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My favourite hymn – How Great Thou Art

June 28, 2020

There are so many renditions of this great hymn I am spoilt for choice. In the end I arbitrarily chose the Reynoldsburg United Methodist church version, made special by vocalists Jennifer Franko and Kenny Phillips, who harmonise beautifully. Unlike more popular versions it is not recorded in a studio but during Sunday worship. And as the translator and English lyricist, Stuart K. Hine, was a Methodist missionary it seemed rather apt.

Origins

Originally the tune was a Scandinavian melody to which were added the words of a poem by a Swedish preacher Karl Gustaf Boberg (1859-1940). Boberg was a sailor who gave up the sea and became a preacher. He was out on a walk when a thunderstorm broke. It was an unexpected storm because the day was serene and peaceful with blue skies. In the subsequent ‘calm after the storm’ he had moments to meditate on the great wonders of creation. When he was home he looked out of his open window at the shining bay of Mönsterås and from the woods across the bay he heard a thrush singing. Church bells began to toll and this was inspiration for what would become a favourite hymn all over the world.

Carl Gustaf Boberg

Karl Gustaf Boberg

Boberg’s original song had nine verses with recognisable content and spirituality found in later translations and versions. It was called “O store Gud, nar jag den varld beskader”. You do not need to be able to understand Swedish to see that the lyrics fit the tune with which we are all familiar in the west and although there there have been adaptations the tune appears to have changed little.

Without the union of Boberg’s words and the haunting melody to which they were set the world would be a much poorer place. The lyricist later became a member of the Swedish parliament but perhaps there is a telling message in his humble beginnings. He was the son of a carpenter.

Translations

Ivan Stepanovich Prokhanov (1869-1935) translated the hymn into Russian. This was the text from which the popular English translation was derived. Born in the Caucasus, in Vladikavkaz where it seems his parents were exiled because of their beliefs, his father became a Baptist in Tiflis (now Tbilisi) and the whole family followed this denomination. After graduating from college Ivan went to the Institute of Technology at St Petersburg University.

Prokhanov as a young man

Prokhanov as a young man

While at university he started a magazine, Beseda (Conversation), which campaigned for the rights of persecuted sects. This drew the attention of the Tsar’s secret police. After qualifying as a Mechanical Engineer he was advised to leave St Petersburg. This he did without a passport and he headed to Stockholm, Sweden where he continued publishing Beseda. From there he went to Hamburg, then Paris, then London before returning to St Petersburg. In 1914 his translation of Boberg’s poem was included in a collection of spiritual songs entitled “Cymbals”. The first verse reads:

Великий Бог! Когда на мир смотрю я,
На все, что Ты создал рукой Творца,
На всех существ, кого, свой свет даруя,
Питаешь Ты любовию Отца, –
Припев:
Тогда поёт мой дух, Господь, Тебе:
Как Ты велик, как Ты велик!
Almighty God! When at the world I look, 
At everything made by your hand, Creator,
At all the beings from whom your light emits,
You nourish them with the love of the Father
Chorus:
Then my soul sings, God, to you:
How you are great, how you are great!

Stuart K. Hine was the English translator of the version most popularly sung in churches today. He was born in Fulham in 1899 and after being baptised into the Salvation Army according to some accounts became a Methodist (one of his names was Wesley). It is likely his Christianity was non-secular since Plymouth Brethren, Methodists and Baptists seem to claim him as one of their own. Like so many he served in the First World War and was one of the lucky ones. In 1933 he came across a Russian translation (ProKhanov’s?) of Boberg’s “O store Gud” during his missionary work in Ukraine with his wife (see cover photo). This was the time of the Holodomor in Ukraine and soon the couple left Ukraine to continue their work in Poland and Czechoslovakia. They left Eastern Europe at the start of the Second World War and subsequently became evangelists in England.

Hine was not however the first translator of this great hymn. That honour goes to Reverend E. Gustav Johnson (1893—1974) of North Park University, Chicago, Illinois. His version never caught on in quite the way Hine’s did.

It is perhaps the beauty of the melody as much as the poignancy of the words that has made this hymn such an international favourite. This Russian website has been the source for most of my blog-post today. If you scroll to the end of the Russian text you will find a number of videos of the hymn in Russian (2 versions), English (10 versions), Chinese (1 version) and Korean (1 version). Here Sister Mary Ann gives a French version finishing in English. Are there any countries in the world where this hymn is not a favourite?

From → Faith, Uncategorized

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