Carl Boberg was a Swedish lay preacher who, among other things, published a Christian newspaper and served for a dozen years in the Swedish parliament. He wrote the original version of this song in 1886, and entitled it “O Store Gud,” which means “O Great God.” His inspiration for the song came from the beauty of Swedish meadows and lakes after a thunderstorm. He published his song in his newspaper, but it didn’t seem to catch on.
But then someone translated it into German under the title, “Wie Grosse Bist Du,” and it spread further.
Then Rev. Ivan S. Prokhanoff, an evangelical Russian Christian, translated it into Russian. Prokhanoff was an important figure among Russian Christians, so his involvement insured its spread in Russia.
Then Stuart Hine, an English missionary to the Ukraine, heard it, translated it into English, and added one or more verses—inspired, he said, by the beauty of the “woods and forest glades” of the Carpathian Mountains after a thunderstorm. The last verse, which begins, “When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation, and take me home,” was inspired by Eastern European refugees who had fled to England and who asked, “When are we going home?” Hine printed his version of the song in leaflet form, and it was distributed somewhat widely in England.
Then in 1954, at Billy Graham’s London crusade, someone gave George Beverly Shea a copy of the leaflet. Shea, as you might remember, had a beautiful bass voice and was one of Graham’s featured singers at the crusades for many years. Shea stuck the leaflet in his pocket, and didn’t think much more about it at the time. People often gave him copies of music for his consideration.
But later, Shea examined the leaflet more carefully, and was impressed by the power of the words. He introduced it at the Toronto Crusade in 1954, but it was at the New York Crusade in 1957 that he used it extensively for the first time. He sang it ninety-nine times at that crusade—accompanied by the Crusade Choir.
After that, “How Great Thou Art” became Shea’s signature song, and he sang it wherever he went. He used it often in Billy Graham’s “Hour of Decision” radio broadcasts.
I must confess that “How Great Thou Art” as sung by George Beverly Shea is one of my favorites. My mother thought that Billy Graham was one of the greatest Christians of his day, and I believe that time has vindicated her opinion. She used to listen to Graham’s weekly radio broadcasts, “Hour of Decision,” religiously (so to speak). Music, of course, was an important part of Graham’s ministry, with Cliff Barrows acting as song leader and choir director—and George Beverly Shea as soloist—and Don Hustad playing the piano and organ—and, of course, the Crusade Choir, made up of hundreds of voices, 1800 voices at the New York Crusade.
But mother wasn’t satisfied to wait for the weekly broadcast. She didn’t have much money, but she invested in four or five LP records by her favorite Christian recording artists—and George Beverly Shea was among that group. So George Beverly Shea and “How Great Thou Art” were an important part of my growing up years.
Let me take this opportunity to pay a tribute to my mother, because it is because of her faithful witness that I am a Christian today. She taught Sunday school every week, and made sure that my brother and I got there every week. My early memories are of her struggling to get Sunday dinner in the oven before church—and getting us dressed up, hair carefully combed—and carrying a Bible stuffed with Sunday school materials—and driving us to church.
Her witness at home was important too. Her Christian records bathed the home in sounds of faith and faithfulness. I am sufficiently nostalgic about that to have secured a George Beverly Shea CD. I don’t listen to it often, but when I do it takes me back to my boyhood home.
Copyright 2008, Richard Niell Donovan