Sightings in Christian Music

by Glen V. Wiberg

Lina Sandell, the most popular and prolific hymn writer Sweden has produced, was born on October 3, 1832 and died on July 27, 1903. Observances have taken place this past year on the centennial of her death in our own country, in Scandinavia, and wherever her songs are known. A songfest honoring the life and work of Lina Sandell was held October 25, 2003 (Reformation weekend) at Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis and another the following evening at Luther Seminary in St. Paul. On November 9 a third songfest was held at the Salem Covenant Church in New Brighton for Covenant churches in the area.

At the Lutheran Reformation songfests, Gracia Grindal paid high tribute in the program notes to the Covenant Church as “having been more persistent in keeping Sandell’s legacy alive. Its hymnal includes 11 of her hymns in English” compared to only three in the Lutheran Book of Worship and the supplement With One Voice. This high tribute is due the late J. Irving Erickson who saw it as the Covenant’s role to preserve the music of our Scandinavian heritage.

In the early hymnal of the Lutheran Augustana Synod, Hemlandssänger (Songs of the Homeland) published in 1892 there were more than a 100 songs by Lina Sandell in a collection of 500 songs. Our first official Covenant hymnal of 1908, Sions Basun (Zion’s Trumpet), included 60 of her songs. These statistics indicate that not all of her songs known and loved by Swedish immigrants have been preserved in translation. But it is interesting that in a recent poll, three of Sweden’s ten most popular songs are by Lina Sandell: “Children of the Heavenly Father,” “Day by Day,” and “Thy Holy Wings.” These songs have survived in both Lutheran and Covenant churches in America; they are sung most frequently at baptisms, confirmations, weddings and funerals.

It may surprise some readers of Pietisten to learn that Lina Sandell, though a strong supporter and friend of the revival movement, did not belong to the Mission Covenant of Sweden. When the conflict broke out over the atonement theology of Paul Peter Waldenström, Lina, though a friend, was distressed by the controversy and wrote: “O, if we could only let everything go and hold more to the Lord.” As poet of the revival movement, she remained within the Church of Sweden through The National Evangelical Foundation (Evangeliska Fosterlands Stiftelsen). We claim her nevertheless as our own beloved sister in Christ along with others in both the free church and Lutheran traditions.

Interestingly, the first exposure of Americans to the songs of Lina Sandell came in 1850 when the Swedish opera singer, Jenny Lind, sponsored by PT Barnum, the circus magnate, made a triumphant tour of America. She was a devout Christian who promoted the music of Lina Sandell and Oscar Ahnfelt, singing their songs at her concerts and other gatherings.

What is Lina Sandell’s enduring legacy? Recently, I saw the film Luther and was deeply moved. When Luther undertook the translation of the New Testament into German during his exile, he said that he wanted its language to be as a mother talking to her children. I believe that is the enduring legacy of Lina’s hymns, so simple a child can understand. Her songs are filled with images of birds, mother hens, trees, flowers, skies and stars, and even God as both mother and father. Her music also speaks to the heart with themes such as God’s faithful mercies in times of testing and sorrow, intimate relation to Jesus as brother, friend, and bridegroom, and life as a pilgrimage to the homeland. Her themes were always based on Bible references and sound theology.

Gracia Grindal, translator of one of Lina’s later hymns still popular in Sweden, spoke of her pure joy in the mercies of God. “Jag kan icke räkna dem alla” (I Can’t Count them All). Lina saw a drawing of a little boy saying this while he did sums, and she applied it to the mercies of God. This hymn was the favorite of the more recent translations at all three songfests.

The numberless gifts of God’s mercies,
My tongue cannot fathom nor tell.
Like dew that appears in the morning
They come to us shining and full.

Like all of the stars in the heavens,
God’s mercies can never be told.
They shine through the darkness of midnight
Their beauties can never grow old.

I’ll never count all of God’s mercies,
But, O, I can give God my praise!
For all of that love, my thanksgiving
And love to the end of my days.

My hope is that we might find ways in our churches and children’s choirs, services of worship and small groups, to keep this legacy alive even as we sing both her familiar and less familiar songs.

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