A FEW weeks ago in this series I noted a sort of ‘hymn snobbery’, with cathedral and other leading choirs almost exclusively using the New English Hymnal, originally published as the English Hymnal in 1906. It was edited by the clergyman and writer Percy Dearmer and the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, and I said that they appeared to have dismissed works which they judged to be sentimental or of lesser quality.
Reader Arthur Peacock commented: ‘It would be unfortunate to leave readers with the impression that Vaughan Williams was a snob. He was anything but.’ Indeed the composer’s Wikipedia biography says: ‘Throughout his life he sought to be of service to his fellow citizens, and believed in making music as available as possible to everybody.’
However I stand by my point that there is a fairly clear divide between the contents of the New English Hymnal and other hymns, to the point where I cannot imagine many of the most popular hymns being sung by, say, the choir of King’s College, Cambridge.
This definitely applies to today’s choice, How Great Thou Art. In 2013 it was voted the United Kingdom’s favourite hymn by viewers of the BBC’s Songs of Praise and it consistently comes at or near the top of other polls.
It was written in 1885 by a 26-year-old Swedish pastor, Carl Gustav Boberg. He was returning home to Monsteras, on the east coast of Sweden, with friends from church one Sunday afternoon when he was caught in a brief but powerful thunderstorm. Later he wrote: ‘It was that time of year when everything seemed to be in its richest colouring; the birds were singing in trees and everywhere. It was very warm; a thunderstorm appeared on the horizon and soon there was thunder and lightning. We had to hurry to shelter. But the storm was soon over and the clear sky appeared.
‘When I came home I opened my window toward the sea. There evidently had been a funeral and the bells were playing the tune of “When eternity’s clock calls my saved soul to its Sabbath rest”.’
That evening he wrote the poem called in Swedish O Store Gud (O Great God). It had nine verses, thought to be based on Psalm 8, which you can see here from the King James Bible. It was published in a local paper in 1886.
The poem then embarked on a remarkable journey. It was matched to an old Swedish folk tune and sung in public for the first time in 1888.
A German aristocrat named Manfred von Glehn heard the hymn in Estonia, where there was a Swedish-speaking minority, and translated it into German. It was published there in 1907 and quickly became popular.
The German version reached Russia where a Russian translation was produced in 1912 by Ivan S Prokhanov (1869–1935), a prolific hymn writer and translator considered one of the leaders of Russian Protestantism.
In 1931 a British Methodist missionary, Stuart Wesley Keene Hine (1899-1989), was on an evangelistic mission to the Carpathian Mountains in Ukraine, near the Polish border, when he heard the Russian translation of the German version of the song, and was inspired to paraphrase it into two verses, each followed by a chorus.
He made his own arrangement of the Swedish melody, which is what we hear today, and added a third verse of his own:
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.
You can see the full words here. Some versions replace ‘worlds’ in the second line with ‘works’, and ‘rolling’ in the third line with ‘mighty’.
Hine and his wife Mercy had to leave Ukraine during the Holomodor, the famine engineered by Stalin during the winter of 1932–33 in which millions died. The Hines left Eastern Europe at the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, returning to Britain, living first in Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset, then Walton-on-the-Naze in Essex. Hine continued his ministry among the displaced refugee community in Britain.
After the war a Russian refugee told Hine that he had been separated from his wife and that he did not think he would ever see her again. Instead he was longing for the day when they would be reunited in heaven. The conversation inspired Hine to write the fourth and final verse:
When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation to take me home
What joy shall fill my heart.
Then we shall bow in humble adoration and there proclaim,
My God, how great thou art!
Published in 1949, it was popularised during the Billy Graham Crusades of the 1950 and 1960s, and became the theme of Billy Graham’s Hour of Decision weekly radio broadcast. Here it is performed by George Beverly Shea in 1961.
Because of the Crusades, Shea, who died in 2013 at the age of 104, is thought to have performed live before more people than anyone else.
The hymn has been translated into many languages and there are at least 1,700 recordings. There are hundreds on YouTube and it was difficult to pick just a few, but here goes:
This is Chris Rice, especially for Audre Myers
Here is Cliff Richard in 1968
Here is Terry Miles on one of the public pianos to be found in stations and shopping centres these days
(He also did a great Amazing Grace at Liverpool Street station).
Here it is on the magnificent Wanamaker Organ in Philadelphia
which I wrote about here.
And here is my favourite, The King in 1972
(he also did it at his last recorded concert not long before he died in 1977, but it is not good to watch). RIP Elvis.