How Great Thou Art

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Swedish thunderstorm“It was that time of year when everything seemed to be in its richest coloring; the birds were singing in the trees and everywhere. It was very warm; a thunderstorm appeared on the horizon and soon there was thunder and lightning. We had to hurry to shelter. But the storm was soon over and the clear sky appeared. When I came home I opened my window toward the sea. There evidently had been a funeral and the bells were playing. That evening I wrote the song, “O Store Gud” (“O Great God’). That’s how Carl Boberg explained how he came to write, in 1885, the hymn that we know today as “How Great Thou Art.”

Carl BobergBoberg was a lay preacher and served in the Swedish parliament for 20 years. He first published the poem, with nine verses, in 1886. A few years later it was set to music and Boberg published that version in 1891. Manfred von Glehn, a German, heard it in Estonia and translated it into German in 1907 and it quickly became a favorite in Germany.

Ivan Prokhanoof, a Russian preacher, heard the German version and translated it into Russian in 1912. Again, the song became very popular. Stuart Hine, a British missionary, heard the Russian version while on a mission to the Carpathian Mountains in Ukraine in 1931. He translated it into English. Hine added what we now know as the third and fourth verses.

The third verse was inspired when Hine and his wife approached the home of a Christian couple in Ukraine. They were holding a Bible study and many of those in attendance accepted Jesus, and, as was the custom in Ukraine at the time, they began repenting out loud. Hine wrote many of the things those people were saying and weaved the phrases into the third verse.

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.

Hine finally finished his version in 1949 and published the four verse version we sing today. He printed it in a pamphlet and it was distributed to British missionaries around the world. James Caldwell, a missionary to Central Africa, introduced the song to the United States when he sang it at a convention in Stony Brook, NY on Long Island in 1951.

Shortly after that time, 1954, that Billy Graham was holding a crusade in London. Someone gave George Beverly Shea one of the pamphlets of “How Great Thou Art.” He sang it for the first time at Graham’s Toronto crusade in 1955, but it didn’t really catch on there. But at the 1957 Madison Square Garden crusade in New York City they sang it 100 times, because, according to Billy Graham’s associate Cliff Barrows, “the people wouldn’t let them stop singing it.”

Billy Graham said he like the song so much, “Because it glorifies God. It turns Christian’s eyes toward God, rather than themselves. I use it as often as possible because it is such a God-honoring song.”

Hundreds of artists have recorded the song. It was voted the favorite hymn in the UK and ranked second (after “Amazing Grace”) in a survey by Christianity Today.Here’s an acoustic version from Lauren Daigle.

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