On "How Great Thou Art"

by Wally Bratt

In his recent Pietisten column, Glen Wiberg discusses the transformation of Carl Boberg's 1885 poem, "O Store Gud," into the hymn we know today as "How Great Thou Art." He describes translation adventures from the original Swedish and decisions about which part of the poem to include in a particular version of the hymn and concludes by saying,

…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. (Summer 2002, p. 6)

A recent interest in Gospel music has led me to a lot of "singing in the shower" as I explore our own Swedish Gospel songs along with American revival hymns. "How Great Thou Art" is one of my favorites, and so I was especially interested in Wiberg's discussion. I sang this song over and over again and read J. Irving Erickson's account of how it came to be written in his book Twice-Born Hymns (1976) and in Sing it Again (1985). In the process, I became fascinated with the connection between that "summer's afternoon walk beside a lake and through the woods in a thunderstorm" and the poem Boberg wrote. Erickson wrote:

Carl Boberg and some friends were returning home to Mönsterœs from Kronoböck, where they had participated in an afternoon service. Nature was at its peak that radiant afternoon. Presently a thundercloud appeared on the horizon, and soon sharp lightning flashed across the sky. Strong winds swept over the meadows and billowing fields of grain. The thunder pealed in loud claps. Then rain came in cool fresh showers. In a little while the storm was over, and a rainbow appeared.

When Boberg arrived home, he opened the window and saw the bay of Mšnsterœslike a mirror before him… From the woods on the other side of the bay, he heard the song of a thrush…the church bells were tolling in the quiet evening. It was this series of sights, sounds, and experiences that inspired the writing of the song. (pp. 9-10)

After reading this account, and singing the many verses from all sources, I find that the real story of Boberg's deep faith and his dramatic experience that day is most clearly contained in five of the original nine verses. These five essential verses encompass our faith experience as Boberg saw it: a response to God's might and power reflected in His creation and expressed in the power of the storm and the promise of the rainbow, then the miracle of Christ's coming and then our hope for the future.

Thus in these verses we have: God the creator—"Consider all the worlds thy hands have made. I see the stars…"; the storm—"And when I hear the roar of storms and thunders…"; our environment—"Through woods and forest glades I wander, and hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees…"; Christ comes to earth—"When I think that God, his son not sparing, sent him to die, I scarce can take it in…"; our hope beyond tomorrow—"When Christ shall come with shouts of acclamation…."

What Boberg felt that summer afternoon in 1885, we can feel and vicariously experience as we sing these five verses today along with the refrain, "Then sings my soul, my Saviour God to thee: How great thou art, how great thou art!" Four of the five verses comprise the hymn as it appears in the 1996 Covenant Hymnal—A worship Book, but the storm verse (which was included in the 1973 Covenant Hymnal), is omitted. This, I think, ignores the heart of the experience that prompted Boberg to write his poem. To me it is like preaching the Gospel without the cross.

So this is a plea for the storm verse (in whatever translation) to be included in the next edition of the Covenant Hymnal!

See all articles by Wally Bratt