When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation,
And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart!
Then I shall bow in humble adoration,
and there proclaim, my God, how great thou art!
The story behind the hymn How Great Thou Art is one that speaks directly to the heart of the optimist, the silver-lining, bright-side-of-life crowd. This hymn teaches us to recognize God’s beauty wherever we are, whatever may come– and that’s exactly what the author of the original text was doing when he wrote it.
This hymn originated in a poem by a Swedish sailor-turned-lay minister, Carl Boberg. One summer day in 1885, he was walking home near Kronobäck, Sweden when he was caught in a sudden thunderstorm. He ran home through the pelting rain; when the storm subsided, he opened his window to the stunning beauty of a rainbow, and the bay of Mönsterås lay like a mirror before him. And wafting through the open window, he heard the peals of church bells ringing through the air, calling mourners to a funeral service.
That evening, he reflected on the events of the day. The violence of the storm; the blessing of the rainbow and the simple joy of opening a window and feeling the fresh air on your face. The sorrow and celebration of the funeral, embodied in the mournful beauty of the church bells. He wrote of the day, “It was that time of year when everything seemed to be in its richest colouring.” In this mindful spirit, Boberg wrote a poem titled, ‘O Store Gud,’ (O Great God).
A few years later the poem was set to a Swedish folk tune; in the early 1900s it was translated into German, then Russian a few years after that.
In 1931, English missionaries Stuart Hine and his wife traveled to the Carpathian Mountains in Ukraine, near the Polish border, where they heard the Russian translation. According to Michael Ireland, “Hine and his wife, Edith, learned the Russian translation, and started using it in their evangelistic services. Hine also started re-writing some of the verses — and writing new verses (all in Russian) — as events inspired him.”
One of the verses that Hine added is what we sing as 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.
Michael Ireland explains the origin of this verse:
It was typical of the Hines to ask if there were any Christians in the villages they visited. In one case, they found out that the only Christians that their host knew about were a man named Dmitri and his wife Lyudmila. Dmitri’s wife knew how to read — evidently a fairly rare thing at that time and in that place. She taught herself how to read because a Russian soldier had left a Bible behind several years earlier, and she started slowly learning by reading that Bible. When the Hines arrived in the village and approached Dmitri’s house, they heard a strange and wonderful sound: Dmitri’s wife was reading from the gospel of John about the crucifixion of Christ to a houseful of guests, and those visitors were in the very act of repenting. In Ukraine (as I know first hand!), this act of repenting is done very much out loud. So the Hines heard people calling out to God, saying how unbelievable it was that Christ would die for their own sins, and praising Him for His love and mercy. They just couldn’t barge in and disrupt this obvious work of the Holy Spirit, so they stayed outside and listened. Stuart wrote down the phrases he heard the Repenters use, and (even though this was all in Russian), it became the third verse that we know today: “And when I think that God, His Son not sparing, Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in.”
In 1932-33, the Hines were forced to return home during the Famine Genocide perpetrated on Ukraine by Joseph Stalin, but Hine felt compelled to bring the hymn back to England, so he arranged the melody and translated and adapted the text into English, which he finally finished and published in 1949. Meanwhile, throughout the Second World War Hine continued his evangelistic ministry in Britain working among the displaced Polish refugee community.
In the 1940s, Dr. J. Edwin Orr, an American evangelist, heard this new version being sung in a small village near Deolali, India by a choir of the Naga tribe from Assam near Burma, though we don’t know how it came to India. Orr loved it and brought it home with him, introducing it at the Forest Home Christian Conference Center in the San Bernardino Mountains of southern California in 1954.
The hymn wasn’t catapulted to prominence, however, until it was discovered by the Billy Graham crusade.
As the story goes, when the Billy Graham team went to London in 1954 for the Harringay Crusade, they were given a pamphlet containing Hine’s work. “At first they ignored it, but fortunately not for long,” said [Bud] Boberg. They worked closely with Hine to prepare the song for use in their campaigns. They sang it in the 1955 Toronto campaign, but it didn’t really catch on until they took it to Madison Square Garden in 1957. According to Cliff Barrows (Dr. Graham’s longtime associate), they sang it one hundred times during that campaign because the people wouldn’t let them stop.”
Billy Graham said of the hymn: “The reason I like ‘How Great Thou Art’ is because it glorifies God. It turns Christian’s eyes toward God, rather than upon themselves. I use it as often as possible because it is such a God-honoring song.” In 1959 it became the theme song for Billy Graham’s weekly radio broadcast, and today it’s considered one of the greatest hymns of all time, usually falling at #2 behind Amazing Grace.
The things that speak to me from this hymn:
“When I in awesome wonder…” I love the word “awesome”, as anyone who’s talked with me for more than 5 minutes could confirm. But I think about it a lot in this kind of a context, too. Awe-some. Filled with awe. At the power of God, at the vast beauty of the world that God created, at the stars and the thunder and the rainbows. The whole of God’s creation is awe-some and filled with wonder– wonderful.
“Then sings my soul.” This is not a primarily intellectual hymn. We sing some of those too– and they’re great!– but this is a hymn you don’t sing with your head, with its matter-of-fact language and straight-forward faith statements. This is a song for your soul to sing, as you lift your voice and affirm the awe-some, wonder-filled goodness of God.
“I scarce can take it in.” Have you been in this place in your faith, when you’re wondering what you could ever have done to warrant the grace and the love of Jesus’ sacrifice for you, and astounded that indeed, there’s nothing you could ever do or could have ever done to deserve it, but Jesus died for you anyway? I scarce can take it in. I can hardly believe it– and my soul will sing, because I know it’s true.
But my favorite part of this hymn is how it encourages us to glory in the wonder and beauty of God, beyond all else. There are so many ways we can focus on the negatives in life. Why did it have to rain today? Why didn’t I get the promotion? What a jerk that guy is, cutting me off in traffic. Everything’s going wrong today. Why aren’t things working out the way I had planned?
This hymn is the optimist’s hymn. My God, how great thou art– in the thunder, in the woods, in the stars, in the rain and the traffic, and in the days when nothing seems to be going right, my chorus will ever be: my God, how great thou art.