If you’re like me, you probably assumed that the hymn How Great Thou Art has always been a part of the American religious music scene. However, it is actually relatively new, being first popularized only sixty years ago, in 1957. It was performed for the first time by George Beverly Shea at Billy Graham‘s Madison Square Garden Crusade, which began on this night 60 years ago, May 15, 1957. The crusade lasted until September 1, and during its run, more than two million persons attended to hear Graham preach and Shea sing. Over 56,000 reportedly responded to the message by making a decision for Christ.
In the video below, Cliff Barrows describes it in his introduction as “a new hymn to American audiences.” The hymn was not exactly new when Shea brought it to American audiences. The tune was a traditional Swedish melody. The Swedish lyrics, “O Store Gud” were penned in 1885 by Carl Boberg, who was inspired while walking home from church listening to church bells. A sudden storm was followed by a similarly sudden calm. According to Boberg, the words were a paraphrase of Psalm 8:
Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory
in the heavens.
The first translation of the hymn was into Russian in 1912, “Velikiy Bog” (Великий Бог – Great God) by Ivan S. Prokhanov. It was published in a Russian Protestant hymnal in 1927.
The first English translation came in 1925 by E. Gustav Johnson, who made a literal translation of the Swedish lyrics published in the Covenant Hymnal as “O Mighty God.” Those words remained as late as the 1973 edition:
O mighty God, when I behold the wonder
Of nature’s beauty, wrought by words of thine,
And how thou leadest all from realms up yonder,
Sustaining earthly life with love benign,
With rapture filled, my soul thy name would laud,
O mighty God! O mighty God!
Credit for the now familiar English lyrics goes largely to British Methodist missionary Stuart Wesley Keene Hine, who heard the hymn sung in Ukraine in 1931. He did a paraphrase of the Russian translation, which includes most of the familiar lyrics, as well as the title, “How Great Thou Art.”
Hine finalized the lyrics in 1949, and he performed it for the first time at a convention in New York in 1951. It was first published in 1956, in the collection “Eastern Melodies & Hymns of Other Lands.”
The hymn soared in popularity after Shea’s 1957 performances at the Madison Square Garden Crusade. It’s unclear whether the hymn was performed on the first night of the crusade 60 years ago tonight, but it was performed at most of the services.
For comparison, here is the Swedish version:
And the Russian: