“The heavens declare Your glory”).

 
 

Fig. 5. И.С. Прохановъ, Кимвальi (St. Petersburg, 1908).

Fig. 6. И.С. Прохановъ, Кимвальi (1923).

German Translation. Boberg’s Swedish was translated into German by Manfred von Glehn of Estonia, published as “Wie gross bist Du!” in Blankenburger Lieder (Blankenburger: Evangelischen Allianzhauses, 1912 | Fig. 7). Glehn’s text of six stanzas represents 1-2, 5, and 7-9 of the original Swedish. The music is very close to the 1894 Swedish, except for a couple of added dotted rhythms and a few changes to the harmonization.

Fig. 7. Blankenburger Lieder (Blankenburger: Evangelischen Allianzhauses, 1912).

Some matter of debate surrounds the connection between the Russian and German versions. Stuart Hine, in his 1958 account, believed the Russian was translated from the German, based on the similarities in the penultimate stanza not found in the Swedish (the injection of the phrase “even unto death”), although Hine acknowledged how the similarities could be incidental, a natural extension of the meaning of the original words. In addition, Prokhanoff is said to have been skilled at translating hymns from German.

Contrary to this theory, the German version is only six stanzas, whereas the Russian is eight; the Russian predates the German, and the Russian version of the music is nearly identical to the 1894 Swedish, more than it is to the German. A more likely scenario is that the two translations were developed independently, the Russian coming first. If one influenced the other, the Russian would have influenced the German.

First English Translation. The Swedish text was first translated into English by E. Gustav Johnson (1893–1974). His translation initially appeared in 1925 in The Children’s Friend, a periodical produced by The Swedish Christian Orphanage in Cromwell, Connecticut (now Ädelbrook | website). His text and the Swedish melody were then published together in The Covenant Hymnal (Chicago: Covenant Book Concern, 1931 | Fig. 8), under the auspices of the Swedish Evangelical Mission Covenant of America. Johnson’s version corresponds to stanzas 1-2 and 7-9 of the original Swedish and is a more faithful translation than the more popular version that would come later. Johnson’s translation uses the 3/4 version of the melody, as in the 1890 Chicago printing at Figure 2.

 

Fig. 8. The Covenant Hymnal (Chicago: Covenant Book Concern, 1931).

 

Second English Translation. Stuart K. Hine (1899–1989) and his wife, Mercy (Salmon) Hine, were British missionaries. They embarked on a mission to Western Ukraine in 1923, where they learned the Russian version by Prokhanoff. They took this hymn with them when they moved their efforts to the Carpathian mountains. Hine, in The Story of “How Great Thou Art” (1958), described the genesis of his version of the hymn:

In the very first Carpathian mountain village to which the writer climbed, he stood in the street, sang a Gospel hymn, and read aloud John chapter three. Among sympathetic listeners stood the Russian village schoolmaster. But a storm was gathering, and when it was evident the missionary would not get any further that night, the friendly schoolmaster offered hospitality. Awe-inspiring was “the mighty thunder” echoing through the mountains, and it was this impression which was to bring about the birth of the first verse of the hymn in English.

Pushing on, the writer crossed the mountain frontier into Romania, and there in the Bukovina (“the land of the beech tree”) found believers. Together with the young people, “through woods and forest glades” he wandered, and “heard the birds sing sweetly in the trees.” Instinctively, the young people burst into song, accompanied on their mandolins and guitars—the only song so perfectly fitting the scene: “How great Thou art,” to I.S. Prokhanoff’s words.

Thus, inspired by the Russian words, partly by awesome wonder at the sight of “all the works Thy hand hath made,” the thoughts of the first two verses sprang to life in English.

The third stanza came to fruition a short time later in another village, after the Hines led twelve unbelievers to Christ. The fourth was written in 1948 after they had returned to Britain. Hine published his version of the hymn—which is best regarded as inspired by the Russian version, not translated from it—in a Russian magazine he edited, Grace and Peace, in 1949, “which went out gratis to refugees in fifteen lands, including North and South America. Requests for extra free copies made it necessary to reprint the page containing the hymn—2,000, 3,000, 5,000 copies, and so on. … The hymn was thus well known, worldwide, long before a single copy was ever sold.” None of these early printings are known to survive.

Dr. J. Edwin Orr (1912–1987), a Baptist minister, professor of missions, and founding board member of Campus Crusade for Christ, is credited with introducing the song to publishers in the United States. In April 1954, he had written a letter to Hine, explaining how he learned the song in India:

Near the sacred city of Nasik, I heard a choir of Naga tribespeople from the jungles of Assam sing the hymn “How great Thou art.” It was a great blessing to missionaries and nationals alike, but most of all to me. That night I could not sleep for elation of spirit, but spent the time in praise and adoration of God.”[1]

When Orr returned to the U.S., he used it in a conference at the Forest Home Christian Conference Center in southern California, through which he is said to have arranged for the song to be published as broadsheets by Gospel Light (Glendale, California) in 1954, via Cyrus Nettleton Nelson. This edition is not known to survive. The official statement by Manna Music, the longstanding publisher and copyright holder, says:

Attending the Forest Home college-age conference were Hal Spencer and his sister, Loretta, son and daughter of Tim Spencer who was a songwriter and publisher of Christian music. Hal and Loretta borrowed the song sheet from Dr. Orr and brought it home and gave it to their father. He contacted Stuart K. Hine and the publishing rights were granted to Manna Music, Inc.[2]

Manna published the song as sheet music and registered their copyright in 1955 (Fig. 9). The editors at Manna changed two words in the first stanza, substituting “worlds” for “works” and “rolling” for “mighty.”

 

Fig. 9. “How Great Thou Art” (Burbank, CA: Manna Music, ©1955), excerpt.

 

Even though, by this point, the song had circulated widely, it achieved some measure of notoriety via the crusades of Billy Graham. Crusade singer George Beverly Shea described how his team obtained the song and used it to great success:

During the London crusade at Harringay Arena in 1954, my friend, Mr. Andrew Gray, of the publishing firm Pickering and Inglis Ltd. handed me a little four-page leaflet containing a “new hymn.” We receive many contributions of this kind and at first I did not examine it closely. But I did notice that it had words in both English and Russian, and that it had a very strong and worshipful title, “How Great Thou Art.” …

The completed song was printed in 1949 in a Russian gospel magazine published by Mr. Hine. Reprints were requested by missionaries all over the world, and it was one of those leaflets that was given to us in 1954. We first sang “How Great Thou Art” in the Toronto, Canada Crusade of 1955. Cliff Barrows and his large volunteer choir assisted in the majestic refrains. Soon after, we used it on the “Hour of Decision” and in American crusades. In the New York meetings of 1957, the choir joined me in singing it ninety-nine times! It became a keynote of praise each evening.[3]

The song was included in Billy Graham crusade songbooks (Fig. 10). George Beverly Shea and the Toronto Crusade Choir recorded the song in 1955, and it was released on plasticized paper records, as in Figure 11.

 

Fig. 10. Billy Graham Crusade Songbook (Minneapolis: BGEA, 1956), excerpt.

Fig. 11. “How Great Thou Art,” 78 rpm phonograph on plasticized paper (Minneapolis: BGEA, 1955).

 

In his 1958 publication, Stuart Hine added two more stanzas, labeled 3a and 3b, which have not been adopted into wider use:

Oh, when I see ungrateful man defiling
This bounteous earth, God’s gifts so good and great;
In foolish pride God’s holy name reviling
And yet, in grace, His wrath and judgment wait:

When burdens press, and seem beyond endurance,
Bowed down with grief, to Him I lift my face;
And then in love He brings me sweet assurance:
“My child, for thee sufficient is My grace.”
(©1958 Stuart K. Hine Trust)

Hymnologist Carl P. Daw Jr. has nicely and succinctly summarized the scriptural and theological content of Hine’s hymn:

In many ways, this text can be regarded as a post-Romantic Christianizing of Psalm 8. It is an expression of what is known as natural theology, the tendency to find a Creator implied by and reflected in creation. In the third and fourth stanza here, such natural theology is blended with revealed theology, the understanding of God derived from the revelation of Scripture.[4]

by CHRIS FENNER
for Hymnology Archive
18 January 2019
rev. 25 February 2019

Special thanks to JOE HERL


Footnotes:

  1. Stuart K. Hine, The Story of “How Great Thou Art” (1958), p. 4.

  2. “How Great Thou Art,” Manna Music, Inc.: http://mannamusicinc.com/writers-songs/how-great-thou-art.html

  3. George Beverly Shea, “How Great Thou Art,” Crusade Hymn Stories (Chicago: Hope Publishing, 1967), pp. 9-10.

  4. Carl P. Daw Jr., “O Lord my God,” Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016). pp. 593-594.

Related Resources:

Richard M. Elmer, “How great Thou art! The vicissitudes of a hymn,” The Hymn, vol. 9, no. 1 (January 1958), pp. 18-20: HathiTrust

Fred D. Gealy & Austin C. Lovelace, “O Lord my God! When I in awesome wonder,” Companion to the Hymnal (NY: Abingdon Press, 1970), pp. 322-323.

Byron E. Underwood, “How great Thou art,” The Hymn, vol. 24, no. 4 (October 1973), pp. 105-108: HathiTrust

Byron E. Underwood, “How great Thou art (continued)” The Hymn, vol. 25, no. 1 (January 1974), pp. 3-8: HathiTrust

Marilyn Kay Stulken, “How Great Thou Art,” Hymnal Companion to the Lutheran Book of Worship (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), pp. 542-543.

William J. Reynolds, “O Lord my God! When I in awesome wonder,” Handbook to the Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: Convention Press, 1992), pp. 205-206.

Carlton R. Young, “How Great Thou Art,” Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), pp. 409-411.

Bert Polman, “How Great Thou Art,” Psalter Hymnal Handbook (Grand Rapids: CRC, 1998), pp. 650-651.

Christopher M. Idle, “O Lord my God! When I in awesome wonder,” Exploring Praise! (Darlington: Praise Trust, 2006), pp. 156-157.

Michael Ireland, “Veleky Bog: How Great is Our God!” Assist News Service (7 October 2007): Internet Archive

Paul Westermeyer, “How great Thou art,” Companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2010), pp. 742-744.

Joseph Herl & Kevin Hildebrand, “How great Thou art,” Companion to the Lutheran Service Book (2019).

John S. Andrews, “O Lord my God! When I in awesome wonder,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology:
http://www.hymnology.co.uk/o/o-lord-my-god,-when-i-in-awesome-wonder

“How Great Thou Art,” Hymnary.org:
https://hymnary.org/text/o_lord_my_god_when_i_in_awesome_wonder

“O mighty God, when I behold the wonder,” Hymnary.org:
https://hymnary.org/text/o_mighty_god_when_i_behold_the_johnson