How Great Thou Art.
Writers: Carol Boberg and Steward Hine
Began in 1885 completed in 1929
Should the Lord delay his coming and I am called to heaven before the rapture, this is the one song I want to be sung at my funeral. I have loved this song since I was a child. I remember in the church I grew up in, singing this song in the choir and loving it. I don’t remember how old I was, but I have a vivid memory of me singing this song at the top of my lungs during choir practice and our choir leader, Frank Webb, leaning down and getting close to my ear and telling me to sing it with all I had.
I remember the choir singing it with enthusiasm and excitement as if we were singing in front of the Lord himself. Several years later the church attendance had fallen to just a handful of mostly elderly people and it seemed we were just singing out of habit. Once after a Sunday Morning service, I was at home and was playing outside. I was on my trampoline thinking how sad it was that we didn’t sing that song like we use to. As I jumped up and down on the trampoline I began to sing it, I remember letting loose on the chorus, and once again singing it with all I had. I remember thinking if only the old choir could mustard enough energy and sing it like I was then maybe it would mean more to them. That memory always comes back to my mind when I hear this song.
Surprisingly the song has been around for over one hundred years, but to me, it sounds as new and fresh as any song out today. On a summer day in 1885, Carl Boberg was a 26-year-old Swedish pastor, returning from a hike in the countryside when a terrible thunderstorm rose up out of nowhere forcing him to take shelter in an abandoned farmhouse. While waiting out the storm he watched in amazement God’s amazing power as the lightning and thunder crashed all around him. “Then just as quickly as it came the storm cleared leaving a crystal clear sky. A rainbow appeared and a crisp clean breeze blew across the fields”, he is quoted as saying. “When I arrived home the lake in across from my home reflected like a mirror the sky above and a church bell rung out in the distance. “It was then that I fell to my knees in humble praise to the God who holds all of creation in his hands”.
That evening Mr. Bober was still moved by all he had seen and heard, decided he would write of his experience in a poem called, Oh, Great God. The following week he read the poem in his church and published it in a periodical. Much to his surprise it began to be sung across Sweden to a traditional folk melody and then in 1907 it was translated into German. But it wasn’t until some 20 years later that the song began to be heard in small villages in the Ukraine. Steward Hine who had translated it into English had added two additional verses. Soon after a chain of events caused an enormous rise in the song’s popularity.
Mr. Hine is quoted as saying, young people could be heard raising their voices on hikes in the mountains, lifting the song in praise. With such a simple melody and words that most could relate to. The song became a favorite as it traveled across Europe.
Mr. Hine would preach to the people in small villages and states he was keenly aware that the parishioners knew the love of God but did not fully understand the depth in which he loved them. It was during one of his meetings that an elderly woman picked up the bible and began to read aloud of the crucifixion of Christ and as she read the scripture, others began to fall to their knees in prayer asking the Lord to save them. It was from this meeting that the 3rd verse was written.
Another decade would pass before the final verse would come and the song would be completed. In 1939 World War 1 exploded across Europe. As the fighting grew, Mr. Hine was forced to leave Europe and return to England. There he continued his ministry and remained there after the war ended. In one year, 250,000 refuges poured into England seeking asylum. One evening, during a meeting, they were asked if they had any questions, one lady spoke up asking what they all longed for, “When are we going home?” From that Mr. Hine received inspiration for his 4th and final stanza, the words When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation and take me home, what Joy shall feel my heart, quickly flowed from his pen and he knew then the song was complete.
After 21 years of working on the song, Mr. Steward Hines began to share his work it quickly began to spread across the world. In 1957 a mass choir led by George Beverly Shea performed the song at Madison Square Garden during a Billy Graham crusade. It was said that out of 100 nights of revival the song was sung 99 nights. Cliff Barrows, Music and Programs Director for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, stated they were on live radio during this time and the song was performed nightly. People began to hear it who had never heard it before and began to request the song. It soon spread across the country and world and became a favorite hymn of the church.
Within a decade it was translated into a dozen languages and sung in every corner of the earth. Its message of the Lord’s power, wonder, and love transcended barriers and today, more than a century later, it stands as one of the most beloved songs sung in worship to the Lord.
2 thoughts on “How Great Thou Art”
Thank you for telling the story, you truly can’t feel the song until you know what the verses meant to the person who wrote the song.
I have sung this song in church, in choirs and as a solo many times in my 83 yrs, but never knew the meaning behind the words. Thank you!
As I once again perform this song in church this month, I will be excited as the words will take on new meaning!