The Story Behind 'How Great Thou Art' (2023) In 1885, a young Swedish pastor named Karl Gustav Boberg was walking home from church when he was caught in a severe thunderstorm, and almost died! He then watched as the storm passed, the sun came out and shone on the waters of the bay, and the birds started singing in the trees.

This juxtaposition made him reflect on God's mighty power and control over nature, and he was inspired (in the literal sense of the word, I believe) to write a poem about what he had witnessed. He named the poem "O Store Gud" (O Mighty God), and submitted the poem to the local newspaper, which published it. That was the end of things...or so he thought.

A few years later, Pastor Boberg was attending a conference when he heard a group of people singing an old Swedish folk tune, but with some sort of different words. (This folk tune is similar to, but distinctly different from, the tune we sing today. For one thing, it is in 3/4, while the tune we use now is in 4/4. The Swedish folk melody also was sung at a faster tempo, and was just more "peppy.") He was amazed to discover that those words were the words to his own poem! This new hymn had become popular throughout Sweden, and soon spread to other parts of northern Europe, including Estonia.

In 1907, Estonia was settled mostly by Germans, and there was a wealthy land baron named Von Glehn who had a son, Manfred Von Glehn. Manfred was a Christian, and had devoted his life to starting churches and Bible schools, and to compiling a hymnbook of hymns in German. In the midst of this commitment, Manfred's personal life took several turns for the worse. His mother died, his father fell ill, and the family fortune was slipping away. Manfred was forced to start selling parts of the estate, eventually including the castle itself. But he continued with his work of Christian service. Since Manfred left the state church and became a Baptist, he was working on finding, translating and including non-German hymns for his hymnbook. One of these non-German hymns was a Swedish hymn: our own "O Store Gud," which he did translate into German, where it became "Du Großer Gott." This hymnbook was eventually published, and became widely used in Estonia and other parts of northern Euro pe.

Eventually, the hymn made its way into Russia. In 1927 (after the Communist Revolution) a Russian Baptist named Ivan Prochanov was also busy starting churches, Bibles schools and seminaries, and was a writer and publisher of Christian works. He was the most prolific Protestant hymn writer and translator in all of Russia -- not an easy feat under Communist rule. Because of his activities, Prochanov was jailed several times and sent into exile several times. But he kept at his work, and began a compilation of a Russian-language Protestant hymnbook, which he named "Songs of a Christian." In that book, he included a German-language hymn named (you guessed it) "Du Großer Gott." In Russian, it became "Velykiy Bog," or "Great God." The American Bible Society helped Prochanov publish his hymnbook, although Prochanov himself was again jailed and eventually sent into exile, where he died.

But the hymn "Velykiy Bog" became very popular as the hymnbook "Songs of a Christian" spread throughout Russia and other parts of the Soviet Union. In Ukraine, it quickly caught on as something different from the slow, minor key orthodox songs that everyone was used to singing. In the late '20's and early '30's, a British missionary couple, Stuart Hine and his wife Edith were traveling through the Caucasian mountains along the border of Ukraine, Romania and Poland. There, they heard this Russian hymn, learned it, and started using it in their evangelistic services. Stuart Hine also started re-writing some of the verses --- and writing new verses (all in Russian) --- as events inspired him. For example, the Hines also were caught in a thunderstorm, but in the mountains, the experience was very different than the one that helped inspire Pastor Boberg forty years earlier.

One particular incident is worth mentioning in some detail. It was typical of the Hines to inquire as to the existence of 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 tha t Christ would die for their own sins, and praising Him f or 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."

Later, the Hines had to leave Ukraine during the Holodomor or Famine Genocide perpetrated on Ukraine by Stalin during the winter of 1932-1933, and they also left Eastern Europe at the outbreak of World War II in 1939, returning to London. After the war, and after questioning God as to why their ministry to the Eastern Europeans was curtailed, the Hines were amazed to discover that millions of Displaced People from Easter Europe were streaming into England! Their ministry came to them, instead of them going to their ministry!

One man to whom they were ministering told them an amazing story: he had been separated from his wife at the very end of the war, and had not seen her since. At the time they were separated, his wife was a Christian, but he was not, but he had since been converted. His deep desire was to find his wife so they could at last share their faith together. But he told the Hines that he did not think he would ever see his wife on earth again. Instead he was longing for the day when they would meet in heaven, and could share in the Life Eternal there.

These words again inspired Hine, and they became the basis for his fourth and final verse to 'How Great Thou Art': "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!"

Metropolitan Twin Cities church presents historically-accurate play

Paul K Moyer, one of actors in play called 'Veleky Bog', Ukrainian for 'Great God', presented by members of Calvary Baptist Church in Roseville, Minnesota at Ridgewood Church in Minnetonka, Minnesota, tells the story of his involvement in the dramatic presentation of the hymn's history.

"I first went to Ukraine in 2005 as part of the same Church Leadership Conference that Pastor Joel Goff (of Ridgewood Church in Minnetonka, Minnesota) helps lead. In 2005, Pastor Joel had to stay home at the last minute, but I had the privilege of traveling with him last November," said Moyer.

"Dale Rott, a retired professor of theater at Bethel University (also located in Roseville), also was part of that trip in 2005, and when he found out that I was also a singer, he thought that our drama 'track' at the Conference should include some way of utilizing that fact. He found out (I'm not sure how!) that the hymn 'How Great Thou Art' had historical roots in Ukraine, and we started researching the details, in order to create some sort of a short drama that we could present or teach to our Ukrainian sisters and brothers. What we found was a deep, rich spiritual experience that has changed our lives!

"What a story! I knew nothing of this when we started our research 2-plus years ago. But we play out all of these scenes (and more) in our drama," Moyer said.

In a November 11, 2002 Alpha Group meeting at Excelsior Covenant Church in the western suburbs of Minneapolis, Bud Boberg said he has fond memories of his father, Edward Emanuel Boberg, singing 'O Store Gud' in Swedish at all the Boberg family meetings.

Boberg said: "My dad's story of its origin was that it was a paraphrase of Psalm 8 and was used in the 'underground church' in Sweden in the late 1800s when the Baptists and Mission Friends were persecuted."

He added: "According to research done by my cousin, Don Johansson, Karl (sometime spelled 'Carl') Boberg was an older brother of my grandfather, which would make him my great-uncle."

Boberg continued: "Karl Gustav Boberg was born in Varmland in 1859 to Olaf and Bittner Boberg. Although (at least so I thought) most of the Bobergs were Lutheran, Karl became a Mission Friends (Mission Covenant) minister. Some accounts describe him as an evangelist, but he served as pastor at Monsteras from 1881 to 1889. He may also have been itinerant."

Although nonconformist, Karl Boberg was a member of parliament for several years. An article about Boberg in the Stockholm newspaper in July 1998 said of him: "His strong convictions were brought before the highest government officials in Stockholm declaring that Christian convictions should definitely be engaged in and affect political views. Boberg was therefore considered 'liberal' by many because it was felt, at that time, that Christians should not become involved in politics."

Boberg said his great-uncle died at 81 in 1940. He was only 26 when he wrote 'O Store Gud.' The thunderstorm story comes from his own pen:

"It was that time of year when everything seemed to be in its richest coloring; the birds were singing in trees and everywhere. It was very warm; a thunderstorm appeared on the horizon and soon thunder and lightning. We had to hurry t shelter. But the storm was soon over and the clear sky appeared.

"When I came home I opened my window toward the sea. Thee evidently had been a funeral and the bells were playing the tune of 'When eternity's clock calling my saved soul to its Sabbath res.' That evening, I wrote the song, 'O Store Gud.'"

Bud Boberg said that some accounts say Karl did not write all nine verses that night. "The direct references to the storm experience are all in the first four verses. He did not set it to music. It was first published on March 13, 1886 in the Monsteras Times. Someone else set it to the folk tune. Eight verses appeared with the music in the 1890 Sions Harpan. (This is the one in this collection titled '12 O Store Gud.') A year later, all nine verses were published in the 1891 Covenant songbook."

Boberg went on to say that apparently, the first place the song went outside Sweden was Estonia where, in 1907, Manfred Von Glehn translated it into German. "He is the one who gave it the name 'How Great Thou Art' ('Wie gross bist Du'). According to the Stockholm newspaper article, it was translated from german to Russia in St. Petersburg by Ivan Progenoff in 1912 and published in Russian in New York by the American Bible Society.

"It finally showed up in the United States in English in 1925," said Boberg, adding: "The Mission Covenant published a translation from Swedish by Gustav Johnson titled 'O Mighty God, When I Behold the Wonder' in their Children's Friend and then in their hymnal. This version did not become well known outside the Covenant community."

Boberg said Stuart K. Hine and his wife were English missionaries to the Ukraine before World War Two. "They came across the Russian version in 1927 and translated three verses into English. War forced them back to England where they began working with refugees from the Continent. Hine added his verse number four in response to the plight of the refugees, and published all four verses in 1949 in Grace and Peace, a Russian paper which he edited."

Hymn chosen by Dr. Billy Graham for British Crusade in the mid-1950s

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 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 the 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."

The hymn was translated for Intervaristy by Joseph T. Bayly (or Bayle) in 1957, Boberg said.

"It's a quite literal translation from Boberg, but I suspect that he had the Hine work at hand because he uses the phrase 'how great Thou art.' Also, the music by Josephine Carradine Dixon is similar to Hine's. He added two verses of his own," Boberg explained.

A program note from a Gustavus Adolphus (Minnesota) college concert tells listeners that Dr. J. Edwin Orr of Fuller Seminary brought the song from India to America and that Gospel Light published it in 1954.

"I don't know what text or in what setting," Boberg said.

The hymn has now gone full-circle because teams from Baptist churches in Minnesota, including Ridgewood and Calvary, have taken the drama to the Ukraine to teach our Ukrainian brothers and sisters in Christ how to present the story behind its authorship to their own people.

A personal note on How Great Thou Art

This reporter has two connections with this world-famous hymn, the first of which is that Bud Boberg,the great-nephew of Pastor Karl Boberg who wrote the original verses, is the organist at my home church: Ridgewood Church in Minnetonka, Minnesota.

The second personal detail about this song is that my wife's father, Vernon Darrel Sundin, whose parents came to the United States as Swedish immigrants in the late 19th century, used to love singing this hymn at the Eagle Point Baptist Church, in rural Stephen, Minnesota where Vernon was a deacon and my wife and I were married in May, 1986.

As my wife and I watched the play at our church in Minneapolis, we could not help but experience delight in our hearts as we learned the history of the hymn that meant so much to him.

Vernon Sundin passed away aged 75 on December 29, 2003 and the hymn brings back many happy memories of worshipping in that little country church in northwestern Minnesota where my wife grew up and where my father-in-law is buried. This article is dedicated to his memory.

Michael Ireland is an international British freelance journalist. A former reporter with a London newspaper, Michael is the Chief Correspondent for ASSIST News Service of Lake Forest, California. Michael immigrated to the United States in 1982 and became a US citizen in September, 1995. He is married with two children. Michael has also been a frequent contributor to UCB Europe, a British Christian radio station. His weblog appears at: Michael's Wor(l)d BLOG

© Assist News Service. Used with permission.

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