Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Hymn Stories: How Great Thou Art

How old are some of your favorite hymns?

How Great Thou Art, a popular and well-beloved hymn (justifiably so) isn't as old as some might think it is. At least, not as we know it.

(To hear it sung, press play for this public domain version of Yolanda Adams at the White House.)  

Carl Boberg (1859-1940) was born in Sweden to a carpenter and his wife. In his early years, Carl worked as a sailor and served as a lay minister in his congregation. He was also a writer, and he published more than 60 poems, hymns, and songs.

Carl Boberg. Public Domain
In 1885, Boberg walked home from an afternoon church service with friends when suddenly, a storm appeared. Lightning, thunder, and strong winds accompanied rain. Boberg noted the majesty of the lightning, the way the wind moved the grain in the fields, the feel and smell of the rain. Shortly, the storm ended and a rainbow appeared. 

He remained thoughtful when he returned home, noting how calm and lovely the the bay of Mönsterås looked. He could hear church bells and birdsong, and breathed in the storm-clean air. With a sense of peace and wonder, he set to writing.

His poem was titled O Store Gud (O Great God), and it was published in Mönsterås Tidningen (Mönsterås News) the following year. Within two years, the poem was paired to an old Swedish folk tune and sung in a church in 1888. 

In 1890, Boberg became an editor for a weekly newsletter, Sanningsvittnet (Witness of the Truth), a job he held until 1916 (also serving in parliament). In 1891, he published O Store Gud in Witness of the Truth with the music for the first time, with instrumentation for piano and guitar provided by a music teacher named Adolph Edgren (in 3/4 time).

About this time, Boberg sold the rights to the Mission Covenant Church of Sweden, and all nine verses were published in the Mission Covenant Church of Sweden's songbook in 1891. 

By 1894, the timing of the song had been changed to 4/4 time, as it is sung today. 

In 1907, the song was translated into German, and then, in 1912, into Russian (Velikiy Bog, or Great God). E. Gustav Johnson, a professor at North Park College, Illinois, translated some of the verses and published them in 1925 as O Mighty God, but the hymn had not yet found its moment in America.

In the early 1920’s, Methodist English missionaries Rev. Stuart and Edith K. Hine lived in Poland learned the Russian version of the hymn. Stuart Hine (1899-1989) wrote his own translation and adjusted the arrangement of the tune, titling it How Great Thou Art

Hine also added verses, including the third and fourth, which he originally wrote in Russian. These verses are among the hymn's most popular. In 1949, Hine had the hymn published in a Russian gospel magazine, Peace and Truth, which circulated among refugees in fifteen countries, including the USA. Apparently, an African missionary named James Caldwell was the first to sing in in America at a conference in New York in 1951.

Around the same time, Dr. J. Edwin Orr of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, heard the hymn song for the first time in a small church in India. He brought it home to California and introduced it at the Forest Home Christian Conference Center in 1954. From there, it was published by Gospel Light Press. 

This version became the theme song of the Billy Graham Crusades in the 1950s. 
Billy Graham bw photo, April 11, 1966.jpg
Billy Graham. Public Domain
Because Hine's version of the song was copyrighted in 1949, it is not public domain, so it may not be quoted here. However, it is easily found online and youtube. Today, millions of believers of all languages sing this profound and lovely hymn.


YOUR TURN: Are you familiar with this hymn?


BIO: Susanne Dietze began writing love stories in high school, casting her friends in the starring roles. Today, she's the award-winning author of over a dozen historical romances who's seen her work on the ECPA and Publisher's Weekly Bestseller Lists for Inspirational Fiction. Married to a pastor and the mom of two, Susanne lives in California and enjoys fancy-schmancy tea parties, genealogy, the beach, and curling up on the couch with a costume drama and a plate of nachos. You can visit her on her website, www.susannedietze.com, and check out her newest release, My Heart Belongs in Ruby City, Idaho. 


  1. Absolutely I'm familiar with this great old hymn. It's surely a standard in traditional church music. Thanks for the information on it's birth!!!

    1. Hi Connie! It is indeed a standard. I thought it was a little older than it was, though, and I thought it was interesting that it was popular in other countries before America!

      Thanks so much for coming by and saying hi, Connie!

  2. One of my favorite hymns Susanne. I love learning the history of our great hymns and love hearing them and to sing them today.
    Blessings, Tina

    1. Hi Tina! I love this hymn, too. It's so powerful and beautiful. Music and song are true gifts of the Lord.

      Thanks for coming by!

  3. Love this song, Susie, and used to be able to belt it out in church. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Hi Carrie! I envy people with beautiful singing voices. In heaven I'll be able to belt it out, too! :) Thanks for coming by!

  4. What a great hymn and what a great post. Thank you for sharing!

    1. Good morning, Melanie! I'm so glad you enjoyed the post. Hope your day is going well.