The Swedish origins of ‘How Great Thou Art’

It’s one of the most beloved hymns of the last hundred years and in many polls it ranks just behind Amazing Grace; yet the origins of O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder (or as it’s perhaps better known How Great Thou Art) can trace its roots back to Sweden.

The hymn is the work of British missionary and evangelist Stuart K Hine and was popularised (like many hymns) during the Billy Graham crusades of the 1950s. However Hine took his inspiration from a poem by written by Swede, Carl Boberg.

PENTAX ImageCarl Boberg was born in the small coastal town of Mönsterås in south-east Sweden. At 19 Boberg gave his life to Christ and later went to Bible College and later returned to Mönsterås as a preacher. One summer evening in 1866 Boberg was out walking and as he stood looking out across the bay, with a post-storm rainbow and a church bell ringing in the distance, he was moved by the greatness of God. So he went home and wrote a nine-verse poem called O store Gud (O Great God).

In 1891 O store Gud was set to music (the same tune that we still sing today) and appeared in a number of Swedish hymnbooks. Over the next couple of decades it was translated into a number of languages including English, German and Russian but it never gained much popularity.

However, it did make a lasting impression on Stuart Hine who heard it sung in Russian while serving as a missionary in Ukraine. During the 1930s Hine began to work on translating the hymn from Russian to English (the 2nd and 4th verses are Hine’s own work while the 1st and 3rd are similar to the original).

It was published in 1949 and rapidly caught on and in 1954 was given to George Beverly Shea, the leading singer on Billy Graham’s team and soon became a favourite of many, including Graham himself.

Boberg himself was a journalist, evangelist and for fifteen years a member of the Swedish parliament. He wrote more than 60 poems and hymns but O store Gud is by far his best known work.

You’ll find versions of it by the like of Elvis Presley, the great Mahalia Jackson, Jonny Cash and any gospel singer you care to mention. Of course, there’s nothing quite like hearing thousands of people sing the line, ‘then sings my soul’ but I quite like this amazing bit of creativity from the incredibly talented but crazily haired Sam Robson.



Sources: This book and Wikipedia

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