From the Pastor’s Desk:
How Great Thou Art
Throughout this year, I will be spending time reflecting upon various hymns. We may not think about hymns as a way that we teach and pass on the faith, but the reality is that many of us can remember hymns a lot easier than memorizing scripture.
This month I am reflecting upon the hymn ‘How Great Thou Art.’ This is a beloved hymn that proclaims the greatness of God and creation in all its grandeur.
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. 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.’ (which is translated to ‘O Great God, when I behold the world.’) Several years later, Boberg unexpectedly heard his poem sung by a congregation to an old Swedish folk melody.
The hymn was translated from Swedish into German and then into Russian and then again into English by Stuart K. Hine (1899-1989). He translated the hymn into English after he and his wife heard the Russian version sung as a vocal duet in the Ukraine. Later when Stuart Hine and his wife were still in Ukraine they saw the Carpathian Mountains and this mountain scenery brought back the memory of this song and he translated the first three stanzas into English. When World War II 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’ and then after the war, Hine wrote a fourth stanza for the hymn.
The hymn gained much greater fame and wider usage when it was used during Billy Graham Crusades with George Beverly Shea singing the hymn back by a choir directed by Cliff Barrows. They first used it at the crusade in Toronto in 1955 and became a staple after that.
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!”
(material for this article was adapted from website: www.umcdiscipleship.org)