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How Great Thou Art

“How Greath Thou Art” is based on a Swedish poem written by Carl Gustav Boberg in 1885. Its melody comes from a Swedish folk song.  George Beverly Shea and Cliff Barrows made it popular during the Billy Grahm crusades

Boberg said  he was coming home from participating in a religious service when a violent storm formed.  When he returned home to take shelter, Boberg opened his window facing the sea.  He  said “It was that time of year when everything seemed to be in its richest coloring; the birds were singing in trees and everywhere”.  Funeral bells were chiming the tune of “When Eternity’s Clock Calling My Saved Soul to It’s Sabbath Rest”.  Boberg wrote the poem that evening, originally titled “O Store Gud”.  The initial version of the song had 9 versus.

Translations:

The first translation was from Swedish to German titled “Wie Gross Bist Du”.  Later, the song was translated from German to Russian titled “Velikiy Bog”.  

The song was first translated into English  by E. Gustav Johnson in 1925 who literally translated versus 1, 2, and 7-9.  This version was titled “O Mightly God”.  The first three Covenent hymnals used Johnson’s translation and The Covenant Hymnal (1973) utilizes all 9 of Boberg’s original poem.  Johnson’s version is said to be closest to the original than any other version.  Johnson’s translation follows:

O mighty God, when I behold the wonder
Of nature’s beauty, wrought by words of thine,
And how thou leadest all from realms up yonder,
Sustaining earthly life with love benign,

Refrain:
With rapture filled, my soul thy name would laud,
O mighty God! O mighty God! (repeat)
When I behold the heavens in their vastness,
Where golden ships in azure issue forth,
Where sun and moon keep watch upon the fastness
Of changing seasons and of time on earth.
When crushed by guilt of sin before thee kneeling,
I plead for mercy and for grace and peace,
I feel thy balm and, all my bruises healing,
My soul is filled, my heart is set at ease.
And when at last the mists of time have vanished
And I in truth my faith confirmed shall see,

Upon the shores where earthly ills are banished
I’ll enter Lord, to dwell in peace with thee.

Stuart K. Hine, a british missionary, translated it to English and added two verses.  His version, titled “How Great Thou Art” was more popular than Johnson’s version and officially replaced “Oh Mightly God”  in the Covenant Hymnal in 1996 (Johnson’s translation was said to contain archaic language).

Hine’s additions include the now traditional third and fourth verses.  The third verse (“And when I think that God, His Son not sparing...”) was inspired by a group of Russians Hine and his wife saw repenting.  The Hines approached a house and found the people inside praising God and thanking him for sending Jesus to die for their sins.  Mr. Hine quickly wrote down phrases the people were saying and formatted them into the verse as we know it today.

The fourth verse (“When Christ shall come with shouts of acclamation...”) gained inspiration from the exiled Polish people in England who desired to return home after WWII.  Hine spoke to one refugee who told Hine he had been separated from his wife during the war.  This man wanted to find his wife so they could share their faith together (this man had recently become a Christian; his wife already was a Christian).  He believed he would find his wife again in heaven where they would live forever.  

The United Church of Christ revisited Boberg’s original version in 1995 and wrote an updated English translation titled “Oh Mighty God, When I Survey in Wonder”.

O mighty God, when I survey in wonder
The world that formed when once the word you said,
The strands of life all woven close together,
The whole creation at your table fed,
Refrain: (vss 1-3)
My soul cries out in songs of praise to you,
O mighty God! O mighty God! (repeat)
When your voice speaks in rolls of thunder pealing,
Your lightning power bursts in bright surprise;
When cooling rain, your gentle love revealing,
Reflects your promise, arcing through the skies.
The Bible tells the story of your blessing
So freely shed upon all human life;
Your constant mercy, every care addressing,
relieving burdened souls from sin and strife.
And when at last, the clouds of doubt dispersing,
You will reveal what we but dimly see;
With trumpet call, our great rebirth announcing,
we shall rejoin you for eternity.
Refrain: (verse 4)
Then we will sing your praise forever more,
O mighty God! O mighty God! (repeat)

Lauren Morrow, MT-BC

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