How Great Thou Art – The Story Behind the Hymn
One of the most beloved hymns of our time has an amazingly winding journey to where it is today, spanning multiple countries and languages, and nearly 70 years of evolution.
1885: Swedish pastor Carl Gustav Boberg originally wrote a poem about the awe inspiring power of God after suddenly being caught in a thunderstorm on his way home from church. The storm quickly subsided and when he arrived home, he looked out his window to the sea, heard the sounds of birds singing and church bells ringing, and wrote the poem “O Stor Gud” (which literally translates to “O Great God”).
1886: Boberg first published his poem in a local news publication.
1888: Boberg visits a church and is surprised to hear his poem being sung to an old Swedish folk tune.
1891: Boberg publishes his poem again, this time with piano and guitar instrumentation, provided by a music teacher. Later that year, he sold the rights of the song to the Mission Covenant Church of Sweden, where nine verses were published in the Covenant songbook.
1907: The song was translated from Swedish to German, where it became popular in Germany.
1912: Translated from German to Russian
1925: E. Gustav Johnson, a professor at the Covenant Bible college in Illinois, North Park, wrote the first literal English translation of the song, “O Mighty God,” publishing verses 1,2, 7, 8, and 9. This version appeared in The Covenant Hymnbook between 1973 and 1996, including all nine verses of Carl Boberg’s original poem.
1931: Stuart K. Hine, an English missionary living in the Ukraine, heard the Russian version of the song and adopted it into his ministry, later developing his own English version as well. This English re-write of the song is where the title “How Great Thou Art” originated, marking the beginning of a new path this song would journey.
As Stuart and his wife traveled to different villages in Ukraine, they attempted to meet with Christians who may have lived there. They approached a house of a husband and wife, the only known Christians in the area, where incredibly, the wife taught herself how to read from a Bible that was left with her from a Russian soldier. As she was reading the Gospel of John to a group of people inside, they could hear the voices of people repenting, as was done out loud. As the Hine’s sat outside and listened to the beautiful words of broken hearts, they wrote down phrases they heard. “And when I think that God, His Son not sparing, sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in.”
1933-1948: After the Hine’s were forced out of the Ukraine during Joesph Stalin’s Famine Genocide in 1933, and eventually back to London at the onset of WWII, Stuart was inspired to add a fourth verse about the promise of Christ’s second coming. This verse was inspired in 1948 by the desperation of a displaced Russian man in a camp in England, wondering if he would ever see his wife again, yet with the hope of uniting once again in Heaven. “When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation to take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.”
1953: Finally in 1953, Hine published two additional verses in a book he wrote, though these are typically not used in worship services.
While Stuart Hine’s version of the song was far more popular in the United States, E. Gustav Johnson’s literal translation of the original poem remained in the Evangelical Covenant’s songbooks until the mid-1990’s since they have owned the rights to it for over 100 years.
1954: When Billy Graham was in London on a Crusade, George Beverly Shea was given a pamphlet containing Hine’s work by his friend, and his song was slowly worked into Graham’s campaigns. Their 1957’s Madison Square Garden performance really brought the song huge popularity in the United States.
1967: Elvis Presley releases his Grammy award winning studio album “How Great Thou Art.”
2011: “How Great Thou Art” is sung by Carrie Underwood and Vince Gill in front of a television audience of millions on CBS.
What a journey this amazing song has been on.