This year Jim Sperry has shared a few messages with the church. Although the Scripture texts has varied the underlying message has been consistent: “God is awesome!” That theme reminds me of one hymn in particular—How Great Thou Art. Since I was young this hymn has been one of the most common hymns that would be considered among a small group of foundational classics that come immediately to mind (to my mind at least), including Amazing Grace, Sweet Hour of Prayer, Just As I Am, and A Mighty Fortress. Many hymns were written by noted hymn writers and musicians, and were originally written for use in worship services. How Great Thou Art took a longer, more winding path.
In 1885 a Swedish editor named Carl Boberg was walking home along a coastline. He was generally enjoying nature when a sudden thunderstorm arose. He found cover until the worst of the storm passed, and then rushed to get home. After he got home he opened his windows to see a clear beautiful sky. He listened to the birds and heard church bells ringing. He sat down and wrote a poem that he called. “O Store Gud” (which is Swedish for “A Mighty God”). He shared the poem, and it was eventually published in the local newspaper. A songwriter saw it and matched the words with a Swedish folk song. In the early 1900’s it was translated to German. Later a Russian version appeared. It was translated to English in 1925 by E. Gustav Johnson to a version unlike what we have today. In the 1930’s British missionary Stuart K. Hine heard the Russian version while he was in Ukraine. He translated that version into English. In 1949 he introduced his version with a new title, “How Great Thou Art.”
The hymn was published in a missionary magazine called “Grace and Peace.” J. Edwin Orr, an evangelist, was traveling in India and heard an Indian choir singing the hymn. He loved it and brought that English version back home to America. He had it performed at a conference he was holding for college students, where it was heard by Tim Spencer’s children. Tim was a singer formerly in the Sons of the Pioneers, Roy Rogers’ cowboy band. He owned Mana Music and bought the song rights. It was mostly unknown until 1954, when George Beverly Shea heard it.
He and Billy Graham loved it and used it as the theme song of a world crusade he was conducting at the time. From that point its fame spread and it was recorded by many, including Elvis Presley, Loretta Lynn, and Tennessee Ernie Ford. Over the years since it has been performed and recorded an immeasurable number of times. It became a worship standard in English speaking churches.
I was motivated to consider this song because I heard a performance version of it that I had not previously heard. YouTube suggested that I watch a video of it performed by a group called GQ (“Girls Quartet”). I have watched several other performances by them. They are not very commercially famous to my knowledge. It is a group of women who met years ago while they were in college in Baltimore County, Maryland. They began singing together, writing and/or arranging a lot of their own music. They graduated long ago, and I believe at least three of them are now teachers in schools. They continued to perform after college.
I am usually a traditionalist about a lot of things. Sometimes I hear different or modernized versions of hymns and songs that simply turn me off. At other times I am motivated to appreciate one in a new light. This heartfelt version by GQ is in the latter category. It took me out of my comfortable place of hearing the same melody in the same style (great though it is), and caused me to focus on the words again, and feel the emotion behind the song. I hope it does that for you also:
Take heart and be encouraged!