Sightings in Christian Music

by Glen V. Wiberg

The popularity of How Great Thou Art even on the fringes of American religious culture must surely be due to its repeated use over the years in the Billy Graham crusades and the singing of George Beverly Shea. In The Covenant Hymnal (1973) the concluding sentence in the footnote of hymn 19 “O Mighty God, When I Behold the Wonder” tells its convoluted history: “The text widely known as How Great Thou Art is an English translation of a Russian version based on an earlier German translation of the original.”

One of the positive features of The New Century Hymnal (1995) of the United Church of Christ, is the footnote with each hymn. For this hymn and its new translation “O Mighty God When I Survey in Wonder,” hymn 35, the footnote under the hymn tells the story in greater detail.

Carl Boberg, a popular evangelical minister and teacher in Sweden, wrote his poem “O Store Gud” in the summer of 1885. Several years later he was surprised to hear it sung with this old Swedish melody, with which it has been associated ever since. The first literal English translation by E. Gustav Johnson was published in the United States in 1925. The hymn also became known in Germany and Russia, where the British missionary, Stuart K. Hine, was inspired to create his English paraphrase known as “How great thou art.” This translation and arrangement were created for The New Century Hymnal to restore the meaning and flavor of Boberg’s original hymn.

Despite any criticisms I might have of the new translations of two of our heritage hymns, the present hymn and the version of “Children of the Heavenly Father” (“Surely No One Can Be Safer” discussed in the last issue of Pietisten), I must express appreciation for a mainline denomination treating two of our heritage hymns so seriously that their hymnal commission would undertake “to restore the meaning and flavor” of the originals. Someone on that commission must have been blest with a working knowledge of Swedish!

Further, it is likewise praiseworthy that Carl Boberg who was a well-known Swedish Mission Covenant preacher and teacher is given recognition as the author of the hymn and E. Gustav Johnson as its first English translator. Our first three Covenant hymnals in English used his translation and The Covenant Hymnal (1973) included all nine verses of Boberg’s original poem first published in a Swedish paper on March 23, 1886.

Given the popularity of Stuart Hine’s translation of How Great Thou Art in the late 60s and early 70s, the Hymnal Commission struggled with whether to go with the more popular version or retain E. Gust’s translation. However, economics settled the issue inasmuch as we were unable to pay the exorbitant price requested by the publishing house that owned the copyright despite the fact that the original belonged to the Covenant. One of the ironies of musicmaking and profiteering!

In The Covenant Hymnal—A Worshipbook (1996) the more popular translation by Stuart Hines has replaced E Gustav Johnson’s version which, while closer to the original, uses a more archaic language. While there was sympathy on the commission for retaining this older version, a compromise led to preserving it in printed form on the opposite page of How Great Thou Art, hymn 8. The new version with a fresher language and some striking metaphors seems uneven and incomplete.

The refrain of the Boberg’s original text “O Store Gud” begins with a critical “then” as culmination to “when” at the beginning of each verse. (O mighty God, when ... ) All three translations follow the original use of “when” with the exception of verse 3 in NCH. But only the Hine’s version uses “then” as the critical first word in the refrain “Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee....” The “when” followed in the refrain by “then” is the most powerful poetic device in Boberg’s entire text.

E. Gustav Johnson’s refrain: “With rapture filled my soul, my soul thy name would laud” and NCH’s “My soul cries out in praise to you” are closer to the original “då brister själens uti lovsångs ljud...” The word “brister” is a very strong word suggesting a breaking out of the soul in praise and compared to the other two translations. Hine’s refrain “Then sings my soul, my Savior, God to thee...” seems a bit too tranquil, if not too tame.

Only NCH follows the original text by adding a final refrain: “Then we will sing your praise forevermore....” However, in the Swedish text, the soul’s song of praise which opened the hymn “O Store Gud” (O mighty God…) and which is repeated at the end of each stanza becomes in the final refrain, “Tack, gode Gud” (Thanks, good God!) The wonder and awe evoked in the soul of the singer at the prospect of eternal bliss is transformed at the hymn’s conclusion into a familiar Swedish phrase which I often heard in immigrant prayers “Tack, gode Gud.” It is unfortunate that none of the translators included this final word of thanks.

The late Eric Rowley, eminent hymnologist, disliked both the hymn and its melody with vehemence. Ironically, as chief editor of the forthcoming hymnal of the Reformed Church in America, he was forced to respond to the clamor of its members to include the hymn. He did so by writing a new text, “O mighty God” and re-harmonizing the Swedish tune. This was one of his last works which was included as hymn 466 in “Rejoice in the Lord,” 1985.

Following the torturous path translators have taken with a hymn such as “O Store Gud,” we are reminded again of the immense task involved in translation. But even more, despite the distance from or closeness to the original, the song has survived and continues to bless those standing in awe at the wondrous deeds of this mighty God. But I have a hunch that from some higher balcony Carl Boberg looks down smiling at the stir he created for translators—all from a summer’s afternoon walk beside a lake and through the woods in a thunderstorm. Then I can almost see him folding his hands and saying “Tack, gode, Gud!”

The Covenant Hymnal (1973)

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.
—Selected verses from hymn 19

The New Century Hymnal

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)

Glen Wiberg, veteran Covenant pastor and writer, lives in New Brighton, Minnesota. He was Chairperson of the Covenant Hymnal Commission.

See all articles by Glen V. Wiberg