‘How Great Thou Art’ gets new ending on 75th anniversary of famed English translation

Musicians participate in a recording session for “How Great Thou Art (Until That Day)” at RCA Studio B in Nashville, Tenn. Elvis Presley recoded his version of “How Great Thou Art” at RCA Studio B. — courtesy of Merge PR

The well-known and beloved-by-many words of “How Great Thou Art” have had a long and varied trajectory from Swedish poem to German hymn to a tradition at Billy Graham crusades.

In celebration of the 75th anniversary of the hymn’s popular English translation, Grammy-winning Christian singer-songwriter Matt Redman has teamed up with 15 other artists and released a new version, continuing the hymn’s transatlantic trek that has led it to be featured in countless hymnals and recorded on hundreds of albums.

“Someone wrote something out of the depths of their heart toward God and then it got wings,” Redman said in a late February interview. “It’s just phenomenal to think — isn’t it? — that Elvis recorded this and he gave it some extra wings. And then Carrie Underwood’s version is another version a lot of people talk about.”

Redman first sang and played the hymn as a teenage guitar player in an Anglican church in the English village of Chorleywood because, he said, its chord structure was easier to manage than other hymns. Now, he has added to the complex history of the hymn after being approached by the British charity that owns the copyright for it, the Stuart Hine Trust.

Hine was a British missionary who published the English words in his gospel magazine in 1949. He was inspired by a Russian hymn — which was based on an original Swedish poem — when he was traveling hundreds of miles via bicycle to distribute Bibles and preach through the Carpathian Mountains that traverse Eastern Europe.

Redman worked with Australian native Mitch Wong on the commission of “How Great Thou Art (Until That Day),” which features a new verse, a different beat and a chance to provide humanitarian aid to Ukrainians and other Eastern Europeans in the midst of war.

“We decided we’re going to have the word ‘war’ in this hymn,” said Redman, who noted that he thinks worship songs should not be considered “escapist” means to momentarily leave behind the problems of the world.

“Now, that’s not a normal kind of hymn word. It’s not something people often would think of singing on a Sunday morning, but it felt like an important word.”

The new stanza of the hymn reads: “Until that day/When heaven bids us welcome/
And as we walk this broken warring world,/Your kingdom come,/ Deliver us from evil,/And we’ll proclaim our God how great You are!/With hope we’ll sing our God how great You are!”

The hymn has been played over 2.5 million times on digital streaming platforms in the month since its release on Jan. 26 by Capitol CMG Publishing. Phil Loose, one of the trustees, said it is too soon to know how much money the recording has raised. 

The Stuart Hine Trust, which has supported Christian outreach and Bible translation, intends to use the proceeds from the writing, production and royalties of the recording to provide humanitarian aid and support rebuilding efforts in Eastern Europe.

Over its lifetime the hymn has faced moments of relative obscurity and waves of popularity. It dates to 1885 or 1886 when Swedish editor Carl Boberg got caught in a thunderstorm and wrote the first version, then titled “O Store Gud” (or “O Mighty God”), after marveling at the calm that followed it. It was published in a newspaper, then set to music in his country. Though some of its history is hazy, music professor C. Michael Hawn wrote that an English translation made it into some hymnals but “never caught on.”

In the early 1900s, the words were translated into German and then Russian, which Hine heard sung while in the Eastern European mountains. He paraphrased the first two verses in English and was inspired to write the third and fourth verses of “How Great Thou Art” over a 14-year period, according to his trust’s website.

The website quotes him as writing that “the thoughts of the first three verses of How Great Thou Art! were born, line by line, amid my unforgettable experiences in those mountains.” The fourth, which begins with the words “When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation,” was written in 1948 to assuage the grief of Eastern Europeans after the end of World War II.

In the 1950s, the hymn began to have what Redman called a “wildfire moment” when singer George Beverly Shea started using it at the “crusades” of evangelist Billy Graham — including one at New York’s Madison Square Garden that was broadcast on television and lasted 16 consecutive weeks.

Shea wrote in his 2004 book, How Sweet the Sound: Amazing Stories and Grace-filled Reflections on Beloved Hymns and Gospel Songs, about how he changed the lyrics “consider all the works thy hands have made” to “consider all the worlds thy hands have made” and modified “I hear the mighty thunder” to “I hear the rolling thunder.”

“I got a bang when I used to hear Elvis Presley sing my two words,” he said in a Religion News Service interview about the rock-and-roll singer, who won his first Grammy for his 1967 rendition of the hymn and earned another for his 1974 live version of it.

Brian Hehn, director of The Hymn Society’s Center for Congregational Song, said the hymn lends itself to both congregational singing and solo and duet voices, as in Redman’s and Wong’s new version.

“I think it does point to the general singability of the song,” he said. “And that’s one of the reasons why it’s very popular, right? Because congregations can sing it. It feels good to sing.”

The hymn, which was popular in the Hymn Society’s March Madness-type tournament in 2019, is sung both in churches that use contemporary Christian music and is featured in hymnals used in mainline Protestant, African American and Catholic churches.

Adelle M. Banks

Adelle M. Banks, production editor and a national reporter, joined RNS in 1995. An award-winning journalist, she previously was the Read More

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